Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Don't Turn Your Back" by Dale Ann Bradley - Review

In his Jam Camps, Pete Wernick teaches novice and intermediate bluegrass jammers about the music, always emphasizing the song, the song, the song. The music is designed to highlight the performers in their instrumental breaks while they do everything to support the singer and the lyric. No singer in bluegrass sells the song better than Dale Ann Bradley, whose receipt of the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year award in the past two years attests to her recognition within the music. Fellow performers attest to her perfect ear and pitch. Steve Gulley, no mean singer himself and a longtime friend who appears on her current album, tells a story about a studio incident where, as a joke, the band lowered the pitch of a song by a quarter tone. As soon as they struck the first note, Dale Ann stopped the music and pointed out they were off key. Louisa Branscomb, who contributed four songs to the current project, attests to the authenticity, emotional immediacy, and professional mastery of Dale Ann’s genre found in this current project. Dale Ann Bradley’s latest album, “Don’t Turn Your Back” will be released on May 19th and it’s worth the wait.

Some of the songs in this collection may be familiar to festival goers or people who were lucky enough to attend Louisa Branscomb’s songwriter showcase at IBMA in 2008 during which she and Dale Ann sang. Some songs are covers from other genres or performers - old-time to country to rock. In the hands of singer Dale Ann Bradley and producer Alison Brown, they sound fresh and new, filled with melody and life. There are four Branscomb songs in this collection, and she was integral to the collaboration that Dale Ann drew together. Her excitement about her friend’s achievement on this CD is attested to by the several calls I received in which Louisa expanded upon the important themes she saw in the work.

Dale Ann at Podunk Bluegrass Festival
East Hartford, CT
Talking from her car on the way to the Doyle Lawson Bluegrass Festival in Denton, NC, Dale Ann said it was most interesting how the concept of “Don’t Turn Your Back” had emerged. A few years ago she had relocated from her home in Kentucky to Nashville, a highly competitive music scene dominated by younger, up-and-coming musicians. She had been through a rough patch in her life and then experienced the culture shock of moving to the big city. Her longtime friend, Louisa Branscomb, wrote “Don’t Turn Your Back” with Dale Ann in mind and presented her with the song in which she heard a kindred spirit saying “this is you” to her. As Dale Ann looked for additional songs to consider for the CD, she discovered an emerging theme of not turning back, of showing up, of staying in the game. Without hitting the listener too hard with “message,” this theme dominates in this terrific disk.

Don’t turn your back,
Put a penny on the track,
Let that train take your breath away
Give it one more day.

The song expresses the hopeful persistence that showing up rewards. Even though the city may be overwhelming, it’s important to keep showing up, to never turn your back. The song has such power to move Dale Ann that she commented to Louisa, “You know, you saved my career” with this song.

Dale Ann also commented on “Rusty Old Halo.” She noted she doesn’t usually sing protest songs, but she’s been struck by the greed dominating today’s society. The song is a tongue in cheek attempt to look at the world and the promise of a just reward. Alison Brown’s sprightly banjo and Tim Laughlin’s mandolin breaks complement the bouncy melody and hopeful lyric that avoids cynicism while taking a look at greed in our society. Harmony vocals by Steve Gulley and Roscoe Morgan, Jr. are so understated that they could easily be missed if not listened for. Morgan plays bass in Dale Ann’s current touring band. An upbeat and lively song.

Dale Ann and Louisa Branscomb
Songwriter Showcase

Christie McVie’s hit “Over My Head” with Fleetwood Mac from 1975 turns into a bluegrass classic in Dale Ann’s hands on this CD. To see her quality as a song stylist, take a look at McVie singing the original song on this video, and then listen several times to Bradley’s version. Her ability to capture all the meaning of the original in a completely bluegrass rendition shines with every note. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle work throughout the album serves the singer in every way. Steve Gulley commented that Dale Ann is “the most natural singer I’ve ever heard.” He hastened to add that her natural quality in no way diminishes the art in her work. He noted that her deep roots in Kentucky provide her with a base of values and genuineness giving depth to her singing. “She’s never changed. She’s seen a lot of the world…and when she’d seen it, she realized it wasn’t as important for her to change as it was for her to realize who she is and where she’s from.” He pointed out that despite an often difficult life, “where Dale Ann’s concerned, talent won out.”

Louisa Branscomb and Dale Ann collaborated on “Ghost Bound Train” which gains its haunting sound and mysterious drive from Alison Brown’s understated but emphatic rolling wheels and sharp whistles from her masterful banjo backup. Tim Laughlin on mandolin chimes in with strong breaks and the ever-present complement to Brown’s drive in his chop. Dale Ann says Louisa had written the lyrics and when the album called for a hard driving song, the two of them worked up the tune.

Your're ridin’ on a ghost bound train
I hear the whistle in the dark
And it’s the sound of a memory of mystery stalking.
The halls of a lonely heart.

The song captures the tendency to run from love when fear of commitment becomes too strong.

Will I Be Good Enough,” another Louisa Branscomb contribution to this disk, places a newborn baby in a mother’s arms in 1993 and causes her to ask:

Will I be good enough, to keep you, to keep you safe from harm?
Will I be good enough, to teach you right from wrong?
This world is full of wonder, but sometime it gets rough,
When you need me, will I be good enough.

