ClayBank’s 2016 debut album, Playing Hard to Forget, was a strong entry into the bluegrass scene, racking up comparisons to bluegrass heavyweights like the Lonesome River Band. Their new recording, which dropped last Friday from Mountain Fever Records, is a step up for what was already a fine group. No Escape is an all-around strong record – driving instrumentation, superb vocals, and the ever-popular modern traditional sound, something like the Boxcars meets early nineties LRB meets Junior Sisk. Yes, it’s a familiar style, but they do it well, with plenty of original songs, and that’s what matters.
Debut single Queen of Carolina, written by banjo player Tyler Thompson, opens the album with a crisp, rushing flood of bluegrass. It’s radio-friendly (currently sitting at number 6 on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart) and sure to get toes tapping during live performances, thanks to Thompson’s persistent banjo roll and a rhythm section that just doesn’t let up. Mandolin player Zack Arnold’s powerhouse vocals are not to be overlooked, either. The band also impresses on Where’s a Train When You Need One, co-written by Thompson and bass player Gary Trivette. It’s a fine bluegrass title and a strong bluegrass song, mourning the chance of freedom offered by trains passing through town.
Fans of Josh Williams may recognize If it Were Anyone But You, which Josh recorded on one of his early albums. Penned by Carl Jackson and Roger Brown, it’s a sweet love song, finding the singer realizing the one he loves is the only one who could have caught him for good. Guitarist Jacob Greer takes the lead on this one, offering a smooth country-style lead. He also handles lead vocals for two darker sounding numbers, perhaps pulling some inspiration from Darrell Webb as he growls the lyrics to Poor Lillie, a murder ballad from Thompson. No Escape, a meditation on loneliness written by the Grascals’ Adam Haynes and Danny Roberts with Danny’s daughter Jaelee, has a pulsing, mash-type sound to it – I can see it finding traction on radio, as well.
Arnold, Greer, and Thompson collaborated on two songs for the album. The first is Drown this Town, a glimpse at a family who lost their farm when a river was dammed up. It’s atmospheric, with moody guitar and banjo and soaring harmonies, and a particularly well-written first verse. The trio also wrote Follow this Lonesome Wind, a nice upbeat heartbreak song. What starts out seeming like an easygoing love song quickly turns into a lonesome rambling number, but what else would we expect from bluegrass music?
Two Gospel tracks also stand out here. Danny Roberts, who also produced the album, contributed the up-tempo Crucified by Me, which focuses on Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. The group closes the album with traditional number I’ll Wear a White Robe, which should be a treat for fans of a capella quartets. The band does a fine job with the harmonies, coming in somewhere between Ralph Stanley’s mountain twang and Doyle Lawson’s more Southern Gospel style.
Before listening to this album, I had heard a few songs from ClayBank’s previous album and even seen them at some band competitions, so I knew they were a strong group. However, I was truly impressed by No Escape. They’re a younger band, but certainly not inexperienced. Their music is full of drive and push and pulse, and a number of other synonyms that boil down to the fact that they’ve got modern traditional grass figured out. Take a listen – you’ll not be sorry.
For more information on Claybank, visit them online at www.claybankbluegrass.com.