Album Review: God Fearing Heathen (2023)

Dan Tyminski has shown himself to be an artist with a strong understanding of what makes good modern bluegrass. Having been an instrumental architect of the genre’s return to the American zeitgeist through his role in O Brother Where Art Thou—as well as his membership in Alison Krauss’s hugely popular and revolutionary Union Station—Tyminski clearly has an excellent ability to make accessible, intelligent, and relevant bluegrass music. But just a few years ago, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he would ever produce a new bluegrass album ever again.

After Union Station’s farewell album Paper Airplane in 2011, Tyminski ventured out of the bluegrass stable to explore other genres and collaborations. He found success with his country-meets-EDM project Southern Gothic in the mid-2010s, and was a more frequent collaborator with modern country artists than with bluegrass legends during that decade. I enjoyed those projects, but like many bluegrass artists who dabble in non-bluegrass corners of the musical universe, their return often represents some of their most artistically rich work. (See also: Molly Tuttle and Ricky Skaggs.)

And as a result, there were few projects I was as excited to check out in 2023 than God Fearing Heathen, Dan Tyminski’s long-awaited solo album return to bluegrass. But going in, I really wasn’t sure what to expect—would he try to emulate the hard-driving, more traditional feel of 2000’s Carry Me Across the Mountain? Or would he pull more themes and textures from Southern Gothic, trying to integrate the best elements of that project into an album squarely aimed at the bluegrass faithful?

Luckily for us, the answer is a little bit of both. The second track on God Fearing Heathen, “Hey Brother,” was originally written as a collaboration with Swedish art house phenom Avicii, and you’d be right to have raised an eyebrow at seeing that song on the track list for Tyminski’s newest full-fat bluegrass project. But the song translates extraordinarily well into the six-piece ensemble format—an ensemble that Tyminski meticulously hand-selected. And it shows: in Heathen’s version of “Hey Brother,” the band’s leader makes deft use of the legato voices of Maddie Denton’s fiddle and Blue Highway alumnus Gaven Largent’s dobro to make the song sound as if it was written specifically for the band—you’d never know the song shared DNA with 2013 pop hit “Wake Me Up.”

Alongside Denton and Largent, banjo extraordinaire Jason Davis’s consistently driving five-string work shines as bright as ever. As does the work of mandolinist Harry Clark, who Tyminski borrowed from Volume Five for God Fearing Heathen. Rounding out the band is Grace Davis—who is married to Jason—on bass. Grace Davis’s harmony vocals prove a perfect compliment to Tyminski’s, as several songs on the album like “Keep Your Eye On Kentucky” truly demand raw vocal power.

The album is an excellent showcase of everything that makes Dan Tyminski’s take on bluegrass so great. First among them for me is his incredible rhythm guitar playing: it’s snappy, powerful, and immediately identifiable as Tyminski. It’s a style I emulate myself—but there’s no one alive who can match Tyminski’s clear, commanding, and full voice, which especially shines on tracks like “G.O.A.T.” where he stands alone with no harmony backup.

A lot of these elements were present in One More More Time Before You Go, a five-song EP that Tyminski released last year in remembrance of the late great Tony Rice. While that release accomplished its purpose of paying tribute to Tony, it sidelined one of Tyminski’s greatest strengths, albeit by design: his songwriting. And it’s Tyminski’s songwriting chops that truly elevate God Fearing Heathen to the status of “bluegrass event of the year” that I and so many others have been anxiously awaiting.

Tyminski wrote or co-wrote nine out of the ten cuts on Heathen, and this proves to be central to the album’s success. Songs like “Silence in the Brandy” showcase his efficient yet colorful storytelling style, effortlessly flowing between first- and third-person perspectives that masterfully keep the momentum of the track going strong. My personal favorite on the album, “Occam’s Razor,” is a sharp and funny inversion of the classic ‘woman-done-me-wrong’ trope, dripping with that syrupy bluegrass sincerity that unequivocally signals that Dan Tyminski is back in the bluegrass business.

If I were to log one complaint about God Fearing Heathen, it’s that the album features no instrumental number. Tyminski’s previous bluegrass efforts like Wheels offered absolutely rippin’ bluegrass tunes like “Knock, Knock!” and “Green Fees,” which allowed his band to truly brandish their picking skills. While everyone gets to take great solos on the harmonically complex songs Tyminski brought to the table in Heathen, I’m curious to hear how the team would have tackled one of the high-tempo all-instrumental barn-burners that have been a staple of his previous projects.

Despite that small issue, Dan Tyminski’s God Fearing Heathen signals a strong return of one of the genre’s great songwriters and vocalists. He’s taken the lessons learned from his last three decades in the music industry to present a project that features thematically mature songs that still feel fun, allowing him and his superb young ensemble to execute energetic performances unlike anyone else on the scene today. God Fearing Heathen is available on all major streaming platforms now.

David Chernack

David Chernack is a fiddler, mandolinist, and guitarist from the Hudson Valley. Trained as a classical violist, David found out about bluegrass music in high school and despite his best efforts has been unable to kick the habit in adulthood. He picked up mandolin and guitar in college in Boston, where he studied environmental science and music. While not at his day job or pickin' 'grass, David also enjoys birdwatching and wrenching on cars.

One Response

  • Nice comments David. I’ve heard Dan’s band twice now at the Thomas Pt Beach festival and they (and he) do a 110% bluegrass job with their music. I despise electric pick ups on fine acoustic instruments — but if he and his band were using pick ups they must have been the best I’ve ever heard; their instruments sounded completely acoustic. I’m going to “presume” they are playing acoustic on stage.

    Dan’s voice is a prize, and he’s gotta be a candidate for IBMA Male Vocalist. For a boy from Rutland VT, he has developed just the right mid-Appachian twang in his voice. I remember when he and his brother Stan were “Green Mountain Bluegrass” playing around New England and New York 40 years ago. I’m very happy for his success.

    I must say though, as many of his old fans surely say, his appearance raises questions. He looks mighty rough. So mostly, I listened to him and DIDN’T look!

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