Before I got to track number three, “Fox On The Run,” the Reunion Hill Band already had me thinking about the Country Gentlemen, as well as Jonathan Edwards’ work with the Seldom Scene and Northern Lights. The New Hampshire band similarly mixes hard-edged bluegrass picking with folk-style vocals. The name Reunion Hill, in fact, comes from a song by popular folk singer-songwriter Richard Shindell. The last track on the album, “Reunion Hill,” receives lovely, low-key and effective treatment more at home on AAA radio than bluegrass.
Guitarist Rich Schleckser, one of three lead vocalists, is perhaps best known as a frequent co-writer with New Hampshire’s most accomplished bluegrass composer, Rick Lang. Their songs here explore New England themes from a bluegrass perspective. He is a twenty-year veteran of the regional scene, playing in Iron Skillet as did mandolinist Rick Horton, who also shares the lead singing. While still just a kid, banjoist Kevin O’Connor learned from the extraordinary Don Stover, who had him picking with J.D. Crowe and Joe Val. Like Horton, he played in the American Flyer band. Bass player and lead singer Dave Ward became a member in 2010.
O’Connor’s five-string delights all the way through and highlights one of Reunion Hill’s two strong points: instrumental ability. From the initial notes, the lead track, Horton’s “Tangled In My Heart,” you sense these guys can pick. The other thing the members do quite well is write songs. The band enjoys three skillful songwriters providing two titles each by Ward, Horton, and Schleckser with Lang. These are not instrumentals made up in the studio, but fully realized compositions with substantial lyrics worth hearing. Ward’s “Mary Baker” addresses the problem of Alzheimer’s with verses that fit bluegrass tradition, for example.
Where the band falls somewhat short is in its choice of covers. These are not inspired choices and suggest an internal conflict embodied in this eponymous CD. The listener becomes confused about whether this is a serious artistic effort (seven songs) or the five familiar songs that get the best reaction at the farmers market gigs. The album includes six very good to first-rate original songs, one gorgeous folk cover, and five songs that have both been overdone in (and sometimes outside of) bluegrass that come from rock or pop music of the 1960s-1970s. That same ’60s vibe carries over into the vocals which sound more influenced by Tom Rush, CSN, and Phil Rosenthal than the Stanley Brothers, Lilly Brothers, or Doodle Thrower. (David Ward, 79 Forestview Dr., Spofford, NH 03462, www.reunionhillband.com.) AM