Livingston’s bluegrass icon, John Lowell, has released another gem of well-crafted songs underpinned by brilliant instrumental work. Most have never been recorded.
Lowell has a fine burry baritone and unmatched songwriting ability. There are sagas, love songs and mournful stories cloaked in beautiful balladry.
He originally conceived of a duet project, but wanted more sound so he enlisted 18 friends he’s played with over the years. Start with Lowell on guitar and lead vocals, then throw in award-winning bassist Missy Raines, who accompanies him on every cut.
Here’s the rest of the all-star cast: fiddlers Becky Buller, Jeremy Garrett (Infamous Stringdusters), Darol Anger (David Grisman Quintet) and Jason Thomas; Dobro player Andy Hall (Infamous Stringdusters); mandolinists John Reischman (John Reischman and the Jaybirds) and Joe K. Walsh; banjo players Ron Block (Alison Krauss and Union Station), Greg Cahill (Special Consensus), Chris Coole and Joe Newberry; pianist Bill Payne (Little Feat and Doobie Brothers); cellist Joy Adams; and Ben Somers, tenor sax.
Monster harmony vocalists include Claire Lynch, Chris Jones and Stephen Mougin. Several instrumentalists contribute harmony as well.
Twangs and minor fingerpickin’ from Newberry’s banjo introduce “Fergus County Jail.” Lowell’s guitar enters, emphasizing the “drop D” low note that creates atmosphere, and he plays silky runs at the end of vocal phrases. A man bemoans his fate in the slammer after he gets into a fracas and kills another.
Payne’s piano on “The Daydreamer’s Waltz” gives it a music-box feel; and “Western Velvet Sky/Black-Eyed Susie” was written for beloved friend Ben Bullington, a terrific songwriter who passed away some years back. It’s followed by “Ben Bullington Radio I.D,” with Bullington voicing the call letters for a radio station; Lowell recorded it during the songwriter’s last days.
“The Last to Know” is a loping bluegrasser with rollicking Cahill banjo, chunky Reischman mandolin, and torrents of guitar hammer-ons and pull-offs. “Bodie,” a forlorn waltz, is Lowell’s try at “creating a song that sounds old.” A man lured by the promise of gold in a California wasteland gets marooned there. Sons of the Pioneers-style harmony and bowed cello by Adams enhance the lonely feel.
If you’re looking for superb musicianship all around, get this CD. It’s a masterpiece!
– Mariss McTucker