NewFound Road

Life in a Song

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NewFound Road get just about everything right on their fourth album (their first for Rounder). The Ohio-based bluegrass quartet -- Tim Shelton, guitar/vocals; Rob Baker, mandolin/vocals; Jr. Williams, banjo/guitar/vocals; and Randy Barnes, bass -- displays impeccable instrumental virtuosity, deliciously close-knit vocal harmonies and warm, compelling leads, and, most importantly, an ear for a great song. NewFound Road aren't strictly a traditional bluegrass band (note the lack of fiddle in the basic lineup, though it does turn up when required), but neither are they out to reshape the bluegrass wheel. On "Cold Blue Day," the rapid-fire opener penned by Blue Highway's Tim Stafford, all of the elements are already in place: Baker and Williams peel out lightning licks, Shelton turns in a crisp vocal, and when he combines his voice with those of Shelton and Williams, the band's roots in gospel harmony become evident (for more of that, the a cappella "When I Get Home" drives home the point). But just to make clear that they don't use a rule book, the set's second track, "Douglas Graves," written by Stafford and Audey Ratliff, is a winsome ballad that could easily pass for an ancient Appalachian lament, while the group's cover of the old Freddy Fender hit "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" successfully transplants the weeper from the Texas border to the hills up north. Another cover, a breakneck workup of Ray Charles' "Leave My Woman Alone," stacked with crackling solos and high three-part, gospel-inspired harmonies, bears little resemblance to its creator's original arrangement, but as a lifelong experimenter himself, he no doubt would have appreciated the liberties the band took with it. Life in a Song is a winning modern bluegrass album that pays homage to the genre's history without becoming trapped in it.

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