It’s entirely possible that T Bone Burnett and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are responsible for this whole roots music/bluegrass revival. Before that soundtrack topped the Billboard charts, the only old-timey music on anyone’s radar emanated from well I don’t know. It wasn’t on my radar.
But post O Brother, mandolins, banjos, fiddles, and upright basses found their way into the hands of youngsters around the United States. And the folks already playing those instruments got their old bluegrass bands back together. Suddenly, I could go see a bluegrass show every weekend. Like the folk revivals of the ‘30s and ‘60s, roots music’s current popularity reflects our need to hear and understand an older, purer form of acoustic music. Much of the music rooted in the folk tradition comes directly from England and Ireland—music that’s distinctly Western European. The old folk ballads predate the United States. The latest manifestations of the genre often prove to be interesting and educational.
This particular manifestation is BlueRidge and the band’s newest album, Side by Side. With 13 tracks coming in at just under 35 minutes, Side by Side is a fast-paced rollick steeped in tradition. Yet the quintet plays and sings in a contemporary and accessible style. Featuring a mandolin, guitar, fiddle, bass, and banjo, BlueRidge plays ancient religious songs and folk ditties as well as original compositions.
Some of the newest members of BlueRidge haven’t been playing with the band for more than a year; however, on Side by Side they sound like they’ve been together for much longer than that. They sound comfortable with their instruments and each other—cohesive.
On “What If (Then I’ll Come Back to You)”, the band’s darkly comic opener, singer/guitar player Junior Fisk promises an ex-lover that “When all the work is finished and there’s nothing left to do / And two can live as cheap as one, then I’ll come back to you”. Newest BlueRidge member and banjo virtuoso Joey Cox accompanies Fisk’s vocals. The combination of the traditionally peppy banjo with Fisk’s sardonic lyrics lends the song a sarcastic tone.
“Brand New Tennessee Waltz” does what the title suggests: waltzes and glides through its ode to an old love in Tennessee. Fiddle player Alan Johnson plays a stately melody that weaves in and out of BlueRidge founder Alan Bibey’s mandolin playing.
The title track, written, sung, and performed by Bibey, is one of the album’s strongest tracks, with a sweet melody and story. Bibey sings of the great love that everyone hopes to find—love that lasts from first sight to the very end. He also composed “Avalanche”, the instrumental track that careens at break-neck speed for the length of its two-minute run. The mandolin provides the majority of the melody and leads the song on a winding, sinuous route that showcases every band member’s skill.
“Land of Light” shows off the band’s vocal abilities and features Bibey, Sisk, Johnson, and bassist Ed Biggerstaff harmonizing a cappella. Their voices all sound great—haunting, strong, and clean. “Land of Light”, as well as many other songs on the album, overflows with spirituality and religious imagery. Even if Christianity isn’t your faith of choice, BlueRidge succeeds in singing about the Eternal without sounding preachy.
Whether or not, acoustic music appeals to a widespread audience, BlueRidge’s brand of bluegrass is an important component of the folk gene pool. The band members’ skill as well as their adherence to tradition make Side by Side a great album to have around whenever we go through one of those trendy, “Let’s hear some real pure music!” phases.