More than once, the tyranny of the vocal has wrecked a great instrumentalist’s solo album. It’s not hard to sympathize with a picker who wants to survive--financially--as a musician. Maybe they express themselves beautifully through a pick or a bow, but just try to make a living strictly (or even primarily) as an instrumentalist. So, they sing. And too often, they shouldn’t. Having devoted untold hours at their instrument, developing years of hard-earned technique and the taste to use it effectively, if they haven’t done the same for their pipes, why should they be expected to approach the same level as singers?
But it is what audiences want, and if you don’t give the customers what they want, you don’t have customers any more. Hiring guest singers only solves the problem for the disc, setting up audiences for a let-down at your concerts. So it was with some trepidation that I popped the new Adam Steffey disc into the player, having read this quote from him about One More From The Road: “…I didn’t want to make an instrumental album, because I think those can get monotonous.” Well, they can, but when they are made by people like Steffey, one of the best musicians in bluegrass, I find that they don’t. And vocal albums can get monotonous just as easily. So, we seem to have different tastes as listeners. And, I’d still love to hear an all-instrumental album by him--his Grateful CD, from 2001, also mixed vocal with instrumental cuts.
But this is among those rare solo albums by a player who actually sings beautifully, even if Steffey is self-disparaging about his voice (“I love singing, but I hate to hear myself back,” he says). One More For The Road is an unalloyed pleasure for anyone who loves bluegrass music, played or sung. The darkness of the title cut finds Steffey’s rich baritone alternating with the bulls-eye mandolin picking we expect from one of the most thoughtful mandolin soloists out there. Coming second on the disc, after the opening instrumental, it lets us know that there will be no diminution of quality when he switches from single strings to vocal chords.
Surrounded by past and present colleagues, it is quite a feat to create a vocal project with guest crooners Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman, and particularly Alison Krauss on a stunning rendition of the Bluegrass Cardinals tune, “Warm Kentucky Sunshine,” and not end up sounding like the third, or 4th, wheel. They all sound wonderful, including Steffey, from beginning to end.
And as for those instrumentals, two of which he uses to open and close the disc, if you buy the album for those four cuts, you’ll be getting your full money’s worth, quality-wise. “Deep Rough,” “Half Past Four” and “Barnyard Playboy” reside within bluegrass territory with newgrass mountains visible in the distance, while the traditional “Durang’s Hornpipe” sounds as fresh as if it were an original. Steffey and his fellow players, including banjoist Ron Block, fiddlers Ron Stewart and Stuart Duncan, guitarist Clay Hess, dobroist Randy Kohrs, and bassist Barry Bales, are old friends and sound like it, playing with a relaxed cohesion that allows them to whip up plenty of excitement without showboating. No doubt about it, Steffey’s produced a disc that has the earmarks of a classic. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212; <sugarhillrecords.com>) DR