For infectious high-energy country-bluegrass fun, I haven’t heard much lately that can beat The Whiskey Gentry’s new CD. Holly Grove, the band’s second disc, canters out of the gate with “I Ain’t Nothing,” whose childlike ur-melody, country swing, and alternately defiant and desperate lyrics broadcast decisively that here’s a band that blends slickness and rootsiness into a superb brew. Next comes the punk-speed hyperdrive of “Colly Davis,” a murder ballad by Pat Flynn (and one of the few songs the band didn’t write). Murder is also the subject of the rocking title track, where the characteristic quiver in lead vocalist Lauren Staley’s voice speaks volumes.
Butch Walker contributes guest vocals to the raw he/she duet “One Night in New York,” while the old-timey, minor-key “Oh Me” showcases the cool controlled vocal tone that Staley somehow still infuses with a hint of the animal. Here and throughout, the band’s expert musicianship elevates the songs, which are solidly constructed from sturdy, tried-and-true timbers, into works of crafty showmanship. Many of the lyrics are a cut above standard, too, like these from “Particle”: “When our ancestors longed for a place to call home…You must have been the wind that pushed out their sails / I was the promise on the other side.” Then again, there’s “Brander’s Reel,” an electrified, instrumental Irish-style cooker. This band’s got a full arsenal.
The danger is always that these kinds of sounds will shade from tried-and-true into cliché, and it happens in “Dixie,” a good-time romp that sounds like an attempt to break into the glassy desert of commercial country radio. The melody and the sonic flavors of the melancholy love ballad “Reno” aren’t any more original than “Dixie”‘s, but in an indefinable way the song makes its own statement where “Dixie” doesn’t quite. It also proves The Whiskey Gentry can go soft and gentle in convincing fashion when they want to. They’re adept at classic country-western too, as in “Here’s Your Song,” which feels like something Dolly Parton might have written in the ’70s.
An unlisted extra song turns out to be a cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The classic-rock staple turns out to work just fine in an easygoing bluegrass context, and makes a satisfying conclusion to a bright-eyed, high-flying album from a band with both the chops of experience and the energy of youth.