The sideman project has become a staple of the bluegrass recording world, in a way that doesn’t even exist in most of the popular music industry. Can you imagine Miranda Lambert’s bass player expecting her to sing a couple of songs on his solo project, and then including one of the songs in her show?
But this happens regularly in bluegrass. Maybe that’s because bluegrass presents bands as on a nearly equal footing with the band leaders, not on the back line, in the dark, laboring without recognition.
Fiddler and vocalist Jamie Harper is the latest young grass sideman to produce their own solo album, Old Pal, released today on Mountain Fever Records. It’s full of the lively, aggressive, and utterly infectious sound that defines today’s contemporary bluegrass, highlighting Harper as an agile bowman, band leader, and assembler of bluegrass talent.
The supporting musicians consist primarily of members of Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice, with whom Harper currently performs, and Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver. But they are all pickers and singers close to Jamie’s age, and players he has grown up with as they all became professional calibre musicians.
The vocals especially stand out, with Harper choosing from among the most vibrant young singers in bluegrass. Eli Johnson and Dustin Pyrtle work with Doyle Lawson,jun and each turn in an impressive lead vocal or two, and provide harmony vocals throughout. Daniel Salyer is also featured on one of his compositions, Till I Was Gone, reminding us why he may yet be one of the most celebrated male voices (and writers) in our music.
Harper sings a pair of tracks himself, Ronnie Bowman and Timmy Massey’s Enough On My Mind, and Goodbye Old Pal, a big number for Bill Monroe back in the day. They both get an energetic reading here; Jamie even lays out a solid Monroe-style yodel on Old Pal.
Junior also contributes a pair of tracks, Larry Sparks’ Goodbye Little Darlin’, and Bill Monroe’s Remember The Cross. He demonstrates why bluegrass fans consider Sisk a traditional music superstar, as does Marty Raybon on This Heart Of Mine, recorded in the ’70s by New Grass Revival. These two can always be counted on to deliver the deep soulfulness, and you can bet they bring it here.
But don’t forget the hot picking! Jamie includes three instrumentals that show off his fiery fiddle, and the skills of his studio band which include Jason Davis on banjo, Keith McKinnon on guitar, Kevin McKinnon on mandolin, Kameron Keller on bass, and Josh Swift on reso-guitar. Old Joe Clark and Cotton Eyed Joe get a rip-roaring traditional treatment, while the less well-known Booth Shot Lincoln takes a more stately pace.
In an interview, Jamie shared a few thoughts about his vision for Old Pal.
“I’m really excited about this record and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. I really wanted an overall band sound and having grown-up with most of the artists on this album, it just came natural. I wanted to do songs that featured the fiddle but at the same time not make it overly dominant. I’ve always enjoyed the supporting role for the good of the song versus being a heavy instrumental focal point and I’m really thankful for all these guys to get in the studio and make it happen.”
Every track is tight as a drum (or a banjo head?), and is performed with an intensity that draws you instantly into the song. Youth and talent are an attractive combination, yes?
Well done, Mr. Harper.