Don’t think that it is hype or marketing hyperbole to read that Sideline’s latest album, Ups, Downs and No Name Towns is their best project to date. For a group that literally started as a part time gig for a group of outstanding pickers—hence the name, Sideline—it is a big statement to claim “best.” After all, they had the IBMA “Song of the Year” with “Thunder Dan” in 2019, have made many trips to the Grand Ol’ Opry and are big names on the bluegrass festival circuit.
The album kicks off with “Marshallville,” a revenge song that forces the listener to pay attention and later realize it was the signal that something special is going on. There’s the soon-to-be radio regular, “Miss Charlotte’s Game,” a tune to the be added to the list of bluegrass murder ballads that endure.
Go ahead and note that “When the Son Rose Up That Morning” will be on the short list for IBMA “Gospel Song of the Year.” It’s that song that blends an old time feel with hard driving bluegrass and as soulful, powerful gospel singing as will be heard over the next year.
I don’t know if the instrumental “Newton Grove” is a nod to the tiny town in rural North Carolina, but the natives will be proud to share the name.
The artwork for the cover points to another traditional bluegrass sound in “Old Guitar Case.” At the risk of listing almost every track in this review, “Fast As I Can Crawl” as an exit surely echoes the band members’ pasts in some of the top acts in the genre over the last quarter century.
Sideline features Steve Dilling on banjo, who is as good as he’s ever been; Skip Cherryholmes on guitar; and Jason Moore on bass—all founding members. The big sound is rounded out by Jacob Greer on guitar; Jamie Harper on fiddle; and Zack Arnold on mandolin. The group’s individual resumes include tours with the Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, Cherryholmes, Michael Cleveland, Mountain Heart, Claybank, Junior Sisk, Donna Hughes, Carrie Hassler and Blue Moon Rising among others.
Ups, Downs and No Name Towns is loaded with hits and will be remembered as one of the tightest albums to come out of the pandemic era. Lovers of hard driving bluegrass should consider it a must-have.