Damn but I love good handclaps. And banjos. And Nad Budge’s voice. So when I stuck the brand new Stetson Family album in the player and all of the above came flying out of the speakers, one after the other, I got a bit excited. And around 38 minutes and 11 great songs later I was grinning like a fool.
The Stetsons play progressive bluegrass with a healthy dose of country and folk-influenced music, and like Pennsylvanians Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops, they maintain a respect for the traditions of the genre without being constrained by them.
Anchored by Nadine Budge’s vocals, dobro, and considerable songwriting talents, the Stetson Family also features John Bartholomeusz , who contributes several great songs and on-the-button acoustic guitar leads; Colin Swan and Andrew Carswell play banjo and mandolin respectively, and Luke Richardson holds it all down with the bull-fiddle.
One of the real strengths of this album is the strength of the songs – all originals with the exception of Jean Ritchie’s classic tale of economics catching up with traditional mining – “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (nicely juxtaposed by John and Colin’s narrative “Smokey Valley”) and Nad’s old partner-in- crime Marni Sheehan’s gorgeous and heartfelt “Devil Call Your Name”. Highlights include “Oh Winding River”, an elegiac classic with guest vocals by co-writer Tracey McNeil, a reminder of what a great singer (and writer) she truly is. And harmonies? Listen to the outro, with the whole band and guests singing loud and proud, all air and breath, perfect unison –it’s a great moment. And Nadine proves herself the equal of anyone when it comes to heartbreaking honesty with “Traces Of You” – “there’s traces of you in every corner I turn/And you’re there in the ashes of every bridge that I’ve burned.” It sounds like the best song that Mary Gauthier never wrote. And like a true mandolin player, Andrew Carswell nails “Every Dusty Road.” “Old Black Canoe” keeps coming back to haunt me – is it the six white horses, or the long black Cadillac, the harbingers of our time on this earth? Whatever, it’s a great and very affecting song! And of course Nadine takes it out in irreverent style with “Dirty Rotten Lowdown Cheatin’ Sonofabitch”.
So there’s no flashy trends or fancy hats here (some very nice shirts though!) – just a great set of songs played with great feel and great honesty by a bunch of people who are obviously joined by the sheer joy and love of making good music together.