Would you rather hear an average rendition of a great song, or a stellar version of an average song? That’s a though experiment I have rolled around in my brain for some time, mostly for fun. Ultimately, however, neither can really be satisfactory since what you truly want to hear is a fine performance of a strong song.
That’s not a problem on Milestones, the newest release from Volume Five on Mountain Fever Records. It is packed snout to tail with songs from the top writers in bluegrass, sung by Glenn Harrell, who is emerging as one of the most convincing vocalists in the music, and played by as choice a rhythm section as we have on offer.
Harrell mentions in the liner notes that 2018 is the band’s 10th anniversary, and it is timely indeed that their best project to date would be released now. For years they had flown a bit under the radar, capturing critical acclaim and radio action, but never seeming to be discussed as among the top acts. The 2017 IBMA awards changed that, partly based on the success on their previous album, Drifter.
We see here that Glenn and the gang know how to pick a song. They have three from Craig Market, along with contributions from Ronnie Bowman and Billy Droze, Tim Stafford, Becky Buller, Shawn Lane, Jerry Cole, and several others. Taken as a whole, these new compositions tackle the age old questions about men and women together, as have so many other records in every style since songwriting began. But each takes on these relationships with a depth that eclipses the typical love/dove tropes, and together make a real statement about what is lasting and real about ardor and commitment.
A pair of killin’ songs are standouts, but they differ from many of the cautionary murder ballads you may have heard, as they are tales of justice served for wrongdoing. The old murder ballads, many surviving the crossing to North America from the British Isles, warned young women about trusting men with ill intent. Milestones opens with Just Beyond The Window, written by IIIrd Tyme Out bass player Jerry Cole, about a man who did away with his wife and his best friend, whom he had caught in flagrante delicto. The other is Hayley, by Market and Josh Miller, that touches on an issue in front of all of us these days. A man finds himself talking to his daughter through a prison glass window after killing the man who had abused her. There was a time when domestic abuse of ever kind was dealt with in this way, and the narrator here shows no regret for setting things right.
Looks Like Losing You from Bowman and Droze is a surefire classic. It’s a losing love song of the sort that Ronnie has generated for years, combined with Billy’s clever lyric sense. They have chosen a lovely melody as well, with some unexpected chord changes that keep interest flowing. Another beautiful sentiment is expressed in North Dakota, the telling of a deep and true love from Buller and Market. The couple in the story have moved far off to the Great Plains, with one spouse feeling grateful and a bit guilty for dragging the other along.
Though life in North Dakota ain’t a perfect paradise
I never heard you once complain I never heard you cry
I believe it’s getting better but at times I’m still afraid
Less than you deserve but you stay with me anyway.
Get’s you right here…
Two well-chosen covers offer a sense of familiarity to the album. John Fogerty’s mega Creedence hit, Looking Out My Back Door, fits well as a grasser, and a version of Drumm and Goble’s Poet With Wings sound just as fresh as it did on Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver Rides Again in 1982.
The record’s first single, Now That’s A Song, from Bob Minner and Shawn Lane, has an unusual subject. We’ve all heard songs about bluegrass, which speak of the various instruments and the way the music makes you feel, but this one is about how an old photograph inspires the song itself. With guest reso-man Gaven Largent kicking it off, this sprightly number has been near the top of our weekly chart for several weeks.
Tell Me You’re Not Leaving pairs two of our music’s best songwriters, Tim Stafford and Craig Market. It finds the singer coming to grips with loved one departing. You can really feel the anguish in Harrell’s voice as he sings. It is a beautiful song that feels too short, though it clocks in at the standard three minutes.
Milestones represents the recorded debut of new mandolinist Jacob Burleson, son of Blue Highway’s Jason. Though only 18, he shows a surprising maturity on the album. And he represents the heavy Blue Highway influence you hear in Volume Five. Not only in the songs from two band members, and the guest soloist, but in many of the vocal harmony choices and odd placement of bass notes against different chords, you can see the impact they have had.
The real shining light here is Harrell’s singing. He also plays fiddle, but it’s the voice that sells the music. Every track finds his rich and resonant baritone at the fore, painting just the right emotive note in the controlled fashion that is common in bluegrass. If we have a better singer in our midst, I’m not sure who it would be.
A special word about the other members of Volume Five. Patton Wages puts his banjo to the task of driving this band as perfectly as one could ever expect, demonstrating that no one has yet found a more effect approach than Earl Scruggs’ forward roll. It’s never showy, but deadly effective throughout. Colby Laney on guitar is likewise supportive, including subtle runs and rhythmic twists, but without calling attention away from the soloist. And very special kudos to bassist Chris Williamson. He generates a huge bass sound on every note, and his occasional unexpected note choices help keep the music interesting, again without distracting from the main course.
The album is sonically gorgeous, a testament surely to engineer Aaron Ramsey and all the folks at the Mountain Fever studio.
It’s rare to find a recording that feels perfect in every way. This one is darn close.