Sometimes I just can’t help myself….. I’ll make sure the CD’s I want to review are all in a neat, orderly pile, and I try soooo hard to listen to them in the order they arrive at my doorstep. I’m a lucky man, there are lots of CD’s to choose from. Then my schedule gets all messed up, because sometimes, one shows up and I’ve already heard some of the artist’s previous music, and I just get nosey. So much for good intentions…….
The first track that I listened to off The Grass Cats newest CD, “The Mountains My Baby And Me,” is called LIFE IN THE MINES. I’m a sucker for coal minin’ songs, so I thought I’d check out just this one tune and then get back on schedule. So much for makin’ schedules….. There are seven original songs by Russell Johnson, lead singer and mandolin player, on this thirteen song disc. LIFE IN THE MINES is co-written with Gary Whitt, and it is one dy-no-mite song! A sad, mournful minor key gem with great lyrics, harmony, twin fiddles, dobro and passion in it’s presentation, I was hooked and had to give in and listen to more. So much for makin’ this CD wait it’s turn…….
Mr. Johnson produced this disc, and he recorded the band at The Comfort Zone in Four Oaks, N.C. Additional recording was done by banjo player Rick Lafleur at Casey Cat Studios in Durham, N.C. Both gentlemen should be commended for making the technical side of this project crisp, sharp, even, distortion free and spot on. After getting all the tracks recorded, their next move says volumes about their commitment to releasing a superb sounding product. All their labors were entrusted to Mr. Wesley Easter at Eastwood Studios, Cana, W.V. for mixing and mastering. I’ve been lucky enough to have listened to a lot of Mr. Easter’s work, and he is a master “wizard” at his job. He put the icing on this cake with tender loving care and expertise. On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to put the recording process achievement award at a FIFTEEN! A super effort by all involved!
The band’s independent ways are what originally piqued my interest…… they had been #1 on two of the industry’s bluegrass music charts with their previous hit record “A Good Way To Get The Blues.” Written and sung by Russell, the song made them a household name in bluegrass circles. And they did it without a major, big-time record label pushing them! Their talent prevailed, and their independence got them noticed. “If you want to do it right, do it yourself “ seems to be their mantra. Good for them.
My second favorite Russell Johnson original is PRISONER OF YOUR LOVE. Hot tempo, hot licks, hot harmony, Russell’s hottest vocal treatment and hot song-writing all rolled up into one attention getting song. This song should be their next single…. in my humble opinion. This CD’s title track, THE MOUNTAINS MY BABY AND ME, which Russell co-wrote with Rick Lafleur, and OFF AND GONE are the first two songs, and they reach out and grab the listener right away.
There are two gospel songs that show Mr. Johnson’s spiritual song-smithing strengths, also. MEET ME UP IN HEAVEN, which has fiddle player Chris Hill singing the lead vocal, and TURNING POINT, with Russell on lead vocals, are both heartfelt and powerful. The harmony is standout, and the arrangements are pure, simple and meaningful.
The Grass Cats have been together fifteen years, and from the way they play and sing together, it has obviously been quality time. Their harmonies are wonderful! From several of their video’s, you can hear that those harmonies are super tight in their live shows, also. They aren’t manufactured in the studio, and that makes me want to see them in concert! Vocals this good only come with time, talent and the ability to really listen to one another.
Bass player Tim Woodall is the anchor of this band. In their videos, he’s always center stage, and his electric bass is their backbone. His electric sound is also the center of this CD, and helps to make The Grass Cats sound all the more distinct. I love upright acoustic bass, but it can get lost if not recorded and/or mixed just right. Tim’s sound, technique and drive push the rest of the band like a freight train. I love to FEEL the bass as much as I like to hear it! Tim’s lead vocals, on The Ember’s old song WHAT YOU DO TO ME, and Mark Chesnutt’s country hit YOUR LOVE IS A MIRACLE, show off his vocal dexterity. But… he REALLY shines on the old Reno and Smiley hit UNWANTED LOVE. I’ve always been partial to the way the Johnson Mountain Boys did it, but Tim steps into this version and owns it!
Chris Hill is on fiddle and is also the third man in their harmony triad. When he kicks off a song or takes a solo, he has a “take charge” flair to his playing that will come right out of left field and sizzle! No wasted notes, no dramatic flourishes, just solid, right on the money fiddle chops that pin your ears back. He nails every lick he plays and every note he sings!
Rick Lafleur, on banjo, is all over this recording….. in a very good way. To me, a banjo can be a multi-dimensional source of intrigue and exuberance….. or a constant irritant! The very nature of the instrument makes it impossible to ignore, and finesse is not always used. Finesse IS a big part of Rick’s palette. He adds an entire color wheel of nuances to each song, and he seems to have a knack for just the right notes, at just the right time. He has a way of vamping on the backbeat of a rhythm that adds all sorts of interesting hues to the tempo. His timing on his solos is impeccable, and originality seems to be his goal. AND…. he sings good gospel bass vocals!
I really can’t say much about guitarist Alan Mullen….. being the “new guy” in the band as of August, 2012, he is still making his way into the fold. He plays a solid kickoff to the old Bob Dylan song BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND, his guitar has a sweet tone and his fingering seems fluid and assured. What I’ve heard, I’ve really liked. His addition to the rhythm section was a solid decision. He must be a super-picker to step into this band….. he’s going to have to be to play with this power house unit!
Russell Johnson….. he’s already an award winning, two time #1 song-writer. I could go on and on about where his songs have and will take him, he’s THAT good with his lyrics and melodies! And when he starts singing, he’s every bit as gifted as Del McCoury and Larry Stephenson. He plays mandolin like he was born with it in his hands, and he has the ears that make him an ace record producer. This guy is the real deal, and I have officially become a great big fan! He’s released a solo record, “Any Time Any Place But Only You,” and in August of 2012 he had three songs on the Bluegrass Today national chart, at the same time! That’s not luck….. that’s talent being recognized.
Listening to this CD has been an interesting experience….. I can get a little jaded, and when something this good comes along, it catches me off guard. I had to dig a little deeper into the meat of the music to try to understand the rationale for song choices. There are no less that three songs on this release that have #1 hit written all over them. But, this record is not perfect. The band has included a cover version of HUNGRY HEART, and the problem is, no matter how good you do a Bruce Springsteen song, it’s still a Springsteen song. The same can be said for Eric Clapton’s I CAN’T STAND IT. There are some songs that just don’t translate…..And sometimes, as on LOVE WITH A LIFETIME GUARANTEE, a good original song is just that…. good, but NOT great. A cute arrangement isn’t going to fix it.
Do I like this CD? You bet I do! Do I like all of it? No…. Do I think that everyone should get this CD? YEP! Get it, and add it to your collection.