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Nu-Blu

Vagabonds – 2017 (Voxhall)

Reviewed by Fred Smith

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CDs by Nu-Blu

In bluegrass music these days, accomplished pickers abound. Some say, however, that the soul of bluegrass music is in vocals. Sonny Osborne, an estimable banjo player, would often say that his brother Bobby's vocals "paid for the farm," despite The Osborne Brothers' success as a bluegrass band. If the late Mr. Osborne was right, then Nu-Blu is on the right track. Nu-Blu features fearsome instrumentalists, but the real attraction to their new release, "Vagabond" is the vocals.

"640 Battlefield Drive" treads the well-worn path of country boys going off to fight a nasty political war ill-suited to their aspirations. But Caroline Routh's penetrating soprano chillingly spins the story from a mother's point of view. Routh's vocals are a solid constant through "Vagabonds," giving an edge to the Parton-ish "A Fool and Her Heart" and "A Lot More Love," which in other hands, would be an empty pop-country anthem. With Routh, it's down-home pathos. "Good Hearted Woman," one of Waylon Jennings' signature pieces (which he wrote with Willie Nelson), sounds like Loretta Lynn on a very good day.

Caroline Routh's vocals may be a centerpiece of Nu-Blu, but the accompaniments are equally as tasty. Husband Daniel tackles vocal duties and instrumental turns with equal efficiency. TJ Honaker on vocals and banjo, and Clint White on mandolin and fiddle complete the quartet. Their licks are startlingly tight and measured, transporting, not overpowering.

Nu-Blu has a good ear for material and for delivering smooth, never choppy, bluegrass licks. Bob Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door" is delivered at 60 percent of the pace of the original, with Honaker's banjo and White's mandolin carrying the torch, lighting the way for Caroline Routh's powerful vocals. There's also an "I'm missing you from the road" song "Gypsies On Parade." The title of the CD derives from its lyrics. When Daniel Routh's lead vocals take center stage on "How Many Rivers," Nu-Blu follows the same approach; the backing instrumentals never overpower the vocals.

"Vagabonds" displays a confident band, minding the bluegrass tradition, but adding its own splash of emotion and clarity.