In the ever-present debate on tradition vs. innovation in bluegrass music, I feel that the value of consistency is sometimes overlooked. It seems like bands are always seeking to change up their sound from one album to the next – adding in more country influences, or becoming more “progressive,” or trying to be the next Lonesome River Band or IIIrd Tyme Out. And that is all well and good, to an extent. However, there’s something to be said about a band that finds a sound that fits them and consistently produces good, solid albums that embody that sound. Chris Jones & the Night Drivers is such a band.
With the group’s newest album, Run Away Tonight, there are few surprises – Jones and his bandmates aren’t throwing in any xylophones or guest vocalists from the death metal genre. Instead, they deliver twelve well-written, well-chosen contemporary bluegrass songs that occasionally lean towards a classic country feel. Jones’ lead vocals are smooth and warm and the instrumentation is tasteful and tight – just what fans have come to expect from the group.
The album opens with lead single Laurie, one of three co-writes from Jones and bass player Jon Weisberger and the current number one song on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart. It’s a pretty simple song – the singer is at the window of the girl he loves, asking her to run away with him – but there’s a nice mixture of cheer and urgency as the singer almost pleads, “come on down, we’re running out of time.” The mood switches on One Night in Paducah, a mysterious, haunting tale of a one night stand that goes wrong in more ways than one. Guest Tim Surrett’s dobro and Mark Stoffel’s mandolin create a great dark atmosphere for the song.
Jones and Weisberger also collaborated on She’s Just About to Say Goodbye, which features harmony vocals from Darin and Brooke Aldridge and country-style fiddle from Troy Engle. The song is poised on the edge of heartbreak, with the singer walking himself through what’s going to happen when the one he loves leaves him. Once You’re Gone, written by Weisberger and Jeremy Garrett, takes the opposite stance on lost love, as the singer matter-of-factly tells his listeners that “If you already know leaving is the right thing to do, then why don’t you go and find something new.” Ned Luberecki’s cheery banjo opening on Dust Off the Pain helps take this theme one step farther, with Jones stepping through “the grief, the sorrow, and the tears” and looking forward to a new love.
One of my favorite songs here is one of the few songs not written by band members, and also might win the prize for “Song I Was Most Hesitant About Based on Title Alone.” I’d never heard Tom T. Hall’s Pinto the Wonder Horse is Dead, and I was expecting something humorous or silly. However, the song is an excellent reflection on the power of memories and the loss of childhood, set to a mid-tempo, bouncy melody that fits well with the singer’s memories of watching old westerns at the movie theater.
Other highlights here include the traditional, Celtic-tinged The Leaving of Liverpool, which features some fine harmonies on the chorus, and the thoroughly traditional cover of Flatt & Scruggs’ Thinking About You. Del McCoury’s tenor is hard to miss on the latter, as is Bobby Hicks’ always strong fiddling.
Fans of Chris Jones & the Night Drivers should have few, if any, complaints about this album. Neither should those not as familiar with the band. Jones, Weisberger, Luberecki, and Stoffel have been playing together for close to a decade now, and they’ve just about got their style down to an art.
For more information on Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, visit their website at www.chrisjonesgrass.com. Their new album can be purchased from a variety of music retailers.