Ashby Frank

First Crossing

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When a 16-year-old kid makes an album this good, critics inevitably wind up mentioning his age in the first sentence of their reviews. That's got to be frustrating for Ashby Frank, but in a few years he won't be 16 anymore, and all everyone will talk about is the music. Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss both got through it, and Frank will too. Even if he were a seasoned bluegrass veteran, though, this would be an impressive album: The quality and taste of the ensemble playing and the maturity evident in Frank's quietly virtuosic mandolin picking set First Crossing and Frank himself apart from the bluegrass crowd. Part of the charm here is Frank's first-rate backing band, which includes singer and guitarist Lou Reid, guitarist Kenny Smith, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and banjo players Gena Britt and Alan O'Bryant, among others; Frank's sister Jennie contributes some very fine vocals as well. The program consists primarily of unusual material: a smoking Bobby Osborne instrumental ("Sure-Fire"), a Woody Guthrie song ("Philadelphia Lawyer"), and even a Merle Haggard number ("Somewhere Between"), as well as several more familiar tunes, among them wonderful midtempo renditions of "Soldier's Joy" and "Goin' Across the Sea." There aren't many bluegrass albums that reveal new layers of musical depth with each listen, but this is one of them. Did I mention that the kid's only 16?