Two Bit Franks: Dazzling bluegrass musicianship

New Albums

This Gallatin Valley supergroup, John Lowell’s latest gang of tuneslayers, has unleashed an eponymous EP of dazzling bluegrass musicianship. Lead vocalist and guitarist Lowell is surrounded by equally talented pickers Jeff Shouse, banjo; Tom Murphy, mandolin and vocals; Kevin Fabozzi, mandocello, mandolin and vocals; and Russell Smith, bass and vocals.

Lowell’s “Wild Jack” comes first. His trademark seamless guitar licks complement the tale of an old Montana cowboy’s escapades. The song is well stocked with morsels of melody lines from each lead instrument, and vocal woos and woo-ahs on the chorus. It’s kind of a modernized Sons of the Pioneers touch. Gotta love it!

Murphy starts his own twin-mandolin composition, “Crow Wing,” alongside Fabozzi. Bounding along, lilting and fluttering with fluid lead lines from all, the instrumental is traditional yet jazzy. It retains its structure, never devolving into “mellow-lite” riffing or head-banger jamming that seems to populate so much progressive bluegrass these days. Call me old-fashioned, but I find that refreshing.

His other contribution, “Wake Up Call,” cascades right into twin mandolins before launching into stretched-out breaks from others. Delightful!

Smith sings his own “It Won’t Change My Mind” ; it’s got more great harmonies and a nifty chord change. Fabozzi sings the traditional song, “Cannonball Blues” – listen to those soulful mandocello licks, played left-handed even, bawdy yet so smooth. The frets on that thing are huge and wide, but Fabozzi tiptoes up and down them easily. It’s great to hear the little-known instrument played well.

“Mamma Don’t Like It” is Lowell’s comic story of a hen-pecked moonshine runner who gets in trouble with the law at times, much to the dismay of his wife. Everybody takes a spin after each verse, playing bluesy breaks. “It don’t matter ’bout my alibi, she’s got a pan in her fist and blood in her eye,” Lowell sings in his skilled baritone. And how often do you hear the jail referred to as the “calaboose” ?

His “A World Far Beyond” is a moving spiritual that hearkens to folklore themes of old, featuring four-part part harmony that will give you goose bumps.

Sterling production wraps up the whole package. If you’re fortunate to see these guys in person, you won’t soon forget them.

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– Mariss McTucker