Kinetic Tone, Balsam Range’s new album and their 10th with Mountain Home Music Company, delivers the level of added energy the title implies. After 15 years together, the group has made adjustments after the amicable departure of their original mandolin player and vocalist Darren Nicholson, with Alan Bibey of Grasstowne stepping in to fill his role.
The album lives up to the high standards listeners have come to expect from this North Carolina-based five-piece that has made its mark on the bluegrass world, with songs infused with a strong sense of place and a narrative bent. “Marshall McClain” presents a first-person account of the life of a legendary lawman who’s “lived most my life looking over my shoulder” and admits, at least to himself, that his success has depended more on luck than anything else. He remains “haunted by the ghosts and the ones that got away.”
“Echo Canyon” is set in California after the gold rush, and “Two Lane Highway” takes listeners on a backroad drive that could be anywhere in America, reminding them, “Nothing in this world like the freedom of the road / Two-lane highway take me where I want to go.”
The bittersweet song “Running Out of Reasons” addresses the all-too-common decline of small towns after “the factory moved to Mexico” and jobs moved out and drugs moved in. Kinetic Tone is not all pessimistic acceptance, though. The band also weaves their more upbeat music and messages throughout the album.
Balsam Range’s reinterpretation of Waylon Jennings’ “Just to Satisfy You” takes the tempo up and conveys less an attitude of licking wounds than a warning. Musically, the bluegrass flavor provided by the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle adds a new dimension to the song.
A theme running through the album is the futility of worry, a foundation built on the wisdom of experience. “What the Years Do” presents a picture of days that look “a whole lot different than they did at 22,” and “Evergreen” accepts the changes that aging brings, declaring:
I don’t mind things that don’t matter these days
Time I’ve spent on worry never pays.
Now the leaves are changing from green to gold,
So I’ll change with them, I’ll be so bold.
“Worry” confronts that human tendency head-on and upbeat, observing, “All the worry in the world won’t get you nowhere / so I wouldn’t worry if I were you.”
With Kinetic Tone, Balsam Range presents fresh music with the stellar vocal and instrumental musicianship that has firmly planted them among modern-day bluegrass icons. The tracks follow the rising and falling tones — and moods — implied by the title, with hope always at the forefront.
Balsam Range’s Kinetic Tone is out Dec. 1 via Mountain Home Music Company.