by Rick Moore
One of the best Bluegrass releases of the year so far is the new Harlan Road by the Lexington, Kentucky-based band NewTown. Solid vocal and instrumental work, combined with the songs of some great Southern writers, exemplify what this genre is all about on a collection of 11 wisely-chosen tunes.
Produced by Union Station bassist Barry Bales, Harlan Road features outstanding performances by NewTown vocalist/fiddler Kati Penn and her husband, vocalist/banjo player Jr. Williams, as well as guitarist Hayes Griffin, mandolinist Mitchell Cannon, and bass player Travis Anderson. In the tradition of the best Bluegrass records, this album is a real representation of the human condition, with excellent singing and playing that drive home the authenticity of the lyrics to some fine story songs.
From the pictures of tobacco fields and coal trains painted in the lonesome title track, to subjects like thoughts of mortality and death (“The Crows and the Jakes”), poverty (“Hard Times”), and failed relationships (“Can’t Let Go,” which was also recorded by Lucinda Williams), this is an album of songs for the masses. That isn’t to say that it’s as depressing as an old Delta Blues record. But it aims squarely at the struggles and hardships of Everyman, taken more from Ralph Stanley’s Appalachian playbook than Bill Monroe’s Western Kentucky one. Although Monroe’s influence sneaks in there from time to time too.
With the exception of guitarist Griffin’s instrumental “Feast of the Gryphon,” the album was written by outside writers, including four songs by Tyler Childers, who wrote the title track and the smokin’ waltz “The Heart You’ve Been Tending.” The standout cut here is the album’s final song, “Come Back to Me.” This heart-wrenching duet finds Jr. and Kati each taking a verse and harmonizing beautifully, with Jr. in particular killing his part. They could almost pass for Vince Gill and Patty Loveless, only maybe better. Written by Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters and Bluegrass bassist Jon Weisberger, this track belongs all over country radio.
Harlan Road is an album by one of the best lineups in Bluegrass, and it starts off strong and gets better with every listen. You can check this band out at www.thenewtownband.com.
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