Celebrating 25 years as a bluegrass powerhouse, the Lonesome River Band continues mining the vein that has most recently provided a bounty of rewards.
No surprise, Sammy Shelor’s driving and rhythmic banjo fuels the quintet. If ever a bluegrass band saw the 5-string as essential to their sound, it is LRB. While some modern groups emphasize the flathead on only select tunes or as a featured break, LRB positions the 5 out front and loud. Not a bad thing, in any case.
To be forthright, I have a small bias against LRB. Nothing personal; in fact, it’s more personnel. With the seemingly constant band shuffling that has gone on within the band over the past many years, I’ve had a hard time attaching myself to the group. It is difficult to invest oneself in a band when a program is required to tell the players.
Add to this, I find their repertoire a bit generic. Too many of their songs contain obvious lyrical clichés that detract from the performance, with few songs distinguishing themselves from the pack. I’ve said it before…I’ve seen the band live on a few occasions, and aside Sammy’s ever present smile and the lack of tucked-in shirts, I can’t vividly recall one moment of their sets.
Setting aside these factors, No Turning Back is an enjoyable bluegrass album. There are no less than three standout tracks on the album, no small feat. And a handful of songs warrant repeated plays.
The album kicks off with an impressive single, “Them Blues,” a song recorded by the original lineup of LRB many years ago. The song has lost none of its intensity over the quarter century, and proves that sometimes you can go back to move forward.
A personal favorite is “Wires and Wood,” a love song to an instrument. It is the most heartening song on the disc, a fact which reflects the downside of the disc’s more deliberately poignant songs. This one hit me where it was supposed to, and with a lyric after my own soul- “Blue Moon of Kentucky, So Lonesome I Could Cry/ Sure did keep me company, the night old Clayton died”- the song is a true keeper.
“I’d Worship You,” a King-era Stanley tune is provided a bone fide treatment. The band tears this one up, and Andy Ball captures the longing and apparent hopelessness of the lyric. And Shelor’s break, as well as Mike Hartgrove’s fiddling, on this one sounds real nice.
I believe “Molly” is a recent Larry Cordle and Connie Leigh song that appears to have legs; it sounds familiar yet fresh, certainly a winning combination. “Darkness Wept” features beautiful, delicate guitar, especially on the intro, from Brandon Rickman.
The album’s lone instrumental appears late in the set, and is most impressive. One expects such with a lineup that includes Shelor, Mike Anglin (bass), and Hartgrove, but less widely known are the talents of Rickman and Ball (mandolin). A listen to “Struttin’ to Ferrum” further demonstrates the group’s abilities, and the tune itself is engaging, with tempo changes and solo breaks keeping the listener engrossed.
However, the album is knocked down a couple notches by some vanilla songwriting. “Dime Store Rings” is a song in the mold of “John and Mary.” Yawn. The lyrics and plot are standard issue: a couple leaves town, finds their fate, raises their family, and lives a long and bountiful life. Nothing surprises, nothing challenges. As in “John and Mary”, I don’t feel I know these people any better by verse three than I did in verse one. And, given that I predicted the coda of the song- a repeat of the song’s opening lines- prior to the start of the final verse, I have to admit I’m disappointed by the obviousness of it all.
The track that precedes “Dime Store Ring,” “Like a Train Needs a Track”…Really, do we need another trite bluegrass song built around a train simile? Really? Do we? And the simile and imagery are truly lacking here. Any guesses as to what the protagonist needs ‘like a train needs a track’? Guess. That’s right…You. Ahhh, shucks. Cookie cutter doesn’t half describe it.
These significant blemishes aside, No Turning Back has been warmly received by fans of the band. That it doesn’t quite reach the level of their previous recording The Road With No End is of little importance. Balancing all the elements, No Turning Back is stronger and more interesting that the majority of bluegrass albums currently being released.
I just wish it had a bit more staying power. Time will tell.
by Donald Teplyske