These Hills by Irene Kelley is all about the songs and the singer. The excellence of both and the wonderful, restrained instrumental and vocal support by some of the best in bluegrass provides a true delight. She has released three previous albums, one on MCA, but These Hills qualifies as a career highpoint.
It does all start with a song. The key on this album comes from these being great songs that fit bluegrass, not great bluegrass songs. That makes all the difference. No wonder Kelley has cuts by such folks as Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, and Ricky Skaggs. She co-wrote each track here with some of the finest around, including Milan Miller (three songs), Jon Weisberger (two), Billy Smith, and Ronnie Bowman. I have a hard time selecting favorites. I reckon I’ll go with the uptempo lead off “Carolina Wind,” the poignant nostalgia of “Johnson’s Hardware Store,” and the Patsy-Cline-could-have- recorded-this “Fallin’ Away.”
I (and probably no one else) call the sound of These Hills cool bluegrass. I mean the antithesis of both hard-driving traditional ’grass and rocking newgrass. Cool is restrained, gorgeous, and understated. Bryan Sutton, Mark Fain (who also produced), Adam Steffey, Stuart Duncan, Scott Vestal, and Randy Kohrs form the studio band. All these great pickers support Kelley’s singing. They do not call attention to themselves, play no fancy breaks, and offer not one distraction from listening to Kelley sing her words. Every young picker should listen and learn.
Kelly possesses a nearly flawless, archetypal contemporary bluegrass voice that would also work smashingly in Americana, country, or folk. So much so that I have a concern that she may never be instantly recognizable. Her backup singers prove as impressive as the musicians: Lynch, Bowman, Steve Gulley, Dale Ann Bradley, and the White sisters. This is a truly lovely album that demands repeated listening, like the six consecutive times I did. It may well be the finest contemporary bluegrass release of the year. (Mountain Fever, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)AM