Instrumental showcase albums can be tricky propositions, regardless of the genre. The featured artist is challenged to create a platform that highlights his or her technical mastery while also giving the audience and collection of listenable and entertaining music. Virginia native Billy Hurt, Jr. proves up to the task with "Fiddlin' Billy Hurt," his first release for Rockville, Md.'s Patuxent Music label.
While the talent showcased on this solo outing may come as no surprise to those familiar with Hurt's work as part of major acoustic and bluegrass outfits like Acoustic Endeavors, David Parmley & Continental Divide and The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, a role he's held since 2011, the uninitiated may find this collection revelatory.
The two biggest keys to the album's success are Hurt's skill and his talented friends. Skill is the most obvious component. You don't really have to know much about the fiddle to recognize the talent and dexterity with which Hurt handles his instrument. Whether dazzled by the speed and accuracy of his bow work on "Sally Ann Johnson" or the emotive playing you both hear and feel on the album-closing "When I Grow To Old To Dream," Hurt's aptitude is undeniable.
Although Hurt's playing is clearly the focal point, the considerable contributions of the supporting musicians Hurt gathered together for these sessions round out the sound.
Brennen Ernst, Hurt's band mate in The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show and an insanely talented banjo and guitar player for his young age, really shines on "Lynchburg Town." Not only do Hurt and Ernst display a clear chemistry that allows them to seamlessly blend while also giving each other room to showcase, but Ernst's banjo even takes the lead for a nice change of pace. In addition to Ernst, both Karl and Kris Shiflett from the same band lend their guitar and bass, respectively, throughout.
Notable contributions are made from musicians outside of Hurt's current band. The tracks he recorded with Robert Montgomery on banjo and Jeremy Stephens on guitar, some of which include Kris Shiflett on bass, are worth pointing out because they were recorded live and feature no overdubs. This approach results in vibrant songs with a palpable sense of urgency. "Red Bird" is a spirited and jaunty, "Salt River" feels like a raft ride through rapids and "Ragtime Annie" is fast-paced and hopeful.