In recent years, country music fans who can’t stand today’s rap-infused “bro-country” sound have found a home in bluegrass. Many modern traditional groups sample from both the songs and sounds of ’80s and ’90s country, while many male and female vocalists alike have adopted the smooth, soulful style preferred by country artists. Over the course of several albums, eastern Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap Connection has proven themselves quite adept at this style of country-tinged grass. Their latest album, self-titled and styled as Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection, features more of the same (in a good way, of course).
Though only two members – lead vocalist Bentley and banjo man Rod Smith – remain from the group’s last effort, 2013’s Another Song, the reconfigured band has a solid grasp on the Cumberland Gap Connection sound. Headed up by Bentley’s strong and distinctive lead vocals (heavily inspired by Keith Whitley and Ernie Thacker), the music here is perhaps even more country leaning than their previous albums. Thirteen tracks run the gamut from trucks to trains to coal mining, with a little lost love and Gospel mixed in for good measure.
The album opens with lead single Truck Drivin’, which has received quite a bit of airplay on bluegrass radio since its release last year. Written by Jeff Brown and Barbara Owens, it’s a catchy number that chugs along at a nice pace as Bentley details the life of a long-haul truck driver. Another upbeat track is the Terry Foust/Ray Edwards’ cut Back to Carolina. The song is a well-written, radio friendly “going home” number with nice fiddling from guest Adam Haynes. Edwards also contributed an ode to the rambling life, Old Steamboats and Trains, a co-write with Larry Joe Cox that Josh Brown sings lead on.
One of the album’s highlights is Better Days, a mid-tempo original from Bentley that laments the uncertainty of a relationship on the rocks. Although the music is fairly upbeat, there’s a strain of anguish running through it, helped along by Haynes’ fiddle and lyrics like “You want things to be like they were before, but we just can’t seem to go back through that door… I’m giving all I can, but I can’t give much more.” Bentley also wrote Coal Miner’s Dance, a bluesy, dark look at the dangers faced while working in the mines. Brown’s guitar and Smith’s dobro work well together behind Bentley as he sings “Cause when that top starts coming down, well you better not mess around. It’ll bury you alive if you give it half a chance.”
A pair of Gospel songs are also enjoyable. He Knows My Name is a gently rolling, country-grass song about how Jesus’ love extends to everyone, even those on the lower rungs of society. Closing track When I Make My Last Move has been recorded by several Gospel artists, as well as the Carter Family (as The Last Move For Me), but it sounds like a completely different song here than any other versions I could find. Whereas the Carters’ version sounds more like a standard hymn, with a bouncy guitar accompaniment, Bentley performs this solo and a capella – think classic Ralph Stanley, Primitive Baptist a capella, as opposed to the southern Gospel quartet style preferred by many more recent bands. It’s a powerful ending to the album.
A final song of note is the cover of I Never Go Around Mirrors, obviously influenced by the Keith Whitley version. Smith breaks out the pedal steel, and Haynes adds some nice mournful fiddles for a solid classic country sound. You might think that a song that so clearly makes an effort to sound country might stick out alongside traditional bluegrass instrumentation on the rest of the songs, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the strong, enduring presence of Whitley in bluegrass music, perhaps it’s Bentley’s country singing style, or perhaps it’s modern traditional bluegrass’s embrace of acoustic country sounds. Regardless, it’s a nicely done track.
Cumberland Gap Connection has been a strong group since their 2011 introduction to the wider world of bluegrass with the excellent A Whole Lotta Lonesome, and this album is no exception. The picking here isn’t fancy, but it’s solid and professional. Bentley’s vocals are as strong as ever, and the addition of Brown on tenor was a good choice. Fans of the country-tinged modern traditional style should find much to enjoy here.
For more information on Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection, visit their website at www.cumberlandgapconnection.com. Their self-titled album is available now from Union House Records.