A review for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Henry Koretzky
The recent commercial success of singer/fiddler Alison Krauss in the mainstream country music market has led to general speculation about which other bluegrass acts have the wherewithal to achieve a similar crossover. Based on the latest evidence from their new recording, UNLEASHED, the Nashville Bluegrass Band appears to be the front runner to take their tight mix of traditional music and contemporary energy to a whole new audience.
The NBB has already released several fine recordings with their current line-up, and have gained new exposure via frequent television appearances, as well as a tour as opening act for Lyle Lovett. But UNLEASHED is probably their most diverse recording to date. Most of the familiar elements that have built the group such a loyal following remain, such as the powerful vocal 1-2 punch of Pat Enright and Alan O'Bryant, and the sweet yet driving fiddling of perennial IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) award winner Stuart Duncan. Roland White's tasteful mandolin playing and his understated singing still show the influence of his stints with bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Clarence White, while Gene Libbea's enthusiastic bass work continues to propel one of the finest rhythm sections in bluegrass.
UNLEASHED has even more to offer, however. The Nashville Bluegrass Band has always been able to choose and arrange an excellent range of songs, but they've outdone themselves with this selection. Hot new talent Gillian Welch contributes two recent songs that sound like they've been aged and seasoned for decades, "One More Dollar" and "Tear My Stillhouse Down." The late Dave Allen, a DC area songwriter whose compositions have been continuously championed by this group, is represented here by two more gems, the playfully arranged "I Got a Date" and "Almost," the latter a collaboration with Harry Stinson.
O'Bryant also delivers especially poignant lead vocals on a pair of ballads--the wistful, weary "Last Time on the Road," and the gently bitter "You Wouldn't Know Love." Yet for all the smoothness of their singing and arranging, they can still tear into a traditional tune like "Boll Weevil" or the O'Bryant/Duncan instrumental "Dog Remembers Bacon" with a soulful energy that eludes many contemporary bluegrass ensembles.
UNLEASHED concludes with a wonderful collaboration. NBB invites the black a cappella gospel group, the Fairfield Four, to accompany them on a pulsating rendition of "Last Month of the Year." Hearing these ten voices (yes, the Fairfield Four is a quintet) meld together into a single unit is a riveting example of how the Nashville Bluegrass Band can skillfully immerse itself in some of the richest traditions of American music, while still making the results appealing to the modern listener.
Fans of acoustic music can discover what bluegrass aficionados have known all along--the Nashville Bluegrass Band is one of the best groups out there today. Check out UNLEASHED soon to hear why--before the rest of the world discovers them, too!
Available from Sugar Hill Records, Inc., P O Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300.