It’s evident in the song selection, especially on Shout – a pop hit for Tears for Fears in 1984 – While Listening to Rock and Roll, and some of the folk-sounding cuts from band member Hank Bowman, especially Karmic Jail and the project’s opening number, Waitin’. Most of the five songs Bowman contributed are moody and contemplative. I’m thinking it’s no accident that his publishing company is named Deep Zen Music.
But the band is at its best on this project when it sticks to familiar but not over-trodden bluegrass turf.
Come Hither to Go Yonder, a Bill Monroe instrumental, is close to bluegrass perfection, driven by Stan Brown’s excellent work on the five-string and the guest fiddling of Greg Luck. Other standout efforts include I Long for the Hills, written by Tim O’Brien during his Hot Rize days and Carter Stanley’s Going to the Races. This is bluegrass performed at a high level.
The uptempo songs showcase the band’s picking talents to the fullest. The only complaint from here is that there aren’t enough of them, and they’re all on the second half of the 14-song recording. I kept waiting for the band to stretch out and pick up the pace. And when it happened, it was worth the wait.
Brown, who made a few appearances with Bill Monroe and had a successful run in Nashville, can more than hold his own in just about any setting. His banjo work is some of the best I’ve heard on a recording this year this side of Ronnie Stewart. Joining Brown and Bowman to round out the Outliers are Brad Martin on mandolin (and soothing lead vocals on a couple of tracks) and Julie Brown on bass. (While the band’s version of Shout didn’t push many buttons for me, her bowed bass work was spot on.)
On the band’s web site, Bowman writes that the band “came together at a perfect time for us to experiment and explore with acoustic music free from any outside expectations.”
If you temper your own expectations and wade through some of the experiments, you’ll be rewarded with some first-rate bluegrass. All in all, this is a pleasant debut by a band that we’re likely to hear more from down the road.