Emerging North Carolina group Carolina Blue has an affinity for traditional bluegrass, most apparently the music created during the genre's earliest years from 1946 to 1960. In Carolina Blue's universe, bluegrass has not evolved beyond that envisioned by Mr. Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanleys, the Osbornes, Reno and Smiley and their contemporaries.
This is the real stuff, then. Band leaders Bobby Powell (guitar) and Tim Jones (mandolin) have played together professionally for more than a decade and write the bulk of the material here. Joined by Reese Combs (bass), James McDowell (banjo) and Aynsley Porchak (fiddle), the third album from Carolina Blue is a powerful presentation of contemporary, traditional bluegrass. David Johnson plays fiddle on seven tracks, including with Porchak on the bouncy, twin fiddle showcase title track, one of two songs written by Roy Chapman.
There is a wide variety of tempos and moods contained within this recording. The woeful "Dark Mountainside" balances obsession, violence and justice - and a tasty mandolin break - whereas Jones' "Longing For Home" is sanguine and nostalgic. With Powell singing lead and Jones coming in on the high parts, "Rusty Rails" has a wistful, Steve Gulley-Alan Bibey feel, while "Breaking Up Rocks" is an up-tempo tale of a well-deserved fate.
Bluegrass is filled with "she left too soon" songs, and Powell's "I'll Meet Her In Heaven" is a fine addition to the genre. Bringing in two-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Brooke Aldridge to sing a duet ("Mary Do You Wonder") is never a bad idea, and "Bluegrass Melodies," famously recorded by the Osborne Brothers in 1974, even more solidly connects "I Hear Bluegrass Calling Me" to the tradition, both thematically and musically.
Instrumentally, Carolina Blue are more than solid. The McDowell instrumental "Fried Taters and Onions" allows each group member to shine with Porchak and Jones taking the lead as the tune progresses. Enthusiasts will find impressive instrumental fills and accoutrements elevating every song, whether Powell's flat-picking within "Cold, Lonely and Blue," McDowell's chiming notes near the conclusion of "Glory Bound Train" or Combs' walking bass on "Mountain Flower."
With the big tent flapping in the wind, "I Hear Bluegrass Calling Me" is as good as traditional bluegrass gets in 2019. Strong band, strong recording.