Bluegrass bands face a common dilemma these days, that is, having to tow the line between bowing to tradition while also trying to etch an identity that allows them to sound distinct. National Park Radio succeeded in both regards, thanks to a debut album reflecting their own voice as well as a reverence for their roots. Front man Stefan Szabo has a way with making melodies that are immediately engaging, an easy accessibility that's bound to bring comparisons to the Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain and even the Avett Brothers at times.
Happily though, the band avoids coming across as also-rans or abject imitators. With the steady strum of banjos and mandolin at the fore, the musicians let fly with a rallying cry that's way too hard to resist. Several songs serve that purpose - "Steady," "Once Upon a Time" and "The Walking Song" in particular - but when it comes to creating a sheer rush of adrenalin, it's best left to veritable anthems like "I Will Go On," "The Great Divide" and "Rise Above" to carry the flag forward. Thankfully, there's an effective embrace that binds the set overall, and even when an occasional ballad like "Monochrome" threatens to slow the pace, it doesn't diminish either the edge or the effect.
An earlier EP and the support of National Public Radio got National Park Radio off to a good start, but with "The Great Divide" the band have an album that underscores their strengths. Bred in the heartland, this Arkansas-based quartet, makes the kind of music that's tailor made for the festival circuit and anywhere else where the strains of bluegrass and contemporary music find clear compatibility.