By Larry Stephens
Hurd makes some good music on this CD but there is some mystery to it. On his website he talks about his debut CD, Life Underground. When you do a track comparison, As Best We Can is Life Underground with “The Rainbow Sign” renamed, plus five new tracks. This is an interesting marketing strategy.
“Dirty Old Town” is a great opening number that could easily be classic country. It has a nice drop into a minor at the end of each phrase and showcases the instruments that support him. Hurd plays guitar and Dobro quite well. The incomparable Ron Stewart guests on fiddle while Hurd’s brother, Clint, plays mandolin. Rounding out the band is Matt Cruby (banjo) and Tony Mowell (bass).
He makes an odd choice by including “Potions.” He seems to be aiming for a bluegrass sound and this one doesn’t get there. If you listen to the original version you’ll see why it’s such a stretch. He goes to the same offbeat place with Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Work Out” but this time it does work out. I like his version better than Petty’s and it works as modern bluegrass (though it will give a traditionalist a shudder). Another unusual choice is “Masterpiece” by Ben Harper. It works okay but stretches the bluegrass concept past the point some will be comfortable with. Still another number that is good to listen to, and maybe, just maybe, you would hear a traditional artist sing (I’ve heard Jesse McReynolds go to places not far from this) is “Someday You Will Be Loved” by a band called Death Cab For Cutie.
On the traditional side he offers “Someday We’ll Meet Again, Sweetheart,” a Flatt & Scruggs number with Stewart providing a strong kickoff. The banjo and mandolin have nice breaks and backing melodies and shows how good they can pick. Another old-timer is “Going To The Races,” a Stanley Brothers number with Hurd playing some Dobro. I like the arrangements he has behind these songs, trading off instruments and not relying on being banjo–centric. Going way back he found “God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign,” recorded by the Carter Family (1929) and others plus a great instrumental that will keep you working if you’re a picker, “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”
Who is Matthew Ryan Hurd? He’s talented as singer and musician, he surrounds himself with good musicians. He can do traditional bluegrass but he isn’t going to be defined by it, pulling songs from other genres, like “It’s Me Again, Lord” by Dottie West and those other farther out choices, putting his friends to the test of making a banjo or mandolin fit them. This is good music if you’re not tied hard and fast to tradition.