Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
Young people with stunning talent are no doubt playing in most genres, but they seem so visible in bluegrass. If you go to a multi-day festival with camping on the grounds, all you need do is stroll around to see and listen to them picking around the campfires. These are not musicians stumbling around the various fingerboards, trying to find their way; these are musicians on fire, picking the strings off their instruments. There are stumbling blocks on the way to national prominence, personal and professional, but some of them will make it.
Ash Breeze seems to be on the way. This is a family band, formerly the Smith Family Band, and they’ve been playing bluegrass since 2010. They are anchored by Allen, their father, who plays bass. (Bass on the CD is provided by producer Aaron Ramsey and Zeb Snyder.) They are not new to music, though, for they received classical training before making the switch to bluegrass. IIIrd Tyme Out’s Wayne Benson (one of their teachers) calls them mature, saying: “… you’ll hear a very musical, lyrical approach that focuses on maintaining the integrity of the songs, rather than showing off (which is a pitfall for so many young musicians).”
They kick off the CD with an instrumental, “Category Five,” one of six numbers composed by Corey Smith (guitar and vocals), some co-composed with his father. This is a fast, interesting number that has some nice complexities in the arrangement. Brothers Eli (mandolin and vocals) and Luke (banjo) join with sister Nellie (fiddle, lead vocals) to round out the band. They take a back seat to no one when it comes to picking.
“Blue Skies and Cloudy Days” is a song with a religious theme. This isn’t what you would typically describe as a gospel number, but it maintains a theme of how God works in our lives. Nellie Smith has a very good voice and the brothers blend well when they sing harmony. Sometimes it’s difficult to clearly hear her lyrics because the vocalists seem to be in the mix with the instrumentalists instead of setting on top of them. That doesn’t make the music less enjoyable, just has me straining for the words.
“Backyard Swing” is true to its title, swinging along at a good pace and showcasing the pickers. This one was composed by brother Eli. “Storm Coming” is a sultry song handled by Nellie Smith quite well and features the Dobro work of Gavin Largent. It’s more up-tempo but reminds me of the mood of Doc Watson doing “Summertime.” “Little Dreamer,” another instrumental, shows the power of creative arrangement. This is something that too many bands overlook. There’s more than one way to use the bass, to use the banjo as a supporting instrument. This number has a lilting feel with just a hint of mystery in its chord progression. “When Fall Comes To New England” paints a picture of that season there in the northeast. It also illustrates my comment about the mix and Nellie Smith’s vocals. The instruments are mixed back and that allows us to appreciate her vocals more.
They go cross-genre and include James Taylor’s “Carolina On My Mind.” They certainly do this great song justice.
You’d have to work at not liking this CD. It may be a step away from some of the early bluegrass music, but it sure sounds like bluegrass to me, with tasteful arrangements, beautiful singing and masterful musicianship. This is a winner.