4½ stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
Back in 1980 Paul Kennerly produced a concept album, The Legend of Jesse James. It was re-released in 1999 and that release featured “The Train Robbery.” Newtown dug it out and this seems to be their time machine. It starts off with a sound from a 1940’s recording session, featuring some resophonic guitar work by guest Tim Surrett (Balsam Range). At :55 it morphs into its modern version with some time machine sound effects. (I wonder how they pull that off in a live show?)
The band demonstrates a liking for history with guitarist C. J. Cain’s “Thin Red Line,” a well written song about the 1943 Bougainville campaign in the South Pacific. Two memorable lines are
It took seven days to reach the top,
It was then that we found
Six hundred folk a-laying dead around a hollow tree
Where the jungle fight was a way of life …
A vision lasts forever seen through a rifle’s eye
Another nod to past wars is “The Widow’s Ghost,” a Cain song about a woman who lost her son and husband to the war and then picked up her own rifle to fight the damned Yankees and was killed for the effort. History isn’t always pleasant but it bears remembering and bluegrassers love songs like this.
Bass player Terry Poirer is the lead singer on “Floating Bridge,” a blues number from Sleepy John Estes. Newtown’s version is uptempo (and lacks the crying blues sound) compared to Estes’ version, reportedly based on a true life event when his brother drove off the bridge and had to rescue Estes from the water. Eric Clapton makes it a laid-back, easy and sexy number while Newtown makes a good, if somewhat workmanlike transition to bluegrass and the additional harmony singing in the last minute is something of a relief. It’s also a good vehicle to show off their picking talents, though perhaps they missed an opportunity for diversity by foregoing a nod toward Clapton’s version.
Fiddler and band founder Kati Penn-Williams shows her talents on a Guy Clark song, “Dublin Blues,” the title track from his 1995 album. You don’t get the weariness of the Clark version but she sells the song. She’s also a good match for Julie Miller’s “All My Tears (Be Washed Away).” The mood is different than the one set by Miller and Emmylou Harris but I really like Newtown’s version.
The bandmembers are all excellent musicians. Clint Hurd (Dale Ann Bradley & Steve Gulley) plays mandolin and Jr. Williams (married to Kati Penn) plays banjo and sings lead on several numbers, some mentioned above and including yet another Cain song, “Rounder.” This is a track that should make the charts; it’s bluegrass through-and-through. Williams is a former member of the gospel group the Bishops and he was a founding member of the excellent group NewFound Road.
The bluegrass market is crowded with good music but be sure you don’t overlook this CD. It’s a keeper.