Such good timing on this week’s appearance by Bearfoot at Music City Roots, because I’ve been looking for a chance/excuse to post something about their superb new album American Story. This band has been through a great deal of change, but don’t let the personnel shuffling dissuade you from checking out this Alaska-born, Nashville-based progressive bluegrass/acoustic band. Things seem to have fallen together nice and clean, because American Story is one of the most refreshing, alluring projects I’ve had in my CD player this year, and there are plenty of reasons why.
Let’s start with the most conspicuous of the new folk in this folky, grassy band – the willowy and lovely Nora Jane Struthers. Already cooking along as a solo artist, she released her self-titled debut disc of self-described “classic Americana” the same week her band The Bootleggers took the super-prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. Other awards have followed, and her fusion with Bearfoot (whose original lineup won the same Telluride prize in 2001) is like some genetic experiment aimed at building the perfect young Americana band. Her voice is direct and seductive, with just a touch of a yodel-catch and a whole lot of pure American soul.
Bearfoot also added a new male voice, that of Nashville-based Todd Grebe, who recently played Roots fronting his band Cold Country, which also includes Bearfoot fiddler Angela Oudean. He shows off a well-studied laid-back grace that reminds me of John Hartford on “Mr. Moonshine” from the new album. This new talent adds to a strong foundation of original members Oudean and Jason Norris, remarkable fiddler and mandolin player respectively. So while some bands spend years with the same people finding their sound, it seems Bearfoot has done it like a major league ball club – a few trades, and voila, a fully-realized vision with variety, depth and Alaska-tinged Southern roots.
American Story was produced and recorded by the under-rated acoustic music master Brent Truitt, and for all the bluegrass-meets-other-stuff records that come across my radar, this one stands out in all areas that matter: songwriting, vocals, ensemble integrity and audiophile lushness. Nora Jane’s cool pipes open the CD with “Tell Me A Story” and the floaty “Feel Free.” Todd Grebe takes lead vocal on his own song, “Midnight in Montana,” a recording that sounds like the best of the Grateful Dead in bluegrass/jug band mode, with a fine jammy interplay and crackerjack bass playing by P.J. George that keeps it moving at highway speed. “Come Get Your Lonesome” is a quick-swinging high-country duet that matches Nora Jane and Angela’s voices angelically, against a pulse of Cajun accordion. And proving beyond a doubt her direct line to old-time country blues (not to mention the band’s authentic picking), Nora Jane writes and sings the amazingly catchy “Kill The Rooster” to a bright fiddle and banjo backing. Never did a beheading sound like such a hoot.
I don’t mean to marginalize whatsoever the rest of our outstanding lineup this week. I mean for heaven’s sake, we’ll be visited again by Nanci Griffith, probably the most remarkable and important female songwriter out of Texas since Cindy Walker. Her current CD “The Loving Kind” is the type of socially aware and consciousness-raising album this country needs right now. Griffith is as brave and beautiful as ever. Also come out to hear Brigitte DeMeyer, a standout pure Americana songstress who always brings along a superb band. We’ll hear the triumphant voice and slick songwriting of Vance Gilbert. And I’m particularly looking forward to seeing David Wilcox, a North Carolina guy who really helped me understand what a guitar-based singer/songwriter was capable of back in the 1990s.
It would be hard to top this lineup folks. I’d get your feet pointing our direction on Wednesday.