It’s interesting to see and hear bluegrass evolving. Back when the Grand Old Opry ruled it was a mortal sin to have drums included and when the longhairs (in the shape of The Byrds) invaded all hell broke loose. By the seventies The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Grateful Dead were flying high with that lonesome sound while players like David Grisman and Peter Rowan were updating the genre. Bluegrass has been at times newgrass and elements of jazz and jam bands have been thrown into the mix but at it’s core it’s always been a bulwark or touchstone for those who see Nashville going through its periodical makeovers be it The Nashville Sound, the big hat arena rock style or the current bro movement. Despite the early straightjacket imposed by the Opry Bluegrass has proved flexible enough to adapt and adopt new styles and while there are numerous excellent examples of straight ahead old time bluegrass bands composed of youngsters there’s a sense that there’s a new wave of, and pardon the use of, “progressive” players working in the idiom with bands like Fish & Bird and Run Boy Run recent examples.
The above is really just a long winded way of introducing California’s Bay Area band, Front Country, who do use the terms progressive and chambergrass to describe their music. There’s no doubt that as a band they are extremely skilled and there are moments on their debut album, Sake Of The Sound, that are pure bluegrass in the true sense with Glacier Song being the best example. However there are moments when the instruments veer off almost like jazz or rock solos while a song such as Colorado uses the stringed instruments to create a powerful throbbing undercurrent before breaking out into traditional form on the middle eight. On the opening song, Gospel Train, they manage to conjure up a powerful spiritual blues that harks to both the delta and the electric violin stylings of Sugarcane Harris when he was with Zappa.
A six-piece band, Front Country are fronted by the immensely talented Melody Walker who along with guitarist Jacob Groopman (who’s also in the band) released the magnificent We Made It Home album last year. Walker and Groopman provide the vocals as well as guitars while Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin, Jordan Klein, banjo and vocals, Leif Karlstrom, violin and Zach Sharpe, bass fill the line up. With original songs and some choice covers including a gutsy rendition of Utah Phillips’ Rock Salt & Nails the album might not be to the taste of traditionalists but a listen to the title song which manages to combine the pop sensibility of Fleetwood Mac while retaining a woody, organic feel should convince anyone looking for a sense of adventure in string band land.