No Label, 316
Jeff White has always been the quiet bluegrass star. Going back to his landmark work with Alison Krauss & Union Station on Two Highways, his two solo CDs for Rounder, his long-time role as backup vocalist and guitarist for Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien, The Chieftains, Patty Loveless, Lyle Lovett, and others, White’s understated brilliance has been a rare beacon of humble, honest musicianship in an era when overplaying and excess has too often been the rule. Today, he tours with Jerry Douglas’ band, the Earls of Leicester. There he fills the mandolin role and sings harmonies to perfection.
White has just released his first CD under his own name in decades. And it’s everything you’d expect it to be, filled with masterful original tunes (“Blue Trail Of Sorrow”) and populated by the best of the best A-list musicians—Tim O’Brien, Ronnie McCoury, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Michael Cleveland, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Shawn Camp, and more. It’s a testament to White’s talent that he’s never overmatched or outshone here. His plaintive, haunting voice leaves an unmistakable impression on the listener across the dozen tunes here. Maybe the highlight vocal is Bill Monroe’s “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road,” where Del McCoury joins on high tenor to create a truly ancient tone.
White’s always been one of the most tasteful and economical flatpickers in bluegrass. Unlike so many modern players, White always seems to believe in playing one perfect note, rather than exhibiting a flashy display of guitar pyrotechnics. Listen to his lovely intro to “Another Road” and his solo on “Wise County Jail” for a lesson in world-class tone and timing on bluegrass guitar. When he does break out, it’s on a classic Buck White tune, “Buck’s Run,” where melody and tone dominate his solos. An eloquent songwriter, White brings five originals to this project, while his choice of cover material also reflects his wise judgment and taste, including tunes from Doc Boggs, David “Stringbean” Akeman, A.P. Carter, and Tim O’Brien.
There’s strong buzz around Right Beside You as Album Of The Year at IBMA, to which I’d add hopes to see White nominated as Male Vocalist Of The Year and Guitar Player Of The Year. He certainly deserve it, not just for this project, but for a lifetime spent quietly making other musicians sound better with his supporting work. Thank goodness he’s stepped out of the shadows to give us this heartfelt, gorgeous album. It should be one of the favorite bluegrass albums in years for many, many people. Most highly recommended. (www.jeffwhitebluegrass.com)DJM