Mention “family bluegrass band,” and after a few moments of missing the Lewis Family pass, too often my mind summons up images of twee, cloying, smiling, unimaginative, unchallenging bluegrass, heavy on standards or pop-grass. Sure, after Cherryholmes I should know better than to assume such, but I was not expecting Rigney Family Bluegrass to come across on Familiar Paths as creative, serious, and, dare I say it, interesting.
For a start, this their third CD contains 12 original songs. That is a breakthrough for a band that recorded a lot of standards on the first two albums. Only the three instrumentals composed by primary lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Rigney come from the band. They selected the other nine from familiar and emerging bluegrass songwriters, including Jerry Salley, Rick Lang, Dennis Duff, and Lisa Shaffer.
Using this wealth of material, the Rigney Family tries to cover all the bases from the progressive instrumental above to Lang’s “Wind In The Valley,” a fine neo-traditional outing. “My Father In Me” by Dick Gaskin brings them into mainstream bluegrass territory musically with lyrics that touch on classical bluegrass themes. Contemporary bluegrass gospel is well represented by Duff and Shaffer’s “The Greater God’s Love Will Shine.”
The band seems comfortable with and committed to all this differing material. The weakness to Familiar Paths is that Rigney Family Bluegrass pushes in too many directions for just one CD. Versatility is a powerful tool that has to be employed with some moderation to have full effect. The band is making a major leap forward from standard bearer to recording artists by debuting strong material. Everything does not have to be accomplished on just one album. A little more focus will permit them to channel their many strengths to greatest effect in creating a signature approach that applies across styles.
The Rigneys from Normandy, Tenn., do have one of those family band stories. Mark, banjo and vocals, sold his Gibson to buy Melissa on bass (sometimes stereotypes are true), an engagement ring. He didn’t play for 17 years until she gave him a replacement five-string for Christmas. Andrew, 18, and Grant, 15, on mandolin and fiddle have been playing for eight years. On Familiar Paths, Andrew mostly plays guitar, the instrument with which he has placed highly in prestigious contests. The year 2011 appears to have been their fourth season of performing seriously. The album certainly makes it clear that the siblings spend a lot of time playing music together, anticipating where the other is going and why. Check out the delightful, jazz-inflected instrumental “Hop, Skip, And A Jump,” which features only the pair. It provides the highlight to a quite enjoyable project and a national debut for a couple of promising young bluegrass artists. (Rigney Family Bluegrass, 398 Hickory Ridge Rd., Normandy, TN 37360, www.rigneyfamilybluegrass.com.) AM