Marty Raybon has been performing as a singer for over 40 years, but I had not heard his music until this 2013 release with Full Circle called The Back Forty. Perhaps the unfamiliarity is because Raybon has mainly produced music in the country music vein, with some of his material crossing over into bluegrass. By his own admission, The Back Forty is his most fully realized bluegrass effort of his long career, and was inspired by his interest in dedicating a full album’s worth of material to a music style that he has loved since his childhood.
The Back Fortyis a concise, straight-forward disc that contains 10 songs that all clock in just around the 3 minute mark. There are no extended jams here — the songs get right to the point and are peppered by short yet expertly wrought instrumental breaks that fly by with a sort of professional ease that had me wanting to hit the rewind button on a number of occasions.
As outstanding as the musicianship is throughout, it never overshadows the beauty of the songs, and certainly not the centerpiece of this collection, which is that VOICE of Raybon’s. He is a master interpreter of the medium, bringing a maturity and emotional impact that places the deceptive simplicity of a song like his original, “Only You, Only You,” into the stratosphere of romantic longing. On the ballad songs such as this, Raybon’s throaty tenor is pushed even farther by the presence of his brother Tim on harmony vocals. Another standout for its emotional impact is gospel-inspired love song “Look for Me (For I Will Be There Too).” The purity of the vocal harmonies here has a choir-like clarity and Raybon brother’s faith comes down as if on the wings of angels, while Tim Crouch’s multiple fiddle parts wrap the proceeding like smoked honey.
Crouch’s fiddle playing is a consistent standout throughout the disc, sometimes gliding effortlessly in an uptempo number like the infectious, toe tapper “Mountain Love,” and at other times adding a rich, sentimental tone when needed. His fiddle is double layered on a few of the tunes, providing a sound that sounds like an entire string section at times and adds a dimension to the recording that seems to harken back to another time.
TheBack Forty’s well-considered track sequence made it difficult for this listener to press the Stop button. Just when you get a sweet and satisfying tune like “Look For Me,” it’s followed up with a driving number like the Raybon original “The Big Burnsville Jail.” Raybon reminds us here that he may be devout, but he’s no saint yet (“A year’s too long to be livin’ in a prison cell, on some moonless night I’ll be gone. There ain’t a Mississippi bloodhound to ever picked up my trail, so much for livin’ twenty nine in the big Burnsfield jail”). The guys in Full Circle get to cut loose a bit here: Daniel Grindstaff’s banjo and Matthew Leadbetter’s dobro are part of Raybon’s criminal gang on this tune, sliding into the mix to emphasize a point in the lyric, and Zach Rambo’s mandolin crashes the scene about halfway through the song like a getaway car just on the verge of going out of control. These boys are having some fun!
“She’s Just An Old Love Turned Memory”
“A Little More Sawdust on the Floor,” another Marty Raybon and John Fountain original, finds Marty harkening back to a simpler time, opening with the line “The dirty streets of this old city, well it’s a far cry to the life that I recall” and Tim Crouch replies with a sweet fiddle melody that sounds as if it was pulled off an old 78RPM (such a sublime tone!). It’s hard to argue with Raybon here, as it really does seem that “this old is going crazy, spinning more and more each day out of control.” The relaxed pace of the tune and the sympathetic sounds from the accompanying instruments and backing vocals create a unified voice for Raybon’s plea for a time when “life was just a dance.”
Two of Raybon’s strongest tracks bookend the collection with a traditional bluegrass feel, opening with the album’s driving single, “That Janie Baker” and closing with a joyous ode to youthful Appalachian-style courtship, “Mountain Love” (Shining underneath the stars above, livin’ on this mountain love”). Both songs feature exceptional instrumental touches by Crouch, mandolinist Scott Napier and Chris Wade on banjo.
Raybon and Full Circle’s The Back Forty is an exceptional recording for 2013. In fact, in a year that produced a lot of great bluegrass and roots music, The Back Forty has become one of my very favorites of the year. I found myself quite taken with the attention to detail on every aspect of this recording, thoughtfully produced by Rural