The Banjo Files
Plum River Records
4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Jacob Underwood has been a professional bluegrass picker since 2007, when he joined his father and grandfather as a full-time member of Bluegrass Express. He’s won notable contests on mandolin, fiddle, and banjo, and made banjo his primary instrument in 2013.
Underwood’s banjo style adds an inventive melodic sense to his precise sense of rhythm, and his four original pieces reflect that well-balanced sound. The chord progression and melody of “Banjoology” go in unexpected directions, but Underwood’s banjo is well in control, laying the ground work for a nice mandolin break of his own, and some good and greasy fiddling from Steve Thomas. The same formula works well on the more straightforward “Turbulence,” which contains some nice tuning peg work to illustrate the feeling conjured by the title.
Sierra Hull (mandolin) and Ron Stewart (fiddle) add slick breaks and fills to the other two Underwood compositions—the unhurried, sweet “November Wind” and the propulsive album-opener “B-5.”
Hull plays mandolin on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” one of three gospel numbers—including “Softly and Tenderly” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”—that feature Underwood’s banjo tracing the melody with the same care a singer would, calling to mind similar work by Don Reno and Sonny Osborne. Likewise on “When You’re Smiling,” that includes Thomas’ fiddle playing a jazzy solo that would have sounded fine on one of Louis Armstrong’s recordings of this famous song.
Add an appearance from Mike Scott, who joins Underwood for a double-banjo take on “Bully of the Town,” and a breezy rendition of the Bill Monroe/Byron Berline classic “Gold Rush,” and you’ve got a fine album by a young picker we’re going to be hearing great things from for a long while.