Stephen Mougin is often so associated with the behind-the-scenes side of bluegrass music that it’s easy to forget he’s a strong musician and vocalist in his own right. The brains behind Dark Shadow Recording and an award-winning mentor for up-and-coming bluegrass bands, Mougin has become known as one of the industry’s top guys to turn to for record production in recent years. However, as his new solo release Ordinary Soul reminds listeners, he’s just as good a player, singer, and songwriter as all those other folks he’s been recording.
Mougin has already released several singles from the album to radio, where they’ve been enthusiastically received. The first single to drop was the bright I’m Gonna Ride, which Mougin penned with Rick Lang. Emphasizing the moment of deciding to take a leap of faith, it’s a cheerful, inspiring number with fine banjo from Ned Luberecki setting the tone. A Place for a Fool has a swingy, old-school country shuffle feel, with twin fiddles from Becky Buller and Laura Orshaw. Mougin wrote it with the Gibson Brothers a few years back, and they also contribute harmony vocals on the track. The most recent single is the introspective The Song That I Call Home. According to Mougin, who wrote it with Erin McDermott, it’s intended to capture the idea (which many musicians may recognize) of not feeling truly yourself unless you’re playing or involved with music. It’s an atmospheric number, with Luberecki’s banjo and mandolin from Sam Bush building a sense of urgency.
Another strong number is Color Me Lonely, a good ole lonesome number from Mougin and Jon Weisberger. Mougin’s vocals are of particular note here, as he makes his way through a clever extended metaphor about heartbreak. Last Time for Everything is also a Weisberger/Mougin collaboration, but on the opposite side of the emotional spectrum. It shares a sweet love story with a smooth modern traditional sound. Becky Buller lends her writing talents to Railroad Man, a cheerful, toe-tapping track about a fiddlin’ engineer that will likely be a fun live number.
You Only Like Old Things is a stripped-down, nicely-crafted song. Mougin’s voice has a touch of weariness in it as he details the “old things” he sees around the house – a guitar with rusty strings, a record playing on a turntable, a gold pocket watch – before pondering, “It’s just like you to like old things, it’s just like me to be new.” It’s a clever way to turn a basic list song into something more. Another strong heartbreak number is Play Me a Sad Song Again. A bit more obvious in its message than You Only Like Old Things, it still conveys an idea many bluegrass pickers will agree with: “There’s something about a sad song that always makes me smile… and sometimes the beauty is written in pain.”
The title of this album may be Ordinary Soul, but it’s far from ordinary. It has good, solid musicianship from Mougin and many of his frequent collaborators, a full collection of original songs, and a contemporary sound that will please more progressive fans while not alienating those who prefer more traditional music. With this record, Mougin reminds listeners that he’s not just a jack of all trades, but a master of them all as well.
For more information on Stephen Mougin, visit his website. His new album is available from several online music retailers.