Most of today’s bands whose music falls into the “modern traditional” category can trace their sound back to a handful of groups from the 1970s and 1980s – most often J.D. Crowe & the New South and the Bluegrass Album Band. The Bluegrass Unit, a new group from Nova Scotia, proudly hails these bands as strong influences, along with other contemporaries like the Tony Rice Unit and the Bluegrass Cardinals. On the band’s debut album, Setlist Vol. 1, the members do a fine job channeling that sound, offering listeners driving banjo and clear, steady vocals.
The album starts off a high note with a more recent Crowe cut, Mississippi River Raft. Guitarist Jeff Nauss provides rich, country-tinged lead vocals here, bringing to mind Rickey Wasson’s from the Crowe version while still making the song his own. The instrumentation is bouncy and catchy, guided by Justin Nauss’s banjo and fiddle from guest Ray Legere. Jeff sings lead on five of the thirteen tracks, including other strong numbers like the Lonesome River Band’s You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do, which he flavors with defeat and resignation despite the upbeat melody. One might guess Jeff is a Ronnie Bowman fan; he also provides vocals for a cover of Bowman’s The Healing Kind, from his Cold Virginia Night solo album. It’s a pitiful number, about a man who just can’t seem to get over a woman no matter what he does, with mandolin and dobro (from Waylon Robicheau and Justin Nauss, respectively) that set the mood well.
Robicheau offers four lead vocals himself, beginning with an excellent version of Yesterday’s Gone, the sixties folk rock hit turned bluegrass jam standard. The harmonies here are just spot on, making this a strong contender for best song on the album. Leaves That Are Green also features excellent harmonies, as well as fine mandolin, guitar, and banjo solos. Robicheau also tackles George Jones’s The Grand Tour – not necessarily an easy task. With more than a hint of the classic country-grass style often favored by J.D. Crowe & the New South, The Bluegrass Unit turns the country hit into a great bluegrass number.
This is really an all-around strong group, but perhaps their most beneficial feature is that all four members are talented singers. The harmonies are excellent throughout, and each member takes at least one turn on lead vocals. While Jeff Nauss and Robicheau handle the majority of the lead singing, the two other members contribute, as well. Justin Nauss takes his turn on Craig Market’s catchy Save Your Heart, urged on by guest Matt Hayes’s fiddle, while bass man Kenny Collins offers another LRB number, the dark and driving Tears in My Tracks.
I’d never heard of The Bluegrass Unit before receiving this album in the mail, but I’m glad I did. The songs they’ve covered are just familiar enough that you know you’ve heard them before, but it’s not a “jam favorites” type of album. The Bluegrass Unit can stand right alongside other up-and-coming modern traditional bands, and if you’re a fan of that sound (think older Lonesome River Band, the Boxcars, Grasstowne, etc.) you should certainly check them out.