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(KW Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/8/2012)
The contemporary jam band scene has long had an affinity for bluegrass. Going back to the days of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia played in a bluegrass band called Old and In the Way as a side project in the early 1970s, and over the years, groups like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Leftover Salmon and New Grass Revival have shown their jam band tendencies and have often played with and collaborated with some of jam bands in the scene that started in the 1990s, with such groups as Phish, The String Cheese Incident, and Umphrey's McGee.
This week we have a sort of jam band/bluegrass collaboration. It's with Keller Williams and the Travelin' McCourys, and their joint effort is called Pick.
Keller Williams has often been described as a one-band jam band. Though largely self-taught on guitar, he is a virtuosic player in the percussive style pioneered by people like Michael Hedges. But while Hedges' style fit well into the New Age genre, Keller Williams' approach is more along the lines of acoustic rock played on solo guitar. He's an appealing vocalist and a clever songwriter, sometimes creating humorous lyrics. His recording career goes back to the 1990s, and though he was in a couple of bands, he has largely worked solo. When performing live, he often uses electronic looping devices to allow him to layer his music and simulate a whole band.
Williams has collaborated with numerous musicians on his albums over the years, including with the String Cheese Incident, and an all-star collaboration called Dream in 2007.
In 2009, Williams did a mostly bluegrass album called Thief with the Keels a husband and wife bluegrass duo. After doing a children's album last year, Williams is again doing a bluegrass collaboration project, this time with the Travelin' McCourys who are the band supporting the bluegrass great Del McCoury, consisting of two of his sons, and two long-time band members. The Travelin' McCourys have been performing on their own when they are not backing up the senior McCoury. But here, it's Williams with the Travelin' McCourys, consisting of Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass. This quartet has also been branching out musically and have begun to have a following of their own on the jam band circuit. But Pick features Williams and the Travelin' McCourys together, doing mainly originals by Williams, along with a couple of covers. As was apparent on the Thief album with the Keels, Williams has an easy affinity to the energetic acoustic music that bluegrass represents. Pick features a larger bluegrass band than the one with the Keels, and Williams lets them move to the forefront at times, with some of the band members replacing Williams on lead vocals for a couple of tunes.
Leading off is a track called Something Else, a kind of love-song in Keller Williams' typical style, but the added bluegrass band gives it extra energy. It's a good example of the musical synergy on the album. <<>>
More laid back, but with the bluegrass side predominating, is a track called American Car another variation on the love song. <<>>
One of the Travelin' McCourys does the lead vocal on a piece called Messed Up Just Right. Its lyrics are rather urban in setting, while the music evokes the country. <<>>
One of the covers on the album is The Graveyard Shift a well-performed bluegrass tune in blues form. <<>>
The closest thing to a jam on the album is an original tune called I Am Elvis which, once it gets under way, features clever lyrics by Williams about daydreaming. <<>>
What sounds like an old bluegrass novelty song called What a Waste of Good Corn Liquor again features the Travelin' McCourys doing the vocals. It's nicely done in a straight bluegrass style. <<>>
Another of the novelty songs on the album is called Sexual Harassment which examines contemporary mores in an irreverent manner. <<>>
The CD ends with a track called Bumper Sticker that combines Williams' lyric style with a more straight bluegrass arrangement. <<>> Del McCoury, whose band this is, makes a guest appearance on a clever tribute to bluegrass music. <<>>
Keller Williams' new 18th album, a collaboration with the Travelin' McCourys, called Pick -- Willams has a tradition of giving all this CDs a one-word title -- is a nice combination of the so-called one-man jam band and sometimes whimsical lyricist with members of a straight-out bluegrass group. Needless to say, the musicianship is first-rate throughout. It's also a nice mix of music from the respective styles of the performers involved, going from the kind of acoustic rock tunes that Williams is known for, to some mainstream bluegrass, though with occasional novelty lyrics. Williams is always an appealing vocalist, but this time he shares the lead vocal spotlight with members of the band at times -- and they are no slouches when it comes to singing bluegrass.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The CD was done in Nashville, but it does not sound like a typical Nashville production. The sonic clarity on the acoustic instruments is good, and the vocals are well-captured. But the dynamic range, how well the recording preserves the differences between loud and soft, is mediocre.
This is not Keller Williams' first album to intersect with bluegrass. Each time he does, the results are quite admirable. The new CD Pick makes for great listening.
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