There’s a certain satisfaction in pressing play and hearing straightforward, modern traditional bluegrass music. While boundary-stretching can certainly open doors to new fans and it’s always interesting to hear new innovations and styles, it’s also nice to come across a band that knows their way around a five-string and a lonesome story. Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band, a new group that hails from the Richmond, VA area, definitely fits that description. With a polished sound that brings to mind groups like IIIrd Tyme Out and the Lonesome River Band, and a debut, self-titled album stocked with well-written originals, they should have no trouble winning new fans.
Five of the album’s twelve songs are band originals, with four of those written by banjo man Malcolm Pulley. His picking opens up the album on Wearing My Heart Out On My Sleeve, a catchy, upbeat number about a man who doesn’t want to believe his relationship is over. Living in the Country, another catchy piece, is a fast-paced celebration of the simple pleasures of rural life. Pulley’s originals also close out the album, with The Old Pocket Watch (a thoughtful song about family and the passage of time) followed by the driving, Blue Highway-esque I Put the Hammer Down (an enjoyable take on the “country boy meets hard luck in the city” theme).
The group covers a few songs that bluegrass and classic country fans might be familiar with. Lynwood Lunsford’s Molly Rose is a sweet, mid-tempo ode to a girl the singer admires from afar. The old Johnnie and Jack number Ashes of Love was done bluegrass style by Jim and Jesse in the 1970s, but here it’s been modernized just a bit, with a smoother sound and a great fiddle intro from guest Ron Stewart. A slightly more unusual choice is the Dave and Sugar hit The Door is Always Open, although it’s quite enjoyable here, performed with a contemporary bluegrass sound and wistful lead vocals from Cook.
Other highlights include guitarist Jason Owen’s moving He Wants to Be a Daddy Now, about a man who has re-entered his children’s lives years after walking out on them, and Dry Run Creek, a lonesome Civil War number written by Larry McPeak. Here, it has a much darker feel than the Seldom Scene recording from the mid-90s.
While this is a relatively new group, Cook (mandolin, lead and harmony vocals), Pulley (banjo and harmony vocals), Owen (guitar, lead and harmony vocals), and Lance Seal (bass, lead and harmony vocals) are all strong instrumentalists and vocalists, which makes for a satisfying listening experience. Guests Stewart (fiddle) and Mike Sharp (dobro) round out the album’s sound. Fans of the modern traditional style should certainly enjoy this effort and look forward to hearing more from the band.
For more information on Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band, visit www.pulleytunes.com. The group’s debut album is out now and is available from several online music retailers.