4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
It has been a year since I first wrote about Bearfoot’s fifth album, American Story. At the time, I felt quite strongly about the album. Rare is the album that contains no filler, but that was the case here: a testament to determination and musical integrity, American Story was just the latest chapter to be written by one of the most interesting outfits working the bluegrass and Americana circuits.
By now, I’ve been following Bearfoot for more than a decade. I first saw them in Tacoma as a talented group of energetic teenage Alaskans bringing more exuberance than vision to their music. I was undoubtedly unjustly harsh in some of my early writing about the band. As I listened to 2003′s Back Home this past week, and while I stand by my general thoughts of that album—that the kids were trying a bit too hard—the album provides a fine blueprint of where the band would go.
Over the course of life experiences and a few albums, the group developed. The smiling, sweet teens matured into exceptional players and vocalists. The music became more complex, comfortably acoustiblue rather than straightforward bluegrass. As the band changed, their producers supported them and their sound progressed. By the time 2009′s Doors and Windows was unleashed, the metamorphosis was complete. Still the band’s pinnacle recording in my opinion, on it Odessa Jorgenson and, to a lesser extent, Angela Oudean proved themselves to be stunningly impassioned vocalists. The results were spectacular.
Still, that lineup didn’t last. By now Bearfoot mainstays Jason Norris and Oudean are well-used to the tribulations and vagrancies of the professional bluegrass world. Founders of the troupe, the pair have seen vocalists and musicians arrive and depart. Yet, Bearfoot’s sound remained individual and identifiable, freshened by new insights and influences focused about an acoutiblue attitude that is modern and challenging. With the addition of Nora Jane Struthers, in 2011 the affable quintet produced another most fully realised release.
With a Natalie Maines twist in her annunciation along with Patty Loveless matter-of-fact vocal honesty, Struthers brought Bearfoot to yet another level artistically, no small feat considering Jorgensen did something similar on Doors & Windows. From the opening lines of her original “Tell Me A Story,” Struthers revealed a sultriness that mergered beautifully with the group’s artful blending of bluegrass’s roots and branches.
Struthers and Oudean share the leads on the flirty “Come Get Your Lonesome” from the pen of another relatively recent addition Todd Grebe, who also contributed the excellent “Mr. Moonshine” and “Midnight in Montana.” The album’s centerpiece number is the lusty, band-written “When You’re Away.”
Utilizing the acoustic instrumentation frequently associated with bluegrass excepting banjo—the five-string makes only a couple appearances—on American Story Bearfoot worked around the edges of the music to create an atmosphere is charged with excitement.
While it appears that the bluegrass business has absorbed some of the “business” trappings of other musics—the hype machine, the weekly airplay charts, the constant updates on the Facebook and the Twitter—bluegrass remains a place where folks can discover and become enthusiastic about an album many months after its release. While things move faster than they used to, it is still a place where we appreciate something long-after it was ‘new.’
American Story is one such album. If you missed it the first time around, give it a listen now.
O, by the way. The Bearfoot merry-go-round continues with Struthers recent decision to focus once again on her own projects. Bassist P.J. George departs with her, leaving Oudean, Norris, and Grebe to again reinvent the group.
Editor’s note: This one got lost in the mess of my desk for several months, but I thought it was too good to not be reviewed once I found it. Sorry to Bearfoot and Compass Records for the long delay.