Sounds Like Home
Lonesome Day Records
4 stars (out of 5)
The Road Headin’ Home
3.5 stars (out of 5)
The general impermanence of band line-ups in bluegrass is often frustrating for fans, and no doubt to the musicians themselves. But the byproduct is often the welcome launch of a new band or solo artist.
Or in Steve Gulley’s case, both.
Gulley, the lead vocalist on much of Mountain Heart’s material since 2000, left that popular unit recently to form Grasstowne with other prominent pickets Phil Leadbetter and Alan Bibey.
First, he finished up his first solo project, Sounds Like Home, a disc full of fine examples of Gulley’s versatile voice.
Even within traditional bluegrass arrangements, he can switch from fun and hard-edged (“Big Rock in the Road,” Reno & Smiley’s “Another Day”) to free and easy (“Little So & So” and the Flatt & Scruggs-styled “Cheater of the Year”).
Gulley is also at home with slighlty more modern bluegrass: the “B-chord slammer” of “Livin’ it Down,” the distinctly Kraussian “It Ain’t the Leaving” and “Mountain Heart,” which features all of Gulley’s old bandmates and serves as a perfect coda to the work of one of the better touring and recording lineups of the past decade.
We also get some well-chosen gospel material that’s clearly close to Gulley’s heart from his list of special guests. J.D. Crowe contributes a gentle but firm banjo foundation to “Prepare to Meet Thy God,” a Baptist hymn which also features Adam Steffey, Dale Ann Bradley and Jeff Parker joining Gulley in the quartet.
Gulley’s shares the lead vocal with friend Vic Graves on another Baptist hymn, the soft “No Not One,” and does a brother-style duet with Barry Abernathy on “All Alone.” “Nearer My God to Thee” gets a Louvin-like treatment from Gulley, his father Don and Doyle Lawson.
The disc’s two nicest treats are country tunes — a duet with wife Debbie on the Putman/Sherrill hit for George Jones and Tammy Wynette “My Elusive Dreams” and Gulley’s spine tingling take on the Possum’s “The Grand Tour”— that make one wish for a whole album of the same.
There’s a Jonesian cut on Grasstowne’s The Road Headin’ Home — “You’re Right, I’m Wrong,” penned by Gulley — but the project as a whole aspires to be the kind of band album popularized by the Lonesome River Band and copied by dozens of others.
For the most part, they succeed, hitting both the high notes and the pitfalls that such albums usually have.
Joining Gulley (guitar, lead & harmony vocals) are veterans Alan Bibey (mandolin, lead & harmony vocals) and Phil Leadbetter (resonator guitar, harmony vocals) and relative newcomers Jason Davis (banjo) and Lee Sawyer (bass). Stuart Duncan and Tim Crouch provide studio help on fiddle.
As you might expect from such a lineup, the picking is solid throughout, with Bibey’s hard-hitting fretwork and Leadbetter’s concise lines working above a solid foundation from the rest of the group.
Bibey and Gulley are fine combo of lead singers, but the album’s song selection sometimes inhibits inspried performances, both vocally and instrumentally.
“Black Lung Blues” is a standard-issue coal-minin’ and moonshinin’ song with an almost-interesting arrangement, but it never catches fire. Neither does “Love You Don’t Know” or “Bluest Case of the Blues,” which, I’m willing to bet, is a barn burner when these guys play it on stage.
Gulley sounds just fine on four mid-tempo numbers of varying quality — “Here Comes that Feeling Again” being the best — but there’s just not much he can do with them to make them sound different from the pack
He sounds great — just like Bobby Osborne, almost — on Felice & Boudleaux Bryant’s “Lizzie Lou.”
Bibey’s best vocal cut is “Devil’s Road,” one of those happy-melodied, bloody-lyricked tunes that are so tough to get just right.
The cut from this project that stays in one’s head is “Dixie Flyer,” which has everyone getting into the act on a full-speed-ahead train song with a nice harmonic twist on the chorus and blistering mando from Bibey.
A track like that proves that while their debut isn’t a great album, there’s no question Grasstowne is a great band.
by Aaron Keith Harris