Over the course of a career that stretches back some 17 years, North Carolina’s Deeper Shade of Blue — an astute quintet consisting of Jim Fraley (banjo/vocals), his son Jason Fraley (mandolin/vocals), Troy Pope (guitar/vocals), Frank Poindexter (dobro), and Scott Burgess (bass) — has made an indelible impression courtesy of their tight knit harmonies and carefully crafted instrumentation.
Steam, their new album, goes a step further, offering songs with specific subjects in mind. It not only adds interest, but expresses an ability to dig deeper as far as more meaningful material is concerned. Kentucky Slave House shares a true story about spirits that attempt to communicate with the owner of an old slave house in Maysville, Kentucky. Uncle Josh the Dobro King pays homage to the late Josh Graves. Still, the track that’s most telling is the title tune, a musical analogy which uses the image of a steam train to represent what it takes to move forward in deeds as well as words.
In addition, there’s a distinct spiritual stamp imbued on the album overall. Songs such as Pearly Gates, How Great Thou Art, and I Just Steal Away and Pray offer their homage to dedication and devotion. That doesn’t necessarily make Steam a Gospel album in the strictest sense, but it does underscore the fact that a sacred sensibility is an inherent part of the group’s motif.
That said, Deeper Shade of Blue is indelibly invested in the basics of bluegrass. With few exceptions, the music is upbeat, effusive and infused with energy and enthusiasm. That’s especially evident on the instrumental offering, Hook II, a track that allows each of the musicians show off their skills. Likewise, the ramble and resolve of Put Some Bluegrass in my Ear effectively lives up to the promise provided by the title, leaving no doubt as to their penchant and particulars. However if there’s still any doubts as to their intents, their astute take on the seminal standard, Rain and Snow, shows they’re equally at home playing off a traditional template.
In the end, Steam provides an ideal example of a band that finds a comfortable fit within vintage trappings, while also digging deeper in search of a more meaningful message. Six albums on, it’s clear that this bunch isn’t about to run out of steam any time soon.