Bluegrass Picking and Singing
Mandolinist and tenor vocalist Frank Solivan’s Family, Friends and Heroes is aptly named. It contains songs recorded with his mother, his father, several of his cousins, and many friends including bluegrass legends Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, and Sam Bush. The musicians sometimes pick and grin with speed and dexterity, and other times slow the songs to showcase their emotive power. This variety keeps the disc interesting, but at the same time the long player seems like a collection of singles rather than a coherent unit.
The opening track features Solivan and Del McCoury offering an acoustic Bluegrass version of Roy Orbison’s pop hit “Pretty Woman”. The playing is clean and fast, the harmonies tight, and the vocals copy Orbison’s right down to the growls. But the real surprise occurs about halfway through the song when the duo breaks down into an instrumental rave-up of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. Now one could surmise that a pretty woman walking down the street is a street walker aka a day tripper. Maybe it’s Julia Roberts as in the movie with the same name as the Orbison song? But that seems a stretch. Instead, the two songs share the same syncopation and similar melodies. The thematic connections are probably accidental, but they work serendipitously.
Solivan’s mother (now deceased) Lorene takes lead vocals on the old chestnut, “Wayfaring Stranger”, a song about death and the afterlife. Lorene has a smooth voice with a hint of age that makes the lyrics about meeting loved ones in heaven seem like a short trip from where one is. It’s not quite bluegrass gospel, but it’s close. The strings offer two or more notes for every one Lorene sings. The music provides an aural finery, with lace-like sophistication, as context for the direct and simple vocal style—the corpse joined to the instruments’ spiritual natures.
The rest of the material offers other singers and styles, done usually with a bluegrass twist. They can be as different as the one Solivan wrote and performed with his Hawaiian cousins John and Ernie Cruz Jr. called “Mask, Snorkel and Fins”. The song mixes island music and Bluegrass to create something playful and a bit exotic. Then there’s the hard-picking on “Cazenovia Casanova” (with Sullivan on fiddle, Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Chris Luquette on guitar, and Mike Munford on-banjo) that showcases these players’ virtuosity. It’s a hot time, to be sure. The quick interplays and rhythms ring out and compels attention be paid to the musicianship. Then there’s his duet with his cousin Megan McCormick on Waldo LaFayette O’Neal’s “Put Me in Your Pocket”, which celebrates the value of friendship while re-enacting this very feeling through their paced singing and playing (Solivan on mandolin, McCormick on guitar).
The acoustic Family, Friends & Heroes will probably never get played on today’s commercial radio. It’s purposely too old-fashioned; the songs reverently fogyish and antiquated. The vibe suggests the mastery of traditional instruments and styles of singing still has value in the 21st century, a radical thought as bluegrass is not really that old.
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