I had a chance last week to hear some rough mixes from a new project Butch Robins is recording. The music and the arrangements are interesting and exceptionally well-played, and as per usual, Butch is breaking new ground.
A great many bluegrass followers remember Butch for his time as banjo player with Bill Monroe, for his seminal albums 40 Years Late and Grounded, Centered, Focused, or for his recent (2003) book, What I Know ‘Bout What I Know. Butch has never been one to shy away from doing things his way, and his strong, heartfelt opinions have won him both serious fans and detractors throughout the bluegrass world.
This upcoming, as-yet-untitled project has been several years in the making, with a great variety of musical styles from one track to the next. I heard an incendiary banjo/fiddle duet with Michael Cleveland on Lee Highway Blues, and a lovely pop-inflected Christmas song Butch recently wrote. The fiddle tune could not have been more traditionally played, though with an unconventional structure – running through three different versions at increasing speeds, complete with a spoken dialog between the two musicians. The Christmas song featured multiple orchestrated banjo parts behind a vocal with a lighthearted, upbeat vibe.
I heard the rhythm tracks for several other songs, again built with layered banjo parts. These weren’t typical “harmony banjo” parts, but multiple banjo voicings in the accompaniment, used to great effect. Butch’s banjo tone is lovely, and his playing is flawless.
With Butch Robins, you never know what to expect – except that it will challenge preconceptions. Fans of his fine banjo playing will want to be looking out for this release, as will anyone who is interested in new ways of using a banjo.
No firm release date has been set, as additional tracking and mixing is still in the works.