One of the fun parts of writing for Bluegrass Today is watching young artists mature, as individuals and musicians, and watching some family bands graduate from the cute stage to genuine top-tier acts.
I’ve watched it happen with The Bankesters, Flatt Lonesome and Gold Heart. And I’m guessing before long, it will happen to Williamson Branch. In fact, there’s evidence in the band’s newest CD, Branchin’ Out, that it’s already happening.
Williamson Branch is made up of accomplished picker and songwriter Kevin Williamson on guitar, wife Debbie on mandolin, and daughters Melody (fiddle), Kadence (bass) and Caroline (fiddle). All of them share lead singing chores on the 12-song project.
Instrumentally, with help from Barry Crabtree on banjo and Craig Fletcher on mandolin, the CD is tight and sound. Melody, now old enough to qualify for a driver’s license, is coming into her own as a fiddler, has good command as a singer and is building her chops as a songwriter. Someday, her angst-infused song about a love she hasn’t met yet, kicks off the project.
But Kadence, over time, may become the instrumental star of the bunch (though Caroline is too young to offer any hints about how she may develop musically). Kadence plays a U-Bass – the size of a ukulele with the punch and growl of a standard-size bass – with authority and rock-solid timing. Seriously, her performance here sent me to dust off my U-bass to see if it will help my aging hands recover from repetitive strain injuries that make the upright bass too painful to play for any length of time. There aren’t many bluegrassers playing a uke bass, but after hearing what Kadence does here, don’t be surprised if others head in that direction. (I happen to think a U-Bass, dialed in and played through an Acoustic Image or other good quality bass amplifier, sounds better than most electric upright basses used by many players on flying gigs.)
The vocals are solid, too, especially when Kevin sings the lead on The Miner’s Song and I Was Born in a Railroad Town, when Debbie steps out front on Love Among the Dandelion, and when Melody sings the plaintive Coal in My Stocking. All four of those songs, by the way, are Kevin Williamson originals.
Coal in My Stocking is my favorite on the record, largely because Melody delivers a quite believable plea to the guy from the North Pole: “Dear Santa, give me coal in my stocking this time, and please let my daddy dig it out of the mine. He’s laid off this Christmas, and my mama’s been cryin, so dear Santa, give me coal in my stocking this time.”
Love Among the Dandelion reminds me of the Carter Family. It also makes me wish that Debbie Williamson was featured as the vocalist on more cuts here. She has one of those polished voices that I could listen to all day long, something that would easier to accomplish if I didn’t have to keep hitting repeat on this one song!
A couple of the other songs, frankly, are a little too precious for me, but I can see how they might come across as entertaining when performed live. This is especially true of Grandma’s Featherbed, sung by Caroline, the youngest of the performing Williamsons, and on the Loretta Lynn scorcher, You Ain’t Woman Enough. It’s jarring to hear this live version sung by one young lady in her teens and another in middle single digits, even though the audience response makes it clear that what they’re seeing on the stage is clearly a spoof.
But, overall, Branchin’ Out is a solid performance, with some outstanding moments, from a band that’s only going to get better as the girls grow into their artistic selves.