Emmitt-Nershi Band,
New Country Blues
(Sci Fidelity, 2009)

When it arrived in the mail, I assumed naively that New Country Blues was a blues album, presumably of revised, updated rural blues. When I put it on and learned that the first cut (the title song) is straightforward bluegrass, I was modestly shocked. On the other hand, the habit of attaching "blues" to the titles of nonblues songs stretches back to the 1920s. The song turns out to be a decent one, akin to the sort of tune that charmed me when I first heard it on Flatt & Scruggs records.

The promotional material, on the other hand, informs me that the Colorado-based Emmitt-Nershi Band has roots in two "jam bands" -- the very phrase freezes my soul -- namely Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, which sound as if they could have been 1960s psychedelic groups. Indeed, it was within the very model of a psychedelic band, the Grateful Dead, that the concept of jamming outside a jazz context was imagined and practiced. Within the acoustic-music context, jam bands like the just-mentioned were young bluegrass outfits which through circumstances found themselves playing before (at best) bluegrass-indifferent rock audiences, and they tailored their performances accordingly. Well, God bless 'em, but I grew up on Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the Country Gentlemen. Not needing my bluegrass adulterated, I have paid practically no attention to the genre's jam variant.

Grumpy complaints now having been removed from chest area, I here affirm that this is an eminently listenable album as well as a modestly ambitious one. Drew Emmitt (mandolin, vocals) and Bill Nershi (guitar, vocals) cover just about any style that can still be called "bluegrass" in the new century. There are several nicely done traditional pieces (including the beguilingly backward-looking "Road of Destruction"), along with songs that echo 1970s California country-pop-rock ("These Days," "Wait Until Tomorrow"), some jam-oriented but restrained, pleasantly tuneful instrumentals and the occasional Latin touch ("Mango Tango," "Costa Rica").

Except for Steven Sandifer's snare drum, the instrumentation is pure bluegrass. Jason Carter of the Del McCoury Band, one of the finest young roots musicians on the scene, lends his fiddle to most cuts, the well-regarded Rob Ickes (Blue Highway) his dobro to two. Andy Thorn (banjo) and Tyler Grand (bass, guitar) fill out the sound. They provide something for any listener with an open ear.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 September 2009

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