Musicians often come together in unique (and sometimes unexpected) pairings, creating sounds that none of the individuals involved may have made on their own. When New Mexico-based mandolin player Steve Smith met Nashville session musician Tim May at Camp Bluegrass in Texas, they discovered common roots in bluegrass and tradition, but also a love of innovation and pushing boundaries. Their duo EP, Tim May & Steve Smith, is part traditional bluegrass and part intricate instrumentation, with a dash of folk music thrown in for good measure.
Smith may be best known to bluegrass fans from his work leading roots-grass group Hard Road (most recently known as the Hard Road Trio). That band’s music is often soothing and peaceful, with lots of folk and Americana influences. May, too, has experience in the folk world – his debut album as part of the duo Carpenter & May reached number one on the folk charts. There is certainly evidence of that folk influence on this EP, perhaps most strongly in the album’s closing track, a gentle, acoustic version of The Beatles’ Let it Be. The song is guided by Smith on octave mandolin, with contemplative guitar from May. Smith’s earnest lead vocals make it a compelling listen. This Boat, written by May and Dillon Hodges, and featuring May’s wistful lead vocals, is another folk-inspired number. At heart, it’s a rambling song, touching on the man’s yearning to take to the water on his boat, while keeping the one he loves in his mind.
On a grassier note is the old standard I Know What It Means to be Lonesome. Although it’s somewhat stripped down – this is a true duo project, so it’s just mandolin and guitar – it has a good full sound and allows May and Smith to jam out a bit on their respective instruments. Washboard Road, an instrumental composed by Smith, has a strong contemporary sound and a bit of a Celtic vibe. Scotch on the Beach is another Smith original, and allows him to partake in some bouncy acrobatics with his mandolin. May’s backing work is excellent and nuanced, reminiscent of mandolin-guitar duets from the days of early country music. Switching gears again, one of the album’s standout tracks comes close to the end. An acoustic jazz version of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies is certainly a highlight of the EP, with smooth, fluid guitar playing from May and intriguing, tremolo-filled mandolin from Smith.
Smith and May don’t back themselves into any corners with this EP. Both have experience playing folk, bluegrass, and country styles of music, among others, and their varied influences work well here. The instrumentation has a full sound that’s not always achieved with just two instruments, and both men are obviously very talented musicians. Fans of inventive acoustic music will enjoy this release from Desert Night Music.
For more information on Tim May & Steve Smith, visit www.desertnight.com.