With music scenes in such far-flung locations as Japan, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand, it is becoming more and more apparent that bluegrass music has come a long way from its roots in Bill Monroe’s western Kentucky hometown of Rosine. One of the most recent international bluegrass acts to begin making a name for himself in America is Ireland’s Niall Toner, whose admiration for Monroe is evident on his newest release, Onwards and Upwards.
Out on Pinecastle Records, Onwards and Upwardsis a collection of eleven songs, all either written or co-written by Toner. The album includes a wide variety of influences, ranging from straight-ahead bluegrass to country to the Celtic sounds of Toner’s native country. Overall, the album is a nice compilation which shows off Toner’s familiarity with an assortment of acoustic genres.
One of the album’s standout tracks is the stripped-down, country-influenced Tomorrow. Co-written with the album’s producer Keith Sewell, it tells the story of a man who can’t get around to taking care of any everyday tasks because he’s so consumed with a lost love. Sewell’s wife Wendy Buckner contributes harmony vocals which complement Toner’s lead nicely. The Celtic tune Sweet Bunclody Girl is another nice addition. Toner seems very at home with this style of music, and the upbeat, airy sound of this track will have fans’ feet tapping along.
The album features two tribute songs, written for perhaps the two most influential bluegrass musicians ever: Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. William Smith Monroe is one of the album’s most traditional sounding songs, though with somewhat of a dark feel, serving as an introduction to Monroe’s musical beginnings and impact on bluegrass music. Toner has a bit more with fun with the brief, banjo-heavy The Pride and Joy of Shelby, tossing in lines such as “Earl put the soul in the forwards and backwards roll.”
Judge and Jury is a take on the classic tale of a man who didn’t do the crime but can’t tell where he really was (this time, the man’s only alibi probably wouldn’t be of any help during his trial). Remember Me is an interesting song which portrays the thoughts of a man who is losing the struggle with old age and dementia. While the song is thoughtful and gives voice to a situation many often don’t think about, the music feels a bit too cheerful for the lyrics.
Onwards and Upwards includes one instrumental, Burren Backstep. The musicians show off their talents on this mandolin tune, another Toner composition. On this, as well as the rest of the album, Toner has assembled a great group of musicians. Throughout the album, numerous excellent acoustic musicians are featured, including Rob Ickes (Dobro), Ashby Frank (mandolin), and Viktor Krauss (bass). In addition to his producing and writing duties, Sewell contributed an assortment of instruments including guitar, piano, and fiddle. Toner played mandolin and sang lead on all songs.
Toner’s Irish Americana is a fresh sound and one his fans will certainly appreciate.
Onwards and Upwards can be purchased from iTunes, Amazon, and Toner’s website, www.nialltonerband.com.