Dale Ann Bradley has become a staple of several musical trends over the course of her career — bluegrass, Americana, grassicana, and most of the rootsier sounds that lie in-between. Indeed, if she’s yet to receive the full recognition that she’s clearly due, it’s certainly not because there’s any lack of prodigious effort on her part. An insightful interpreter of other people’s songs, she consistently proves that point here, thanks to a collection that culls a blend of better known material and lesser known choices, all of which fill out the set quite seamlessly.
That said, all the offerings included on her latest release, The Hard Way, hew to the amiable approach that she’s take all along. The opening track, a most convincing cover of Jim Croce’s Hard Way Every Time segues nicely into the album’s sole original, Pretty, Dark Hearted Emma Brown. Bradley’s take on Journey’s Wheel in the Sky may seem an odd choice at the outset, but its execution makes it an ideal bluegrass ballad, in both theory and execution. An array of special guests, all of them bluegrass mainstays — Scott Vestal, Steve Gulley, Shawn Lane, Michael Cleveland, Andrew Crawford and Alison Brown, among the many — ensure those adroit arrangements, but given that Bradley’s credited as the album’s producer, the responsibility for the record’s success is clearly due to the efforts of everyone involved.
Still, credit Bradley herself for her exceptional taste when it comes to the selection of songs. Aside from those previously mentioned, the choice of the classic Grateful Dead standby Ripple to end the set further embellishes a song selection that practically overflows with plenty of sturdy sentiment to begin with. On the other hand, some might suggest that a note for note redo of Ode To Billie Joe is somewhat redundant, especially given the carbon copy treatment it’s accorded here. No matter though. It clearly fits the template.
Ultimately, The Hard Way seems a somewhat unlikely title given the easy and accessible tone of the music it conveys. Bradley’s made one of the most engaging offerings of her career, and indeed, the lyrics she quotes from the title track on the inside sleeve definitely do sum things up succinctly:
“I would sure be the first one to say
When I look back at myself today
Wouldn’ta done it any other way.”
We should all be grateful that she did it the way she did.