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The Graham Album Review #2069

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Amanda Cook: Narrrowing the Gap
by George Graham

(Mountain Fever Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/12/2021)

Since the 1980s, when the New Acoustic scene arrived thanks to innovators like David Grisman, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, bluegrass has never been the same. At first, from some fans of traditional bluegrass, there was a degree of resistance to the eclecticism, jazz and world music influence that the New Acoustic scene brought to the instrumentation of bluegrass. Also, some artists who came to be known in the country music world adapted bluegrass influence in their own way, including Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs and more recently Sturgill Simpson. This week we have an album of pure, straight-out, joyful bluegrass music that is a reminder of how good the classic genre can sound when in the hands of some outstanding musicians. It’s the new release by Amanda Cook, called Narrowing the Gap.

Vocalist Amanda Cook came to bluegrass easily. A Florida native, from near Pensacola, Ms. Cook grew up listening to her father play bluegrass banjo, and in 2007, formed a band with him called High Cotton, performing with the group for several years. By 2013, Ms. Cook decided to set out on her own and recorded her first independent solo album called One Step Along the Road. Narrowing the Gap is her fourth release under her own name. She has become a regular on the touring and festival circuits, moving from Florida to Southwest Virginia to be closer to the more active bluegrass scenes. She writes that the move was somewhat difficult and made her homesick, but that turned out to the inspiration for some songs on her new album.

Her regular group includes an impressive banjo player Carolyne VanLierop-Boone, guitarist Aaron “Frosty” Foster, fiddler George Mason, Dobro player Jeff Partin and bassist Josh Faul. They are a tight unit with first-rate musicianship and are thoroughly tasteful in their playing. While there are two original songs co-written by Ms. Cooke, and three co-written by Ms. VanLierop-Boone, there are a number of songs from other composers, and interestingly, for such a classic-sounding bluegrass album, no traditional tunes or bluegrass standards.

Ms. Cook cites Alison Krauss as an influence, and one can here it in the degree of refinement in both the singing and playing. Like Ms. Krauss, Ms. Cook does not try to emulate the classic “high lonesome tenor” but has a more intimate approach, but while still exuding energy and charm. It’s far from the stereotype of “hillbilly” music some people associate with straight-out bluegrass. It’s the kind of often joyous bluegrass that can’t help but make you smile, even when the lyrics can be sad.

Opening is one of those songs that is the epitome of infectious, jubilant bluegrass, about a classic topic, a train. It’s called Get on Board by Darrell Hayes and Vida Wakeman. It’s one of those songs that Ms. Cook may have been inspired to do in the wake of her moving 900 miles from Florida home. <<>>

A similar subject is explored in Lonesome Leaving Train, an original co-written by Ms. Cook. It’s a text-book example of how to play classy bluegrass, even though the lyrics can turn dark toward the end. <<>>

Another original co-written by Ms. Cook and the band’s banjo player Carolyn VanLierop-Boone, is called My Used to Be Blue Ridge Mountain Home. The song is a kind of opposite of Ms. Cook’s experience. She has written that she moved into the Blue Ridge Mountains from and was homesick for her home in Florida, but in the song, she regrets leaving Virginia and laments what happened to her old home there. <<>>

Rather different in direction both musically and lyrically is a piece called Burning Down the Mountain, an interesting story song involving a bootlegger who died and his daughter apparently fulfilling his wish. <<>>

Ms. Cook’s influence by the style of Alison Krauss is highlighted on a track called Curtains another rather sad song about breakup. <<>>

West Virginia Coal is another song by the band’s banjo player Carolyn VanLierop-Boone and her husband Mark Boone. It’s classic bluegrass, about the life in coal mines and the decline of the mines. <<>>

Most bluegrass bands do Gospel songs as part of their repertoire. Ms Cook and her group do an original by banjoist VanLierop-Boone, called Light in This World, and they do it in classic style. <<>>

The album ends with the closest thing to a bluegrass standard Where Are You Darlin’ again served up by the band with perfection. <<>>

The New Acoustic scene has given us a lot of imaginative, eclectic genre-defying music made with bluegrass instrumentation. But it’s great to hear some classic-style bluegrass played as well and with as much of a combination of superb musicianship and straight-out joy as Amanda Cook and her band do on her new release Narrowing the Gap. Even when the lyrics are sad, it’s music that just raises your spirits with its warmth and charisma.

Our grade for sound quality is an unqualified “A.” The acoustic instruments are skillfully and very authentically captured, with a great mix and no unnecessary studio effects, making the album even more of a standout.

Durable styles stay around for a reason. Amanda Cook on her new album remind us why classic bluegrass is still relevant after several generations.

(c) Copyright 2021 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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