Album Review: I Built A World (2024)

by David Chernack

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’s sophomore solo outing is about two things: love and the fiddle. The intersections of these two elements have resulted in one of the richest bluegrass projects of the decade. 

Fiddle players occupy an interesting place in bluegrass. While their instruments often occupy the highest and most prominent place in the music they help produce (because, according to professor emeritus Carlton Haney, it’s all about the octaves), fiddlers themselves have historically had a harder time stepping out into the spotlight with their own solo projects. There are of course exceptions to this rule: Alison Krauss is obviously one of them. And it’s an apropos comparison—because about halfway through my first listen of fiddler and vocalist Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’s newest project, I Built a World, I exclaimed “wow, she’s just like Alison.” 

The broad range of repertoire choices, the assertive vocal and instrumental attitudes, and even the way Keith-Hynes uses her band to compliment her unique fiddle voicings felt distinctly mature and reminiscent of a more experienced bluegrass veteran like Krauss. And taken together, all of these elements present a distinct progression from her freshman outing, 2020’s Fiddler’s Pastime

That album took a much more fiddle tune-centric approach, and what songs appeared on it were sung by some of that album’s fantastic guests including Sarah Jarosz, Chris Eldridge, and Tim O’Brien. But I Built a World puts Keith-Hynes’s voice front and center—and not at the expense of her fiddle performances. In this new release, not only do we get a fuller and more complete sense of who Keith-Hynes is as a bluegrass musician, but we see her emerge as a confident musical arranger and leader.

This fact emerges only a few tracks into the album. The third song on I Built a World, “Angel Island,” is nothing short of a crowning achievement. Not only is it an intense puzzle for fiddlers—I listened to the track endlessly trying to figure out whether Bronwyn had cross-tuned or not—it is also the most moving track of the album. Richly harmonized, dedicatedly plotted, and paced to fit its sorrowful narrative, it is a stunning piece of music to listen to. It stands firmly in second place as my favorite track on the album: that honor goes to “Trip Around the Sun.” 

“Trip Around the Sun” is an Al Anderson song that many may know from the version the late great Jimmy Buffett performed on License to Chill. Keith-Hynes’s take is a distillation of what makes her approach to fiddle and bluegrass arrangements so unique and so distinctive amongst other fiddlers. Starting with a deft touch from Bryan Sutton’s delicate yet commanding guitar crosspicking and gradually combining the textures of Jerry Douglas’s dobro and her own voice, Keith-Hynes builds to a chorus—with harmony help from Dierks Bentley—before pausing the momentum to return to the verse form and refocus on the next round of lyrics. In the second verse, the arrangement is more banjo-forward, but she always manages to leave space for the song’s gorgeous lyrics to breathe in the leadup to the refrain and solo section. 

Keith-Hynes detunes her fiddle a half-step for the song (played in D-flat), a bold choice that is paid off with one of the greatest fiddle solos ever recorded—seriously. The solo itself builds in energy in a tremendously powerful way, starting with some syncopated pads and simple repeated double-stop motifs set against relatively sparse backup from the band; as it progresses, those phrases erupt into an outpouring of increasingly complex and passionate melodic lines while the band simultaneously switches to double time rhythm. It’s a goosebumps-inducing moment that serves as an excellent microcosm of Keith-Hynes’s songbuilding strategy as an arranger, as a fiddler, and as a vocalist. 

Just like Fiddler’s Pastime, Keith-Hynes calls on an excellent range of collaborators to elevate her performances on I Built a World. Alongside Sutton and Douglas, Wes Corbett assists on banjo, Jeff Picker holds down the low end on bass, and her Golden Highway bandmate Dominick Leslie lends mandolin support. In addition to Dierks Bentley, featured artists elsewhere on the album include Golden Highway leader Molly Tuttle, who joins Keith-Hynes on vocals on “Up for Losing Sleep.” Plus, Seldom Scene and Johnson Mountain Boys alumnus Dudley Connell lends his vocal stylings on “Will You Ever Be Mine”—a testament to the caliber of musician who Keith-Hynes calls on to realize her musical visions. 

In the midst of all the dazzling and formidable vocal performances on the album, Keith-Hynes still makes time for a barn-burner of a fiddle tune: “Scotty’s Hoedown.” The track is essentially one extended fiddle solo that builds like a freight train, allowing this superlative fiddler to brandish her traditional bluegrass chops and remind everyone that she can still cut it up with the best of them. Whether or not this is a nod to Alison Krauss—who often employed the same strategy with Union Station with tunes like “Unionhouse Branch” and “Little Liza Jane”—the seasoned bluegrass listener will surely appreciate the connection.

On the final, eponymous track of the album, “I Built a World,” Keith-Hynes brings in one last collaborator: her fiddler fiancé Jason Carter, who is the longtime fiddler for the Del McCoury Band. Carter’s 2022 album Lowdown Hoedown was my single favorite bluegrass album of that year, and given that album’s similar approach to the fiddle-centric solo bluegrass record, it’s hard to deny that Bronywn and Jason share a singular progressive vision for the bluegrass fiddler.

It’s one that puts the fiddle forward—using the fiddle’s voice to lead bluegrass bands to newer, richer, and more loving heights. I Built a World 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.

2 Responses

  • Excellent review David. Bronwyn sure has come a long way from her old-time fiddle days at home in Virginia, to the award winning heights of bluegrass fiddling.

    I remember the first time I met her at the Jenny Brook festival in Vermont, she didn’t appear to know any of the classic bluegrass fiddle cannon. She seemed shy and out of her element. She’s been hanging with some great bluegrass fiddlers though and really taken it to heart!

    She’s a wonderful person, and I was stunned at how well she sings on her recent recordings. And with Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway she’s showing she has terrific stage presence as well.

    All the best to “Bron”, as she’s known to friends.

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