Pinecastle Records

Centered on the veteran artistry of Phil Leadbetter, Steve Gulley and Alan Bibey, with banjo man Jason Davis and bassist Travis Greer rounding out a formidable lineup, Grasstowne makes a memorable start in planting its collective foot solidly among the finest traditional bluegrass practitioners of the day. In Gulley (a founding member of Mountain Heart) and Bibey the group boasts two of the stellar bluegrass vocalists around, and Leadbetter’s mastery of the resonator guitar is positively Ickes-like (as in Rob Ickes). The sum of the parts creates a scintillating whole. They introduce themselves on disc by breaking from the usual pattern of barnburning openers in order to investigate a plaintive, brooding blues-tinged lament, Wayne Winkle’s “Hard Workin’ Man,” which chronicles the ongoing challenges facing the working class in tough times, a plight evoked with palpable feeling in Gulley’s earnest vocal, with a little extra tension added by an evocative fiddle line coursing through the song, courtesy one Stuart Duncan, who’s practically a Grasstowne member by dint of appearing on 11 of the 14 cuts. Even the second number, “Lifting Up the Cross,” stays in a restrained groove, as the Gulley/Ken Mellons co-write poses some key questions about the greater spiritual import of seemingly ordinary daily activities (“you got up this morning/do you really know what for?”), with an atmospheric assist from Bibey’s evocative, serpentine mandolin solos and dramatic chops along with Duncan’s keening fiddle. The fellows finally bring the heat on the hard charging third track, “Heartbreak Express,” and charge hard it does—from Bibey’s anxious lead vocal to Leadbetter’s blistering resonator, Duncan’s furious fiddle and a positively breathtaking demonstration of fleet-fingered precision by Bibey when he escorts his mandolin into the fray. On the tender side, the band really shines, with a touching ballad tribute from a child to his parents, but especially to the family matriarch, in “God Bless Mommy,” with Gulley delivering a heartfelt lead vocal complemented by Bibey’s piercing tenor harmony and delicately picked mandolin flourishes; as well, those assembled tackle one of Billy Sherrill’s great George Jones productions on Sherrill’s own song, “The Door,” a true honky-tonk heartbreaker that inspires a deeply wounded vocal from Gulley (who’s not shy about employing some Possum-style vocal dips for effect), with support on the crying side by Duncan’s abject fiddle cries and Leadbetter’s spare, lonely resonator fills. With all bases covered—material, musicianship, repertoire, it’s there—Grasstowne looks set for the long haul. A laudable beginning, The Other Side of Towne is so assured the players are going to have their hands full trying to top it next time out. They seem up for the challenge. –David McGee

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024