I rail constantly against the “Nashville smoothness” of bluegrass, in much the same way that outlaw country folks used to grouse about the “countrypolitan” music in Nashville. But Luke Bulla does smooth bluegrass right, tapping into the kind of effortless joy and mastery that you hear when you listen to a similar artist like Tim O’Brien. That’s because he’s a masterful musician with impeccable taste, and the high-level guests on this album certainly attest to that: Bryan Sutton, Noam Pikelny, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Sam Grisman (David Grisman’s kid), hell even Sarah Jarosz and Lee Ann Womack get in on this album! It helps too that Bulla has the sense and the taste to tap into deep country roots when picking his songs, rather than going for the boring sameness of modern bluegrass songs. It gives the album a hard-bitten, hard-lived quality that compliments the powerful playing. There are songs from Guy Clark, Buddy Miller, and Lyle Lovett, plus an old Appalachian hymn, "Gone Away With a Friend," and a remarkably good song from Bulla himself, "Tie Me Down and Set Me Free." One of the highlights of the album is Bulla's duet with Sarah Jarosz on the bluegrass barn-burner "Somebody's Gonna Pay," written by Jaimie Hartford, John Hartford's son. And in a really surprising twist, the album concludes with Bulla's reinvisioning of the Pink Floyd power ballad "On the Turning Away" as a surprisingly modern hymn.
The album runs the gamut from hard-earned bluegrass cred all the way to soothing Americana roots. I'm having a bit of a debate on Facebook about whether this album should be considered bluegrass, but I think with the backing cast here, it's a bit of a moot point. You’d be hard put to find a better bluegrass album released in 2016, and it’s a crime that so few bluegrass fans picked up on this gem! He’s one of the best fiddlers around, sings up a storm, and has all the bluegrass powerplayers in Nashville at his back. As a sideman, he’s currently playing in Lyle Lovett’s band, but got his start with heavyweights like Ricky Skaggs and John Cowan’s band. If you’re not paying attention to Luke Bulla’s solo work, though, you MUST be sleeping.
PS: On an interesting side note, Luke’s sister, Jenny Anne, now known as Jenny Anne Mannan, is also a killer Americana artist and unheralded in her own right. There’s some great videos of them both playing bluegrass fiddle tunes on TV when they were tiny kids.