Nate Lee is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in the bluegrass world. He’s probably known best for his mandolin work, currently with the Becky Buller Band, and is one of those musicians that can show up and jump in on about any song, and play it as well as if he’d practiced all day. However, he’s also a skilled fiddler, banjo player, and vocalist, as he proves on his new album, Wings of a Jetliner, released last month on his own Adverb Records. Here Lee gives listeners a fine collection of skillfully played modern bluegrass.
Lee has gathered around him a group of truly talented musicians who can easily switch from straightforward traditional picking to more inventive, melodic playing inspired by jazz and other genres. The core band for the album consists of Wyatt Rice (guitar), Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Ned Luberecki (banjo), and Todd Phillips (bass), with several other guests appearing throughout the record. With five original instrumentals from Nate, the musicians get quite the workout as they deftly move through several different styles.
Opening track Wonderbat kicks things off in a grassy, energetic manner, with some particularly fiery mandolin from Lee and nice interplay between Keith-Hynes’s fiddle and Luberecki’s banjo. Quick Select, on the other hand, has an easygoing, rolling melody, with Rice’s guitar of particular note. Serenity (named for the spaceship from the sci-fi western, Firefly), the album’s first single, delves into an improvisational style inspired by David Grisman. It’s a sonically interesting tune, with excellent fiddle from Lee and a mandolin solo from guest Thomas Cassell. Much more sparse is Comealong Brown Dog, which lopes along at a laidback pace and features only Lee on mandolin, Becky Buller’s fiddle, and bass from Daniel Hardin. Rounding out the instrumentals is Rook Roller, which sounds traditional at first listen but features enough spirals in the melody to move it decidedly beyond basic.
The rest of the album is filled out with songs pulled from diverse sources, ranging from popular bluegrass songwriter Daniel Salyer to ’90s rock group, The Offspring. Salyer’s Tobacco has an in-your-face modern traditional sound (think Volume Five), and tells the story of a little-known historical event, the Black Patch Tobacco Wars in western Kentucky and Tennessee around the turn of the twentieth century. All Along, the aforementioned Offspring number, rushes and hurries with frenzied vocals and instrumentation. It features Lee’s Becky Buller Band bandmates, who turn a song from the completely opposite end of the spectrum into a fine, driving bluegrass track.
A highlight for me is Sweet Allis Chalmers, pulled from the Country Gazette. It’s an extremely well-written song from the pen of Bill Caswell, told from the perspective of a farmer whose “sweet runnin’ tractor” can’t take the place of the woman who “just up and left me one day.” Lee sings this one with appropriate weariness. This contrasts nicely with The More I Pour, from Tim Stafford and Mark Bumgarner, which also features a lovelorn man but is backed up by a swingy melody and triple fiddles.
There’s a little something for everyone on Wings of a Jetliner, which will make this an enjoyable listen for a wide variety of fans – especially those who delight in inventive sounds that still clearly fall under the bluegrass umbrella. Lee is a fine musician, and I look forward to hearing more from him soon.
For more information on Nate Lee, visit his website. His new album is available from several online music retailers.