The genre of Bluegrass can conjure up very distinct images. None more pertinent than the farmland, flatpicking hillbilly and his finger-rolling banjo player in denim overalls with a piece of straw out his mouth. Now, I’m not here to deny that stereotype, it still exists in the deep recesses of Kentucky and around the northern swamps of Alabama, so let me instead try to dress up your impressions of the modern Bluegrass player by redirecting your attention to the north, destination Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Greensky Bluegrass have spent the best part of twenty years redefining a genre of music.
Listening to bluegrass for some can be like reading a specialised medical journal; esoteric and relevant to only a few, but the turn of the millennium has seen bands incorporate elements of bluegrass and achieve great success; none more notable than Mumford Suns on their genre flexible, debut album ‘Sigh No More’. With a lick of banjo and strum or two on the mandolin, we birthed an indie-bluegrass scene – one that pathed a road for other crossover artists like Molly Tuttle, Mandolin Orange (now Watchhouse) and many more. Then, having got our sufficient ‘hick-fix’, we went from cracking a window to kicking down the door, thanks largely to the boot of young virtuoso Billy Strings.
Greensky Bluegrass haven’t cared too much for riding these choppy waves of popularity. They’ve been happily plying their trade before a fair swathe of loyal fans for two decades. With dramatic light shows for live audiences and rock elements incorporated, they’ve etched out a niche of their own.
‘Stress Dreams’ is through and through a bluegrass album – musically that is. The self-titled track is an eight-minute epic with enough room for each instrument to have it’s say. It vacillates wildly but is never unrestrained. The electric mandolin gives way to a spacey, synth-like keyboard before bringing back familiar bluegrass instruments and harmonised vocals that are a bit Marcus Mumfordy.
Don’t expect painted lyrics about the wild, unkempt country landscape though. For that, Greensky Bluegrass don’t really ‘Give a Shit’. Well, that’s according to the song of that exact title. They much prefer to imagine being a traffic-light, which we find out in the opening lines of the song ‘Streetlight’ – a playful sounding song with some poignant observations on loneliness and love. The tempo jumps around on the album and does not sit still. You can find some rest on a few ballads, before being swept up by the ‘yee-ha-ness’ of good old fashioned bluegrass ditties. I’ll borrow the title of the album’s last track to really drive home this point – on this album there really are plenty of ‘Reasons to Stay’, and it’s a good stay at that. Clocking in at 67 minutes, ‘Stress Dreams’ is fair journey, but one that allows you plenty of time and space to gaze off and drift, before coming back to pay it all the attention that it thoroughly deserves.
The hillbilly reformation is now.
Stress Dreams, Absence of Reason & Streetlight.