The knockout vocals of Charly Lowry make Dark Water Rising’s soulful roots tunes worthy of attention; the tasteful arrangements and alluring harmonies increase the allure. Banjoist Hank Smith and fiddler Lindsey Tims teamed last October to release Impulse, a masterful collection of classical-Americana crossover and progressive bluegrass instrumentals. Georgia trio Crying Wolf mark modern folk with punchy flatpicking and pretty co-ed harmonies. Raleigh’s Chris Hendricks adds pop rock.
Dwight Yoakam recalibrated his career with 2012’s 3 Pears, returning to his former home of Warner and reconnecting to the nerviness of his first albums. With Second Hand Heart, Yoakam continues this unfussy revival, sharpening his attack so the record breezes by at a crisp, crackling clip. Once again, he’s reviving himself through reconnecting the past but what gives Second Hand Heart life is specificity, both in its songs and sound. The former is what makes the greatest initial impression, as it seems as if he’s synthesized all the big Capitol Records acts of 1966 into one bright, ringing sound. To be sure, there’s a fair amount of Bakersfield here, especially apparent on the loping drawl of “Off Your Mind” and the crackerjack rockabilly of “The Big Time,” but the Beatles loom even larger than Buck Owens, surfacing in the chiming 12-strings of “Believe” and harmonies of “She” and evident in the general spirit of adventure that fuels Second Hand Heart. Some of Dwight’s tricks are familiar — the jet propulsion of “Man of Constant Sorrow” borrows a page from the glory days of cowpunk — but his execution is precise and he never lets the record settle in one groove for too long, not even when he tears through “Sorrow,” “Liar,” and “The Big Time” at a breakneck pace. Such sequencing gives Second Hand Heart momentum but what lasts are the songs, a collection of ten tunes — all originals save the standard “Sorrow” and the sweet denouement “V’s of Birds” — that are sturdy yet sly, their hooks sinking into the subconscious without ever drawing attention to themselves. All this means is that Second Hand Heart is prime Dwight Yoakam: traditional yet modern, flashy yet modest, a record that feels fresh but also like a forgotten classic.
Who cares that geezer rocker Steven Tyler is making a country record? We’ve got real reason to celebrate: Ronnie Bowman made a new bluegrass record!
Bowman, who has spent most of his time in country music since leaving the Lonesome River Band in 2001, has teamed up with two other LRB alums, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby, to record and perform as the Band of Ruhks. Their self-titled 13-song CD on the 101 Ranch Label, officially released today, is a stunner.
Make no mistake, this is not a Lonesome River Band reunion with someone else filling Sammy Shelor’s banjo role. For one thing, that band – and Sammy – are still going strong. This is a fresh, new approach that will have people talking all summer long, perhaps right up until the IBMA awards show this fall.
Bowman has writing credits on six of the 13 songs here, and his voice is as strong as ever. But this isn’t merely Ronnie Bowman and friends. Smith and Rigsby aren’t just along for the ride. They’ll full partners, adding sublime vocals and instrumental punch – Kenny on guitar and Don on mandolin, mandola, octave mandolin and viola. A number of all-star pickers join in, including Chris Brown on drums and percussion on 10 of the tracks.
Don’t let the drums scare you. This is Exhibit A in how to use percussion in a bluegrass setting. Brown is expressive and tasteful and doesn’t get in the way of the amazing interplay between Smith’s guitar, Rigsby’s mandolin and guests on fiddle and banjo.
Brown’s subtle rhythm is evident from the starting notes of the album’s opener, All the Way, a straightforward tale of surprise romance. It’s vintage Bowman, an uncomplicated story compellingly told.
Also in that mold is All We Need, a simple love song beefed up with some sweet orchestral string work.
Much of the project’s pre-release attention came from Coal Minin’ Man, with Ralph Stanley’s a cappella introduction. It’s a fine song, and it’s always fun to hear Dr. Ralph. But there are other songs here that deserve attention.
One of them is Here Comes Your Broken Heart Again, written by Barry Bales and Shawn Lane. This is one of those quintessential bluegrass songs in which the fast-paced picking belies the broken-hearted blues of the lyrics. Expressive banjo picking from Scott Vestal adds some tension. This one is bound to be a radio favorite.
Another gem is Can’t Get Over You. This song is decidedly country, and it might be a moneymaker for local police departments. The combination of hard-driving melody, fueled by Stuart Duncan’s fiddling and Jimmy Stewart’s resonator guitar work makes it easy to lose track of the speed limit, especially with the windows down and the volume cranked up. (I didn’t get caught!)
But the real emotional powerhouse in this collection is a Harley Allen gem, Rendezvous With Danger. It tells the tale of hard-drinking Bobby and hard-working Tommy driving down the road toward each other one night. With Tommy just three miles from home, the listener knows with gut-clenching certainty how this story will end. Except there’s a twist. The song ends before the story does!
And if we live or if we die
Is up to me and you
How this song ends
Is up to us my friends.
If you like the record, you’ll be pleased to know that the Band of Ruhks is lining up tour dates and getting ready to take the show on the road.
If you don’t like this record, I guess there’s always Steven Tyler.