It’s easy to call an album “newgrass.” If the banjo doesn’t sound quite like Scruggs, if there’s a heavy folk, pop, rock, and/or jazz influence, if songs aren’t about cabins and mama, reviewers, publicists, and even bands themselves are apt to call it newgrass. Ray Cardwell’s new album, Tennessee Moon, fits pretty well into all of those categories, but it also goes just a little bit farther. Cardwell’s soaring lead vocals, energetic melodies, and background in not only bluegrass but also rock and reggae give the album a sound that is reminiscent of classic New Grass Revival records, but still remains fresh and original.
Cardwell wrote or co-wrote nine of the twelve tracks here, including lead single and title track Tennessee Moon. It’s a bright contemporary number that’s earned quite a bit of airplay since its release a few months back. Jesse McReynolds on mandolin adds a bit of tradition to the song, while Scott Vestal’s banjo is a tad more progressive. John Cowan sings tenor to Cardwell’s high lead; the men’s similar tone and range makes for an enjoyable listen. This vocal combination is almost ever-present (though Cowan occasionally takes a different harmony part), and it works well throughout the album. Another vocal highlight is the grassed-up original Gospel number His Will, which reminds listeners to pay attention to God’s plan for their lives.
Several songs embrace Cardwell’s time playing rock music. Stop, Look, and Listen, a co-write between Cardwell and Pat Flynn (who also served as producer for the album) has a bold groove created by Flynn’s guitar and Vestal’s banjo behind its warning of falling in love too quickly, allowing Cardwell to belt out the lyrics. Cry, penned by Kyle Wood, is upbeat, with a cheerful melody, though it shares the story of a man who runs into tears every time he thinks of the one who got away. The chorus features spot-on harmonies from Cardwell (lead and baritone), Cowan (tenor), and Flynn (high baritone).
The Dillards’ Whole World ‘Round has an eerie, ominous feel, thanks to Flynn’s guitar and fiddle from Andy Leftwich. Its slightly updated arrangement has a bit of a southern rock vibe, though it makes for a strong modern traditional bluegrass number, as well. Cedar Creek Pickaway, another Cardwell original, has a familiar bluegrass theme – the experience of learning to play music – set to a clear, rising melody with standout fiddle from Leftwich. One of the album’s more unique numbers is Sing it to the World, a reggae-grass song with a positive message.
Fans of a capella Gospel will appreciate two songs in particular. Sailin’ for Glory is a nice traditional-style quartet (think Swing Low Sweet Chariot), while New Jerusalem utilizes a call-and-response style throughout much of the song. Cardwell sings lead on both songs, and is joined by Scott Russell (tenor), Eric Morris (baritone), and Brad Reside (bass).
The most obvious audience for Tennessee Moon is fans of New Grass Revival. With contributions from Cowan and Flynn and Cardwell’s inclination toward a smooth, progressive style, the comparisons are easy to make. However, Cardwell is a very strong vocalist in his own right, a solid musician, and a talented songwriter with a knack for positive lyrics. Anyone who enjoys the more progressive side of bluegrass should find something to like here.
For more information on Ray Cardwell, visit his web site. His new album is available from several online retailers.