Blessed with fine harmony, with three good lead singers (Jesse Moravec being a very good lead singer) and with impressive talent (particularly guitarist Clint Birtzer) at every lead and rhythm slot, any failure by the Sawtooth Bluegrass Band to make an impact musically falls to the quality and/or selection of the material. Such shortcomings, however, happen here only rarely and then only relatively.
For their fourth recording, the band has programmed eight originals, four standards and two non-standards, including a rollicking cover of the Buck Owens’ hit “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line.” The four standards might prompt a first reaction of “not again,” but with the exception of “Nashville Skyline Rag,” which requires almost superhuman creativity to be made fresh again, the band gives the vibrant readings. On “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” they overcome the campy, overblown approach of recent covers and give the words a needed sense of dignity, while on “It’s Mighty Dark To Travel,” it is their no-quarters attack and verve that makes remaking it worthy. The best of the standards is, however, “Stone Walls And Steel Bars.” Jesse Moravec’s emphatic, urgent lead changes the protagonist’s weary lament to one of “I’m not going back there again,” creating a sense of resolve more in keeping with the theme.
The band’s style, its interesting blend of Americana and Indie rock elements to traditional bluegrass, can best be heard in their originals. The two best, both by Jesse Moravec, are “Keep Holdin’ On” and “The Way Things Should Be.” Both have an immediacy and melodicism that is captivating, the former being an alt country-style tale of depression and survival, the latter being a lilting, introspective piece in waltz time. Jesse’s vocals, emotional and plaintive, make them all the more impressive. Luke Birtzer’s steady and tradition-based title track and Clint Birtzer’s wistful “Empty Bottles And Broken Dreams,” are also quite good and round out a very good album. (Sawtooth Bluegrass Band, 15429 679th St., Wabasha, MN 55981, www.sawtoothbluegrass.com.)BW