On what I believe is their tenth album, the bluegrass-singing brothers from rural New York state (Leigh and Eric) offer compelling tenor vocals with an edge and the kind of close harmonies only siblings can produce, fine songwriters with an ear for melody and the willingness to put the song at the center, and serve it sensitively with the right vocals and instrumentation for that particular song.
This album (their second for Compass Records) is produced by the brothers with their bass player Mike Barber. The excellent, and never overpowering, solid bluegrass backing comes mainly from the brothers’ band. Eric plays banjo and Leigh guitar, and the band is rounded out by Clayton Campbell’s fiddle (whose playing sings beautifully over the rhythmic instruments) and Joe Walsh’s mandolin, with Mike Witcher guesting on dobro on a couple of tracks. There is an interesting selection of material, just over half of it written by one or both of the brothers.
Leigh sings lead most frequently, but Eric sings lead on and wrote my favorite song, the wistful ‘Dixie’, asking Vegas era Elvis if he would go back to the innocent happiness of youth, “back before your hair was black, before they called you King”, and to the arms of his first sweetheart. It is immediately followed by the other song he wrote alone, the faintly Byrdsish ‘Frozen In Time’, which is less memorable musically, but has quite a quirky lyric about a quietly lonely man “living in the past”:
My clothes don’t fit the fashion of the day
That’s all right, nobody’s watching anyway
The vibrant title track, written by Leigh, is an idealistic declaration of changing one’s life to help others:
Call it compassion, call it charity
I call it living like living should be
Leigh duets with Claire Lynch on his own ‘Talk To Me’, a soothing song about a marriage in a little trouble due to lack of communication, but not beyond salvation, while Alison Brown takes over the banjo strings. My favorite of Leigh’s solo compositions is the closing track, the historical ‘Safe Passage’, about his ancestors, a Scots family who emigrate to Canada, whose son or grandson then fights in the American Civil War and settles on a farm in upstate New York. The story ends with the brothers themselves, having left the family farm for another kind of journey, for a life in music.
Leigh and Eric teamed up with Tim O’Brien to write the thoughtful and mature confessional of ‘Want vs Need’:
I want an encore, a standing ovation
A crowd that laughs at everything I say
I want a hit song that everybody’s singing
I just walk out to the mail to get my pay
But I just need my own song
One that I love singing
A simple song that takes me down the road
This reflection is inspired by a woman the protagonist has taken for granted, leaving, but overall the mood on this album is a fairly happy one. Even the extremely bleak lyric of ‘One Car Funeral’, which the pair wrote with Jon Weisberger about a man who has touched other’s lives so little he has no one to mourn his death, is married to a surprisingly cheery tune which keeps the mood upbeat. Perhaps this is the point: that this man has touched life so little that even the singer and musicians don’t care.
Alongside the new songs, there are several relatively obscure covers, my favorite of which is the O’Kanes’ country hit ‘Just Lovin’ You’ (#5 in 1987). There are also an enjoyable, slightly raucous take on Jim and Jesse’s ‘I’ll Love Nobody But You’, and a beautifully sung low key version of the religious song, ‘He Can Be Found’ (recorded by the Louvin Brothers on their classic Satan Is Real album).
Ricky Skaggs shares lead vocals and harmonies with the brothers on the new but very traditional sounding trio, ‘Working As We Rise’, which recalls the melody of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. I also really liked Chris Henry’s cheerful rambling song about ‘Walking West To Memphis’ to be reunited with a more sedate loved one, the kind who drinks lemonade rather than her lover’s choice of whiskey, but has a powerful enough attraction to drag him from his gambling ways, even if he has to walk all the way from Nashville.
This is a very good collection of material, sung and played beautifully, which grows with every listen.
Buy it at amazon.