The studio debut of Leftover Salmon mandolinist Drew Emmitt and String Cheese guitarist Billy Nershi’s latest project is just what you’d hope it might be: wicked picking, good vibes, and plenty of smiles. The product of the pair’s three-day holed-up Colorado write-a-thon, New Country Blues, lets the boys get grassy while never limiting the moment to tradition.
In fact, two of the album’s standout songs, Emmitt’s “This Is The Time” and the pair’s “Costa Rica” are good examples of just letting traditional instruments stretch their legs in the name of the groove no what its origin’s postal code happens to be. Bluegrassers shouldn’t be intimidated, though: other times it’s just a matter of digging in, laying down the theme, and passing it ‘round the circle, as on the album-opening title song or the easy-loping “Road of Destruction.” (By the way, the album isn’t split into “Billy songs” and “Drew songs” – this is truly a band.)
On the instrumental side of things, New Country Blues allows us to sit in as the boys explore their inner Dawgs with the very David Grismanish “Surfing the Red Sea” and “Mango Tango.” Meanwhile, “Flight of the Durban” plunks us right on the back of the big ol’ critter. From the quiet opening moments (perched on a mountaintop, overlooking the world) you can feel the air currents. The wind picks up; you feel the lift … takeoff! We soar and swoop and have a hell of time. My only complaint is that the track fades at the end – I wanted to hear ‘em land the beast.
One unexpected pleasure on New Country Blues was the personal discovery of Tyler Grant, an absolute flatpicking monster. Holding down the bass end for most of the album, Grant takes the wheel on lead guitar and vocal for his self-penned “I Come From The Country” (while Nershi slides over to the dobro stool) and simply nails it. Gol’_dang_, but this boy can pick – and sing, too. Billy’s String Cheese bandmate Keith Moseley sits on bass for this one, along with providing a solid bedrock for the previously-mentioned “Mango Tango.” And, yes – there is a bit o’ Cheese on here as well: “Restless Wind” gets a workout, with Emmitt in particular pulling an absolute wild-arse lead on the mando.
All in all, New Country Blues is just plain, good fun with no egos in sight. Nershi and Emmitt may be the leaders, but they definitely wanted this album to be a team effort – all hands get a chance to shine. Beautifully recorded, the album sounds like you’re sitting in the middle of the living room floor scratching the dog’s ears with the band in a circle around you.
Crack that damper on the woodstove, would ya?
Brian Robbins will join the site as a columnist later this month.