For his debut solo album, North Carolina banjo man Andy Lowe could have taken the easy route and released a solid collection of Scruggs tunes, mixed in with a few originals and vocal numbers. He certainly has the banjo skills to handle it. Instead, Lowe has found the extremely unique point where modern traditional bluegrass meets Alice in Chains, Broadway musicals, and jazz, and named it Motley.
For the most part, Motley is a fairly straightforward modern traditional album. There are a few covers of classics – a strong, Bluegrass Album Band-inspired version of Devil in Disguise opens the album, while the 2:12 cut of I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home rushes along at a feverish pace. There’s also a well-done version of Shuckin’ the Corn, with a particularly fiery fiddle solo from Jamie Harper.
Of the newer bluegrass numbers here, standouts include modern-day murder ballad Blue Kentucky Wind, featuring Dustin Pyrtle on lead vocals, and the Joey Lemons original Sara Lynn, about a man who left the one he loved after doing her wrong. Lemons sings lead on both this track and a handful of others, and his rich vocals are a nice addition to the album. Lowe adds a driving original banjo tune, Powerbomb, which has a lonesome, dark feel and contributions from several talented instrumentalists, including Alex McKinney (resonator guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin), Josh Pickett (guitar) and Joe Hannabach (bass).
Then, there are the more unusual choices for a bluegrass album. Lowe may be the first banjo player to cover an Alice in Chains song, but he does it with gusto and skill on No Excuses. The song is more rock than it is bluegrass, with electric guitar courtesy of Pickett and grunge-tinged vocals from James Bernabe, but Lowe’s banjo licks and Steffey’s strong mandolin chop actually fit the arrangement well. You never know, grungegrass may be the next trend to catch on.
Of the non-bluegrass songs, Bye Bye Blues, an old jazz standard, lends itself best to bluegrass. Lowe’s banjo playing on this tune is a bit more progressive, and he seems to pull from the song’s jazz background to influence his style. They Call the Wind Mariah, another intriguing choice, is taken from the 1950s Lerner and Loewe musical (and the 1969 Clint Eastwood film version) Paint Your Wagon. The vocals here have the feel of an old cowboy song, set to gentle contemporary bluegrass instrumentation.
Lowe’s song choices may be somewhat atypical, but he, along with an extremely talented supporting cast of fellow musicians, pulls them off. In addition to those listed above, Lowe is also joined by Nick Keen (mandolin), Rick Lowe (harmony vocals and fiddle), Sierra Wilson (harmony vocals), Asa Gravely (guitar), Jesse Smathers (lead and harmony vocals), and Pete Wright (lead vocals). Overall, both traditional fans and those who are a bit more adventurous should be pleased with Motley.
Lowe’s new album can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon.