Bluegrass is music that, to a large degree, looks to the past. Stubbornly resisting innovation, it relies on the tried and true, with home and heartbreak providing the bulk of the genre’s thematic material, and all-acoustic instrumentation a given: that means no drums, no synthesizers, and definitely no auto-tuning to hide vocal imperfections.
Charlie Sizemore’s bluegrass credentials are solid indeed. In 1977, he joined Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (sort of the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin of the bluegrass world – we’re talking royalty here!) as guitarist and lead singer. He spent some nine years with Stanley – quite literally one of the originators of bluegrass, a man who helped define the genre itself – before leaving to pursue a law degree.
Once it’s in the blood, though, bluegrass isn’t something one can easily leave behind, and Heartache Looking For A Home is Sizemore’s sophomore effort as a leader, a followup to 2007’s Good News (There was also a 2002 tribute to songwriter Tom T. Hall). With impeccable taste and an irresistable sense of rhythmic urgency, Sizemore leads a fine quartet through a carefully-chosen collection that embraces country while keeping his feet firmly planted in his grassy roots.
Sizemore covers Hall again (“Pay No Attention To Alice”) and turns to songwriter Paul Craft for the bulk of the playlist (Craft had a hand in five of the disc’s fourteen tunes), including, ironically, a song called “No Lawyers In Heaven.” The material covers the timeless themes of bad women (the title track) and bad booze (“Red Wicked Wine,” featuring a guest appearance by Stanley himself) as well as loneliness and longing for home. There’s love lost and love gone wrong, with longing – wistful and melancholy – a common thread throughout.
Sizemore’s voice is perfect for the material, straddling the line between a rich depth and that high, lonesome sound that defines the genre with relaxed ease. He never seems to be trying too hard, yet there’s simply no doubting his conviction – a man of few words who values economy of expression above all, he sings every line as though he’s lived it – the goal, obviously, of most singers, but few pull it off with such assurance and emotional impact. Instrumental accompaniment is, as expected, uniformly excellent – bluegrass is as famous for the dexterity of the players, and Sizemore’s band – Danny Barnes on mandolin and banjo, Matt DeSpain on dobro, Josh McMurray on banjo, and bassist John Pennel – is as good as it gets. All but Pennel provide harmonies, and he’s responsible for the pensive “Feelin’ Like El Paso,” while DeSpain penned “Fords Of Pittman,” the disc’s lone instrumental.
There’s nothing terribly innovative about Heartache, but bluegrass isn’t really about innovation; again, the formula – exquisite acoustic instrumentation and heartfelt harmonies – is just fine as is. The only question is in execution, and Sizemore and company do it all with unerring authority and unquestionable honesty.