I like a little bluegrass mixed in with the straight country in my musical diet, and I was pleased to hear that Pam Gadd was releasing another album. I first came across Pam back in 1990, when she was the more prominent of the two lead singers of Wild Rose, a bluegrass-infused all-female country band who released three albums on Universal and Capitol Records, and received a Grammy instrumental nomination. She is not as productive as some artists, having recorded just two previous solo efforts, the excellent The Road Home on Vanguard in 1997, and the not-quite-as-good The Time Of Our Lives in 2001. Musically, Pam falls in the hinterland where acoustic country overlaps with bluegrass. Her voice is strong and distinctive with characterful inflections.
Although there are no instrumental tracks, there is some excellent acoustic playing throughout, which complements the material rather than overwhelming it. Pam herself plays banjo, joined by former Wild Rose bandmate Wanda Vick on dobro, Vick’s husband Mark Burchfield on bass (except on ‘Farewell Wagon Master’), Bryan Sutton on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and Aubrey Haynie on mandolin.
The tone for the album is set with the opening track, a lively and beautifully played cover of bluegrass great Jimmy Martin’s ‘Hold Whatcha Got’, a song which will be more familiar to country fans as the song which lent the title to Ricky Skaggs’s late 80s album Comin’ Home To Stay.
Pam refers back to previous aspects of her career in a number of ways on Benefit Of Doubt. The harmony singers include Dale Ann Bradley, with whom Pam worked in the New Coon Creek Girls, another all-female group, but this time a straight bluegrass one. Wild Rose’s drummer Nancy Given Gardner, also sings harmony co-produces the album with Pam, although she only plays tambourine on one track (‘Applejack’), as there is no room for drums on the record. Two of the songs Wild Rose recorded are given a new lease of life, namely ‘Home Sweet Highway’, which was one of the group’s better songs, and ‘Hit The Highway’. I’m not a big fan of repeating songs previously recorded by the same artist, but reviving two songs after 20 years, on an album with 14 tracks is not unacceptable. Another song, ‘Wrong Wrong Wrong’, was apparently recorded by the group but never released; it’s a catchy, medium-up-tempo number with a funky feel, which would have suited the Wild Rose vibe.
More recently, after a period singing harmonies for Patty Loveless’s touring band, Pam worked with Porter Wagoner (as musician and duet partner) in the years immediately before his death in 2007. One of the most affecting tracks here is her affectionate tribute to Wagoner, ‘Farewell Wagon Master’, which uses some of the titles of songs associated with him in the lyric. Steve Wariner contributes bass to this track.
There are two duets with famous partners on the album, but neither quite lived up to my expectations. Dolly Parton joins Pam on Dolly’s song ‘Applejack’. I must admit that this is not one of my favorite Dolly Parton songs, because both in the original recording and in this version, Dolly gives full rein to the playful side of her persona in the spoken sections, to the point of slightly irritating “cutesiness”. However, the sung parts are great, and one can certainly see why a banjo player would be drawn to this particular song, and Pam plays an old-fashioned clawhammer banjo which is very well suited to the song.
It is always good to hear the smoky voice of Marty Raybon, former lead simger of Shenandoah, and he duets with Pam on the classic ‘After The Fire Is Gone’. I would have preferred them to have chosen a less-familiar song where they might have brought something new. This cut is plaintively sung and beautifully played, but seems to be lacking something in comparison to Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Marty also contributes harmony vocals (and gets a credit as “shouting ignoramous”) on another cover, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s bluegrass novelty ode to a ‘Tennessee Hound Dog”, which Pam heard from the Osborne Brothers.
Pam offers another canine tribute in ‘Black Water Rock’ (co-written with Jim Rushing), about her father’s champion coon-hunting dog. Pictures of the dog and his trophies are included in the liner booklet. The loss of a beloved canine companion is one of the most poignant aspects of ‘Until She Makes It Home’, one of the best of Pam’s own songs. This softly-delivered song about outliving all one’s loved ones (inspired by an elderly friend) includes the lines, “a faded dusty blanket Waits by a ball and bone, And now a picture is her best friend”, which underlines the sense of solitude experienced by the song’s subject, with even her pets gone.
Pam is a more than competent songwriter, who has written more than half the tracks on the album. The best is the outstanding ‘The Only Thing Left Between Us’, a delicately rendered song about a lost love the protagonist still cannot get over. Also excellent is the title track, as the protagonist gives up on an untrustworthy lover, because “a heart can stand only so many footprints”. I also liked the tender ‘Just Love Me’, about having found love unexpectedly.
The songs are not quite as strong as those on Pam’s first solo album, The Long Road, but it is still a very good set, and a joy to listen to from start to finish. I also have to praise the liner booklet, which may be a dying art in the digital age; this is exemplary, providing full and detailed credits of songwriters and musicans on each track, lyrics, some added notes about the song or the recording session, and relevant photographs.