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Wednesday, 30 January 2008 00:00

Jim and Rhonda do it different

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Jim Lauderdale: The Bluegrass Diaries

If you recognize the name, little more needs to be said. Long one of the first-call songwriters in Nashville, Jim Lauderdale is probably the guy responsible for penning some of your favorite country tunes.

His vocal and performance talent have been tapped by everyone from Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard to, well, Hootie and the Blowfish. He leapt feet first into the bluegrass realm with 1999’s I Feel Like Singing Today (partnering with none other than Ralph Stanley) and demonstrated an innate feel for the music’s songwriting and vocal traditions. The double release in 2006 of the aptly titled Bluegrass and the fantastic Country Super Hits Volume 1 further cemented his status as an artist steeped in every facet of Americana, and one lucky enough to have a unique interpretive and creative voice despite the subgenre or style he chooses to take on.

Randy Kohrs’ Dobro comes out swinging right from the downbeat of “This Is The Last Time (I’m Ever Gonna Hurt,)” swooping and whining behind Lauderdale’s promise to “be the first one to ever break love’s curse.” Aaron Till’s rippling fiddle break is a head-turning highlight. The instrumental prowess collected for The Bluegrass Diaries is truly impressive through the album’s course, but never clouds the inherent tunefulness of Lauderdale’s songs. And while grass of the bluer shade is the order of the day, there’s plenty of George Jones-Hank Sr. in the gorgeous lament of “I Wanted To Believe” and the sinner’s plea in “Can We Find Forgiveness.” Clay Hess turns in a positively burning guitar performance on “One Blue Mule,” weaving knotty flat-top lines at ludicrous speed, skittering around the fiddle and resonator like a hungry ‘skeeter in July.

For sheer teardrops in the beer bottle effect, cue up “Are You Having Second Thoughts,” which finds the narrator pleading for the truth from a lover and bracing himself for its arrival. But these tales of heartbreak are balanced with much lighter fare, as on the twangy romp of “My Somewhere Just Got Here.” The art of the crafty turn of phrase is nothing new in country songwriting, but in the hands of an artist like Lauderdale, it’s a veritable weapon. The Bluegrass Diaries closes with the barnstorming “Ain’t No Way To Run,” the perfect bookend for this collection of inspired writing and stunning musicianship. And much like the “post end credits hidden scene fake out” movie trick, don’t assume that the last song ends where you think it does; once Lauderdale chimes in with “Y’all wanna run some more? Alright...” the band treats you to two more minutes of burning bluegrass bliss. Killer.

Rhonda Vincent: Good Thing Going

On the somewhat slicker side is Rhonda Vincent’s latest, Good Thing Going. She wails on the first cut, swings on the next and hits you with a ballad by track three. Vincent, like Lauderdale, surrounds herself with top-notch musicians throughout, which almost begs the question: Is there a recent bluegrass release that DOESN’T include the superhuman picking of Bryan Sutton? This guy’s becoming the flat-top equivalent of Dobro master Jerry Douglas; both can wrap their formidable chops around nearly any style and make it work, both turn in utterly perfect performances every single time, and both of them play with everybody. And by “everybody” I mean ... yeah, everybody.

The aforementioned swing arrives in the form of “World’s Biggest Fool,” with Sutton’s supple jazzbox comping and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle bubbling under a genuinely witty little story of breaking up and dealing with it. Vincent’s voice is a versatile marvel, balancing twang with melodic savvy and complete control. The more “modern” musical moments on Good Thing Going reach comfortably into the crossover country mold, as on “I Will See You Again” and “I Gotta Start Somewhere.” Good tunes, both of them. And maybe I’m biased towards the more traditional this month (at least where bluegrass is concerned), but if any criticism could be aimed towards Vincent’s latest, it’s that things get a little ballad heavy — I found myself wanting to hear a little more straightforward singing and picking — which can be found in spades on the fine “Who’s Cryin’ Baby.” But it’s followed by another (who would’ve guessed?) ballad, this time a reading of the traditional “The Water Is Wide” with Keith Urban on harmony vocals.

However, Rhonda Vincent isn’t making any claims of being a staunch traditionalist, and expecting an hour of high-octane bluegrass from an artist with such obvious crossover abilities is kind of wrong in and of itself. Good Thing Going has plenty going for it — Vincent’s remarkable voice, a fine collection of songs and again, a fantastic bunch of musicians, and is probably a more palatable choice for ‘grass fans that like theirs with a side of country and pop. So where Lauderdale’s newest resembles a piping hot mug of stout black coffee, Vincent’s veers more towards a fancy roast with a dollop of foam and some nutmeg. Both fine choices, but strictly dependent on your mood.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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