Harlan Road – NewTown

Harlan Road - NewTownNewTown, the band project for husband-and-wife grassers Katie Penn and Jr. Williams, have scored again with their new Mountain Home project, Harlan Road.

These two make a perfect musical team. Kati sings with a smooth, agile voice while Jr.’s voice is more gruff and gritty. The contrast in their voices makes for a pleasant sound harmonizing together, and allows them to handle a wide variety of material as lead vocalists.

This is the first album with their recently-revised lineup, which includes Hayes Griffin on guitar, Travis Anderson on bass, and Mitchell Cannon on mandolin. Kati plays fiddle and Jr. banjo.

In addition to being strong singers and instrumentalists, the Williamses can choose a great song with the best of them, and Harlan Road is no exception. Utilizing the talents of a number of strong contemporary songwriters, NewTown weaves a spell from the first track to the last.

They call on fellow Kentuckian Tyler Childers for four songs: The Heart You’ve Been Tending, a marvelous mid-tempo waltz that Kati sings – and is way too short; the title track, a tale of a down low love affair with Jr. taking the lead; Hard Times, a dark, bluesy number about living hard; and The Crows And The Jakes, a ballad in 6/8 time with a haunting message. Childers is a first rate wordsmith with a knack for a good story. Expect to hear a lot more of his songs in bluegrass.

Former bandmate CJ Cain is also represented by two songs he contributed. Junior sings Drifter Blues, structured more like a rock song, which suits his gutsy voice just right. Kati sings Castaway, a modern bluegrass story of lost love.

Andy Thorn and John E. Buck wrote the opening song, All That I Can Take, one Katie tackles with passion and conviction. It fits the familiar format of the escape song, this time to Mexico to get away from a bad situation. Jr.’s D-tuning banjo really sells this one. Can’t Let Go has a rockabilly feel, complete with a long plate reverb on Kati’s voice. A really fun song.

I’ve enjoyed Kati’s singing for many years, going back to before she and Jr. teamed up, but it seems that she has gained a great deal of confidence in her voice of late, and it really shows here. Her performance deserves to be considered among those of the top female vocalists in our music. She spins out a slur as smoothly as anyone in bluegrass, and maintains a simply gorgeous tone throughout. You hear it especially on Wildfire, written by Sarah Siskind, another evocative singer.

Jr. is a fine singer as well, and shows his tender side on the album’s final track, Come Back To Me, written by Jon Weisberger and Jeremy Garrett. It’s sung as a duet between the two of them, and it’s lovely.

Harlan Road is a very satisfying record. Strong material, sterling performances, and transparent audio. What’s not to like?

Congratulations to NewTown and producer Barry Bales. This is a terrific project.

Share this:

About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.