Not only are the members of the Expedition Show veterans individually, the ensemble is nearing its tenth birthday under one name or another. On The Expedition Show, its first release since 2008’s Brand New Set Of Blues, the quartet demonstrates solid professionalism, considerable skills, and smart arrangements. The Expedition Show often exploits a certain tension between classic and contemporary bluegrass to wonderful effect. Similarly, they prove a hundred percent as comfortable with the progressive drive of Northern Light’s “Northern Rail” as the traditional gospel of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
During the early years of this century, the quartet released four CDs in as many years, hosted the first three years of the Franklin, Ky., music festival, toured Japan, and developed a schedule with a hundred dates per year. Best known to bluegrass folks for his long tenures on banjo with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, Blake Williams, aka the “Sparta Flash,” has also played bass for Mike Snider, Patty Loveless, and others. Guitarist and singer Wayne Southards made his mark with Memphis’s Tennessee Gentlemen before settling in Music City in 1990. Kimberly Williams plays bass and handles much of lead vocals with confidence. Alex Hibbits handles mandolin as well as tenor, bass, and baritone vocals, plus recording and mixing the album. The ETSU graduate, who joined in the fall of 2009, is also a veteran of Alecia Nugent, the Midnight Ramblers, and several others. Tim Crouch, a fine Kenny Baker-inspired fiddler from Arkansas who has appeared on most of the Expedition Show’s albums, again guests on this one, as he has with everyone from Dolly Parton to Cedar Hill. Crouch’s style perfectly fits the band’s exploration of the classic and the contemporary.
Blake contributes five songs and tunes, written solo. Wayne wrote “My Love For You Is True” and co-wrote the opening cut, “Backroads And Little Towns,” with Blake. Otherwise, the Expedition Show picks from such varied sources as the Louvin Brothers, Northern Lights, the Carter Family, and Jason Wilbur from John Prine’s band. The Expedition Show is built to thrive on this kind of diversity because the band is happy to sound like itself rather than following trends. Wayne and Kimberly give the two excellent and quite different lead singers that empower the Expedition Show’s facility for both old buegrass and modern bluegrass. That facet is even reflected in the cover photo and in the lyrics of the first track.
The band closes with one of Blake’s comedy compilations. This features some killer material, but the sound quality is below that of the music tracks. That diminishes the close of a quite good album with strong singing, playing, and songs. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.) AM