While the majority of professional pickers are known for their astute instrumental acumen, it doesn’t mean that melody need be sacrificed for musicality. Indeed, that’s a belief shared by any number of young bands that identify themselves as either newgrass and grassicana, terms used to describe a determination to find common ground between the old and the new. While skill and dexterity remain exceptional attributes, the ability to stake them to a song has become just as important for sustaining a fervent fan following.
The Colorado-based band Wood Belly is well aware of the dynamic and dichotomy. Winners of the 2018 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, and finalists for the 2018 IBMA Momentum Awards, the band first formed in 2015 and quickly went on to become festival favorites throughout the US. Currently consisting of Chris Weist (mandolin), Craig Patterson (guitar), Chris Zink (reso-guitar), Aaron McCloskey (banjo), and Taylor Shuck (bass), the band recently released its third album, Man on the Radio, which finds Sally Van Meter firmly ensconced in the producer’s chair. Although Wood Belly has always been prone to prove its proficiency, Van Meter helps balance the band’s energy and drive with superior song craft, making each offering decidedly distinct. Some of the songs share a familiarity factor that recalls the works recorded by Dan Fogelberg and John Denver in their heydays throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even beyond.
There are also some contemporary bands they can be compared to as well, Steep Canyon Rangers and Town Mountain being but two. Songs such as A Long Time Coming, Walking Up in Heaven, Man on the Radio, Old Fool, Can’t Get Behind, and Caroline bring certain similarities into focus. The blend of banjo, mandolin and occasional fiddle, courtesy of guest player Jeremy Garrett, affirms the band’s ability to mine past precepts and still find a current connection. That has a lot to do with the Wood Belly’s upbeat attitude, as well as for songs and stories that leave an emotional imprint. Gone Are the Days, Where I Belong, and Seagulls are two of the most obvious examples, but there’s not a single song that doesn’t resonate with energy and enthusiasm. Even the instrumentals Blue Merle and Professor Willie’s Tonic keep that constant intact.
It hardly takes a psychic to predict that Wood Belly will likely continue to command attention. Suffice it to say Man on the Radio offers all the necessary elements to ensure one perfect playlist.