Singer Holly Norman pays tribute to Elvis Presley on her new album Taking Care of Bluegrass: A Tribute to Elvis with a broad selection of songs associated with the King, including hits such as “Suspicious Minds,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and “CC Rider” along with more obscure tunes. Norman and a batch of excellent musicians couch them all, ballads and uptempo numbers, in a bluegrass setting, with plenty of banjo, mandolin, and fiddle (though there are fewer fast songs than some might expect from a bluegrass album).
Some tracks, like “Always On My Mind,” have more of a classic country-western feel than a full bluegrass sound, but music genres are always fluid. What all the numbers have is ace musicianship and the relaxed twang of Norman’s sweetly assured vocals. “Moody Blue” is a gem, a bluegrass musicians’ clinic with crackling playing, beautiful singing, and warm, woodsmoke harmonies.
In fact, the album’s vocal harmony arrangements as a whole deserve a special nod. Terry Blackwood & the Imperials, who backed up Elvis years ago, provide harmonies on three tracks, including the gospel number “Sweet Sweet Spirit.” And “Kentucky Rain” is a treat with Elvis collaborator James Burton guesting on Resonator guitar.
Juxtaposing divergent songs like the country-western “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” and the pop classics “Love Me Tender” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (the last two in a medley) in a consistent style like bluegrass emphasizes the tremendous capacity Elvis had for absorbing multiple American musical traditions and adapting them to his own sensibility, old ones as well as those created during his own heyday.
Don’t let the cheesy cover art steer you away from this music, which is anything but. It’s hard to go wrong with material this good, and Holly Norman and her fantastic backup musicians do right by it – and by Elvis – in a big way.
In another respectful and loving nod to the past, pearly-voiced Whitney Rose marks her move to Austin, Texas with a six-song EP of smooth traditional country-western. South Texas Suite includes six songs, four of them written by Rose, that celebrate an old-time simplicity and honesty which, however dubious their real-life existence may have been, gave the country music of past decades some of its happy appeal.
Refusing to cater to society’s pressures in “My Boots,” the EP’s uptempo centerpiece, Rose sings sweetly of the romance of the jukebox in “Three Minute Love Affair,” and aches for the slower pace of pre-digital times in “Analog” (by Brennen Leigh).
“Bluebonnets for My Baby” by Terri Joyce lets Rose indulge a taste for stories of romance and longing. But in her own “Lookin’ Back on Luckenbach” she returns to her nostalgic theme, longing in so many words for “the good old simple times…I pour a glass of whiskey and let the music flood my mind…get choked up and I can’t talk.”
Maybe. Fortunately for us, nostalgia doesn’t stop her from singing, nor her fine band from motoring at full throttle on the instrumental closer (originally an extended outro for “My Boots.”) Here the musicians trade high-spirited fours using nothing but their talent, skill, and gusto – no pickup trucks or American flags needed.