The year 2009 has been a pretty good one for bluegrass music’s elder statesmen. Bobby Osborne came out with solid album Bluegrass & Beyond, Del McCoury recently released a box set commemorating his 50th anniversary in bluegrass and now Doyle Lawson is back with Lonely Street. Granted, when you’ve released approximately 40 albums since 1977, you’re not exactly “coming back” to the industry; however, for some time, Lawson has been alternating gospel and secular albums, releasing one every year or so. Lonely Street sees him back on the secular side; more important, it’s damn good bluegrass for sinners and saints alike.
“Monroe’s Mandolin”, the album’s opening track, is also its strongest. A tribute to Lawson’s chief musical influence, the song begins with chirping birds and haunting mandolin harmonics before transforming into a sprightly fiddle tune that could have been played by Monroe’s beloved Uncle Pen. The rest of Lonely Street follows in the footsteps of its opener: solid picking, sweet harmonies and catchy hooks—for the most part anyway.
One of the album’s few weak spots is “The Human Race”, an antimodern lament. These types of songs have been popular in bluegrass music since its inception, but its often presented far more skillfully than it is here. Lawson and Quicksilver do their best, but lyrics such as “We’ve flown to the moon / But have we missed the boat along the way” are far too heavy handed, provoking eye-rolling instead of eye-opening. The slick dobro work of Josh Swift and the band’s harmonies make the song listenable, but after a few repeats even this loses its charm.
Lawson’s backing band, Quicksilver, lives up to its name; constant personnel changes have made its lineup somewhat mercurial in the past, but listening to Lonely Street the group sounds as though its been playing together since infancy. The crisp sound of Lawson’s mandolin with Joey Cox’s driving banjo is sure to make a bluegrass fan’s heart skip a beat. But don’t worry; the steady rhythms of Carl White on bass will get that ticker right back on track. Guitarist Darren Beachley alternates leading vocals with Lawson throughout Lonely Street; his take on the Marty Robbins 1950s classic “Call Me Up and I’ll Come Callin’ on You” is one of the album’s best moments.
A spirited instrumental (“Down Around Bear Cove”) and gospel tune (“When the Last of Our Days Shall Come”) round out Lonely Street, but the real shining star of the second half of the album is “My Real World of Make Believe.” It’s a beautiful story of tender, everlasting love—until the end of the song, when it’s revealed to be an elaborate fantasy. Ouch. The song’s final couplet, “We’ll always be together inside the spell I weave / In my real world of make believe” is both creepy and incredibly sad and combined with Lawson’s mournful vocals, it’s hard to think of a better ballad to hit bluegrass music this year.
Though his current band is relatively young, Doyle Lawson is no spring chicken. However, it’s hard to think of a young artist who could deliver this material with the same spirit, drive and skill that Lawson does. For that reason alone, Lonely Street should be a must-listen for fans of traditional bluegrass.