The banjo is arguably the core of bluegrass music. For many folks, it’s the key to whether or not a song or album can be considered bluegrass. I’ve heard many a traditionalist despair that it’s been all downhill since Manzanita. Fear not, fans of Scruggs style, for there are plenty of up-and-coming musicians ready to keep the five alive. Jacob Underwood, the banjo player for Illinois-based group Bluegrass Express, is fine evidence of this fact. He recently released his second solo album, The Banjo Files.
Underwood has included ten tracks on The Banjo Files, all instrumentals. It certainly helps that’s he surrounded by some of bluegrass music’s best musicians – Steve Thomas, Justin Moses, and Matt Wallace form his core band, with assistance from Sierra Hull, Ron Stewart, and others – but he’s no slouch on the banjo, himself. Underwood’s playing is crisp and tasteful, and he does a fine job at finding the tune’s melody and sticking with it. His picking leans firmly into the traditional side of things (you won’t find any eight-minute jam sessions here), though several of the tracks have a lighter, more contemporary feel.
Four tunes are originals from Underwood. Opening track B-5 is full of modern traditional drive, reminiscent of something you might hear from Volume Five or even the Boxcars. It’s a powerful song, with a chugging rhythm and strong solos, including some snazzy mandolin work from Hull. Turbulence has a classic bluegrass foundation, but Underwood also plays around a bit with the tune’s melody and gets to use his D-tuners. It’s one of two songs that features Underwood’s dad Greg on electric bass, which gives the track a good groove. The other electric bass number is Banjoology, on which Underwood handles not only banjo duties but also throws in some impressive mandolin solos. The final original is the easygoing, mid-tempo November Wind. Underwood’s banjo sets the song’s wistful mood, which is also captured perfectly by Moses on resophonic guitar.
Five-string aficionados should enjoy the double banjo version of Bully of the Town, which features Mike Scott playing harmony and a brief solo, and also includes some first-rate fiddling from Thomas. There’s also a fine version of Gold Rush, with triple duty from Underwood. In addition to banjo, he offers up a mandolin solo in the spirit of Bill Monroe and straight-forward guitar. Straying from the bluegrass canon a bit is the cheerful and gently rolling, When You’re Smiling.
Rounding out the album are three instrumental versions of Gospel songs. Underwood proves his talent at locating a song’s melody on the thoughtful What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Clocking in at about a minute and a half, it’s a showcase for the banjo. Thomas’s fiddle traces the melody line throughout the background of Softly and Tenderly, then steps into the spotlight for an impressive solo. When the Saints Go Marching In is a fun, traditional romp with a propulsive rhythm set by Underwood’s banjo and Wallace’s bass.
Fans of Scruggs-style banjo should find much to enjoy when they search through The Banjo Files. Underwood shows an ear for composing, with Turbulence and November Wind particular highlights, and also handles himself well on new interpretations of older tunes.
For more information on Jacob Underwood and his new album, visit the Bluegrass Express website at www.bluegrassexpressband.com.