We’ve had our eye on the talented Smith family from Fayetteville, NC for some time. They captured our attention initially performing as a family group, The Smith Family, when oldest brother Corey released the first of his two Generation Bluegrass films in 2012, highlighting the skills and artistry of a number of similarly-situated bluegrass teen sibling groups.
They released a debut, self-titled album as Ash Breeze in February 2014 which showed tremendous promise with all the members still in their teens, save dad (Allen) who plays bass with the band on stage. Their latest project, The Road’s Not Easy, delivers on that promise and demonstrates an uncanny knack for the subtleties of our music.
Nellie Grace, now nearly 18 years old, has matured into a delightful and very capable vocalist – and a fine songwriter to boot. Her I Brought You Flowers is a lovely song, structured like a pop country number, with a sweet sentiment and a real tearjerker of a final verse.
Bluegrass radio is likely to flip over Nellie’s version of the swing classic, Mr. Sandman. Her still girlish voice suits the song perfectly, adding harmony parts to mimic the ’50s vibe of the original Chordette’s trio, and twin fiddle as well. It’s a swinging, bluegrass romp simply dripping with fun.
She also lays down a sparkling version of Pins & Needles, another swing-grass track with strong contributions from brothers Eli (14) on mandolin and Luke (15) on banjo. Crystal Gayle’s 1978 hit Ready For The Times To Get Better gets a fine reading as well, done in an uptempo bluegrass manner.
Big brother Corey gets to strut his stuff on Apple Tree Shoals, a modern guitar tune that starts with a funky riff, and allows all the Smiths a chance to grab a little piece for themselves before they end with the guitar and fiddle in unison. Perhaps as the oldest, Corey (20 years old) would be expected to display a bit more sophistication than his younger sibs, but he really has a surprising breadth of experience in bluegrass, having worked extensively in both audio and video engineering for the past four years. In any event, his guitar work is dead-on, both lead and rhythm.
The 10-track project concludes with Nellie delivering a passionate cover of Christian artist John Mark McMillan’s Death In His Grave, a retelling of the Easter story with harmonies from Corey and Eli, just as it starts with a grassy contemporary Christian song, The Road, written by Corey and Allen.
This Smiths recorded at Mountain Fever Studio in Riner, VA, with some additional tracking being done in Corey’s home studio. Aaron Ramsey produced and engineered, and also played bass on the recording.
When you see young teens performing on stage, it’s often tough to predict which artists will continue to grow into successful adult performers and which will fade from having simply peaked early.
One thing is certain, though. And that’s that Nellie Grace Smith is the real deal, and so are her brothers in Ash Breeze. They and Travianna Records have every reason to be proud of The Road’s Not Easy, available now wherever you purchase bluegrass and acoustic music.