If you’re wondering what happened to the protest and social commentary that once pervaded popular music, you can still find plenty of it in the non-mainstream margins. Such is the track, “Heartland,” from Tommy Webb’s third album of bluegrass. This open letter to the president provides a moving plea from America’s working men and women. The societal disconnection between Midwest farmers and Wall Street bankers stands in contrast to the American economy’s impossibly arcane web of financial interconnections, and provides poignant subtext to the song’s simple wishes.
The bulk of the album is more standard country fare, starting with the opener’s story of lies, heartbreak and murder. The murderous intentions of “Teardrop Inn” are magnified by lazy fiddle and easy-going vocals that sound like the last drops of emotion wrung from a warm heart turned cold. The lack of an overt breakdown in Webb’s voice makes lyrics like “I’d rather see a cold stone above you, than to see you in the arms of Tina at the Teardrop Inn” all the more chilling. In addition to five originals of love celebrated and lost, Webb picks up the traditional “River of Jordan” and bluegrass staple “Little Sadie,” and terrific fiddle-and-harmony tunes from Wayland Patton (“Something in My Heart”) and Robert Braddock (“She Told Me”).
Webb expands upon his concern for the family farmer with Ricky Skaggs’ “A Hard Road to Hoe” and reworks Daryl Worley’s blue collar lament “Good Day to Run” into a winning acoustic arrangement. The original “If It Weren’t for Bluegrass Music (I’d Go Crazy)” arrives just in time for the summer circuit, where the group’s low-key approach will be a restorative moment amongst the typical festival program’s parade of fireworks. There are plenty of tight bluegrass harmonies and dexterous string picking here (check out the synchronized and syncopated playing on, “Clinch Mountain Backstep”), but it’s Webb’s naturally sincere lead singing that really sells these performances. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]