Album Review: Close Kin: A Reunion of Bluegrass and Old-Time Music

Juli Thanki | November 14th, 2011

closekinWith roots in rural Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky and a sound built around acoustic string instruments, bluegrass and old-time share many of the same genes. Much like homo erectus evolving into homo sapien, the banjo grew a resonator and fingerpicks, but the musical DNA of the two styles remains largely similar.

As its title suggests, Close Kin: A Reunion of Bluegrass and Old-Time Music brings together 29 musicians from both styles in a family reunion of sorts, only this project has a better soundtrack and fewer weirdos than any family get-together we’ve heard of.

Of the album’s 16 tracks, over half are traditional songs, including the jam session favorite, instrumental “Soldier’s Joy;” here, it features both bluegrass- and clawhammer-style banjo as well as bluegrass and old-time fiddle. Throughout the record, the two styles wrap around each other like the rose and the briar, and the result is a product that’s more than the sum of its parts. The Johnny Williams/Rebecca Jones duet “Say, Darlin’, Say,” for example, features both old-time and bluegrass instrumentation, and the end result is a song that can’t easily be identified as bluegrass or old-time, but is an extremely enjoyable toe-tapper.

Also included on the album are a couple of surprises, the most pleasant of which is a cover of Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s “Rattlin’ Bones” (the title track from their 2009 alt-country tour de force) by another husband and wife team, Adam and Tina Steffey. Anchored by Tina’s clawhammer banjo, Adam’s voice, deeper and rougher around the edges than Nicholson’s, gives the song an eerier feel than the original. Adam—a member of The Boxcars and reigning IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year—and Jeanette Williams are arguably the most famous (by bluegrass standards) participants on the album, but the entire artist lineup is incredibly skilled. Siblings Samantha and Zeb Snyder, ages 12 and 16, respectively, are the youngest musicians on the album by at least a decade and a half, but based on “With Tears in My Eyes,” which features Samantha on fiddle and lead vocals and Zeb on guitar, they’ve got a bright future ahead of them in bluegrass.

Though the decades-long arguments of “what is bluegrass” and “what is country music” show no signs of ceasing, Close Kin proves that genre classification isn’t as important as some make it out to be. Good music is good music.

4 Stars

  1. Rick
    November 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Sounds like an interesting project but the inclusion of the Carolina Chocolate Drops would have upped the ante a notch or two. As with any such project its the quality of the material far more than the participants that determine whether the end result is worth a listen. This project appears to have scored well on both counts. I’d say its time for a give-away contest!

    Come to think of it, I know a guy in Virginia who is a personal friend of Adam Steffey. Maybe he can score me a freebie! (lol)

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