What would J.D. Crowe's band sound like with banjo stud Scott Vestal in place of Crowe? The answer is Wildfire. Comprised of four former members of Crowe's New South, along with Vestal, Wildfire's debut is an attention-grabbing effort filled with virtuoso picking, well-chosen albeit slightly commercial-leaning songs, and reliable singing. Resonator guitar master Phil Leadbetter, one of the top players in his field, shares solos with Vestal, mandolin player Darrell Webb, and guitarist Robert Hale. On cuts like the workhorse "Louise," Leadbetter's knack for phrasing never veers too far astray from the core melody, whereas he flashes his speedy fingers on the Flatt & Scruggs favorite "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down." On cuts like Delbert McClinton's "Victim of Life's Circumstances," Webb's mando playing is melodic, tasteful, and rhythmically solid when providing the required downbeat. Bluegrass conventions are pretty rigid to begin with, so it's difficult to expose a personality, but Robert Hale manages to squeeze some into his bluesy style. Like all his work, Vestal's parts throughout are idiosyncratic, both tonally and melodically. But the vocals, led by Hale and backed by Leadbetter and Webb, are equally as strong. Hale's vocals are strongest on the opening cut, "Rough Edges," and he also manages to escape the shadow of George Jones on James Taylor's "Bartender Blues," made famous by Jones. With only two original tunes, the only question surrounding this band is if they can write material as strong as they can play it.
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AllMusic Review by Scott Cooper