They say you’ve got to know the rules before you can break the rules, and bluegrass is the perfect proving ground for how far that mindset can go.
AJ Lee and Blue Summit have been honing their bluegrass bona fides for most of their young lives — including several individual and band awards from the Northern California Bluegrass Society, a Momentum Award for Best Vocalist for Lee from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and a band contest win at the 2019 FreshGrass festival (which is, like No Depression, operated by the FreshGrass Foundation). I’ll Come Back, the band’s second album, finds them wandering farther afield, stylistically, without leaving their home genre behind.
The first song, “Lemons & Tangerines,” is set in songwriter, vocalist, and mandolin player Lee’s backyard in San Jose, but musically it’s miles away from the standard bluegrass sound. Lee’s vocals go smoky and soulful over a groove reminiscent of “Ode to Billie Joe,” a delicious appetizer in preparation for the modern sounds served up on I’ll Come Back.
Even as the songs take surprising, refreshing directions in their sound, the lyrics and themes blaze new paths as well. “When You Change Your Mind” is a heartbreak song before love ever takes root, and “Monongah Mine” tells the story of a horrific 1907 mining accident in West Virginia that led to reform in the industry. “Magdalene” is a country weeper that adds to a small but growing canon of songs exploring same-sex yearning without dodge or disclaimer.
If the first half of I’ll Come Back shows where this band is going, the second — kicked off aptly by “Back to Bluegrass” —reminds listeners where they’ve been. On that song, twin fiddles usher in a sweet reminiscence on bluegrass jams: “So many times in my life / I’ve stayed up all night / Singing so loud I can’t sing the next day / But it’s so good that noise / of Bill and the boys / You can’t help but do it all again.”
“Put Your Head Down” is a good ol’ gospel bluegrass song on the surface, but the lyrics reveal the notion that praying might not always be enough. And “Rodney Dangerfield” isn’t the type of title usually found on a bluegrass instrumental, but the sense of fun and the solid solos traded among Lee, guitarists Jesse Fichman and Sullivan Tuttle, and Jan Purat on fiddle make the name a perfect fit — definitely worthy of respect.
AJ Lee and Blue Summit have always bent the rules of bluegrass a bit — they don’t even have a banjo in the band — but on I’ll Come Back they’ve found their own rules to live by: good music, thoughtful lyrics, and a healthy disregard for boundaries.