Dale Ann Bradley,
Dale Ann Bradley
(Pinecastle, 2017)

The Grascals,
Before Breakfast
(Mountain Home, 2017)

From time to time, as I find myself immersed in gloomy rumination about the state of bluegrass, I am relieved by the arrival of a new release or two reminding me of the genre's continuing vitality. The two CDs up for review were not the only ones to do that for me over the course of a bluegrass-rich July, but they were a welcome part of it.

Dale Ann Bradley is revered for her distinctive vocal approach in a genre that not all that many years ago had no female stars. The only rap on her is the inconsistent quality of the material on her recordings, happily not a problem on her latest, eponymously titled disc, which boasts an abundance of sparkling songs. Two are downright spectacular. One, a duet with Vince Gill, is a heart-stopping reading of Carter Stanley's "I'll Just Go Away." (For naked romantic angst, Stanley was the Hank Williams of bluegrass.) The other, sung unaccompanied, is Charles Tindley's "Stand by Me" -- the hymn, not the secular revision associated with Ben E. King.

Bradley does a splendid job on another Carter Stanley heartbreaker, "Our Last Goodbye." If such songs are in any way autobiographical, Carter (d. 1966) must have had a pretty, um, dramatic love life. Speaking of drama, Lenny LeBlanc and Ava Aldridge's "Champagne Lady," its seemingly bland title aside, turns out to be an unusual murder ballad with a startling -- I might add, initially confusing -- twist or two. It's a commendable departure from Bradley's usual comfort zone. Still, one can't help noticing that the melody owes something to John Anderson's left-field 1992 country smash "Seminole Wind," a stirring environmental broadside against the destruction of Florida's Everglades. More than a little oddly, the new song, ostensibly set in the Louisiana bayous, even mentions the Everglades. Maybe that's meant as a wink.

Sometimes bluegrass artists can be depended upon to pull worthy mainstream country songs from oblivion. I had forgotten Crystal Gayle's 1975 hit "This is My Year for Mexico" (written by Vince Matthews), but Bradley shows it's worth reviving, a chilling if tuneful portrayal of a dead marriage. For some reason country music has always handled that story particularly well.

While I've always liked the Grascals, I never could entirely resist the feeling that theirs was not a fully mature bluegrass. It wasn't only their goofy name. It may also have been their exuberance, or my sense that they lacked a certain gravitas. Before Breakfast shows them, surprisingly to me, to be forthright champions of an unabashedly traditional sound, unafraid to tackle dark subjects and to do so with conviction. Contrary to what its title might lead you to anticipate, however, the album does not feature the old fiddle tune "Whiskey Before Breakfast."

It opens with Becky Buller and Grant Williams' "Sleepin' with the Reaper," an unsparing narrative of marital violence, and follows it with "Demons" (Bill Anderson, Jon Randall), about regret and grief. But nothing in any bluegrass song I know compares with "Lonesome" (Billy Smith, Terry Smith). Not that bluegrass has ever neglected the title emotion, of course. Here, though, the word is misleading. "Lonesome" is a stand-in for severe, alienating depression, the pernicious sadness unconnected with any specific circumstance in one's life. Anyone who has suffered it -- as I did from my teens till mid-20s -- will appreciate how perfectly this song evokes it. It accomplishes that as evocatively as the late Townes Van Zandt, depression's poet laureate, ever did. "Lonesome" is deep and true, and the Grascals' handling affirms what a first-rank, grown-up outfit they have become.

Of course, all is not pitch black. Weisberger/Chamberlain/Humphrey's "Delia" is a cheerful nod to oldtime Appalachian music; it is not the famous Georgia murder ballad. "Beer Tree" is a comic piece by Harley Allen and Robert Ellis Orrall, though if you know that Allen battled crippling alcoholism in his relatively short life you'll perhaps experience a certain unease. Still, on Before Breakfast the Grascals handle all -- honkytonk, gospel, novelties, story songs -- with feeling, grace and professionalism on what is surely their most satisfying CD to date.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 August 2017

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