Some people just seem to live and breathe music; one suspects that, when cut, music — not blood — pours out. Dan Tyminski is such a fellow.
Outside the world of bluegrass, he’s probably best known as George Clooney’s singing voice on the wildly successful O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack from a few years back. Within bluegrass circles, though, he’s revered for his work with Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band and arguably the most accomplished collection of musicians the genre’s ever seen.
The thing is, though, Dan’s no diva. He’s quite content to work his musical alchemy from the sidelines. And any project he’s involved in is all the better for his contributions.
With Union Station on hiatus thanks to Krauss touring with Robert Plant, Tyminski finally found time to gather together some friends he’s long wanted to work with for Wheels, the follow-up to 2003’s Carry Me Across The Mountain. That’s a long gap between releases, but the result is a fine collection that virtually defines the sound of contemporary bluegrass.
Given he himself is among the genre’s elite, it comes as no surprise that Tyminski’s supporting cast here is uniformly excellent — Adam Steffey on mandolin, Barry Bales on bass, Ron Stuart on fiddle, and Justin Moses on banjo, with Bales and Moses contributing harmony vocals on a handful of songs. All are quite capable of breathtaking virtuosity, but egos are never on display here; it’s the intricate ensemble work that matters, the blending of individual instruments and voices into something truly greater than the sum of its parts. It is, in a very real sense, the sound of history, of community, of people playing together when they’re finished working together. That’s where this music came from, and Tyminski and company do a fine job of preserving that tradition while incorporating deft touches to keep things fresh and lively.
Material is generally strong, though a few tunes succumb to the maudlin strain so prevalent in bluegrass. Tyminski is thoroughly convincing, but there are moments when the tugs on the heartstrings become a little too obvious and persistent. But hey, homespun homilies about farms, orphans, and death — especially when combined with patriotism — are big among the bluegrass crowd, and songs like “Making Hay,” “Who Showed Who,” and “How Long Is That Train” no doubt go over well despite their rather saccharine sentiments. And again, one never doubts Tyminski’s sincerity; indeed, his delivery is invariably masterful. Rather than the nasally tenor of the "high lonesome" sound, Tyminski favors a warm, direct approach, free of artifice or extraneous embellishment, which comes across as nothing less than the sound of honesty itself.
Tyminski brings just one song to the playlist: the classic, old-time sounding “How Many Times;” while Union Station bandmate Ron Block contributes a pair along with his own rather considerable guitar skills. Steffey composed the lone instrumental, a blazing blast of furious picking that gives everyone a chance to strut their stuff to irresistible effect.
A collection as unpretentious and unassuming as Dan Tyminski himself, Wheels is a quietly wonderful masterpiece, crafted with obvious love and suffused with the sheer joy of sharing music with friends.