One of the marks of an exceptional artist is the ability to share stories and, in turn, hold listeners in sway. It’s not enough to be a great picker or a superb singer; it’s equally important to be able to paint a picture, establish a narrative, and set them to melodies that embed those songs with an indelible impression.
Like Yonder Mountain String Band, Front Range, Town Mountain, and the Steep Canyon Rangers in particular, Sideline have established themselves as a band with firmly entrenched populist precepts. While they remain true to a template that’s etched in the basics of bluegrass, they’re adept at fashioning songs that tell tales from a decidedly personal perspective. Having been recognized by the IBMA for song of the year in 2019 courtesy of their single, Thunder Dan, and with several appearances at the Grand Ole Opry to their credit, Sideline has quickly become a band to reckon with in terms of their diligence and delivery.
Naturally then, Ups, Downs and No Name Towns is no exception, and it easily ranks as one of the group’s finest albums thus far. It starts out an engaging, upbeat note with Marshallville, an engaging ramble that quickly establishes a sunny vibe for all that follows. Just a Guy in a Bar and You Can Still Call Me Baby offer optimistic odes to lingering romance, and what transpires when a relationship comes together by chance and then leaves a lasting impression. The heartfelt reflection inherent in Long Way from the Wildwood Flower offers a nostalgic look at a time when life was simple and uncomplicated. So too, Old Guitar Case and I’ll Always Be a Gypsy are odes to life to a journeyman’s existence and the irresistible urge that keeps a musician committed to working the road as a source of both income and inspiration.
While these nuanced narratives dominate the album overall — in effect bearing out the album’s telling title — Sideline’s skills as adroit instrumentalists are also well maintained, as the rollicking instrumental Newton Grove shows so definitively. In fact, there’s not a single song here that fails to find their musical abilities rising to the fore.
Mostly though, Ups, Downs and No Name Towns paints a vivid pastiche of life from the perspective of a band that still shows appreciation for those ideals that remain so intrinsic to one’s home and hearth. As Fast As I Can Crawl, the album’s final song attests, there’s no time to rest when there’s so much life still to appreciate and absorb.
Happily then, they clearly convey that mantra to anyone and everyone willing to listen.