One thing for sure looking back on this year is that 2016 has been a banner year for ClayBank. The western North Carolina-based band has gone from dominating at band competitions in the early part of the year to their debut album released on Rural Rhythm Records, Playing Hard To Forget, all within a year and a half of forming the group in 2015.
ClayBank consists of three strong young bluegrass artists, Zack Arnold on mandolin, Jacob Greer on guitar, and Tyler Thompson on banjo, along with one seasoned pro (read: old guy) on bass in the person of Gary Trivette. Arnold is the primary lead vocalist, and he is set for a stellar career in bluegrass if he wants it. Possessed of a strong, clear, tenor voice, he sings with a sincerity and passion that makes it hard to believe he’s still in high school.
For this first album, they have pulled together material from some top bluegrass writers like Milan Miller, Becky Buller, Eli Johnston, and Randall Hylton, along with a number of originals written within the band. Their style is unsubtle and aggressive, hitting you hard with driving banjo and overhanded guitar rhythm, and powerful lead and harmony vocals. Folks in the Appalachian region know this sound well, which many describe as “1-4-5 drive,” or with the slightly overused phrase, “mashgrass.”
Zack sets a high standard right from the start on Buller’s How I Love You, and A Little Bit Of You, from Milan Miller and James Ellis, both fast-moving modern bluegrass songs with precise harmony provided by Jacob and Gary. Up On ClayBank serves as a signature song of sorts, written by Greer and Arnold, about a young man starting to understand how the adult world works. It’s gets the same in-your-face treatment as most of the material here.
There’s no way to avoid comparisons with the Lonesome River Band when listening to ClayBank. They have the same sort of swagger on stage, with the assertive rhythm and heartfelt vocals, getting every drop out of the four-piece configuration just like LRB did in the ’90s. You really hear it on Gospel favorite, I Believe, where Zack again demonstrates his mastery of this style.
Trivette and Greer are each featured on several tracks. Jacob sings My Baby’s Gone, a hit for Sawyer Brown in 1988, and Demise Of Handsome Molly, a new murder ballad from Eli Johnston and Kevin McKinnon. That second is a sequel to the old time classic, a bluesy number where the forelorn lover gets his revenge on Molly for turning her back on him. Playing Hard To Forget, also from Miller and Ellis, gets a nice acoustic country treatment with just guitar and mandolin accompaniment. With a voice much lower-pitched than Arnold, Jacob’s singing provides an effective contrast when he sings.
Gary takes lead on Daddy Would Sing, one he wrote that mines the familiar vein of papa worship about a beloved father who loved to sing with his family. He also sings Jay Don Johnson’s On My Way Back To You, the record’s final track. It’s a real barnburner that finishes the project on a high note.
The lone instrumental is Foot Of The Phoenix, written by Greer and Arnold. It provides a fine showcase for these boys’ picking skills, which are considerable.
ClayBank will be a force to be reckoned with in our music for as long as they stay together, and Zack Arnold is certain to be one of its leading lights. Playing Hard To Forget will find a welcome spot in the CD player of anyone who appreciates unapologetic bluegrass.