On the Brink of a Dream
3.5 stars (out of 5)
With a lively banjo run—courtesy of Justin Moses—igniting the album from the start, On the Brink of a Dream is much more than a calling card from one of the industry’s most in-demand and creative minds.
Mark “Brink” Brinkman is known for having his name on every fourth bluegrass album released over the past several years; few songwriters have as consistently been recorded as Brinkman. This new album features songs fresh and familiar, with a smattering having previously appeared on releases by Lou Reid, Larry Sparks, Carrie Hassler, and Don Rigsby.
The obvious appeal will be the impressive quality of songs. However, as one becomes more comfortable with the absence of showboating picking and vocal histrionics, the depth of Brinkman’s performance readily becomes apparent.
Story songs abound, and a few numbers— including “Mama Loved the Redbirds” and “Tennessee Backroads”—are sparkling bluegrass showcases within a largely traditional style. “Good Eatin’ on the Farm” and “Carolina Dust” keep things moving, while “Grandpa’s Way of Life” fondly recalls a past that can’t come back.
Brinkman sings with a matter-of-frankness that is sometimes marginally reminiscent of James Reams, although Brink’s voice lacks the supple qualities and defined energy of the Barnstormers’ leader. At other times, and equally effectively, Brinkman’s voice barely escapes loping, soft-spoken testifying and sharing.
Within a compendium of such breadth, one isn’t surprised that the music is multi-faceted. A couple songs are decidedly non-bluegrass in appearance with piano as a featured instrument.
Songs of faith are plentiful. Hearing Dale Ann Bradley sing is always a treat, so her shared lead on “Littlest Guardian Angel” was anticipated. The song didn’t particularly do much for this listener; the song is a little too obvious and much too precious for my tastes as “One hand reaches down from heaven, while the other holds the hand of God.” More successful is “Beyond the Rain,” another song of faith on which Bradley harmonizes with Brinkman.
The album’s showstopper is “Lucius Gray.” From the opening lines, the listener’s imagination is on alert.
“Lucius Gray had seen a lot of trouble in his time,
He was the meanest man to ever work down in the mine.
If you valued your existence you’d stay out of his way,
If the devil had a human form it would be Lucius Gray.”
By the time the coal mine collapses and only two men are left—the storyteller and Gray—I thought I knew where the song was going: a battle between good and evil for the failing supply of oxygen.
When Lucius Gray instead prays for the singer’s survival, tears start flowing and the darkness blurs as the story unfolds before the listener. Seconds later, this writer was a wreck, bawling to a song not unlike the first time The Dixie Chicks’ rendition of “Traveling Soldier” was heard: “That was the day The Devil became a prayin’ man!” It is a devastating song of redemption, one carrying an emotional weight beyond that which is normally found on even the most impressive of bluegrass or country albums. “Lucius Gray” makes a case for religious belief like few men of God can.
The oldest song on the collection, “Bluestone Mountain,” is a mysterious ballad that combines the canyon wind blowing with lonesomeness through the pines with a missing mother and child. “With Love from Normandy” will get played on Memorial Day-themed radio programs, and rightly so; it is a simple song with international appeal, highlighted by Alan Bibey’s mandolin contributions and Bradley’s luxurious harmony.
The detail woven into Brinkman’s songs is most impressive, from the simple disintegrating elastic band holding together memories of service, affection, and legacy (“With Love from Normandy”), the “maze of black ribbon running through the ground” (“Bluestone Mountain”), and the cruelty of time and mental fragility within “She’s A Stranger in this Mind” (“The memories are gone, but his heart’s still keeping time.”) Another song of enduring love, “He Never Went Away” features a most effective and literate construction.
Working with a crackerjack crew including Jamey Booher (bass), Tim Stafford (guitar), and producer Steve Gulley, Brink has constructed a soulful collection of songs and performances that highlight not only his talents as a writer, but his skills as an arranger, collaborator, and singer.
by Donald Teplyske