Lexington, Ky.-based bluegrass outfit NewTown is back with "Harlan Road," featuring the band doing what a good bluegrass band is supposed to do: singing good songs about real life that are made even better by good vocals and hot playing.
If there's one thing that Dr. Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe injected into their songs, it was a strong sense of the realities of life that are faced by all classes of people, not just folks who work in coal mines. NewTown, whose members don't seem to write much, wisely chose songs here that follow in the paths of those giants. Four were written by Tyler Childers, a hot young talent who paints vivid pictures with words about subjects like the loneliness of separation (the title track) and the pain of poverty and despair ("Hard Times"). Other songs, like Andy Thorn and John Buck's "All That I Can Take" and CJ Cain's "Drifter Blues," feature characters who are pretty much at the ends of their ropes. These songs are tempered by the more lighthearted rockabilly vibe of Randy Weeks' "Can't Let Go." But only a little.
The lead vocals, by both Kati Penn Williams and husband Jr. Williams, are always convincing, and the instrumental work is on the money, actually a little more joyous than the material is. The cut that really nails it is the closer, "Come Back to Me," written by Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters and bassist Jon Weisberger. A lost-love duet sung by Penn and Williams, it features the couple singing like they've lived it and still haven't gotten over it, with Williams especially killing his part.
"Harlan Road" was produced by Union Station bass player Barry Bales, but his influence isn't all that pervasive. That's to say this isn't quite as vulnerable as a Union Station record, though the lineup is similar with the award-winning Penn on the fiddle. The band turns in tight, solid performances throughout, surprising considering that three of the members - the guitarist, bassist and mandolinist - are recent additions. If this lineup hangs together for some road time and a couple more albums, they could find themselves swimming in the same pond as Dailey & Vincent and other major modern bluegrassers who are popularizing the genre.