Over the years, bluegrass fans have developed expectations of what to expect from a banjo album, and likewise with a singer/songwriter project. The one is likely filled with rip-roaring instrumentals, and the other a collection of songs from a single, personal perspective.
But Gina Clowes has turned both of those conventions on their heads with her recent release, True Colors, on the Mountain Home label.
Gina is the banjo player with Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, where she supports the music that Chris and bassist Jon Weisberger write with great skill. But this album shows her personality is quite a bit more varied than may show with the band. All but one of the 12 tracks are her original compositions, combining several new banjo tunes with thoughtful and engaging songs sung by Clowes, her sister, Malia Furtado, Heather Berry Mabe, and Scott Brannon.
All the tracks demonstrate her fondness for acoustic swing and progressive contemporary bluegrass, with both styles blended on a number of the songs. The most traditional-sounding tracks are the instrumentals, like the old timey-sounding Goodbye, Lianne, played as a fiddle tune. But even in that format, Gina ventures into an unexpected chord progression in the B part. Saylors Creek is a minor key romp which also has a very modern sound, and Dust Can Wait picks up that feel on a pentatonic tune with a round of jarring chords behind it.
A surprising tune is The Wayward Kite, performed as a duet between banjo and cello on a very lyrical melody, with assistance from Chris Sexton of Nothin’ Fancy.
She really steps into swing territory on La Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Door) which is a flat-out gypsy jazz number where the banjo takes the lead. Not many bluegrass banjoists have tackled this style, but Gina shows a clear familiarity with the idiom here.
Many of the songs also pick up the swing vibe. Both the title track and Puppet Show carry that feel, as does Good Old Fashioned Heartbreak, sung by Brannon. Gina has a pleasant voice, well-suited to the swing material, like True Colors, a sweet, love song, followed by the angry sound of Puppet Show, where the narrator is unloading both barrels (rhetorically) on a untrue lover.
Malia sings Looking For Sunshine, with the same pure, clear voice that has stood out in Circa Blue. It’s a truly beautiful song, well-supported by Gina’s subtle, C-tuning banjo. It is one of the record’s best, with Gina’s Night Driver’s bandmate Mark Stoffel on mandolin.
The highlight of True Colors is For Better or for Worse, sung exquisitely by Heather. It’s one of those songs with a terrible story, yet with such a lovely melody that you know there has to be a happy ending. This story of an ugly and abusive marriage is told through the eyes of a child, who watches as her father’s anger nearly destroys her mother, and still her mom prays unceasingly for her husband to come around. On his dying day, he asks her to teach him how to pray. Anyone who enjoys a story of redemption and forgiveness will love this one, which reminds us of how much we miss Heather now that most of her energies are devoted to ministry.
The album closes with its lone cover, Clowe’s arrangement of Beautiful Land from the Newly/Bricusse show, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. She takes it at a slower speed that on the soundtrack, and with an especially understated accompaniment that serves her delicate voice well.
Chris Luquette provides guitar, with Jack Dunlap on mandolin, Marshal Wilborn on bass, and Malia Furtado on fiddle.
True Colors is a very interesting project, which will satisfy banjo fans who are drawn to the sound of swing played on the old five string, and anyone who enjoys unpredictable songs played in a bluegrass ensemble.