I always hope to return from the summer bluegrass fests with one great new find; and this year I hit upon Cane Mill Road at the GreyFox Bluegrass Festival in the Catskills.
Apparently I'm not the first to find them, as their debut CD 5 Speed hit #9 on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart and they've been gaining lots of airplay. As if that's not enough of attracting good attention, the IBMA chose them as one of 30 showcase bands in 2017 and two-time Grammy winner Cathy Fink signed on to produce their first album along with Tom Mindte of Patuxent Studios in Maryland. Want even more attention? This album was produced via crowdfunding and released without a label and still climbed the charts!
The band hails from Doc Watson territory in Deep Gap NC, with Liam Purcell (mandolin, fiddle, clawhammer banjo, guitar, and vocals), Tray Wellington (banjo and guitar), and Elliot Smith (bass). Also in the band is Casey Lewis, who for some reason doesn't appear on this first album.
The album is a mix of traditional bluegrass, Americana, and folk, with a strong dose of rock sensibility thrown in, and ranging from covers of Bill Monroe to The Beatles and Bob Dylan to their own tunes.
I figure that there are a few ways to get really good as a band; and starting young and playing together a lot would be at the top of the list. I really have no idea how long they've been playing together, but they've certainly started young and play like they've known each other all their lives. The intuition they show with each other in their live playing is all the more astounding for their youth, there are many older bands that wish they were this tight and could deliver a debut album of this stature.
The impression one gets on a first listen to 5 Speed is that of a young band stretching their legs, "Eleanor Rigby" and "Maggie's Farm" could easily become clichés in the wrong hands, but these are certainly not the wrong hands and their strong, even bold, playing insures they never teeter on that brink. Of "John Hardy," what can you say? They've done Doc proud, you can imagine his grin as you sit and listen. "Things In Life" and "Trajan's Ride" show the strength of their own songwriting and stand well with all the other songs on the album.
For once I'm going to go out on a limb, and tell you that my personal favorite on the album is "Swannanoa Waltz." While it's "only" an instrumental, it shows how beautifully the band can evoke emotions from their instruments, and that youth doesn't have to mean testosterone and showing off. They play far beyond their years indeed!
If 5 Speed is about a band stretching their legs, then Gap To Gap (unofficially released a day early at GreyFox) is about a band hitting their stride. You won't know anything is missing from 5 Speed until you hear Casey Lewis join the band in Gap To Gap, his addition makes listening in feel like you've joined in a family reunion. To say that they fit well together would be a huge understatement.
In hitting their stride, the band has also found their own voice: let me list the covers on this second album; "Rock Salt and Nails" (Bruce Utah Philips), "Little Sadie" (Thomas Clarence Asheley), and "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (Gordon Lightfoot). The other eleven songs were all penned by the band, and that would be pretty impressive on ANY bluegrass album.
Now, the song that seems to sum up the spirit of Gap to Gap is "Here I Go." Often young bands either end up covering songs of their forebears or writing of the trials and tribulations of youth. Either the covers fail to break new ground, or those songs of youth sound either saccharine or shallow (or help us all, both). One of the lines of "Here I Go" is "Just a young boy with an old man's soul." In the end, it's not what you write about or how old you are, it's making your song ring true (and maybe an old soul helps?). This band has managed that quite well with every song on this album. "Bound to Ramble" and "Gap to Gap" are well done songs of the road. And by the way "Gap to Gap" refers to Deep Gap, NC and Rocky Gap, VA, as the band spends much time traveling between the two in creating and presenting their music.
"Rust" and "So Long" are great variations of either getting out of a small town or trying to get out.
Exuberant instrumentals are well represented by "Hydraplant," "Rohan," and yes, "Testosterone."
"Here I Go"
And while the tunes on this album lean well towards the traditional (with hard driving youthful exuberance thrown in!) the already mentioned "Here I Go" takes something of a minor side trip to the Colorado newgrass scene, and something within its spirit it makes me think they borrowed Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner" to make the trip.
Grab these two albums and enjoy the ride!
Mark Hudson is a long time local HVBA member and music lover who, unfortunately, had to move away. He misses the local scene but will look for you at Greyfox!