There’s an old saying in the southern US, that goes, “If you’re half the man your father was, you’ll be OK.” It is meant to serve as a testament to a great man, and both a challenge and encouragement to his son. It’s likely that the aphorism is heard widely throughout the world these days, and expanded to include mothers and daughters as well.
In our bluegrass world, it’s certainly true in the case of Phil and Matt Leadbetter. The father-son Knoxville natives are noted for their skill on the resonator guitar, which Matt learned at his father’s knee, with similarities to be found in their playing styles and physical appearance.
Papa Phil (Uncle Phil to the rest of us) made his name playing with J.D. Crowe & the New South, Wildfire, Grasstowne, and Dale Ann Bradley, and has recently launched a new group called Flashback. Matt followed in his dad’s footsteps, traveling with Valerie Smith, Blue Moon Rising, Lonesome River Band, and Marty Raybon.
And now both Leadbetters have released polished recordings with assistance from their friends in the music community that demonstrate just how versatile the reso-guitar can be in bluegrass and country music.
Phil was at the forefront of a movement, now quite common in bluegrass, of instrumentalists releasing albums that included as much singing as it did picking, and introducing new compositions sung by top vocal artists other than themselves.
Matt has released a self-titled project that follows this same model very closely. He includes a number of tunes that showcase his slide work, like Jerry Douglas’ classic Fluxology and Josh Graves’ Fireball, both of them solid standards for the dobro-style guitar. He also uses his reso for a bluesy version of the iconic Robert Johnson song, Cross Roads Blues, recorded in a similar vein to Sammy Shelor’s cut from his Leading Roll album in 1997.
Another couple of favorite bluegrass instrumentals are featured in their more native environment, Buck White’s Sassyfrass kicked off with Alan Bibey’s mandolin, and Lonesome Road Blues, led by Ron Stewart’s Scruggsy banjo. Of course Matt gets his licks in too, as do the rest of the hot musicians on these tracks.
The studio band is anchored by the inimitable Tim Stafford on guitar, and either Jason Moore or Daniel Kimbro on bass. Banjo duties fall to Ron Stewart and Scott Vestal, and mandolin to Alan Bibey and Sierra Hull. On fiddle Matt has Tim Crouch, Andy Leftwich, and Ron Stewart. All play brilliantly, as you would expect them to, whether in support of Leadbetter’s dobro or contributing their own scorching solos.
But what will appeal to the widest audience are the vocal numbers. Matt has brought in some of the most talented and evocative singers in bluegrass for the 8 mostly new songs on this record.
Josh Shilling starts things off with a delightful Tim Stafford song, Down On River Road, with Shawn Lane singing tenor. That is followed by Bradley Walker on a more country-flavored A Love Like That, written by Lee Roy and Keesy Timmer. Both are performed in a restrained and understated style that showcase the singers, without “look at me” solos that might be more common on an album from a noted instrumentalist.
Marty Raybon turns in a super-soulful rendition of Driving My Life Away, a 1975 hit for Eddie Rabbit, and Summer McMahan delivers a lovely Lonely Ring, with harmony from Shilling and Jesse Gregory. It’s a beautiful song.
Another new Stafford contribution, co-written with Steve Gulley, comes in But Not Like That, again with Shilling on lead. It’s one of their stellar acoustic country numbers, an insightful song of lost love with Paul Brewster taking the tenor. Leadbetter sings one himself, a Gospel song called Down On Your Knees, from Lee Roy and Morry Trent.
Brewster gets one too, Roger Helton’s Tea Parties, sung in a lower register than we’re used to hearing Paul. The sparse accompaniment is perfect for this song of father-daughter love, and Brewster handles it perfectly. The album ends with Jesse Gregory, an under appreciated bluegrass treasure, on a captivating interpretation of In The Garden, sung partly in duet with Shilling, with Leadbetter providing the lower vocal part. Keep your eye on this young lady, a true vocal powerhouse, who offers a thoroughly controlled delivery here.
So what do you get with Matt Leadbetter? You could say it’s two… two albums in one! For fans of fiery picking, you will get your fill, while lovers of tremendous bluegrass and country singing will hear plenty to warm your soul.
Well done, Mr. Leadbetter.