The idea of artists returning to their roots – particularly within the world of country - has become a bit of a cliché. Cynically speaking, it can signal a desperate response to sagging sales; on a more forgiving level, it can be seen as a counter-reaction to the increasingly slick and painfully over-produced tripe that dominates contemporary playlists.
Joe Diffie has made a significant mark in mainstream country, as both performer and songwriter; no stranger to the hit parade, he’s responsible for twelve #1 hits under his own name, while penning popular tunes for the likes of Tim McGraw, Conway Twitty, and Joe Dee Messina. But Homecoming, billed as a return to Diffie’s bluegrass roots, forgoes current convention, instead delivering a collection that, immaculate production aside, sounds as real as dirt and as honest as a heartfelt prayer.
It doesn’t hurt that Diffie is supported here by a who’s who of modern bluegrass, most labelmates on the Rounder imprint. There are The Grascals, and both Alecia Nugent and Rhonda Vincent, as well as instrumentalists Rob Ickes and Bryan Sutton, among many others. The result is heavenly harmonies and exquisite, all-acoustic accompaniment on a collection that ranges from the traditional (Flatt & Scrugg’s “Somehow Tonight”) to contemporary tunes that sound timeless (“Lonesome And Dry As A Bone,” written by friend Shawn Camp), with a handful of Diffie originals for good measure.
As a collection, for the most part it straddles the line between modern (read superb production and flawless picking) and traditional (simple song structures and homespun wisdom, with an emphasis on family and faith). Instrumentation, again, is all-acoustic, with guitars, dobro, and fiddles (definitely no drums!) forming a rich and gorgeous tapestry of sound. There’s lots of sappy sentimentality, including the mini-morality play of ”’Til Death,” a tale of betrayal and revenge with a suitably tragic ending, and the maudlin “Route 5 Box 109,” a seemingly-requisite reflection on times past that wallows in sepia-toned nostalgia. And in keeping with the current formula, Diffie even tries his hand at adapting Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle,” giving it a bluegrass treatment that’s interesting enough but doesn’t quite work.
But while the material may adhere primarily to the tried-and-true, it’s all imbued with craft and unquestionable sincerity. Diffie is clearly comfortable in the world of bluegrass (he did, in fact, start out in a bluegrass group, so the roots are real enough), and he’s surrounded himself with the cream of the roots crop. Whether it represents a brief departure from the Nashville music machine or an ongoing return to his musical roots, Diffie’s Homecoming is definitely worth celebrating!