Lest anyone dare forget, bluegrass music has a soul of its own. Granted, it differs from what’s normally associated with the standard rhythm n’ blues, although the same fervor can be found in the sweep and strum of banjos, fiddles and mandolin, along with the high harmonies that wail above the fray.
Tennessee Jed knows that all too well, and on Pimpgrass, his fifth album to date, he shares those sentiments in ways that are both expected and beyond the norm. The soaring sentiments of the album opener, Over the Mountain, offers the initial indication, a wistful ballad expressing the draw of home and the weariness of the road. The heartfelt lament, Can’t Get There From Here, continues on that tack, fully affirming Jed’s genuine sense of longing for those things that often lie just beyond our reach, just as the gritty work song, Sunup ‘Til Sundown, emphasizes the struggles of everyday existence. Despite his unruly-looking demeanor — the back photo of the CD cover shows him about to smash his guitar against an abandoned bus — his soulful spirit is never in doubt.
If that was the only hint of sentiment, it would definitely be enough. Yet along with the ramble and rumble of high lonesome ballads like The Train for to Carry Me Home, the driving sounds of Soul-Country Pimpgrass, and the astute and assertive instrumental, Opie’s Intermezzo, Jed adds some surprising cover songs that further assert his soulful stance. One wouldn’t expect to hear the Isley Brothers classic Shout parlayed by a group of professional pickers, but here it isn’t out of place, its exuberant exhortations fully fleshed out by bluegrass regalia. Likewise, when Jed and company tackle Kiss, the remarkable barnburner from Prince, the fusion of two genres stays surprisingly in sync. To his credit however, Jed doesn’t feel inclined to share his soul merely through the efforts of others; when he sings in his upper register on his own original offering, Cells, he soars like a man well able to rely on a faithful falsetto.
Credit too a reliable backing band that’s easily able to navigate those shifts in style. By now, Tennessee Jed’s reputation is such that he’s able to attract an exceptional group of players, among them Scott Vestal on banjo, Todd Parks on bass, fiddler and backing vocalist Luke Bulla, Josh Shilling of Mountain Heart playing keys, Andy Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters contributing dobro, and three members of the Daily & Vincent band fleshing out the rest. It’s an exceptional ensemble, and one well equipped to operate in Jed’s jurisdiction.
Now more than ever, breaking down barriers is of prime importance. Credit Tennessee Jed with journeying to those unlikely realms and finding a fit once he arrives.