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Luke Bulla: Who Loves You Better
by George Graham
(Pure Music Nashville As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/24/2016)
Progressive bluegrass, as it is sometimes called, has been evolving into the realm of singer-songwriters. Groups like Alison Krauss & Union Station and Nickel Creek inspired a cohort of bluegrass pickers to create music beyond traditional bluegrass tunes, and use the instrumental setting of bluegrass to replace the usual strumming guitars of the folkies. Recently we have featured albums by Sarah Jarosz and Sierra Hull that are in that mode, This week we have another worthy example. It’s the new release by fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist Luke Bulla, called Who Loves You Better.
Luke Bulla has been playing bluegrass for pretty much his whole life. He grew up in a musical family and was on stage singing with his family’s band from age four. He took up the fiddle at seven and by this teens he winning competitions, winning seven times in his age categories. And then at age 16, he was the youngest person to win in Nashville’s Grand Champion division. In 1999 he moved to that city and began working with well-known artists, including being a member Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, and collaborating with artists including John Cowan and Allison Krauss. For the last several years, he has been a key member of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. Who Loves You Better is Luke Bulla’s second solo album. On it he is joined by numerous notable guests, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Noam Pikelny and John Cowan, and there are guest vocals by Ms. Jarosz, Maura O’Connell, and Sharon and Cheryl White.
Luke Bulla wrote a few of the songs on the album, but like many a Nashville project, the album’s songs are from a variety of composers, including the late Guy Clark, Buddy Miller, and there’s even an old Tin Pan Alley standard by Cole Porter that Bulla and company dissect and reassemble. And on the original tunes, Bulla collaborated in the composing with others including Guy Clark. The result is a satisfying album of intelligent acoustically-instrumented songs with a Nashville tinge. Bulla is an appealing vocalist who would do well singing country music.
The CD opens with the tune that Bulla wrote with Guy Clark, Temperance Reel, which sounds like a traditional piece, with its lyrics revolving around a traditional fiddle tune, and not coincidentally, it shows off Bulla’s fiddling. <>>
This is followed by another song co-written by Guy Clark, with the other co-writer being Rodney Crowell. It’s a nicely done country-style song performed in a bluegrass setting. The supporting vocalists are Sharon and Cheryl White. <<>>
From a bluegrass standpoint, one of the highlights of the album is Midnight and Lonesome written by Buddy and Julie Miller. It’s a kind of cry-in-your-beer sad song with a melody that sounds like an old Gospel tune. John Cowan of Newgrass Revival is the harmony vocalist. <<>>
Another piece whose lyrical and musical mood are seemingly at odds is You’re the Love featuring Irish singer Maura O’Connell on the backing vocals. It’s a straight-out love song in its words, but the musical setting, including the cellos, has a distinctly melancholy quality. It’s another fine performance. <<>>
The album contains one traditional tune, Gone Away with a Friend, a Gospel song, nicely performed with Bulla’s fiddle and a bowed cello giving it an interesting texture. <<>>
More toward mainstream bluegrass in sound is a song called Somebody Gonna Pay done with Sarah Jarosz on the harmony vocals. <<>>
Bulla includes a Tin Pan Alley standard, It’s All Right with Me, by Cole Porter. After a somewhat contemplative direction at the start... <<>> it breaks out in a swinging instrumental section. <<>>
Bulla includes a song by Lyle Lovett, in whose band Bulla has played for a number of years, the title track, Who Loves You Better. It’s done as a sad country song, complete with steel guitar. It also features Sarah Jarosz on the backing vocals. <<>>
Fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist Luke Bulla’s new second album, Who Loves You Better is a high quality bluegrass singer-songwriter style album with excellent musicianship, and some notable Nashville-based guests including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush John Cowan, and Sarah Jarosz. And though there are three original songs by Bulla, most of the material comes from other Nashville-based songwriters, whose compositions are literate and tunefully appealing. One thing that is missing from the album is flashy fiddle work by Bulla, who was known for being a hotshot fiddler prodigy in his youth. And most of the songs are understated to the point of sounding melancholy at times.
Our grade for sound quality is a B+. The recording is generally clean and warm, but suffers from the endemic over-compression, that afflicts so much of the music business, cranking up the volume so that’s loud all the time, and taking away the dynamics of the performance.
The bluegrass scene has evolved to the point where there is a kind of merging with the singer-songwriter style. Luke Bulla’s Who Loves You Better is a worthwhile example.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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