Besides being a fine song about the joys and challenges of parenthood, the song stands in the album as an example of the producer making good placement choices and the versatility of Dale Ann Bradley’s voice, tone, timing, and taste. Terry Baucom, who recently has joined Dale Ann’s touring band, has been quoted as saying, “Dale Ann couldn’t sing off pitch if she tried.” While the statement is certainly true, it doesn’t go far enough. Bradley’s light voice in this song contrasts with her fuller and more dominating punch in others. Her diversity as a singer is superb. Furthermore, “Will I Be Good Enough” can teach a lesson to others who seek to put out good work. In every element of the song, it represents a change from the songs that bracket it, making each one sound even better. This album has a unitary structure that nearly turns it into a single composition with twelve movements.

Dale Ann
Accepting IBMA
Female Entertainer of the Year - 2008
Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” captures the difficulty of facing life’s difficulties and the importance of perseverance:

Hey, Baby, there ain’t no easy way out,
Hey, I will stand my ground.
And I won’t back down.

The final statement of “I won’t back down” contains the complete and utter conviction Dale Ann Bradley’s voice can communicate. Rocker Tom Petty’s work has been showing up more frequently in bluegrass songs. This rendition provides another example of how Bill Monroe’s conception of the music provides plenty of room for tunes from other genres to enter and find a home in bluegrass music without doing violence to the form of the music or the intention of the original.

Often, when a person says, “that’s the last thing on my mind,” they mean it. This lovely song makes a lie of the statement. It opens, “I don’t love him anymore,” and closes on the same refrain. The core of the lyric puts the lie to the bookends. Stuart Duncan’s lonely, soaring fiddle punctuates the lyric and Dale Ann’s voice perfectly.

Dale Ann & Carl Jackson
Back Stage at IBMA Fan Fest - 2008

Frankly, I’m not familiar with the Carter family’s rendition of “50 Miles of Elbow Room,” but the song has been one of my favorites ever since I heard Ron Thomason and Dry Branch Fire Squad sing its uplifting phrases filled with promise. Dale Ann presents the song in a new and different light, highlighting her ability to present a song in a fresh fashion. Perhaps as important, though, is her demonstration of bluegrass’s ability to allow performers huge latitude in interpretation of fine songs, old or new. In talking about Dale Ann in the studio, Louisa Branscomb said she enters working on the songs with a true humility, taking what each person in the studio can add and working to make it part of the whole. As producer, Alison Brown helped create this environment of true collaboration. Dale Ann Bradley manages to throw herself completely into a project, bringing everyone else involved along with her in her own quiet, gentle, yet compelling fashion. As a result of this close collaborative environment, the entire project was recorded in three days with very little need for electronic trickery. As Branscomb says, “Dale Ann doesn’t have to try to be anything, because she is the real thing.” This authenticity shouts out from each of her songs.

Performing at IBMA Fan Fest - 2008
Deanie Richerdson, Gina Britt, Mike Bub, Dale Ann,
Tim Laughlin, & Randall Conn
The CD contains two traditional songs digging into Dale Ann’s rural roots deep in the Kentucky hills. She comes from that little corner of eastern Kentucky joining western Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina where bluegrass music and its predecessors have been nurtured and developed in homes, on porches, and in small venues for generations, Bradley calls upon her roots while developing a larger and more comprehensive vision making the music universal in its appeal. Part of her genius lies in keeping so entirely in touch with her rural roots while functioning effectively in the high tech, highly competitive music environment of Nashville. In “Heaven,” Jamie Dailey joins Dale Ann on the lead while both Jamie and his partner Darin Vincent, join her on the refrains. In the liner notes, Dale Ann comments she’s been singing this song since she was a child. The interplay of the three voices brings new life to this old song. “Blue Eyed Boy” is another traditional song with roots in Appalachia. Stuart Duncan plays old time banjo on this one with Deanie Richardson on fiddle. Its haunting flavor also meets the need to include a good murder song in a bluegrass collection. Mike Bub is always so solid and unobtrusive with his bass play, and it sets the pace on this simple and moving song.

Dale Ann Bradley, Louisa Branscomb, & Tim Laughlin
IBMA - ASCAP Showcase - 2008
“Music City Queen” by Bradley and Branscomb celebrates Dale Ann’s move from Kentucky to Nashville and her triumph over the challenge and adversity of such a move. Dale Ann had had this song on her mind for quite some time. Branscomb helped her finish the lyrics and the tune on this collaboration.

With a sack full of songs and my last thirty dollars
As you’re holding everything I ever wanted.
Music City Queen, how much heartache have you seen?
How many souls have you broken?
For each star in you lights, a hundred cry at night,
On the corner of Broadway and Tomorrow? Oh the sorrow.
Tim Laughlin’s mandolin solo captures the sorrow and loneliness of the song. Somehow, though, this closing refrain can’t destroy the tone of hope and strength the song communicates in the face of the city’s power to hurt and destroy. And so has Dale Ann Bradley triumphed in this album of hope, perseverance, strength, truth and tunefulness.

Dale Ann Bradley’s new album “Don’t Turn Your Back” is a Compass Records release and can be purchased directly from the publisher, from the artist, or at local outlets as well as Amazon. Samples can also be heard at the above address. If any album stands as a whole, this one does, and should be purchased for the totality of its concept as well as the quality of each individual song.

Dale Ann Bradley