As a music critic, I’m used to folks occasionally wondering if I’ve been living under a rock. Now I find myself thinking the same thing. How else could I not have heard about Melody Walker, Jacob Groopman and their progressive bluegrass band Front Country?
Sure, they’re from California and they don’t tour regularly in the Bluegrass Belt.
But Front Country won band of the year at Telluride this year and at Rocky Grass last year, and Walker won the Gospel award in the Chris Austin songwriting contest this year at MerleFest. Plus, Walker and Groopman deliver some of the best contemporary duet singing that I’ve come across, so they should have popped up on my radar screen a lot sooner. Maybe that rock I live under is blocking reception.
In any case, my oversight was rectified when Walker dropped by the Bluegrass Today studio at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass to talk about the band’s plans for a 2014 CD and to deliver a copy of We Made It Home, a collection of duets she and Groopman released this month.
I love duets in general, but I have a real soft spot for minimalist presentations that dial back the instruments and let the voices and the stories shine. And that’s exactly what Walker and Groopman do here. Most of the record features just guitar and mandolin, occasionally with resonator guitar or banjo. And on one song, Yellow-Haired Girl, the only accompaniment for the voices is percussion (shaker, drum and, most notably, body percussion by Linda Tillery).
But where the instrumentation is spare, the lyrics are lush and filled with metaphors, and the subjects are, for the most part, surprisingly fresh. You don’t often come across songs about a retired circus chimpanzee who was also a boxing champion (Billy the Champ), a star on the verge of exploding (Betelgeuse), or a song about a “symbiotic relationship” that actually uses those words (Come on Mule). There’s even a “secular gospel” song that proclaims, “Heaven is right here if you’re doing it right” (Black Grace). Then there’s the previously mentioned Yellow-Haired Girl, billed as “a meditation on the simultaneous worship and exploitation of pretty women around the world.”
Those looking for something familiar will find some touchstones, including Paul Simon’s Graceland and Peter Rowan’s Mississippi Moon, which the more adventurous among you may remember from a Jerry Garcia solo project many moons ago. There’s also the traditional bluegrass song, Sweet Sunny South, but it’s presented here in a decidedly untraditional manner – in a modal minor that showcases Groopman’s somber, expressive vocal.
And, never fear, there’s one song that doesn’t require you to think at all and focuses on one of the mandatory elements of bluegrass – a train! Little Blue Caboose, a Walker-Groopman co-write, will have you tapping your feet and singing along with the chorus in no time. You might even start to hear this one popping up now and again at bluegrass jams in your neck of the woods.
This Laurie Lewis-produced collection is a terrific introduction to Walker and Groopman and provide hints of what to expect from Front Country’s full-band project next year. But We Made It Home is perfectly capable of standing on its own as music with a folky feel and bluegrass accents.