Is there an emerging style that we can call “alternative bluegrass?” Bands such as Crooked Still, Mountain Heart, and Old Crow Medicine Show come immediately to mind. The alternative bluegrass sound is not the high, lonesome variety of Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers. It doesn’t possess the exciting polish of Flatt & Scruggs. Nor does it have the instrumental pyrotechnics of newgrass. But alternative bluegrass is definitely emerging as a distinctive variety of bluegrass, one that is proving pleasing to a wide spectrum of the music’s fans. It embraces folk music at its core. Its bands typically exhibit beautifully blended vocals, spry picking, ear-catching syncopations, and refreshingly creative original song writing. So if the alternative bluegrass sound has perked up your ears, add to the list of its most enjoyable practitioners the wonderful Oregon-based band Wayward Vessel.
Wayward Vessel sailed into the national bluegrass scene with a strong second place finish at the 2012 Telluride Band Competition. Mandolinist Josiah Payne has won on his instrument at Winfield and Rockygrass. Fiddler Julie Schmidt teaches music at a school in Portland. Bassist Belinda Underwood plays folk (on the ukulele, no less) and jazz, as well as manufacturing bass pickups. And guitarist Ken Chapple gives flatpicking guitar clinics and is a mainstay of Portland-area jam sessions. Although young, this ensemble is clearly accomplished and their talents shine through here.
Their picking and singing is crisp and professional, right from the opening track “Blue” written by Ken Chapple (who has contributed half of the CD’s songs). Josiah Payne’s “Desert Skies” is a powerful story of love gone by and dreams lost. Julie Schmidt’s “Little Girl” could have been learned right on the porch of an Appalachian hill farmer, it has a sound that’s authentic (and don’t miss her fiddle coda). Wayward Vessel’s ability at adapting material is also impressive. The band turns in a riveting version of the Bob Dylan classic “Boots Of Spanish Leather.” Their equally compelling arrangement of the traditional song “Say Darlin’ Say” is one of those rare tracks that can appeal to both grownups and children. Take a listen.
Whether or not you agree that alternative bluegrass has arisen as a distinctive style, it would be hard to go wrong with this refreshing young band’s new CD. Enjoy. (Ken Chapple, 4336 SE 16th Ave., Portland, OR 97202, www.waywardvessel.com.)RDS