Folks in the bluegrass community proudly acknowledge that bluegrass is one of the few popular genres of music in which fans are just as likely to cheer a fine instrumental break as they are powerhouse lead vocals. Nonetheless, many excellent musicians still hover somewhat outside the view of casual listeners. Guitarist Allen Shadd is one such musician who might not have racked up shelves full of IBMA awards or headlined international tours, but still has quite an impressive resume. He recently released his second solo album, an almost all-instrumental collection entitled Miles from the Hard Road.
While Shadd has played with a number of bands over the years and performed and recorded with artists ranging from Tom T. Hall to Claire Lynch to Norman Blake, he has perhaps become best known for his many contest wins. He has earned the title of National Flatpicking Champion twice (in 1997 and 2013), won the Wayne Henderson guitar competition, and racked up numerous other wins in state and local competitions around the country. His celebrated guitar work is logically the center of Miles from the Hard Road, though he is joined by some of bluegrass music’s most well-known names to create a full-band sound on the majority of the tracks.
The album opens with a brief solo guitar performance of the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The song serves as a quiet, thoughtful intro to the more upbeat original The 5th of September, which Shadd composed in honor of a good friend and fellow guitarist who passed away several years ago. It’s a nice slice of contemporary instrumental bluegrass, allowing the musicians room to show off while still staying close to the melody. The title track is another Shadd original, written while thinking of his years growing up in the country. In the liner notes he describes the tune’s melody as “playful yet almost melancholy,” which is a perfect description. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Rob Ickes’ dobro add just a hint of wistfulness.
Several popular contest tunes are included here, allowing Shadd to show off his more intricate skills. Alabama Jubilee has fingers flying, while Little Rock Getaway’s bluesy vibe seems to let the musicians have a little fun. It’s interesting hearing Old Joe Clark as a guitar-led tune, as opposed to the usual banjo or fiddle, especially since the groove Shadd sets with his guitar opening continues throughout the fiddle, mandolin, and dobro solos (perhaps particularly Bryan McDowell’s mandolin break). It’s a great, fresh take on an old standard. Shadd’s good friend, banjo player Randy Lucas (a national champion himself) kicks off Red-Eyed Benny Hen, a fine toe-tapper of a cheerful traditional tune.
Only two of the songs feature vocals. One of those is the ever-popular Freight Train, which opens with a bouncy guitar solo that has been given the “scratchy record” sound, then fades into a more melodic full-band arrangement. Blue Highway’s Wayne Taylor, who also plays bass for the majority of the songs here, comes in near the halfway point of the track to sing a clear, slightly mournful lead vocal. The other vocal number is the closing track, Three Rusty Nails, which was recorded in 1995 along with Shadd’s first album. The song has since become identified with Ronnie Bowman (who co-wrote it and included it on his 1998 album The Man I’m Tryin’ to Be), but the version here was actually the original recording. Interestingly, Shadd points out in the liner notes that those who listen close will find a line that was changed sometime between this recording and Bowman’s later version. Terry Campbell (another co-writer of the song) sings lead here.
Miles from the Hard Road offers a nice mix of technical skills, fast picking, and enjoyable melodies. Fans of bluegrass guitar – and really, fans of contemporary bluegrass music in general – should enjoy the music Shadd and his fellow musicians have created. For more information, visit Shadd’s website at allenshadd.wordpress.com.