For this reviewer, the most anticipated album of 2016 has been this self-titled, debut project from Heidi & Ryan on Mountain Fever Records. It’s been on my mind since I first saw them perform live at the SPBGMA convention in Nashville this past winter, and was instantly smitten.
At the time they were working as The Kentucky Mountain Trio, Heidi and Ryan Greer plus a dobro and a bass player. So they had already branched into a quartet, and it was no surprise to see a name change. Plus this group is all about the voice of Heidi Greer, and her husband’s fine harmony singing. Heidi & Ryan makes perfect sense.
Many of the songs on this record were showcased there at SPBGMA, in a small room upstairs in the hotel. Not many in the room knew much about this young couple, though I had been keyed in to be there and check them out. Steve Gulley, who was working with them at the time, made a point to mention how special this group was, and it wasn’t long into the first song before that became abundantly clear.
Heidi has that rare vocal quality that allows her to squeeze every drop of emotion that a human voice can convey into a line, so that you have no doubt that she believes what she is singing, and makes you want to believe right along with her. For a Gospel music artist, with a sincere faith and a passionate desire to share it with her audience, this is a valuable commodity.
But Heidi & Ryan isn’t fully a Gospel album. About half of the songs are secular in nature, and all the material would be more properly described as bluegrass or contemporary acoustic Christian music. Less Bible stories and Scripture quotes, and more positive messages about living right and accepting faith.
Among the secular songs is a strong rendition of Oh Atlanta, popularized by the mighty Alison Krauss. It takes a confident singer to tackle this number in Krauss’ shadow, but Heidi has the pipes to pull it off. In fact, Alison seems to have been a powerful influence on Greer, who can whisper out a lyric so daintily that you hear her intake of breath almost as clearly as the line she delivers, but can then belt it with authority when the situation demands.
We get a touch of both on Somebody’s Prayin’, which closes the album, another gutsy cover of a song Ricky Skaggs recorded in 1990. Heidi’s rendition is an impassioned tour de force, supported only by Ryan’s guitar and Tim Crouch’s fiddle. It is perfectly lovely.
On The Darkest Day, a new blugrass number from Jeff Partin, who plays reso-guitar on the track, Heidi is in powerhouse mode, with Ron Stewart on banjo and producer Aaron Ramsey on mandolin. Money Won’t is another that suits her voice perfectly, growing in intensity as the song progresses. It’s a fine song about what the riches of the world can’t do for you, from Scottish acoustic Gospel prodigy Brendan MacFarlane.
Three of the songs come from the Greers. The debut single, Grandma’s Knees, is Heidi’s, a homey song recalling days spent listening, sitting on the floor ’round granny. It’s a feel-good song that should get some traction on bluegrass radio. She and Ryan wrote Come To Jesus together, another inspirational song that would fit right in on any contemporary Christian station. Heidi’s ability to add tricky vocal slurs at the end of a line, without making it the primary focus, displays a gift for subtlety and restraint that is a real tribute to her artistry.
The Greers also wrote Will You Be Ready, a familiar formulation that asks how the listener might react were they present at the crucifixion. Not many can answer positively to the question, “Would you be ready to take his place?” Doyle Lawson’s There’s Fire Down Yonder gets an old time bluegrass workout with standout dobro again from Partin, and Lee Roy’s Pictures is another fast-moving song that fits the album’s mood.
Bottom line: Heidi Greer is a force to be reckoned with in our music, and this first record is a firm statement of that fact. It is hard to imagine who wouldn’t enjoy listening to her sing.
Give Heidi & Ryan some of your time.