I’m usually excited to see new groupings of my favorite musicians, if just for the chance to hear what artists who normally don’t play together sound like when they do. The Rice-Menzone Alliance, a new duo from Mountain Fever’s ever-growing roster of artists, pairs well-known guitarist Wyatt Rice with somewhat lesser known (though just as talented) banjo player Dan Menzone. On their debut album, Something Out of the Blue, their band is rounded out by Rob Ickes (dobro), Fred Carpenter (fiddle), Adam Steffey (mandolin), and Wyatt’s brother Ron on bass. Together, Rice, Menzone, and company have created an impressive modern traditional sound that walks the line between straightforward 1-4-5 drive and more melodic instrumentation.
Of the twelve songs on the album, five feature vocals from several of today’s top bluegrass vocalists. The others are instrumentals – six originals from Menzone, and the Bill Keith banjo tune Beating Around the Bush. It’s a nice mixture of songs, with enough vocal numbers to draw in listeners who might not prefer pure instrumental albums, and plenty of instrumentals to demonstrate that these two artists are darn good at what they do. Rice has become known for his work as a producer in recent years, and he shows off his skills to good effect here.
Russell Moore’s unmistakable lead vocals kick things off on the Donna Hughes song, Lonesome Highway. It’s a well-written opening track that finds the singer thinking of the years he has spent rambling. Carpenter’s fiddle and Rice’s guitar lend a bright feel to the song above the chugging rhythm. Moore also sings Big Black Wheels, a fiery number from banjo player and songwriter Elmer Burchett. Menzone sets the tone with a breakneck banjo intro, his driving roll mimicking the constantly-rolling wheels Moore is singing about.
Don Rigsby is also featured on two songs. I Know What it Means to Be Lonesome is straight-ahead grass, and a nice showcase of Rigsby’s fine high lead. Moon Mullican’s I’ll Sail My Ship Alone is done in a bouncy, traditional grass style. Many of the versions I’ve heard, from Mullican’s original to George Jones to Mac Wiseman, are slow to mid-tempo and piano heavy, but here it’s a classic upbeat bluegrass heartbreak song (clocking in at just over two minutes). It has a great kiss-off line, as well: “I’ll sail my ship alone with all the dreams I own, and when it starts to sinking I’ll blame you.” The final vocal number is Another Town, written by Tom T. Hall but made popular by Keith Whitley. Fans of the song won’t be disappointed – the version here stays true to the Whitley/J.D. Crowe style, with Richard Bennett singing lead.
The instrumentals, for the most part, fit into this same modern traditional sound. Cutting the Chords opens with in-your-face banjo and continues rushing along as the other musicians take over with their own forceful solos. If performed on stage, it would be one of those great set-closing numbers where everyone gets a chance to show off their meanest chops. Wake Up Call has a similar feel, though Menzone seems to add a bit more of the melodic style to his banjo playing on this tune – it sounds like something you might hear on a Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen album.
Grey Rain is, given the title, appropriately atmospheric (and also the longest song on the album, at almost eight minutes). Carpenter’s fiddle and Ickes’ dobro work well behind Menzone’s banjo to set the song’s mood, but Rice’s evocative, melancholy guitar work is perhaps the highlight of the tune. Also of note is an extended bass solo from guest musician Eric Seay near the song’s end. Faith, Hope, and Love is another slower, melodic tune, though with a more cheerful, hopeful vibe.
Though Rice is well-known thanks to his association with his brother Tony, it seems that his playing has sometimes been underrated in light of his brother’s many contributions to the bluegrass genre. He’s long been one of my favorites, however. His playing is crisp and clear and he has a knack for creating excellent arrangements. The playing of Massachusetts-based Menzone was newer to me, but he, too, is a strong instrumentalist who is adept at both Scruggs style and melodic style banjo. They’ve put together a strong debut that fans of the modern traditional style should thoroughly enjoy. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.
For more information on the Rice-Menzone Alliance, visit Mountain Fever Records. Something Out of the Blue can be purchased from a number of online music retailers.