Bluegrass groups covering songs from other genres is not a new trend – even Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs occasionally covered pop, country, or rock numbers. Today, it’s a rare album that can be found without at least one genre-crossing tune. The Same Old Newgrass Band, a new Canadian group led by banjo and dobro player Smokey Fennell, has taken it to the next level, however, releasing an album made up almost entirely of bluegrass versions of popular pop and rock songs from the past several decades. The group runs the gamut from the Everly Brothers to Lady Gaga, and is sure to entertain listeners in the process.
The album seems almost humorous at times, opening (and closing) with a rooster’s crow and bouncy segments of Boil ‘em Cabbage. The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go is up first, with the vocals sounding not too far from the original, an inventive, bluegrass-based background, and a John Wayne sound clip in response to the song’s final line. That’s followed by Billie Jean. The banjo on this number mimics the melody of Michael Jackson’s version, and is performed as a male-female duet – certainly an interesting choice.
Another John Wayne quote opens up Stayin’ Alive, which has a bit of a dark, desperate feel to it. This discograss number is done with female lead vocals, an odd choice given some of the lyrics (“you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man”), but perhaps done in an effort to match Barry Gibb’s high falsetto. The Lady Gaga hit Poker Face, in contrast, is performed with a man singing lead, with the lyrics changed just a bit to reflect a male point of view. As a whole, the song has a gypsy jazz sound, although, like the Lady Gaga version, there’s a short almost-rapped section. Yet again, there’s a John Wayne quote to match the song’s lyrics, this time with Wayne saying “I think you’re bluffing.”
Two of the better covers are the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, which doesn’t sound too out of place performed in a bluegrass style, and the Allman Brothers’ Midnight Rider, which can sometimes be heard at live bluegrass shows – for instance, Greensky Bluegrass has been doing it lately. Here, it has a bouncy, western feel.
Mingled in throughout the covers are original instrumentals. For most bluegrass fans, these will likely be the best part of the album. Springtime Rush is a cheerful banjo tune written by Fennell, while My Regrets has a smooth, country feel with nice, melancholy fiddle and guitar work. It was written by Chris Tabbert, who also provided guitar and mandolin for the album. Goshen Junction also includes some enjoyable fiddling, as well as more progressive banjo playing.
The Same Old Newgrass Band has created quite the unique record here – a quirky cross between The Cleverlys and a straightforward, progressive bluegrass group. Fennell has been joined by a whole host of his friends to make this record, and the musicians seem to be having fun. There definitely isn’t another group quite like this out there right now.
For more information on The Same Old Newgrass Band, visit their website at www.sameoldnewgrass.com. Their self-titled album is available from several online retailers.