With their latest album, Imaginary Lines, North Carolina-based bluegrass band Unspoken Tradition has something strong to show for how they used their time during COVID lockdown. They were just coming off the success of their full-length Myths We Tell Our Young, released in 2019, when the pandemic forced them off the touring circuit, and the members of the band took the opportunity to test boundaries — those imaginary lines referenced in the new album’s title.
The band is composed of brothers Audie McGinnis on guitar and Zane McGinnis on banjo, Ty Gilpin on mandolin, Tim Gardner on fiddle, and Sav Sankaran on bass. Working with producer Jon Weisberger, who also co-wrote a couple of the tracks, Unspoken Tradition has put together a collection that balances pure bluegrass sound with songs that push genre borders.
What results is a textured, balanced project whose songs flow together with lyrical and instrumental variety. The album title is taken from the opening track “Carolina and Tennessee,” which personifies the adjoining states’ shared topography. Sankaran’s vocals lend the song a softer, rootsy edge. Alternating vocal leads and sharing harmonies, Audie McGinnis and Sankaran give the project a refreshing variety. The band continues to deliver the traditional bluegrass listeners know to expect on tracks such as “Irons in the Fire,” and a more old-time sound on “The Old Swinging Bridge.”
Thematically, the songs on Imaginary Lines explore traditional bluegrass motifs. “Lookout Mountain” addresses the tensions between old and new as the threat of “big ideas and big machines” comes in the name of progress and families are pushed out to make room for the second homes of wealthy newcomers. “Soldiers of Dust,” written by Gilpin, expresses the frustration of life “in a slow dying town.”
These songs balance the burden and the honor of hard work, as does “Irons in the Fire,” with Audie McGinnis singing lead and a video filmed at the Warren Wilson College blacksmith shop.
The songs engage readers through clever storytelling, not unusual in bluegrass. “Crooked Jack” adds an Irish flavor, with vocals alternating between Audie McGinnis, Sankaran, and guest artist John Doyle, who also plays bouzouki in the tale of a man broken while “working down a hole.” Penned by Mike Cross, “Bounty Hunter” gives the perspective of a wanted man cornered in a hay loft.
“California,” written by Grammy-nominated songwriter Thomm Jutz with Miriam Speyer, offers strong cross-genre appeal. With Audie McGinnis’ strong vocal lead and the skilled instrumental accompaniment listeners know to expect from Unspoken Tradition, the song evokes the wanderlust of aspiring musicians finding themselves playing of Nashville’s Lower Broadway but longing for California.
Throughout the album, Unspoken Tradition has judged just how close to come to those imaginary lines, recognizing when to respect the barriers and when to push the limits. Without straying from their Carolina bluegrass roots, the vocal, lyrical, and instrumental variety on the album is bound to appeal to fans of folk, Americana, and traditional country music.
Imaginary Lines is out June 10 via Mountain Home Music Company.