I have to admit, I don’t keep up with the international bluegrass scene as much as I should. However, thanks to Bluegrass Today, I’ve had the opportunity to review quite a few strong albums from groups based outside of the United States, and in doing so, broaden my horizons a bit. I’ve heard old-time from England, progressive pop-grass from Australia, and straightforward contemporary tunes from Germany. One of the best, regardless of subgenre and style, has to be Pickin’ Friends, the latest effort from Italy’s Red Wine.
The fourteen-song collection dances around the edges of contemporary bluegrass, adding in country-style melodies here and there, traditional driving instrumental breaks, and flute, drums, cello, and accordion as the song requires. One of the best things about the album is its excellent overall flow. There’s a little sweet spot between an album on which every song sounds the same and an album with songs that sound as if they’ve been picked from a grab bag. On Pickin’ Friends, Red Wine has found that sweet spot. Although the band does highlight different styles of bluegrass, it all makes sense once put together in an album format; there are no shocks to the senses that make you rewind and wonder “What on earth was that?”
Opening track Tell All My Pickin’ Friends Goodbye, written by fiddler and songwriter Chris Brashear, is a fun, Jimmy Martin-esque (complete with drums and G-runs) ode to the summer festival life and those friends you only see once or twice a year around an RV and a campfire. Dan Fogelberg’s Mountain Pass is another high-gear number that leans toward the traditional side of things. The rapid fire vocals from Martino Coppo nicely capture the lyrics’ urgency – as he sings about “running down this mountain pass at midnight, wishing I was in your arms again,” it’s easy to believe that he’s been in that situation before.
Feels Like Love is one of the album’s highlights. A cheerful, crisp update of the Vince Gill number from 2000, the bright instrumentation makes the song a very enjoyable listen. Buffalo Nickel is a good mid-tempo story song from the pens of Thomm Jutz, Charley Stefl, and Jon Weisberger. In the style of songs like Old Brown Suitcase, it tells of an old coin that has been passed down, along with important memories and life lessons, through several generations of the same family. The peaceful, folky Bottomlands, which reminisces on the singer’s rural upbringing, is another top track, as is banjo player Silvio Ferretti’s original Cold Big City. The latter is a well-written, gritty modern traditional song that traces the ups and downs of a musician’s life after moving to Nashville.
Ferretti also composed the wonderful instrumental Beaver Valley, which begins with mellow banjo, then transforms into a full-band traditional romp at about the halfway point. Another original instrumental comes from Coppo, the group’s mandolin player. Stealin’ Peaches is a lively tune with a bit of a Celtic flair featuring excellent work from Coppo, guitarist Marco Ferretti, and guest Tim O’Brien. The band members’ musical talents are evident throughout the entire album, but they really shine on these two numbers.
In addition to being one of the most popular and enduring European bluegrass bands, Red Wine has proven themselves popular with American audiences as well, making numerous tours of the United States since 1995. You need to look no further than their latest album to understand why. The musicianship from Martino Coppo (mandolin, mandola, and octave mandolin), Lucas Bellotti (electric and upright bass), Marco Ferretti (guitar and banjo), and Silvio Ferretti (banjo and guitar), is among the best I’ve heard this year. Fans of contemporary bluegrass music should certainly give Pickin’ Friends a listen.
For more information on Red Wine, visit their website at www.redwinemusic.net (fair warning – much of it is in Italian, so have Google Translate handy).