It’s only been in the past few years that songwriter projects have been a thing in bluegrass music. At one time, the common exercise was for writers to record demo versions of new songs, and send them out to interested artists for consideration. But a few writers began to realize that, by the time they had recorded, mastered, and manufactured demos for a number of songs, they could have had a full album produced for much the same cost.
We might see New England songwriter Rick Lang as a pioneer here, with his two albums of his own compositions, recorded by top bluegrass pickers and singers. Milan Miller saw similar success with Poison Cove, as did Ray Edwards with Portrait Of A Bluegrass Songwriter. Of course, it helps if you are a musician yourself, and have a lot of talented friends.
Wandering Again is just this sort of a songwriter project from Chris Burton, a bluegrass picker and writer living near Roanoke, VA. Most of the material is straight ahead bluegrass, performed by a crack band including Burton on banjo, while a few songs would probably be considered to be Americana. Chris sings lead on five of the tracks, with guest vocals provided by a number of fine bluegrass singers.
All the songs are Burton’s, and he demonstrates his bluegrass cred right at the start with a snappy little number called Kentucky 31, playing on the familiar pun. It’s short and sweet, but packs a wicked punch provided by a rhythm section of Adam Steffey on mandolin, Ron Stewart on fiddle, and Jason Moore on bass.
That is followed by On The Road Forever, with another comfortable grass convention, the trio-all-the-way-through song, which captures the 1970s feel of a New South or Country Gentlemen arrangement. And the a cappella Gospel format gets the Burton treatment on Time Is Slipping Away, with ex-Lonesome River Band vocalist Jerry McMillan taking the lead. Jerry was with LRB just as their star was starting to rise, but came of the road to start a family as their schedule was ramping up. Long time fans will recall his vocals on early LRB cuts like Laura Jean.
Jerry takes the lead again on Textbook Definition Of The Blues, a made-for-Del-McCoury song if I’ve ever heard one, with a funky, bluesy feel provided by that same strong rhythm section. Mountains & Moonshine finds Chris back behind the vocal mic for another classic bluegrass staple, the song about fiddle tunes. OK… the song isn’t actually about fiddle tunes, it’s about growing up in the mountains around the untaxed whiskey culture, and mentions a number of popular tunes they used to play – which the band then seques into in turn. It’s a fun song with a great dance feel.
Surely one of the CD’s strongest cuts is It’s Your Road, with lead vocals from Missy Armstrong of Detour. This is a simple song about growing up, told from a parent’s perspective where a child is born, grows up, and moves on in three short verses. As she is prone to do, Missy owns this song from the first note she sings, providing just the right blend of emotion and sincerity atop appropriately sparse accompaniment. It could be a radio hit in multiple genres and certainly should.
My other favorite is Mountain Hallelujah, a Christmas morning song that jumps between 3/4 and 4/4 time, sung here by the inimitable Junior Sisk. Just hearing the title, you know immediately that it will be perfect for Junior, who gives it a note-perfect reading. But it’s not the sort of song that would only feel right around the holidays, so expect to hear plenty of this one too.
Burton introduces his 20-something daughter Allison on a lovely wedding song called One. Like It’s Your Road, there isn’t much to get in the ay of the vocal here, and Allison delivers a sweet, lovely rendition of the song. Chris tells us that she is a budding songwriter as well, so keep the name Allison Burton front of mind.
Huntingwood is a contemporary guitar instrument recorded with Burton on banjo and guitar, and Aaron Ramsey on mandolin and bass. The album ends on more of a country rock note, with Chris’ World Turning, complete with harmonica, strings, electric guitar, and drums.
No small part of the success of this project is due to the talents of Aaron Ramsey, chief engineer at Mountain Fever Recording Studio. He tracked almost the entire project, and mixed and mastered it all, in addition to playing guitar on seven of the songs.
Wandering Again would make a welcome addition to most any bluegrass collection, and bands on the hunt for new material would do well to give Chris Burton a try. The album is available now wherever bluegrass music is sold online (CD Baby, iTunes). Radio programmers can download the tracks online from Airplay Direct.