It no longer surprises me when drums show up on a bluegrass record. When everybody from Irene Kelly to the Lonesome River Band and Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers is using percussion on their projects, it’s clear their use is here to stay.
Some hardcore traditionalists argue that drums don’t belong. I don’t. I only try to determine whether they add to or detract from the music. I say if they don’t get in the way, bring ‘em on.
So it’s not a shock to find drums on some of the cuts on Unbroken, the sublime new project from the Trinity River Band. What might test some of the Florida-based family band’s fans is that the band didn’t stop there. Electric guitar and keyboard are also added on some tracks, as the band intentionally dips a toe into Americana.
It’s a calculated risk, and I think it works. Much of Unbroken is exactly what listeners have come to expect from the band: smooth sibling harmonies and tasteful picking on songs from some of bluegrass music’s best writers, including Donna Ulisse and Marc Rossi, Jerry Salley, Mark Brinkman and Larry Cordle. Songs such as Then She Cried by Ulisse and Rossi, Hanging Kisses on the Moon by band member Sarah Harris-Hall, and River of Tears, written by Jim Hurst and Steve Hylton, will turn up on bluegrass radio playlists.
Other songs on the Harris family’s Orange Blossom Records label will be more at home on stations that play Americana, Grassicana and other strains of roots music. Among these are Hold On To Jesus, a Salley and Brinkman song rearranged and sped up a bit to sound like something Mumford and Sons would record, and Seven Bridges Road, which sounded more like a bluegrass song when the Eagles recorded it decades ago.
Then there is, to my ears, the best song on the CD, It Always Rains, written by Cordle, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Larry Shell. Technically, it’s the best TWO songs on the recording, since it appears twice.
The first version, a more or less traditional bluegrass version, is anchored by Sarah Harris-Hall’s elegant vocal. Bluegrass DJs are likely to fall in love with this one.
The second version, a bonus track that’s not listed anywhere on the packaging, is decidedly different, with electric guitars, drums and a bit of sass. I actually prefer this version, though I don’t quite know what to call it. It’s not bluegrass, though it is a close relative. But it’s not quite full-blown Americana, either. It’s almost a throwback to 1970s folk rock. Whatever you call it, it’s very good. The guitar riff has been stuck in my head for days.
My other favorite is River of Tears, with a tender lead vocal by Joshua Harris and a refreshing blend of picking with him on banjo, sister Sarah on mandolin and sister Brianna Harris on fiddle (with dad Stephen Michael Harris on guitar and mom Lisa Harris on bass).
My only reservation is one that I’ve found myself saying about more than a few CDs I’ve reviewed lately for Bluegrass Today. This band can play. I’d love to hear a barnburner or two that would allow the pickers to strut their stuff. Alas, not this time.
The band’s search for a new sound didn’t happen by accident. I had several long chats with Mike Harris in the weeks leading up to the release date. The gist of those discussions is perfectly summed up in a note on an inside sleeve of the package: “For music to move forward, it has to change. And for you to remain relevant in music, you have to constantly change and adapt.”
I’m guessing the band will continue to evolve and adapt. And I’m looking forward to hearing the results.
Unbroken is available now from the band, and will be up on iTunes next week.