Based in Lexington, Kentucky, and fronted by vocalist/fiddler Kati Penn Williams and her singer/banjo player husband, Jr. Williams, NewTown produces a sound that typifies today’s new generation of bluegrass bands. Formed in 2009, the band got its start when Williams left his former outfit, NewFound Road, to partner with his wife and form a new band. In the nearly decade since, the group has released four albums — their previous effort Harlan Road made it to the Top Ten on Billboard’s Bluegrass chart — frequented festival stages and opened for Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, the John Cowan Band, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
The appeal they exude onstage is reflected to the fullest on their current album, Old World, which, contrary to its title, reflects a sound that’s both current and contemporary. Granted, the high lonesome sound that echoes through songs such as the upbeat Fly Away, the evocative Never Miss the Sun and a tearstained Evangeline, references the fact that old fashioned sentiment still holds sway. The emotional sea shanty, Laura Lee, offers further evidence to that effect; similar in style to a traditional ballad of English origin, it demonstrates the band’s adroit ability to vary their approach based on what the material calls for.
Despite being made up entirely of outside material, Old World conveys an energy and exuberance that help explain why NewTown have become such festival favorites. Penn’s fiddle is frequently found at the center of each song, whether propelling the pace or adding a mournful hue. Likewise, her vocals often dominate the upbeat songs, though that’s not always the case. She brings a high lonesome sound to the longing Long Hard Road, an ode to their native Kentucky, before sharing the microphone with her husband on the erstwhile Naomi Wise. The two weave their voices and instruments together adroitly throughout (think a sound similar to what might have resulted if Dan Fogelberg and Kate Campbell had helmed Town Mountain), and with the support of the rest of the ensemble — Aaron Ramsey on guitar and vocals, Bassist Travis Anderson and mandolin player Mitchell Cannon — they create a rich blend of winsome revelry and engaging enthusiasm. Consider Old World an astute example of grassicana’s new possibilities.