This review of Jubilation, the new album from Appalachian Road Show on Billy Blue Records, is a contribution from Mason Via, a strong young bluegrass singer and songwriter, currently working with Old Crow Medicine Show.
The album opens with the warm familiar voice of Dolly Parton inviting the listener in to gather for story-time. She introduces this new set of songs by spinning an educational yarn about the Appalachian Mountains (a role that Sam Elliott has played for the past two albums). Behind her voice you can hear a lonesome fiddle and banjo picking in the background, and musically accentuating every point that she makes. I personally am a fan of this theatrical element and I think that it serves as a unique opening track which adds to the concept of the band. Jubilation already has me harkening back to memories of some movie scene from Cold Mountain, Songcatcher, or O Brother Where Art Thou.
The first song, Blue Ridge Mountain Baby, is a straight ahead modern bluegrass number, reconfirming how tight the band is by showcasing their musical technicality. This track reminds me of the fast tempo partygrass spirit of the Mashville Brigade album.
The second, La La Blues, is familiar to me as a fresh and reinvented take on one of my favorite Pokey Lafarge songs. La La Blues just screams good times! This track showcases more of a jug band vibe and features really soulful singing by Barry Abernathy, and gang vocals by the rest of the band. I also particularly enjoyed the silly and good spirited mouth trumpet, which reminded me of Mountain Heart’s well known Gospel Train a cappella.
The middle portion of the album features a grand collection of dancing numbers sure enough to have you out flatfooting and swinging your partner in no time flat.
The next standout for me was Gallows Pole, a haunting yet rowdy soundscape-style track that reminds me of somewhere between Led Zeppelin and Dock Boggs, but coated with a modern bluegrass finish. This might be my favorite track on the album; I love the dynamics, the introduction of slide guitar, and Barry Abernathy delivers a powerfully emotional vocal take on this timeless ballad.
The following track, Shadow of the Pines, thins out to just Abernathy’s vocal and the acoustic guitar. This song conveys a realistic type of hurt that we have all felt, the same story of a love gone wrong, but with a profound honesty to the lyrics that makes you seriously feel the pain of the singer. The sparse instrumental presentation adds to the emotive nature of the song, and the guitar playing here is brilliantly tasteful.
The last song that wraps up the album, Brother Green, sounds very ethereal and fills the space of the bands token ballad song. It reminds me of Tim O’Brien and Riley Baugus’s rendition of I Wish My Baby Was Born from Cold Mountain. The album’s thematic sensibilities make this a great closing song. Brother Green tells of a wounded soldier fallen in battle who recollects his life before he passes and recites his last wishes. A very poignant finale to a wonderful new album by Appalachian Road Show.