The Hillbenders, based in Springfield, Mo., debut here with 11 band originals and two covers all played in a bright, melodic contemporary bluegrass-style that contains hints of country, country-rock, swing, and, in the vocal harmonies are reminiscent of New Grass Revival. Taken as a whole, there is a slight imbalance in favor of medium-fast tempos, giving a straight-through listening a certain relentlessness. Taken songbysong, the majority of the tracks offer strong tunes and intriguing arrangements.
The band—guitarist/vocalist Jim Rea, bassist/vocalist Gary Rea, mandolinist/vocalist Nolan Lawrence, banjoist Mark Cassidy, and reso guitarist Chad Graves—recently won Silver Dollar City’s 2010 National Single Mic Championship. That may explain their partiality to quick tempos. It may also explains their fondness for split solos and for the way they group those solos. In the uptempo “Another Day, Another Dollar,” for example, the instrumental section that divides the song’s two-verse choruse is grouped into short solos that change players and instruments 12 times. That would obviously translate well on a single mic and makes a nice variant here.
Whatever the reasoning behind what they do, they do it well. Jim Rea’s opening song, “Highway Gambler,” with its tale of losing it all by taking the whiskey train, and with its soaring emphatic chorus should prove a favorite. The poptinged melody of “Take Me Away” is equally captivating, as is the rhythmicallyworded chorus of Jim Rea’s “Done Wrong Love Song.” Among the slower and medium songs, Cassidy’s “Hard Wakin’ Up” is played in a classic country swing tempo, while another Jim Rea song, “Easier On Me,” recalls the slow country rock tunes of Gram Parsons.
Hard luck seems to be a common theme throughout this debut. What is also a common theme is the high quality of the music and performance. (The Hillbenders, 319 S. Hampton, Springfield, MO 65806, www.hillbenders.com.) BW