Just such a band is Chasing Blue, a quartet that met during a bluegrass ensemble class at the Berklee College of Music in 2008. At the end of the semester, the four of them played a local bar gig after the ensemble recital. They all had a good time, and people liked the music, so they formed an official group which has endured beyond graduation.
On their latest album, Low Valley, mandolinist Suzanne Oleson shows herself a force to be reckoned with, as both a vocalist and songwriter. And so does her bandmate, guitarist Michael Reese. With the assistance of banjo picker Maggie MacKay, they have written 9 of the 10 songs here, performed brilliantly with Alex Muri on bass.
Reese and Muri shine instrumentally, as does guest fiddler Trent Freeman, but it is the songs that grab your attention. They range from solid bluegrass and mountain music, to acoustic rock, fiddle tune and various folk styles.
As you might imagine, the songs reflect sensibilities of importance to twenty-somethings, but regardless of topic or stylistic focus, the songs are crisp and clever, and sung with passion, artistry, and conviction.
Oleson has a most particular knack for lyrics, and a unique sense of melody. Add to that her endearingly quirky voice and you sense a real star quality in this young lady, who I hope will stay in the bluegrass orbit as she matures and develops as an artist.
Perhaps the album’s strongest track is one she wrote, Two Broken Wings, which has something of a Celtic feel, and reflects the interesting hybrid sound that Boston acoustic bands have pioneered in recent years.
Or maybe the strongest is My Drug, which she wrote with Maggie. It’s a perfectly female look at the realization that a stalled relationship is doomed, with especially inspired lyrics.
I got a hat for every day of the week
And I’ve got a pill that’s gonna make me sleep.
I’m a little user and no one’s gonna tell.
I put a cigarette in your mouth
To keep you quiet as I walked out.
Two years is long enough, don’t you think?
Or maybe Ellen is my favorite, again from Oleson and McKay, one that turns the familiar murder ballad upside down. The cheating lover goes down as per the formula, but this time it’s the woman whose man she stole who does the deed.
Reese’s voice is clear and powerful, and he is equally comfortable with bluegrass and the two more rock-inflected numbers: Queen City Feel, which he wrote with McKay, and Oleson’s Red Wine Rock and Roll. A Cinncinnati native, he renders the party ballad about the Queen City where he was raised with an impressive Lowell George snarl.
Michael also shines on the record’s lone instrumental, a guitar tune he wrote, and as vocalist on the closing track, Let’s Start Tomorrow, written by all four members.
Though not featured on the CD, Danny Musher is now touring with Chasing Blue on fiddle.
There are several radio-friendly tracks here that would be right at home on most any bluegrass, folk or Americana show. Programmers can contact the band to obtain a copy for airplay. It is available for sale at CD Baby and in iTunes.
Low Valley is a superb record, worthy of the attention of anyone interested in where the next generation of acoustic string artists are taking our beloved bluegrass music.