On their website, Big Virginia Sky describes themselves as a “bluegrass-influenced Americana group,” and that seems like a fair way to approach this group and their debut recording after about three years together. At the forefront of the group are James Adkins, his guitar, singing, and songwriting. Scott Slay on mandolin and bassist Steve Lazar bring the more familiar elements in the rhythm section, while Steve’s brother, Dale Lazar, supplies some prominently featured drums which, along with the occasional presence of electric guitar and organ, steer the group into a musical approach that may remind a lot of listeners of latter-period New Grass Revival.
What should grab the attention of BU readers is the presence of Sammy Shelor on banjo. Shelor’s role in the ensemble, along with guest appearances by Sierra Hull, Randy Kohrs, and Tim Crouch, certainly places Big Virginia Sky with one solid foot on the bluegrass. Instrumental tracks like “Sammy’s Breakdown” and “Bullfrog” allow the band to showcase itself as being part of this tradition (relatively speaking, given the drums).
Ultimately, once all the categorization is left behind, what makes or breaks any band is the music. Adkins is a solid singer with a pleasant, understated delivery, and his flatpicking breaks are deft and fluid. Since he wrote or co-wrote over half of the 11 tracks here, his impact on the band as a songwriter is significant. It’s here that the results fall a little short of the abilities of the players and singers. The songs just don’t linger in the ear, sometimes going for the predictable rhyme or derivative phrase.
Big Virginia Sky is carving an interesting path for itself, and these days there’s likely to be less of an either/or choice for those who might want more or less of banjos and drums. I can foresee this band having a larger impact, bringing its traditional elements to an Americana audience more so than making a big splash among a committed bluegrass audience, but Shelor’s playing is always worth a careful listen, no matter the context. (www.bigvirginiasky.com)HK