With so many bluegrass roots in states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, many folks often forget that the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas have their own long-standing bluegrass traditions. One of the region’s most well-known and respected artists is Frank Ray, who has been making music since 1967 in the band that came to be known as Cedar Hill. Though the lineup has changed throughout the years, the band has consistently produced fine traditional bluegrass. Having signed with Mountain Fever Records in 2020, the band has recently released their first project for the label, New Chapter, a tight eleven-song collection with some of the best lead vocals I’ve heard on an album this year.
Providing those vocals is guitarist Dalton Harper, who some fans might recognize from The Harper Family, his family’s Gospel group that was active about a decade ago. Harper has a rich, smooth voice in the style of Josh Williams or Trey Hensley; in fact, I’ve heard a few Cedar Hill songs on the radio lately and thought it was Williams making a guest appearance. Though his vocals have a clear country influence, the music is all bluegrass, with enough driving banjo and bright mandolin to satisfy even the pickiest of listeners.
A fine example is the opening track, How Deep is the Lonesome, penned by Brink Brinkman and Kevin Hale. It’s a nice toe-tapper and a fine example of the upbeat bluegrass heartbreak song, guided by Bill Cross’s steady banjo and featuring great harmony vocals. Fans of traditional grass will also appreciate The Stanley Sound, an easygoing tribute to the legacy of Ralph and Carter from Rickey Graves. Listen closely to pick out a few instrumental tributes to classic Stanley songs.
Also from Graves’s pen is Are You Born Again, an outstanding Gospel number that is one of the album’s best tracks. Harper offers a powerful lead, with the other members joining in for tight, spot-on harmonies. The song tells of a man pondering on Jesus’s return and has a darker sound than most of the album’s other tracks, almost ominous-sounding as Harper reminds listeners that it will all come down to “God’s question, my friends, are you born again?” Tend to My Flowers will also tug on the heartstrings, though in a different way. Written by Dale Haverstick, it shares the story of an elderly lady with dementia who longs to be reunited with her husband. Plaintive mandolin from Frank Ray and fiddles from Brown and guest Tim Crouch help add to the song’s melancholy feel.
A few band originals are included on the album. Brown and bass player Patti LaFleur co-wrote Number One at the Bottom with Jerry Salley. It’s a bouncy, clever song about a man pining after a woman he’s never going to catch. I particularly enjoyed the line, “When you told me I was number one on your list of men, I didn’t understand that’s on a scale from one to ten.” Ray contributes the album’s lone instrumental, a vigorous mandolin-led tune entitled Leavin’ Egypt that allows the band members to show off their musical chops, while Harper wrote This Old Guitar, a tender tribute to both a musician’s truest friend and the grandpa who passed it down to him.
I have to admit I wasn’t extremely familiar with Cedar Hill before listening to this album, other than through their songs that have been played on national radio (both from this record and in the past). However, New Chapter is an extremely strong album that fits right into today’s popular country-tinged traditional bluegrass sound, featuring fine musicians who certainly know what they’re doing. Hopefully Mountain Fever Records will have more music from Cedar Hill coming soon.
For more information on Cedar Hill, visit them online. Their new album is available from several online music retailers.