Darin & Brooke Aldridge with John Cowan at Dumplin’ Valley (5/14/21) – photo by Alisa B. Cherry
When Darin Aldridge refers to his wife Brooke as the reigning queen of bluegrass, it’s clearly more than an excuse for bragging and bravado. After all, with her four IBMA wins the last four years in a row as Best Female Bluegrass Vocalist, it’s given him good reason to proclaim his spousal pride. Of course, Darin’s no slouch either, having been named the 2017 IBMA Mentor of the Year for his ample accomplishments.
That said, as the duo’s performance at the Dumplin’ Valley Farm in Kodak, TN recently proved, both husband and wife can feel some measure of accomplishment regardless. A tight knit five-piece band, the Aldridges put the emphasis on instrumental synergy and exceptional songcraft rather than any attempt to excel at flash or frenzy.
The mood was set early on, courtesy of the campground’s friendly family feel and crowd of congenial concertgoers, clearly in the mood to experience live music once again after an extended hiatus due to COVID concerns. To the campground’s credit, the size of the crowd was limited and seats were separated to ensure good views of the stage while still keeping folks at a safe, secure distance. The Aldridges played to a certain familiarity factor, not only connecting with the crowd, but giving their audience the emotional embrace that accompanied the concert, courtesy of the fact that a gathering of this kind was finally coming to fruition.
Of course, anytime bluegrass is played in a superior setting, artist and audience are naturally in sync. However, credit Brooke and Darin with the ability to connect with superior songs, among them an emphatic take on Richard Thompson’s lively Tear Stained Letter, Guy Clark’s pointed Don’t Die Trying, a rousing rendition of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Flat Top Box, the evocative Emmylou, and a heartfelt version of the Ian Tyson standard, Someday Soon. While several of the songs are drawn from their more recent LPs — Inner Journey and Faster and Farther in particular — the musical mix provided ample opportunity to show off both their flawless harmonies and the sharp, crisp workings of their young quintet. So while Brooke’s vocals are obviously an essential element in the mix, their capable combo shows a clear commitment to the passion and purpose demonstrated by the duo at the fore.
It certainly speaks well of the pair’s efforts that headliner John Cowan chose them and their band to back him up during the second half of the evening’s entertainment. Cowan is clearly a superstar, given that his regular job also includes playing bass with the Doobie Brothers, and he found a fine fit with the young players with whom he shared the stage. Here again, the set list underscored the evening’s energy, thanks to rousing versions of such seminal standards such as Cherokee Shuffle, the vintage Jimmie Rodgers tune, Miss the Mississippi and You, the New Grass Revival classic Do What You Gotta Do, the bittersweet ballad, Dark as a Dungeon, and a driving White Freightliner Blues.
Cowan himself seemed well stoked for the occasion, telling the crowd, “This is the first time I’ve played for people since February 2020!” To his credit, he still operates at peak performance, both as a bassist and as a singer extraordinaire, well capable of sharing the emphatic emotion and determined delivery that each of the show’s offerings called for. At age 67, he exudes a powerful presence, further evidence of the fact that he has earned his place at the highest pantheon of today’s superstar elite.
That said, Cowan is also a personable performer in other ways. When the showcase came to its conclusion after a two song encore, he dutifully sat on the edge of the stage, greeting fans, chatting amiably, and posing for pictures. It was a fitting end to the evening, one that felt like a homecoming in more ways than one.