While the Momentum Awards luncheon was going on this morning, I took the opportunity to slip over to the Marriott Hotel lobby for an unofficial showcase sponsored by Lorraine Jordan and True Grass. It featured several young bands that I had especially wanted to see this week – and it was meatloaf day at the Rye Restaurant!
Thanks to Lorraine and Melanie Wilson, who had saved me a table right next to the band, I was able to enjoy sets by Williamson Branch, The Band Of Kelleys, and Carolina Blue. Each works a different angle of the bluegrass genre, and provided striking contrasts in approach and focus.
We first discovered Williamson Branch here at World of Bluegrass the first year that it was held in Raleigh. Kevin Williamson was still working with The Farm Hands, but brought his wife, Debbie, and daughters Melody and Kadence, over to our press room to sing us a song. The girls were probably about 10 and 14 at the time, but they sang with real authority, along with mom and dad, on a Gospel quartet.
These days it’s a polished professional band. Mom is on mandolin, Dad on guitar, Melody plays fiddle, and Kadence plays a short-scale ukulele bass, with Anthony Howell on banjo. Theirs is a tightly-scripted show, with choreographed routines the girls run through with their dad that are cute, and downright precious when 9-year-old Caroline steps out to join them.
A special highlight is when Melody and Caroline do a duet version of You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man). The mugging is way over the top, but plainly hilarious every time. The Williamsons, all of them, have the entertainer’s understanding of show business, and theirs is an act you could take anywhere. Each of them sing beautifully, and you can see the older girls trying to out-sing the other when they are solo. Friendly competition, all all that.
They were followed by The Band Of Kelleys, also fronted by a pair of young female siblings, Bethany and Victoria Kelley. They are 19 and 16 respectively, and accompanied by their 13-year-old brother Daniel on bass, Jacob Moore on banjo, and Cory Walker on guitar. Cory and Jacob may not be part of the Kelley family, but they both grew up performing with their brothers as teens. Does that make this count as a family band?
Both of the Kelley girls are remarkable performers. Before they moved to Nashville last year, they each had studied with top bluegrass instructors via Skype, Bethany with Jim VanCleve and Victoria with Sharon Gilchrist. It clearly shows, as they picked the fire out of David Grisman’s EMD and closed with a version of Lee Highway Blues that was played well beyond ramming speed, approaching ludicrous speed. The latter is Bethany’s “show off” number, and she wields her fiddle like a weapon.
But the show is ultimately based around Victoria’s singing voice. She possesses the range and agility that characterizes the popular television vocal competition programs, minus the histrionics and “show biz vibe.” As rare as it is to find teen instrumentalists who play with virtuosity, taste, and restraint, it is rarer still to find a 16 year old singer with her level of maturity and poise. Her big numbers are an acoustic take on Aretha Franklin’s classic, Chain Of Fools, where Victoria shows off her chops jumping over her break in a yodel-like fashion, and a mega-grassy version of Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm, driven by the fiddle.
Daniel and Bethany provide the vocal backup, with the blend that only the tonal similarity of family harmony can provide. Unlike the Williamson girls, who dress in simple nearly-matching outfits, the Kelley girls wear trendy and fashionable clothes that set them apart as a more contemporary band, which their pop music sensibility confirms. While they lack the snappy pacing of Williamson Branch, Victoria’s singing is so strong that you forget anything else going on. Love this group!
The luncheon showcase concluded with Carolina Blue, a fast-rising traditional bluegrass group from nearby Brevard, NC. Their appeal is in a vintage/throwback approach, both visually and musically. The guys dress in long sleeve shirts with ties and vest, each with a cowboy hat perched on their head, while fiddler Anysley Porchak is decked out in full antique regalia. From her curt black cap with lace trailing down the back, to her old school black and white shoes, she looks every bit the ’50s fashion icon.
Their sound reminds you of what The Earls Of Leicester do with Flatt & Scruggs, directed instead towards Bill Monroe’s music. But Carolina Blue also includes their own original music, still very much in the Monroe tradition. Much of that impact comes from the mandolin work of Tim Jones, clearly a disciple of Bill, though his playing is cleaner and more precise that what is revealed on the old Blue Grass Boys recordings. Tim also has a lovely tenor voice, which blends nicely with guitarist Bobby Powell’s baritone, in a set that featured a number of brother-style duets.
A highlight was Porchak’s fiddling, on both the vocal and instrumental pieces. Still a young woman, Aynsley is finishing a graduate degree at ETSU, having graduated last year from their bluegrass program. She has the unique distinction of having won the US and the Canadian Grand Masters fiddle tournaments, both before finishing college. An exemplar of the Kenny Baker style, she laid down a wicked version of Big Sandy, essentially a note-for-note replica from the 1976 gem, Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. She also opened the set with a fiery run through Katy Hill, and did several tasty fiddle breaks on Monroe’s Old Dangerfield, which Jones played as a feature tune on mandolin.
Other strong numbers include the band’s recent Pinecastle single, Rusty Rails, written by Powell and Jones, a soulful run through Cold Rain And Snow, their soaring trio on The Osborne Brothers’ Bluegrass Melodies, and the closing tune, Monroe’s staple, Rawhide. Special marks to banjo man James McDowell for his solo on Big Sandy, played in the Don Reno single-string style, as opposed to the rolling, melodic style most commonly heard on the tune. His banjo tone is dry as a bone – just the way I like it! Bassist Reese Combs was on point throughout, keeping the band on time despite them pushing at the front edge of the beat on all the speedier bits.
As I was forking through the last of my meatloaf and gravy with collard greens, it occurred to me that Carolina Blue provided a parallel experience: bluegrass comfort food. Something warm and familiar that takes you back to an earlier time. It’s good even when it’s average. But when it’s just right, as it is with Carolina Blue, it can’t be beat.
Don’t miss any of these folks if they come your way.