Editor's note: there are two separate reviews posted of "The Hard Way."
You'd need the fingers of both hands to count up the solo albums that Kentucky songbird Dale Ann Bradley has released over the course of the past two decades and counting, and all the fingers of a third hand to tally the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards those albums and her ongoing touring have brought her. Whether with her own band, or as part of the all-female "supergroup" Sister Sadie, she's simply among the finest performers bluegrass has to offer, and there's no dropoff in this new release (on Pinecastle, where she began her solo run all those years ago).
Those familiar with her catalog and her predilection for raiding the repertoires of top-rank pop and rock artists like U2 for adventurous experiments might suspect that "The Hard Way" is a nod to Mary Chapin Carpenter, but, in fact, the title refers to the opening cut, Jim Croce's "Hard Way Every Time." So, yeah, she's at it again, but then she's got a knack for it. In addition to the Croce song, she also takes a shot - and hits the mark - on Journey's "Wheel In The Sky," the Grateful Dead's "Ripple" and Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe" (though curiously, the liner notes credit it to "J. Wilson/M. Corda"). In between are light-hearted treats like Carla Gover's "The Redbird River," and Bradley adds her own original tune, "Pretty, Dark Hearted Emma Brown" to the mix.
She's backed up by an all-star cast that includes a couple of her Sister Sadie colleagues, Tina Adair and Gena Britt, plus the likes of Steve Gulley, Shawn Lane, Alison Brown, Michael Cleveland and lots more. Pretty fast company, but then - to repeat - she's one of the best in the business, and has A-list people waiting in line to play with her.
By Donald Teplyske
Dale Ann Bradley's style has evolved over 20-plus years, and most edges have been smoothed. In their place is a polished, time-hewn version of bluegrass. She has grown into a master, all self-doubt set aside and well-buried.
Bradley remains 'mountain as rock,' natural and unpretentious, but her confidence and self-determination allow the East Kentucky native do pursue her art undeterred by genre convention.
Self-producing again, Bradley definitely knows what she is going for with her recordings. She isn't mentioned when standout producers are named, but she should be in the conversation.
It is impossible to find a Bradley album that doesn't include a '70s or '80s rock and roll/pop song improved as a bluegrass tune. For "The Hard Way," she goes to extreme, covering four familiar songs; she reaches back furthest to Bobbie Gentry's enduring "Ode to Billie Joe," while also taking Journey's "Wheel in the Sky" and The Grateful Dead's "Ripple" to the woodshed. The title track is from Jim Croce. Each performance is memorable, and Bradley brings personal touches to the songs, making them her own.
Bradley knows that the perfect version of "Ode to Billie Joe" was recorded in 1967, and to her great credit, she subtly manipulates the song. She alters the instrumental tone, even allowing a hint of natural lightness into her voice when singing the remembrance of the indifferent brother. She forgoes banjo on "Ripple," allowing the song to travel a more pastoral path.
The Croce composition is given a dramatic performance. Bradley's self-determined and independent streak are highlighted in this song; with her considerable experience, she is able to find the perfect approach to this powerful song of reflective affirmation.
There is a solitary original, but it is splendid. "Pretty, Dark-Hearted Emma Brown" is a prototypical bluegrass anti-hero, the philandering gal breaking a heart via her "evil deeds." Michael Cleveland's fiddle playing haunts this especially well-composed tune of riverside homicide.
"The Hard Way" doesn't falter. Bradley covers "(Me and) The Redbird River," a Carla Gover song, and while Zoe Speaks' rendition is darned good, Bradley elevates it. "Boat on the Ocean" an Aaron Bibelhauser/Milan Miller song, is buoyed by strong images and a catchy refrain ("I can see your silhouette on the horizon-are you heading home or sailing far away?")
Bradley appears incapable of creating a less-than-magical album. She is unmatched for consistency of song selection. Over the last 15 years, her voice has become stronger, as fresh as when first encountered. "The Hard Way" may be light a song as another original would have been appreciated.
Bradley is a master bluegrass singer, producer and songwriter. That she hasn't been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year since 2012 is inexplicable. "The Hard Way" should earn her a few more votes. It is a complete recording, and a dynamic one.