february 2009

Common Strings, Uncommon Soul

By David McGee

Common Strings
Lou Bell Records
Released: October 2008

A band's debut and a label's debut both, The Rain Came Down introduces an impressive new outfit to the bluegrass world. It's a family affair in many regards: Common Strings was founded by husband and wife Darron and Vanessa Nichols, and Vanessa's father, Wayne King, contributed some powerful songs of his own to the record, which is otherwise notable for the exceptional original numbers offered by Darron and by Vanessa. Kentucky lass Vanessa is the dominant, ethereal voice of Common Strings, but Georgia boy Darron's clear, emotive tenor is an effective instrument as well, on its own and in harmony with his bride. This is not to discount the work of the other members of the quartet: multi-instrumentalist Blake McDaniel (banjo, dobro, mandolin, lead guitar, vocals) gets into the songwriting fray too, notably with a brisk instrumental, "Changing of the Guard," which cascades and sprints along on scintillating rounds of banjo, guitar and mandolin dialogues; and he co-wrote, with Darron, the requisite hard charging, fleet-fingered showcase, "Midnight Georgia Freight Train," which is otherwise an exuberant chronicle of a lovelorn wanderer's odyssey (marked by a truly exhilarating high, held note by McDaniel, demonstrating fairly awesome breath control), and the impressionistic, Punch Brothers-like meditation, "Picket Fences (First Movement)" that closes the album on an adventurous note. Ethan Walker, the band's youngest member, provides the ballast on bass (the lad has a nice touch) and adds his natural instrument, guitar, to the mix on occasion. The group also had the assistance on guitar of its producer, Wyatt Rice, a pretty fair picker who's logged some time, and gained some attention, as a member of his brother's band, the, ahem, Tony Rice Unit.

So the band has instrumental chops enough to impress anyone, but in the end songs drawn from identifiable real world situations and commonplace, unending struggles and longings leave a lasating impression of a group with a deep soul. Darron's lovely, lilting "Mountain Laurel" kicks off the disc, and Vanessa sings the touching story of a post-Civil War family in Appalachia with transcendent tenderness and poignancy. McDaniel's evocative, spare banjo lines establish a foreboding ambiance for "Deep Mines and Dark Hollows," a vivid tale of coal miners' "just trying to provide/enough food to eat and a place to sleep/for my babies and my wife," as the music pushes forward, evoking the deadening routine that sustains the men underground. Vanessa's "Single Set of Footprints" is a piercing remembrance of a father's visit to his son's grave on Christmas Day, tender but aching, and in Vanessa's subtly shaded vocal evocative of the unending sorrow the father carries with him, until he crosses over and is reunited with his boy in Heaven. Honoring the sweet melodies she remembers her late, God-fearing grandmother singing ("sometimes happy/sometimes lonesome/but always sweet"), Vanessa pays tribute to a song, and a memory, that lives on in her heart, in the gentle, folk-styled ballad, "Songbird Of the Mountain," its sentiments lent added resonance by the atmospherics of exquisitely crafted dobro and mandolin solos. Wayne King's "Daddy I Love You," soft, lilting, and performed with affecting tenderness by Vanessa, whispers the sadness engulfing a little boy whose father was killed by a drunk driver, with an absolutely devastating chorus sung in the words of the boy speaking to his deceased dad. The Nichols' don't only see dead people here, though. Vanessa honors her backwoods childhood in the graceful instrumental, "Chadwell Hollow," and Darron serves up an earnest summons to reconciliation in the sprightly, driving "Back To the Point," another occasion for McDaniel to cut out on a hot-picked banjo solo. "Picket Fences (First Movement)"—even its title, resonant of a classical composition a la Chris Thile's four-part "The Blind Leaving The Blind" on the Punch Brothers' Punch! album, bespeaks grand ambitions—closes the album on a decidedly progressive note, both instrumentally and lyrically. The piece shifts in mood from ebullient to reflective in instrumental passages featuring McDaniels crafting bobbing and weaving phrases of varying temperatures on dobro and mandolin, and injecting insistently strummed guitar chords along the way in a virtuoso one-man instrumental display, as Darron Nichols's bass rumbles solidly behind him; lyrically the only two verses in the six-minutes-plus tune are reflections by a seemingly rootless young man and young woman (McDaniel and Vanessa assuming those roles), whose longing and restlessness remain unresolved at the end as the music embarks on a mellow stroll before concluding on a single, hammered chord. There seems to be more, much more, to come, and the pump has been well primed for just such an eventuality. —David McGee

Buy it at www.cdbaby.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024