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Music Reviews: Strands of Bluegrass from Hot Rize, Kenny and Amanda Smith, and Singer-Songwriter Beth Snapp

beth snapp
Beth Snapp

Beth Snapp, Don’t Apologize (NewSong Recordings)

“The princess’s life was not for me.” The songs on Beth Snapp‘s new seven-song EP Don’t Apologize sweetly and forcefully declare independence from others’ expectations. Richly tuneful, with the backing of a fine bluegrass band, the artfully confessional songs dress Snapp’s messages in velvety soulfulness.

Two uptempo bluegrass numbers offers an amusing duality: “Easy to Love” (not the Billie Holiday classic but a Snapp original like everything else on the EP) presents a narrator ready for love without being needy. In “Little Much” she faces the reality that she’s more than a potential lover may be able to handle.

The title track and “The Princess Dream” are slower folk-pop tunes that are just as solid. A tribal beat and clever lyrics energize the banjo- and fiddle-driven charger “Scream,” where the flame of protest singes even if the lyrics are hard to make out.

Don’t Apologize is available online.

Hot Rize, 40th Anniversary Bash (Ten in Hand Records)

In a purer bluegrass vein, Hot Rize reunited at the Boulder Theatre in January 2018 to celebrate four decades of music-making. The resulting live album, 40th Anniversary Bash, is a blistering set of 18 prime examples of the genre. Many of them written by band members, these tracks showcase Hot Rize’s undimmed musicianship and enthusiasm.

Guests Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Sam Bush join the Hot Rize foursome of Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O’Brien, and Bryan Sutton to spin gold from string. The songs include “Colleen Malone,” “High on a Mountain,” “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” and a crackling bluegrass version of “Wichita Lineman” sung by O’Brien and carbonated with scintillating solos.

A grim take on Los Lobos’s “Burn It Down” is as downbeat as the album gets. Altogether, 40th Anniversary Bash is a great road-trip album and a bracing pick-me-up any time of day. The joy these great players take in their music-making is palpable in every note. So is the vitality of bluegrass.

Kenny and Amanda Smith, Unbound (Farm Boy Records)

A bluegrass twang winds through Kenny and Amanda Smith‘s latest album Unbound. Their first since 2012, it hit the bluegrass charts in 2016 but seems to be getting a fresh promotional push, perhaps in conjunction with the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band’s current tour.

On this collection the pair and their band set songs by many different writers in a warm bath of rich vocal harmonies, with instrumental work that’s so natural-sounding it’s positively elegant. Kenny Smith’s guitar work, smooth and tasteful but sometimes also brightly surprising (as in “Getting Used to the Pain”), melds gracefully with Justin Jenkins’ prominent banjo and Jacob Burleson’s mandolin. Amanda Smith’s silvery, knowing vocals grace the many catchy melodies and straightforward, sometimes poetic lyrics.

There are driving toe-tappers, like “Every Pilgrim Needs a Highway” with its effervescent mandolin solo and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wherefore and Why.” These mingle sweetly with pop-country baubles like “Reaching Out” and “You Know That I Would” and softer lyrical numbers like “There Was a Time” and the story-song “Hills of Logan County.” The simple, heart-gripping “Unbound” may be my favorite track.

Kenny Smith takes laid-back lead vocals on two songs, including the subtle “Preaching My Own Funeral.” Its line “We’re all preaching our own funeral every day” might be interpreted religiously, but it also suggests that artists, and by extension all of us, leave a legacy, for better or worse, through our talents and the chances life gives us. Kenny and Amanda Smith are doing theirs proud.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases.Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires.Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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