Missoula’s rising stars, The Lil Smokies, have put out their third studio album, named after the Texas town where it was recorded. After touring tirelessly for days on end, the band hunkered down with accomplished producer/engineer Bill Reynolds at the Sonic Ranch studio near El Paso to regroup and record.
Band members Matt Cornette, banjo, Scott Parker, bass, Matt “Rev” Rieger, guitar and vocals, Andy Dunnigan, Dobro and vocals, and Jake Simpson, fiddle and vocals, decided this time around they would focus on shared songwriting. Unlike past albums, in which lead singer Dunnigan wrote and sang most of the material, they shake it up here. Three songs are from Rieger, one from Simpson, six from Dunnigan, and one by all three (“World’s on Fire”).
They aspire here to write in the folk-rock style of a major influence, the Laurel Canyon (California) songwriters of the ‘70s (think Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Buffalo Springfield, among many others). Each performer sings his own compositions, and they split up the arranging, too, with stellar harmonies contributed by all vocalists.
Mirroring that style alone would make them mere imitators, but when it’s built upon a foundation of galloping, unrelenting tempos and white-hot instrumental work, you have something new.
Slow silky fiddle starts “Carry Me;” next comes a whispery vocal intro from Dunnigan. Almost imperceptibly, the tempo picks up, building slowly. There are soaring harmony vocals on the chorus that stop abruptly for a cappella harmony on “untie these knots, carry me.” Blazing fiddle follows, and presently the song tamps down and fades quietly. Well done!
Rieger’s snappy “Wheel on the Water” has a chunky feel, and crisp fiddle/Dobro snippets shine between verses. Rieger’s earthy voice, contrasting with Dunnigan’s smooth baritone, gets reverb-y on “but the quiet never lies.” There’s more nifty duet harmony from fiddle and Dobro while the banjo and bass boil underneath.
Simpson sings his “Life Out There,” a folky, country loper with pretty harmonies. His voice has a James Taylor-like quality. “World’s on Fire” finds banjo kickstarting the song along with Dunnigan’s vocals. There’s monster fiddle sawing and a knock-out banjo break, then all quiets. Three voices enter, one at a time on separate verses, till it sounds almost like a round. Harmonious!
“Tornillo,” the finale, is a slow ballad on piano. It’s an un-Smokies-like contribution that’s refreshing, and it works.
The group was on a winter-spring tour (before the COVID pandemic preempted such pursuits) throughout the States and Canada, picking up new fans, no doubt!
– Mariss McTucker