As a genre, bluegrass is finally changing, albeit rather gradually. Virtually defined by Bill Monroe back in the '50s, the template hasn’t altered much in the intervening years. It’s still pretty much all-acoustic, with driving guitars, banjos, and mandolins providing the propulsive accompaniment.
But music that refuses to change grows stale, and fortunately there are fresh young bands out there determined to rejuvenate bluegrass for a new generation. Among them are Colorado’s Spring Creek, who bring both reverence for the music’s foundation and a fresh approach to the genre on Way Up On A Mountain.
That’s not to say the group’s third recording (the first two were released independently), is radical, nor that the music isn’t deeply rooted in tradition. Instrumentation follows the classic form; guitar (Taylor Sims), banjo (Chris Elliot), mandolin (Alex Johnstone) and string bass (Jessica Smith). They’re augmented by guests Sally Van Meter, who contributes resophonic guitar on a trio, and Michael Cleveland, whose fiddle helps propel a handful.
And as is customary, all share vocal duties, trading leads and providing harmonies as appropriate for each tune. There are only a couple of covers – the classic “Lonesome Town” (a tune made famous by Ricky Nelson, of all people), and “In Despair,” a hard-driving but lesser-known tune from Mr. Monroe himself – with band members contributing the majority of the material.
Where appropriate, Spring Creek sticks pretty close to formula – fare like “Another Lonesome Night My Dear” and “It’s Alright My Darlin’” (there seems to be an unwritten rule that at least half of all bluegrass songs employ the word ‘darlin’’) sound both timeless and true. But “Cuba Vera Swing” incorporates a jaunty rhythm with origins far from either Colorado or Appalachia. And “Driving Me Crazy,” written by Sims, sounds more like a breezy ragtime number than a traditional bluegrass tune. The touches are subtle, but it’s clear the band is determined to forge their own sound rather than simply repeat the past.
Instrumental contributions are uniformly excellent (in a genre known for instrumental articulation, a rather rarefied level of proficiency is taken for granted), and all the band members provide eminently adequate if unspectacular vocals – the emphasis is on the ensemble sound rather than individual performances, with harmonies and carefully interwoven arrangements providing a rich and rhythmically propulsive foundation. The form isn’t new, but it’s clear this is a band willing to listen to and incorporate innovative musical ideas regardless of origin. It will be interesting to see where they take their music next …