Chris Hillman has done a lot in his four decades as a musician. Whether you take his collaborative role with Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, his work with McGuinn, Crosby, and the Byrds, or his more recent work with the Desert Rose Band, Hillman has always brought credibility to his albums while often improving the product of those around him. This latest album, his 34th and first in more than seven years, takes some of those gems from yesteryear and gives them a different slant or revamping. And he wastes no time in showing you what he’s been a part of, starting with “Eight Miles High”, the Byrds classic that is given a folksy, bluegrass feeling. In fact, it sounds as if Hillman is backed by Alison Krauss’s Union Station group. With Hillman and Herb Pederson playing most of the instruments, there’s a very close, homey feeling on these efforts. A better effort is on the bluegrass-meets-old-school country on “True Love”, a mandolin-tinged romp that is a two-minute toe-tapper.
The majority of these 14 songs fall into the same type of style, an easy-going but very melodic tone that is both the best of contemporary and traditional mountain music. Think of a lighter John Fogerty during his days with the Blue Ridge Mountain Rangers and you get the gist of several of these tracks. “Drifting” is somewhat stagnant, however, and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Nonetheless the title track is extremely pleasing to the ears—your basic melody accented with mandolin and great harmonies in the vein of Steve Earle and one of his almost pre-requisite Celtic-tinged acoustic tunes he places on nearly each studio album. “Heaven Is My Home” is an obvious gospel ditty that has Hillman loosening up vocally and shining on the rather ordinary arrangement. It’s something you’d hear in the Ryman Auditorium at any time. Another nugget is “Touch Me” which could be construed as Hillman doing an early Willie Nelson song. It has that simplicity and timeless quality to it, accented by a touch of Tex-Mex guitars.
It seems for every two good songs, there is one that doesn’t quite hit the mark. As catchy as the bluegrass-meets-country feel of “The Wheel” is, “True He’s Gone” seems to fall flat from its onset. Its dark, murky flow tends to rub the wrong way with the strolling, ambling beat that oozes from it. However, “Heavenly Grace”, with its waltz-y framework, is an uplifting and almost life-affirming tune. Not too preachy but with the right message throughout. And it’s just the right length also, not extending the ending but not ending abruptly either. “It Doesn’t Matter” tends to drag the record down a tad. Hillman’s performance here is adequate but the lyrics are wordy in some spots. Perhaps the best of the lot though is his rendition of “Missing You”, which is just as solid as it was when it first came out—folksy almost to a fault. Hillman sounds like a man at peace with his rich catalogue of songs, delivering them with a passion that is still there regardless of Father Time.
Just when you think Hillman can’t outdo himself, he pulls out “The Water Is Wide”, a stripped down, barren, dobro-saturated duet with help from Jennifer Warnes. The vocals complement each other greatly as they keep the song almost as tight as the ship they sing about. And to basically sum up this album, you should take a line from one of the later verses on this tune: “Shines like a jewel when first it’s new” or, in this case, reworked.
// Notes from the Road
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