After recording three albums with Compass Records, albums that increased both her profile within the bluegrass industry and brought her considerable accolades-including five IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year nods-Eastern Kentucky's Dale Ann Bradley returns, releasing her first album on Pinecastle Records in more than a decade.
For her tenth solo recording (Bradley previously recorded several albums with the New Coon Creek Girls, as well as a pair of early recordings for the Renfro Valley label, albums I've yet to encounter...so, if you have copies you would like to share, you know where to send them!) Bradley follows a song source formula that has proven successful over the last many years: a high-profile cover to garner some notice (this time out, it is the Gin Blossoms' hit, "Til I Hear It From You"), a few previously recorded but deeper catalog numbers (a gorgeous take of "Sweetheart of the Pines" is likely the most familiar tune,) and a couple substantial, new songs from outside writers along with original numbers.
Producing herself for the first time since the gospel masterpiece "Send the Angels" more than a decade ago, Bradley has recruited a group of friends-all of them superior bluegrass instrumentalists, and most of them either past or present members of her touring group-to serve as her band. The underappreciated Mike Sumner handles the banjo work while Michael Cleveland-long a favourite of Bradley's-provides some sweet fiddle throughout: check out the aching quality he brings to "Rachel Pack Your Sunday Clothes." Brandon Goodman also gets in some fiddling, including twinning with Cleveland on "I'm So Afraid of Losing You Again." Phil Leadbetter plays the Dobro, with Steve Thomas taking most of the featured guitar parts and the mandolin. Bluegrass veteran Tim Dishman plays bass and Craig Nelson contributes bowed bass to select tracks.
"Til I Hear It From You" has already charted, and is an excellent showcase for Bradley. Transforming the guitar-driven, but vocally tepid early 90s elevator-lite track into something more personal, with mandolin prominently featured, Bradley and her collaborators have created a lasting performance. It isn't the best song on the album, by far, but it is the one garnering attention as a breezy summer song. I sure don't get tired of Bradley rhyme-ending and melodious 'cool' throughout the tune.
Bradley's voice is one of the most pure things to encounter within the bluegrass world, and it is shown to perfection throughout this heart-engaging set. One of the album's highlights is surely a recent Ruby Lovett and Susan (Taylor) Pie song, "Hard Lesson Road," performed as a duet with Mr. Americana, Jim Lauderdale. While the song is played on bluegrass instruments, it has more of a widespread country feel to it, fitting nonetheless perfectly within its bluegrass setting. (That it sent me down a wormhole of rediscovering Susan Taylor/Taylor Pie and Ruby Lovett was just a bonus.)
Another new song, "Rachel Pack Your Sunday Clothes" is getting some airplay as well, and rightly so. This one reminds me of the material that has become Bradley's forte-emotionally charged, lyrically rich songs of substance which require engagement from the listener. In this one, which comes from Jeff Walter and Marc Rossi, the protagonist is being called home, having previously been ostracized by her family, judged too harshly by the father now in his deathbed. What appeals about this song, and Bradley's interpretation of it, is that the outcome is left open without a tearful, bedside reunion offered. The song drips with emotion, not the least of which a product of Cleveland's long bow strokes, as the family calls for Rachel's return: the listener is left wondering, Can, or even should, the effort be made to undertake a journey of forgiveness?
The title track, co-written by Bradley with Si Kahn-and I for one want to know how that writing session came together-is a wistful experience of self-discovery, one that might reflect what is known about Bradley's personal path. Initially, "Soldiers, Lovers, and Dreamers" appears to be another version of "Travellin' Soldier," but-to the songwriters' (Bradley and Bill Tennyson) credit-reveals itself as something quite different by verse two. These two tracks serve as the album's strong backbone, a never-ending search for the fortitude to carry on through obstacles met in darkness.
Not everything is so heavy. Songs like "Talking to the Moon" (the Gatlin Brothers' hit) and "The Stranger" (Kenny Rogers via Dolly Parton) aren't exactly "life is wonderful" songs, but Bradley disguises them as such. "The Stranger" works especially well as a bluegrass tune, and perhaps was always meant to be presented as such. Still, outside the gospel songs ("Sweet Hour of Prayer" and a stunning "I'll Live on Somewhere") there isn't an abundance of joy and happiness within "Pocket Full of Keys."
The album's most upbeat song, in tempo and spirit, is "Ain't It Funny," featuring the vocal trio of Bradley, Jeff White, and Ronnie Bowman, who are also featured elsewhere; yet, it isn't a 'happy ever after' song by any measure. For that one has to wait to late in the album for the comfortable familiarity of "Sweetheart of the Pines," with Tina Adair and Kim Fox harmonizing alongside Bradley.
Man, "Pocket Full of Keys" is a bit of a downer, I suppose. It isn't depressing, though. As the finest country and bluegrass often does, the songs reveal the hardships of others as a panacea to our own challenges, either providing a path for enlightenment or a realization that one's own issues are not completely overwhelming: it could always be worse.
Dale Ann Bradley doesn't churn out albums just to have something fresh on offer at the merch table. Analyse her vast catalog and one doesn't find many tracks that appear to have been recorded simply out of favor or as filler. She is a bluegrass vocalist and true artist of substance and vision, and mentions in the album's notes that she has always wanted to do an album herself, her own way. She has done it!
"Pocket Full of Keys" is another in a string of significant recordings from bluegrass music's finest voice.