Merle Monroe made a huge splash in the bluegrass world back in 2019 with the release of their debut album, Back to the Country. With a great, fresh sound mixing bluegrass and classic country, guided by Tim Raybon’s clear vocals and Daniel Grindstaff’s tasteful banjo playing, they racked up several radio hits as well as an IBMA New Artist of the Year nomination. Though the COVID-19 pandemic put a bit of a damper on their plans for a second album, and led to some shifts in band personnel, Merle Monroe was finally able to grace listeners with their long-awaited sophomore effort from Pinecastle Records, Songs of a Simple Life, just last week.
Three early singles have already hit number one on the Bluegrass Today weekly charts, including two penned by Raybon that seem to serve as bookends to the pandemic. God’s Still in Control was first sent to radio in April 2020, just as shutdowns and daily COVID-19 case numbers became a part of everyday life. With a comforting, fiddle-led melody and an earnest, faith-filled message, it reminds listeners that even when our world seems to be falling down, “one thing has not changed, God’s always loved you.” On the other side of things is Hello Sunshine, a bright, quick number that, at its core, is a cheery love song but also serves as a reminder of light at the end of the tunnel: “Hello sunshine, it’s been a long time, since I’ve seen your smiling face…” Hot guitar licks from Trey Hensley and Josh Swift’s resophonic guitar work well together to give the number a fun bounce.
I’m Leaving Town Tonight, also from Raybon’s pen, is the band’s most recent number one. With an awesome Osborne Brothers vibe, a chugging rhythm set by Grindstaff’s banjo, and truly excellent vocals, it’s a fun kiss-off anthem that is a sure to be a crowd-pleaser at live shows. Another track reminiscent of the Osbornes (though not their very similarly-titled hit) is Roll On Muddy River. This song comes instead from The Hillmen, and addresses the fickleness of the titular river. Check out the harmonies on the chorus – you’ll be rewinding for a second or third listen, at least.
Part of Merle Monroe’s appeal to many fans is the heavy dose of country sounds they serve along with the bluegrass base in their music. Most listeners will recognize several titles here drawn from the classic country catalog. Saginaw, Michigan, made famous by Lefty Frizzell, sticks fairly close to the original, both vocally and musically, making for an enjoyable listen. (I’d Be) A Legend in My Time, written by Don Gibson but best known for the Ronnie Milsap version, is also faithful to its country origins, with smooth, crooner-style vocals and a gentle melody.
On the more contemporary side of the country sound is another Raybon original, Shelby Tell Me. Raybon truly paints a picture for the listener with his lyrics – close your eyes and you can see each scene as the narrator describes falling in love with his waitress at a small-town diner. Goodbye Marie, from Dennis Linde and Mel McDaniel, shows the other end of falling in love quickly. The quintessential bluegrass rambler realizes that “out the window there’s a lonesome highway callin’ me,” and its call is greater than the woman who’s been loving him for the past three weeks. It’s a cheerful-sounding song, but with a wistfulness to the instrumentation.
When I reviewed Merle Monroe’s first album, I made a point of noting the precision with which everything on the album was handled – every note was there for a reason, making it an extremely enjoyable listen for both casual fans and fellow musicians. This album shows that their debut was no fluke. Even though there’s not a core band here, and a variety of musicians contributed to songs recorded over the course of a year or more, everything is as smooth and clear as if this was a band that had been honing their craft for decades. It’s a pleasure to listen to Raybon and Grindstaff harmonize, and to hear music played with such care and attention. Sometimes what you don’t play is as important as what you do. There’s plenty of new bluegrass music being released as the country opens back up, but Songs of a Simple Life is surely some of the best you’ll hear.