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Ray Cardwell

Tennessee Moon – 2017 (Pinecastle)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Ray Cardwell

Like fellow Missouri native Rhonda Vincent, Ray Cardwell grew up singing and performing in his family's bluegrass band. Unlike Vincent, he left the Nashville scene behind him for several years to, among other things, raise a family and teach music. His return to the recording studio and the touring grind (the album's title is also the name of his new band) offers a dozen tracks of mostly contemporary bluegrass, and if it sounds more than a little inspired by the records put out 30 years ago by New Grass Revival, there's a pretty clear reason. Pat Flynn produced, and John Cowan is on hand as part of a backup vocal cast that also features Claire Lynch and Ronnie Bowman. Providing instrumental support are some of the leading lights of the progressive bluegrass scene, including Rob Ickes, Scott Vestal, Andy Leftwich and Danny Roberts, and the traditional-minded should get a charge out of hearing Jesse McReynolds' mandolin on the title track.

The presence of Cowan makes for interesting comparisons because Cardwell's voice is reminiscent of the power and range that made Cowan's vocals a centerpiece of New Grass Revival's success. They sing together on eight of the dozen tracks with Cowan usually adding a tenor part above Cardwell's lead, and it works pretty well. Their voices blend nicely without trying to outshout each other.

Of the three gospel-flavored cuts, two ("Sailin' For Glory" and "New Jerusalem") are a cappella quartets that are also well done, in a way that would probably get a nod of approval from Doyle Lawson. The remaining gospel tune is the opening "His Will" (one of nine Cardwell originals) is done in a classic, straight-ahead bluegrass arrangement, while the rest explore more progressive territory, including the reggae-flavored "Sing It To The World," which highlights Cardwell's tendency as a writer to be on the upbeat side of things while not being saccharine or cliché-ridden.

Cardwell has a voice that commands attention, and while the songs and arrangements are decidedly toward the more progressive end of the scale, they should still resonate with the Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs crowds.