No Label, DN-9633

Do not miss this recording. You can run it from top to bottom and scarcely find a weak spot. Certainly, you’re not going to find any in Darren Nicholson’s performance, vocally or instrumentally. Anyone familiar with his work with Balsam Ridge knows his talent on both fronts, and he gives no reason here to think otherwise. His voice, a smooth country baritone with inflections of Randy Travis, has never sounded better. And his work on the mandolin should make believers of his instrumental stature, particularly his take on Monroe’s “Bluegrass Stomp” and his original “Sugar Creek Gap.” I’m not sure he is (as quoted in the liner notes) the “Jimi Hendrix of the mandolin,” but he is definitely creative in his note and lick choices.

You’re also not going to find any slackers among the backing musicians. What you will discover is a greater appreciation for some players who need more recognition than they often get. Standing out among the many here are banjoist Steve Sutton, fiddler Steve Thomas, and fiddler/guitarist/steel guitarist David Johnson. Sutton and Thomas are at their best on “Bluegrass Stomp,” Johnson with his work on “In A Perfect World,” but that’s relative; all their work here is beyond question.

That leaves the songs themselves—seven of the eleven, including Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See,” having a decidedly (some overtly so) country lean to them. Again the quality is high. Some might find “Dancin’ In The Kitchen” and “Traveling Teardrop Blues” a bit forced (which is how I felt about them), and solid as they are, they’re somewhat overshadowed by Tom T. Hall’s “Way I’ve Always Been,” Paul Thorn’s slow 3/4 country title tune, Walter Bailes’ “Give Mother My Crown,” Harley Allen’s humorous “Like My Dog,” Milan Miller’s “In A Perfect World,” and any of the rest for that matter.

There’s always a chance this recording will be overlooked. That would be a shame. To miss it would be to miss one of the hidden highlights of the year. (www.darrennicholson.net.)BW

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