With its heavy use of the mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, and upright bass among other instruments, bluegrass music is an easily recognizable genre with a rich history. It’s with that fact in mind that two lifelong friends formed the band, Old Farm Dog. The duo’s goal was to make a bluegrass band that stayed true to the traditional sounds of the genre, while giving it a fresh perspective from their own eyes and voices. Thanks to their considerably musical talents, Old Farm Dog largely succeeds in doing this on their self-titled debut.
The entire album is performed, mixed, engineered, recorded, and mastered by Murphy and Grube, with Murphy being the primary songwriter and engineer. Much to his credit, the entire album sounds incredibly polished and slick. For such an independent effort, the audio could not have come out any clearer; an important attribute for the album to have considering the intricacies of the duo’s playing. Grube is responsible for the vocals, rhythm guitar and banjo playing while Murphy performs on vocals, mandolin, lead guitar and bass. Neither member outdoes or outplays the other; the synergy they create is keeping within the fine bluegrass tradition.
The album’s opening track, “One Shot,” quickly shows what Old Farm Dog the band, and the album, is all about. The bluegrass elements are firmly in place, with a chugging bass line and the interplay between the acoustic guitar and mandolin forming the musical foundation of the track. Building upon this are the strong harmonies of Murphy and Grube. Their voices blend well together and become the center of attention during the chorus. The lyric itself has its moments of gloom, but ends up being empowering and not standard fare for bluegrass. Ultimately the song discusses the importance of making the most of life, referring to the titular “One Shot” that we all have.
Something a bit more traditional is contained with “Cannonball Express.” Written about a train, the pacing of the song is suitably fast, with Grube’s strong rhythm playing being the heart of the piece. Murphy’s mandolin and lead solos are exceptionally well played, and the vocal harmonies become overdubbed in increasingly extensive fashion as the song goes through each iteration of the chorus.
Of the sixteen songs on Old Farm Dog, two of them are written by Grube. The best of his tracks comes in the form of “I Like The Speakeasy.” The lyric here is a complete throwaway, but the musical performances of Grube and Murphy may be the best on the album. Instead of revolving around the guitar and mandolin, the banjo is substituted for the latter, creating a distinct change in sound. The most impressive parts come after each verse as a different instrument solos each time, including the bass after the third verse. The formulaic structure of the song lends itself perfectly to this kind of jam session.
Contending for the strongest song of the album is “Oh Lord, I’m A Sinner.” This is another throwback to traditional bluegrass, with a lyric that asks for redemption in the face of ill-deeds. The vocals are particularly impassioned and the lyrics are surprisingly bouncy for such a depressing subject, but that’s part of the charm of Old Farm Dog, with them maintaining that upbeat pace the entire album sports. Unique to this song is a change-up from the mandolin pairing with the guitar to the banjo doing so. And as if there were a need to showcase their harmonies more so, the track ends with a brief a cappella section, adding a delightful punctuation mark to an already engaging song.
There’s a multitude of other great songs including “Sally,” “Dance All Night,” “Flood of 08’,” and “Time To Go.” The consistency of the performances is the main contributing factor to why these pieces are all so strong, just listen to the mandolin soloing on “Sally” and try not to be enthralled.
Old Farm Dog’s self-titled album is not quite a reinvention of the bluegrass tradition; though there are some new perspectives that Grube and Murphy provide, they still end up heavily rooted in bluegrass conventions. This is not a bad thing at all though as the musical performances are so dynamic that they always make for a compelling listen. Old Farm Dog has created a fine debut and one that will leave listeners wondering what this group could have in store for the future.
Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 4.5 Stars (out of 5)