CD Review: Chris Jones & The Night Drivers – The Choosing Road

The first day of spring brings this flower to me, the new CD by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, The Choosing Road. It’s on the modern side of traditional bluegrass with new tunes written mostly by Chris Jones and his bandmates, done in a solidly traditional, highly talented way. These songs are worked up, performed and recorded to perfection.

I’ve known Chris Jones since about 1980. He grew up in Suffern, NY (Rockland County), listening to Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks. His first band work was with Westchester County’s Horse Country bluegrass band, as guitarist and lead singer. I even subbed for Chris in that band for a week when he took a side musician job in a square dance troupe sent to Europe by the State Deptaratment. He committed early to a musical career, after agricultural studies in college. I was among a group of friends who encouraged Chris to audition for Ralph Stanley at the old Berkshire Mountain (Hillsdale) festival (However, Ralph found Chris’ New York speech pattern didn’t quite fit the Clinch Mountain Boys sound.) Chris has been a sideman for Dave Evans in Ohio, Special Consensus in Chicago, Whetstone Run in Pennsylvania, and helped form the band Weary Hearts which launched the careers of Mike Bub and Ron Block. Chris eventually realized he needed to form his own band that would feature his original songs. The Night Drivers have been on the road for a few decades now. Current members include Gina Furtado on banjo, Mark Stoffel on mandolin and Jon Weisberger on bass fiddle.

You may know Chris from his weekly column for “Bluegrass Today” featuring his wry humor, or from his deejay role on SiriusXM Bluegrass Junction where us old timers love to listen to his weekly show Truegrass .

If you don’t already have any of Chris’ fine CDs, The Choosing Road would be a fine place to start.

Chris’ music is characterized by his warm baritone voice. He gave up trying to sing high-lonesome a long time ago. He found his voice works best as low-mournful. He has a unique lead guitar style – spare, low-pitched, dry and woody. It’s far from today’s mass-market bluegrass Tony Rice style. Where many guitarists play sixteenth notes, Chris makes do with quarter notes and half notes.

Chris is an IBMA award winner as “Songwriter of the Year” and “Broadcaster of the Year.” Members of the Night Drivers have earned several more IBMA awards.

“Own The Blues”

Mark Stoffel plays a modern-leaning mandolin style, crisp and clear. He’s not copying anyone. Gina Furtado is a banjo whiz creating very modern/advanced melodic stuff, as well as playing JD Crowe influenced chordal style, for instance on the slow number “Own the Blues”. Mark and Gina sing harmony. Jon Weisberger is a steady bassist and fine harmony singer. The smooth trios with Chris are a highlight of The Choosing Road.

Two of the songs on this project are current singles on SiriusXM – “Bend in the Road” and “Who You Want Me to Be”. Both are good uptempo bluegrass numbers with fine picking and trio harmony. Both hit #1 on the bluegrass charts in 2018.

Another uptempo number is “Your Remarkable Return” which opens the CD. It’s typical of the Night Drivers sound with Chris’ low-pitched lead, a smooth female high baritone trio chorus, and intricate interplay of mandolin, banjo and guitar.

“Letters to Brendan” is a Civil War soldier’s story, taken at a walking pace. “Looking for the Bridge” is a medium tempo song of love and loss, with more of the Night Drivers’ intricately arranged picking. “I Can’t Change the Rhyme” is slow and guitar driven. “Back in the High Life Again” brings in guest fiddle and a modern country radio feel, as performed on bluegrass instruments.

“Nyhans Regret” changes things up a bit as an Irish-feeling instrumental led off by Stoffel’s mandolin. Gina contributes a very neat modern style banjo break. Chris provides another sturdy, melodic guitar break. Guest fiddler Liz Carroll really brings home the Irish influence.

“I’ll Watch Her Sail” is a slow waltz in a low voice lamenting a love sailing away. “I Shouldn’t Be Here” is a medium-paced song of a grateful survivor.

The CD closes with a new minor key gospel song, with guest dobro, that sees the good in everyday life – “Glimpse of the Kingdom”.

If you’re a singer or a picker you’ll find material here you might want to add to your repertoire. If you like easier listening bluegrass you’ll find it here – absent the vocal straining and high tension that’s typical in most bluegrass (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The Choosing Road brings welcome variety to your bluegrass library. Listening to it will make you feel good about our music.

More on Chris Jones and the Night Drivers

Mountain Home Music

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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