Two things leap out of you when you check out the brilliant new project from the Mountain Faith Band, long a favorite here at Bluegrass Today. First you notice that they have officially changed their name to Summer Brooke and The Mountain Faith Band, an overdue modification recognizing the impact of their lead vocalist, Summer Brooke McMahan, whose angelic voice has catapulted the group from an up-and-coming bluegrass act to a powerful voice on the acoustic and positive country scene.
The next thing you see is that this new album, Small Town Life, is marked as the “Special Acoustic Version” which invites the question, what other version is there? Summer tells us that a second edition of the CD will be released in September, with a mix that includes light drums, keyboards, and electric instruments. But they wanted to deliver a record for their bluegrass fans, the ones that brought them to the dance, with the pure acoustic sound of the band unadulterated.
If you’ve seen their full fledged stage show, it’s a bit more big city than small town, with the drums and keys and a professional lighting rig, though they come all acoustic for smaller festivals and concerts. They are a band in transition, boosted to a popularity few bluegrass bands achieve by their appearance on America’s Got Talent in 2015. They didn’t win the competition, but made quite a hit with the television audience over the course of the several episodes on which they appeared.
On AGT, they worked up acoustic/bluegrass versions of pop hits to appeal to the younger audience – younger than the typical bluegrass crowd, but an audience their own age. Not only did the viewers enjoy it, the band did as well, and they began to include these numbers on their regular performances. These days, they work a schedule that includes the churches and festivals that had been their staple, and appearances at events that attract a more mainstream, less bluegrass-specific crowd. For example, this weekend they are at the Lake Itasca Family Music Festival in Minnesota, and then they’re off to play the American Legion World Series tournament in North Carolina.
But what about the music? On Small Town Life the band has kept the pop sensibility they demonstrated on TV, but returned to original music written within the band, primarily by Summer and mandolinist, Cory Piatt. They use the instruments of the bluegrass ensemble, but in ways other than Mr. Monroe intended, to produce something quite fresh and very interesting. Much in the way that innovators like Punch Brothers have used the bluegrass instruments to play non-bluegrass music, Mountain Faith uses them to create something new, but far more upbeat and encouraging than the darker sounds that Thile & Co. prefer.
From the opening song, Summer’s Who Will You Be, to the final, title track, from Robert Browning and Robert Ricotta, it’s clear that this is truly Summer’s band. Her voice dominates all the tracks, supported by Piatt on mandolin, another uniquely creative young musician, with Brayden McMahan on banjo, Nick Dauphinais on guitar, and Mountain Fever engineer/producer Aaron Ramsey on bass. With Tim Crouch on fiddle the band sound shows all the threads of bluegrass, in ways that hard core grassers will recognize and enjoy, but with a decidedly new approach that should continue to widen their appeal to people outside our community.
With only a few minor exceptions, the album suffers little from the absence of percussion and non-acoustic instruments. One imagines that the cheery summer anthem, Lazy River, has a fuller sound with more of a country band feel, but it’s still a fun number that immediately invites you to sing along. The album’s magnum opus, Summer and Cory’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, works beautifully as an acoustic track, so full that it’s hard to imagine room for anything else. By contrast, their Bring The Heat is a slower ballad that owes a lot to contemporary Christian music in the arrangement, though it’s actually a challenging and passionate love song.
The only definitively religious song isn’t a true Gospel number, but an arrangement of an old Irish blessing than will be familiar to many listeners. It may be the grassiest track on the album, even with the inclusion of a whistle in the band. And the guys get a chance to stretch out on Jawbone Hill, a rip-roaring instrumental written by Cory, Brayden, and Nick. These guys can pick!
In addition to Summer’s voice, special note goes to her brother Brayden whose inventive banjo work ties most of these songs together. Many groups who attempt non-bluegrass material simply dump the old five string, but it has a place, and Brayden demonstrates it aptly on this record. Often he is filling a role that an electric guitar would occupy in pop or rock music, while Dauphinais’ solid rhythm holds the groove. It will be interesting to see what is added when the second mix is released on Travianna Records, Mountain Fever’s sister label.
For someone who has followed this band since they were teens, chaperoned by Summer and Brayden’s dad, Sam, who plays bass with them on the road, it is fascinating to see how they have grown, musically and personally, into certain leaders in our industry. Well done, one and all.