The follow-up to 2014 debut Lost & Undone: A Gospel Bluegrass Companion finds the Canadian octet leaving the gospel repertoire on the bench and focusing instead on “the cheating and hurting” side of things. Although the band, whose line-up includes upright bass, fiddle, mandolin and banjo, are firmly entrenched in the bluegrass sound, the material isn’t necessarily so. Case in point being the album opener, a bluegrass arrangement of American traditional folk chestnut ‘Silver Dagger’ (rather inexplicably credited here to Dolly Parton) that sees Shari Ulrich taking lead.
A collection of covers, it’s not the only “golden oldie” among the thirteen tracks, although some will be better known than others. Perhaps the most familiar of the more relatively contemporary numbers will be album closer, Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’, here given a gently jogging string band arrangement with Ulrich again on vocals. Another classic sees special guest, Canadian guitar icon Colin James taking vocal lead on an Appalachian waltzing treatment of Utah Phillips’ oft-covered ‘Rock Salt And Nails’.
Talking of country legends, Hank Williams is up there at the very top, though, sung by Ulrich and featuring some lovely acoustic guitar work, ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’ is one his more obscure songs, long lost and set to music by Norah Jones back in 2011, though the Gang’s arrangement has a slightly faster waltz tempo.
Another celebrated name here is Steve Earle whose ‘Long Lonesome Highway Blues’ is given a frisky banjo and fiddle driven bluesy bluegrass reading with Barney Bentall handling vocal duties, while, digging somewhat further into the past blue grass legend Bill Monroe is acknowledged with a midtempo gypsy fiddle flavoured version of ‘One I Love Is Gone’ with Wendy Bird on lead and Ulrich providing harmonies.
Two other bluegrass heroes are, of course, Flatt and Scruggs and (unless you’re a bluegrass or Emmylou devotee) while ‘Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky’ may not ring too many bells as a title, the melody will be very familiar, variations of the song have also gone by such titles as ‘Can’t You Hear That Night Bird Crying’ and’ At My Window Sad and Lonely’ (as adapted by Woody Guthrie), though the song, while credited to Flatt and Scruggs here, is of somewhat uncertain origin and certainly dates back to at least the 1930s. Whatever, variously featuring Ulrich, Bird and Kirby Barber on all female vocals, this is a solid contribution to the list.
Another country hero, Roy Acuff , features on the roll of honour with ‘Branded Wherever I Go’, a classic example of the lover in jail old school tradition sung by banjo and mandolin player Dave Barber with Ulrich on harmonies.
Still going strong at 74, bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan provides two songs, first up being choppy blues ‘Jailer Jailer’, subsequently followed by the moody, mandolin-featured version of his 2007 arrangement of the traditional murder ballad ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ with a lonesome vocal by Bentall.
The remaining writers will be less known. Joe Allison was a Texas-born American Hall of Fame songwriter and producer who signed Willie Nelson to his first contract and wrote Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’. Sung by Barber, ‘Twenty Twenty Vision’ (first recorded by Gene Autrey and, later, Dylan) isn’t in the same league, but is still a foot-tapping honky tonk waltzer with Ulrich on fiddle,while, resurrected by Elvis Costello and Ralph Stanley back in 2014, highlighting banjo and fiddle, ‘Red Wicked Wine’ is an old song by John Preston about booze and prison, rather ironic since he was sent down in 1961 for conspiracy to rob a bank.
Wine (and beer) also plays a central part on the final cut, a fiddle swayer headed up by Bird and again showcasing the bands’ three part harmonies, is ‘She’s More To Be Pitied’, a number by Ruby Raker about a woman brought low by the honky tonk life, made famous by the Stanley Brothers.
Superb harmonies, great playing and a canny choice of songs, ensure this is going to figure in the year’s bluegrass best of lists and should do much to spread the band’s reputation far beyond their home shores; however, for the next time, it would be good to see if they might dip a toe in the songwriting waters themselves.
Artists’ website: http://highbargang.com/
‘Don’t This Road Look Rough And Rocky’ – official video: