It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from Wildfire, the group that got its start in 2000 as the house bluegrass band at Dollywood. Since then, they’ve released a handful of albums, scored several hits with songs like Rough Edges and I Wouldn’t Mind the Shackles, and gone through some lineup changes in the process. Now they’re back with a new album for Pinecastle Records, Rented Room on Broadway, a strong collection of country-tinged grass guided by Robert Hale’s smooth vocals.
Hale and bass player Curt Chapman are all that remains of the original Wildfire lineup, but they’ve added a talented set of musicians to the band in the past several years. John Lewis (banjo) and Chris Davis (mandolin) performed on the group’s last album, while Greg Luck rounds things out this time around on fiddle and guitar. Though several of the musicians are new, they maintain the sound that fans will remember from Wildfire’s previous albums – a tasteful blend of modern traditional bluegrass and acoustic country.
The songs themselves blend country and bluegrass, as well. Many of the tracks have been pulled from classic country artists, including Loretta Lynn, Mel Street, and Keith Whitley. Wildfire has dug fairly deep into the country catalog, choosing (for the most part) album cuts and songs that, while well-written, weren’t necessarily hits for their original artists. I Get the Picture was on Keith Whitley’s first solo country album, though it’s arranged slightly different here. It’s a clever song about the breakup of a marriage and a left-behind photograph that ties up some loose ends for the singer. Luck’s fiddle drives the song, setting a contemplative backdrop for Hale’s wistful vocals. Small Enough to Crawl, penned by Jerry Chestnut and originally recorded by Mel Street, sticks with a classic country vibe, helped along again by Luck on fiddle. Lewis’s banjo is on point here, as well, while this might be Hale’s best vocal performance on the entire album. There’s a dash of honky tonk and a strong dose of country crooner in his voice, and it hits the nail on the head.
Also from the country vaults is Loretta Lynn’s They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy Anymore (another from Jerry Chestnut’s pen), which she took to number 4 in 1974. It’s re-imagined here as a bouncy, traditional bluegrass number, and it works well. The lyrics, which honor the singer’s hard-working father, fit nicely with classic bluegrass themes. Lead single A Bible and a Bus Ticket Home is of slightly more recent vintage; country artists Collin Raye and Confederate Railroad both recorded it in the nineties. A reflective look at a young man striking out on his own in the city, it’s not only one of the album’s strongest tracks, but also earned the band a Top 5 single on the Bluegrass Today charts.
Hale contributed two originals to the project. Longtime listeners will remember Home Again, a catchy going home number, from Hale’s Livewire days. It was pretty modern in 1990, and it’s still fresh today. Scott Vestal played the banjo on the original, and Lewis brings a similar bright, melodic quality to his playing here. Davis also offers an enjoyable, lively mandolin solo. Three is a sweet country-grass song about a man caught slightly off guard when his wife reveals that she’s pregnant. He finds joy in the idea though, and ends the song assuring his wife that “This is how it was meant to be, just you and me, and baby makes three.”
Traditional bluegrass fans will like the band’s version of Nobody’s Love is Like Mine. It’s a faithful, straightforward cut, with tight instrumentation and harmonies and a solid rhythm set by Chapman’s bass. Also enjoyable is Driving Nails, the story of Jesus’s life and crucifixion told from the point of view of his mother, Mary. It’s a moving song, conveying how Mary understands Jesus is meant to die but is still a mother watching her son be nailed to a cross. The gentle, stripped down arrangement fits the story nicely.
Wildfire might have been out of the bluegrass spotlight for a while, but I’m certainly glad they’re back in the studio and on the road. Rented Room on Broadway is a very strong record from a very talented group, and I’m already looking forward to their next release.
For more information on Wildfire, visit their website at www.wildfireband.com. Their new album is available from several online music retailers.