Jesse Brock has put out a new album, Streamliner, co-produced with Dave Maggard. It pulls together a band and a set of songs and song writers that are worthy of many listens. Brock has been IBMA mandolin player of the year two times and has worked with the best – Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Dale Ann Bradley, and The Gibson Brothers, to name a few. The sidemen on this album are also top of the line – among them, Russ Carson on banjo, Josh Swift on reso-guitar, and Jason Carter on fiddle. But with all this talent that can burn it up, what hits me in this beautifully produced album is the tastefulness of the ensemble. The songs and their stories are leading the wagon, not the other way around as can sometimes happen in bluegrass.
Brock has been a guest of HVBA more than once, and here’s hoping he comes back again. I got a chance to hear Jesse up close, along with this album’s lead vocalist, Greg Blake, at Augusta Heritage’s Bluegrass Week, in 2019. Their stage performances were spectacular, of course, but in the more intimate panel discussions, what shone through was their humility, sincerity, and devotion to their craft and its history. This all comes through in this album.
The songs Brock has picked have the rural south running through them. They are stories of people handling what life has dealt them. Many are first-time recordings, like “Black Rock City,” a haunting coal mining song, and Brock’s own “Streamliner,” about an infatuation with a sleek train that passes through town (“I checked my pocket watch for that moment when she’d stop.”) And then there are remakes like “I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” a song recorded by Charley Pride and many others. Here it has a poignancy that I think is missing in earlier versions. It goes on my ‘need to learn’ list. From the bluegrass past, we have Bill Monroe’s “Big Mon,” and “Nobody Loves Me,” and Flatt and Scruggs’ “Shuckin’ the Corn.”
And now I get to talk about Greg Blake, the lead vocalist on the album. Full disclosure – singing is my own personal vice so I spend a lot of time looking for those who do it well – and Greg Blake most surely falls into that category. Blake has a big, rich voice and tremendous versatility and range. I am stumped to think of another singer with as much variety in his or her singing. The tone and styling is always apt to the song because he is right there in the middle of its story, smelling the cornbread on the stove or the perfume on the sweater. He can punch out the gritty despair of the coal miner in “Black Rock City,” and swing an up-tempo bluegrass tune like “Hey Spike Driver”. “Kiss on a Cold, Cold Stone” is co-written by Louisa Branscomb who wrote “Steel Rails.” It’s a tour de force for Blake. Singing at the top of his range, he aces the plaintive embellishments of the person who has only the cold, cold stone left to kiss.
So Streamliner has won my heart. I look forward to seeing these musicians live in the future. Hopefully in Poughkeepsie!
2021 Sound Biscuit Production