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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/25/2014)
Over the past decade or so, the state of the art of bluegrass has moved ahead quite a bit. Thanks to groups like Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek and Crooked Still, a younger generation have been taking their cues as much from singer-songwriters as from traditional bluegrass. These bands go for not only a high level of musicianship, but a more subtle sound, with the compositions being more the focus than the hot picking. And the texture of the music has changed significantly in many cases toward the more contemplative or ballady, often with female lead vocals in the spotlight.
This week we have a very nice new recording by a band that personifies that trend. They call themselves Red June, and their new CD is titled Ancient Dreams.
Red June are a trio from Asheville, North Carolina consisting of fiddler and vocalist Natalya Weinstein, guitarist and mandolin player John Cloyd Miller, and guitarist and Dobro player Will Straughan. The members began collaborating in 2005 and formed the group in 2008. They released their debut CD in 2010. Ancient Dreams is their third album. The trio are joined acoustic bassist Tim Surrett throughout. They are all fine instrumentalists, but one of their particular strengths is vocal harmonies. All three have a light airy vocal style, and their combination is particularly impressive.
The material on Ancient Dreams is all original with John Cloyd Miller and Will Straughan writing about equal numbers of the songs. Ms. Weinstein wrote one of the two instrumentals. And like others doing this style, their songs are more folky than bluegrass, with more thoughtful songs, many about love, but there is one old-fashioned "homesick for the South" lyric that is pure bluegrass. And despite the two well-done instrumentals, this is not a band that specializes in fancy picking. Their playing is very tasteful and like the album in general, rather understated.
Leading off is the title track Ancient Dreams, written by Will Straughan, and which shows Red June's folk influence. Right from the start, their impressive vocal harmonies are highlighted. <<>>
With a more melancholy sound is Saddle Up, My Son, by John Cloyd Miller, about a relationship between father and son. It's another good piece of writing performed with a lot of class by the group. <<>>
Also by Miller is I Saw You in August. The lyrics take a more philosophical direction. <<>>
I Still Wait has a bit more of a bluegrass sound, though the composition is also in the folky vein. It's a nice love song. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is Gabriel's Storm which the band points out has some Celtic influence with some fiddle playing in the old-timey Appalachian style. Ms. Weinstein's impressive fiddle work is the focus of the track. <<>>
The opposite of the instrumentals is an a cappella piece called I Am Free. Though it's an original tune by Miller and Ms. Weinstein, it certainly evokes old time Gospel in its sound, though there are probably few old Gospel groups with vocal harmonies as pretty and as subtle as Red June do on this striking track. <<>>
A bluegrass album would not be complete without a song about the old home place. Red June's entry is called Where We Started, and they do a most respectable job.
Another highlight of the album is a piece called Never Been to Heaven on which Red June's vocal harmonies are on full display. <<>>
The CD ends with the other instrumental, called 31, written by fiddler Weinstein, which she describes as her "nineties new acoustic" tune. <<>>
The North Carolina trio Red June, on their third CD Ancient Dreams establishes themselves as another of the new generation of acoustic groups who employ the instrumentation of bluegrass but perform music that is more in the direction of sophisticated singer-songwriters. In a way, this is a continuation of the eclectic new acoustic movement that started in the 1990s with a then-young generation of artists who took bluegrass instrumentation in new directions. Although there is probably nothing on this album that would raise the ire of fans of traditional bluegrass, the music here represents something a couple of generations removed from the classic sounds. Their original material is more subtle and lyrically wider-ranging, while the group's excellent vocal harmonies should please just about everyone.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B plus. The acoustic instrumentation is well-recorded and the mix has everything in the right place. But the recording was over-compressed in the mastering, in an apparent attempt to play in the CD loudness wars. That, of course, undermined the music's dynamics and also detracted from the vocal quality.
Red June's Ancient Dreams is a fine record from an impressive group that continues to take bluegrass-inspired music into the 21st Century.
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