Community, eh? Well, there’s a hot time in this old town tonight. North Carolina-born (and Pittsburgh-based) banjo picker (and medical student) Gregg Welty has followed up on his 2015 debut album Memoirwith what he bills as, “The largest collaborative bluegrass project ever recorded.” In between his studies and performing with the band Blue Mafia, Welty has spent three years populating a musical community of some 50 performers in 30 studios.
Community’s multitude of wonderful pickers and singers (plus review space limitations) present major problems for a writer: To single out individuals for praise would be to slight four or more equally strong participants. The formidable talent includes Paul Brewster, Michael Cleveland, Eli Johnston, Summer Brooke McMahan, Josh Shilling, and Jesse Smathers. And there’s not a weak performer—or track—on this ambitious album.
Songwriters range from Harley Allen (“Simple Life”), Ronnie Bowman, Dan Tyminski and Tim Massey (“Someone Tellin’ Lies”), and Randy Travis and Leslie Bohem (“Walk With Me”) to Merle Haggard (“The Longer You Wait”) and David and Ola Belle Reed (“I’ve Endured”). Folk tradition isn’t ignored, as witness jaw-dropping, grin-giving versions of the fiddle tunes “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and “Oh, Goodbye Liza Jane.” (The latter opens with a delightful audio-trick—a tribute to the beloved old hillbilly 78 records.)
There’s a modern country feel to a lot of the bluegrass here, and that’s a compliment. It’s the roots influence that today’s country gets from Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanleys. But there are also occasional California-grass stylings. With such a musical banquet, what’s not to like?
Then, of course, there’s banjoist Gregg Welty himself. A multi-award winner at five-string contests, he shifts effortlessly from Scruggs- and J.D. Crowe-style syncopated picking to straight melodic lines, playing with a tasteful assuredness in which neither attack, nor beautiful tone are sacrificed for the other. (Banjo aficionados will also be delighted by the classic Gibsons that Gregg uses.) The recordings, mixes, and mastering are not only excellent, but amazingly uniform for a project involving 26 engineers. Special kudos for such crucial consistency to Welty and his arrangement and recording co-producers Gaven Largent, Jim Scott, Avery Welter, and Daniel Wright. And, it’s all packaged with charming art and design by Emily New.
Gregg Welty and his community of collaborators have undertaken a hugely ambitious project. And they’ve hugely delivered. (www.greggwelty.com)RDS