My friend Stacy Grubb, a West Virginia singer-songwriter, sometimes muses that her music is too bluegrass for country and too country for bluegrass. That’s a perfect description for Pure & Simple, the first solo release from Robert Hale, the former frontman for J.D. Crowe and the New South and a mainstay in the critically acclaimed bands Wildfire and Livewire.
There are tasty morsels here for everyone, but not enough to fill up on, leaving fans of both genres hungry for more. The one constant, on just about all of the 12 tracks on this Pinecastle Records project, is Hale’s soulful vocals. Why he hasn’t received more accolades as a singer over the years escapes me.
Hale is backed throughout by former Livewire mates Wayne Benson on mandolin, Scott Vestal on banjo and Ernie Sykes on bass, along with Steve Thomas on fiddle, Randy Kohrs on Dobro and Shawn Lane and Alecia Nugent contributing backing vocals.
The bluegrass that is here – about every other song – is strong, starting out with the album-opening Did She Mention My Name, a Gordon Lightfoot-penned folk song that grasses up nicely. Other solid tracks that traditionalists will enjoy are Reno and Smiley’s There’s Another Baby Waiting for Me Down the Line, driven by Benson’s mandolin and Vestal’s banjo, Dirt Poor, an instrumental composed by Hale, and a Larry Cordle-Jim Rushing Gospel song, Savior, Save Me From Myself.
These Old Blues, which some folks will recognize from Larry Sparks (who co-wrote it) is carried to the country side of the ledger by Hale’s electric guitar. Drums transform some of the tracks, too, and there’s a keyboard in the mix on one track as well, although the performer isn’t mentioned in the liner notes.
But country, of course, isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just not bluegrass, and that’s a problem for some folks. But those who listen only to the bluegrass songs will miss the strongest performance on this CD, Hale’s remorseful rendition of When Times Were Good and You Were Mine, a David Lynn Jones classic that’s also been recorded by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
When Hale sings the chorus, you can almost feel the regret:
I’ve still got everything that came between us,
My old guitar, and a weakness for the wine.
So tonight I thought I’d write one for the memories,
When times were good and you were mine.
Two other previously recorded songs are less memorable – the title cut, first done by Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke. That last one, which closes out the album, is a stretch for this kind of project, and for Hale’s voice, which otherwise sparkles.
But, all in all, there’s enough solid material here to leave me hoping Hale won’t stop after one solo performance, even if he continues to divide his time between bluegrass and country.