This third release from Raleigh’s Kickin Grass Band isn’t the perfect modern bluegrass album (is that legally possible without the name McCoury or Skaggs associated?), but that doesn’t seem to be the goal, anyway. For starters, it’s not all pure bluegrass. A cover of Roger Miller’s “Chug a Lug,” sung by bassist Patrick Walsh, is not quite ‘grass in the same way that Miller’s most popular songs aren’t quite country. “Run Away,” a stunner about a woman struggling with plans of escape, sidles into Gillian Welch territory. Like most of its companions on The Kickin Grass Band, the song busies itself with showcasing the gliding vocals of Lynda Wittig Dawson and her underrated songwriting rather than genre strictures: “I’m a daughter, and I’m a wife/ I am a keeper of all things nice/ I keep my job, I keep my house/ Keep making music for everyone else/ Look at my feet dancing on the stage/ They want to run away.”
These departures should be enough to convert some high & lonesome outsiders, but the remainder of the record takes its aims clearly at insiders: Bookends “Hometown” and “Times Passes” highlight the band at its respective hard-charging and waltzing best. Guest old-time fiddle and clawhammer banjo on the brief instrumental “Oldtime Ramble” give way to a slightly more modern sound on “Rambling Man,” while Dawson and Walsh’s swapped vocals on “Cold Frosty Window” (written by Pittsboro’s Tommy Edwards of The Bluegrass Experience) reveal yet another way that the band is comfortable putting a song across in bluegrass confines. “Lay Him in the Ground,” sung matter-of-factly from the grave, backs up my contention that the best bluegrass songs are often the most chilling.
But the album’s most impressive achievement is “The Ghost of Nathaniel Carter.” Like a campfire storyteller, Dawson deftly uses vocal inflection to keep you riveted to the tale, and the hopped-up playing that punctuates the chorus whenever it comes ’round spotlights the overlap between bluegrass and Celtic music. The tune’s five minutes pass in what seems like half the time, and hiding in the disc’s 10 spot, it’s the sort of song that sneaks up on you.
The CD release show for The Kickin Grass Band is Saturday, Oct. 11, at Cat’s Cradle. Doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets are $10-$12. Sweet By And By opens.