Newtown: Media Love
Harlan Road. It is one of the best new bluegrass albums out lately and demands attention from those who love the genre. On the eleven song collection, NewTown covers all the hoped-for territory (including some absolutely stunning, mutually-dependent instrumentals) while also expanding all expectations with some gorgeous contemporary songs that feel so fresh one might not even consider them bluegrass on first listen. Make no mistake though, they belong in the bluegrass classification… just somewhere on the edge, where things get interesting. NewTown deserves praise, not only for the quality of their musicianship, but also for selecting songs that provide the lifeblood of the form—fresh material pushing the artistic frontier. NewTown loves songs that tell a good story and the songs on Harlan Road are each a chapter in a musical novel of hard-scrabble life (that brings out the best in musical expression). Like a life-sustaining flame, Kati Penn’s lead vocals can either roar like a fire on the move, or can flicker with the vulnerability of a candle in a breeze. Jr. Williams’ vocals are equally strong, possessing the two required qualities of memorable bluegrass singing—loneliness and earnestness.
Essential Downloads: “All That I Can Take,” “The Crows and The Jakes,” “Come Back To Me.”
In the tradition of the best Bluegrass records, this album is a real representation of the human condition, with excellent singing and playing that drive home the authenticity of the lyrics to some fine story songs. From the pictures of tobacco fields and coal trains painted in the lonesome title track, to subjects like thoughts of mortality and death (“The Crows and the Jakes”), poverty (“Hard Times”), and failed relationships (“Can’t Let Go,” which was also recorded by Lucinda Williams), this is an album of songs for the masses. That isn’t to say that it’s as depressing as an old Delta Blues record. But it aims squarely at the struggles and hardships of Everyman, taken more from Ralph Stanley’s Appalachian playbook than Bill Monroe’s Western Kentucky one. The standout cut here is the album’s final song, “Come Back to Me.” This heart-wrenching duet finds Jr. and Kati each taking a verse and harmonizing beautifully, with Jr. in particular killing his part. They could almost pass for Vince Gill and Patty Loveless, only maybe better.
One could easily compare Kati to the likes of great vocalists such as Allison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent or Patty Loveless as her vocals are just as diverse. Kati and Jr. take turns on singing lead but you will quickly find that the magic happens when the couple harmonize together. Come Back to Me, The final track of the album, showcases these harmonies and are of the caliber of a Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss or Vince Gill and Patty Loveless duet. Harlan Road is a laid back listen while rocking on the front porch tasting your favorite moonshine or shot of whiskey.
Harlan Road is a very satisfying record. Strong material, sterling performances, and transparent audio. What’s not to like? Their sound is hard-edged contemporary bluegrass, modern yet still representing the bluegrass traditions of their Kentucky roots. This is a terrific project.
So very excited about the new HARLAN ROAD CD from Bluegrass super talented band NewTown. This group is a package of dynamite! One of Kentucky’s finest with Kati Penn, an award winning fiddler, super vocals, and pretty to boot, and her husband Jr Williams, superb banjo-picking always, and the rest of their sparkling compadres, you just know it’s gonna be “hawt”. Just in time for summer temperatures! Bring it on!