Taste of the ambitious 15-album grassmasters project falls short with few vocals
What an ambitious project from a new kid on the bluegrass block, two-year-old Synergy Entertainment in New York! The Grass Series boasts a total collection of 15 albums that tapped professional Nashville-based artists to cover music from other genres. Produced by Donald Marrow, their intent is to present rock, pop, gospel and kid’s music in an acoustic bluegrass format. I recommend starting with the “Best ‘uv Grass” 14-song sampler (just over 40 minutes) that has hand-picked favorite tracks from each album in the collection.
The “Grassmasters” hired for the session work have some impressive talent. There are also a few pickers who could’ve been more proficient in the bluegrass idiom. Tommy White (Dobro) is a master musician who appears on all 15 albums. On a majority are Billy Hullett (guitars), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, mandolin), Hoot Hester (fiddle, mandolin), Fred Newell (mandolin), Vic Jordan (banjo), Daniel O’Lannerghty or Charlie Chadwick (bass). Andrea Zonn fiddles on a third of them, and she provides some short-lived smooth vocalizing on two albums. Where there are multiple players of the same instrument or various vocalists, liner notes don’t clearly indicate who is on what cut. Every once in awhile, the moon and stars align and a few special renditions jump out at you. More often, however, the goal of producing a large volume of material in a short period of time seems to have led to problematic issues with arrangement, instrumentation, or presentation. Occasionally sounding contrived and formulaic, the music loses some of its bluegrass spirit, energy and passion.
The earlier releases (StonesGrass, BeatlesGrass, EaglesGrass and FleetwoodGrass) have no vocals. These four (as well as AeroGrass) also include Bob Mater’s drums. He’s steady, but bluegrass aficionados may want this primarily instrumental music without percussion and just let the mandolin chop the backbeat. BeatlesGrass could’ve used some stronger banjo work. Interestingly, liner notes don’t provide a credit for the banjo in the mix of the DeadGrass project. Most likely Vic Jordan, he must’ve been forgotten that day.
With the exception of the 15-song KidsGrass and 14-song Best’uvGrass, the other CDs each offer twelve selections. The albums range from a low of 28 minutes (ElvisGrass) to nearly 49 minutes (EaglesGrass). While the former includes some refrains courtesy of The Jordanaires, song arrangements are short and typically only about two minutes apiece. The latter has a number of 4- and 5-minute renditions of Eagles tunes, but there are no vocals. Where’s the happy medium that provides for thoughtful, creative arrangements with both instrumental and vocal prowess? With their slogan of “Please Keep on the Grass,” this series is worth checking out if you’re in search of passable instrumental bluegrass covers of the material. If you’re into karaoke, it’s fun to sing with bluegrass accompaniment. I commend Synergy Entertainment for realizing the market potential associated with bluegrass musicians tapping material from other genres. We can expect better and better music from them as they work out a few bugs, establish their reputation, and develop stronger credibility.
All things considered, here are a few observations on this specific album, only one in the entire 15-CD Grass Series:
** Best ‘uv Grass (Playing Time 40:03) - From the opening salvo of “We Can Work It Out” (from BeatlesGrass) to “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” (from KidsGrass), you’ll get a great tasting and overview of the entire catalog of budget-priced albums. You’ll quickly realize that some songs you really want to hear the lyrics with have only been arranged as instrumentals. “Salty Dog Blues” has drive but no soulful tenor exclaiming “Now looky here Sal, I know you, run down stockin’ and a worn out shoe.” A few other incorporate drums or harmonica, in addition to the standard traditional bluegrass instrumentation. They do fine instrumental jobs with songs like “Dream On” (AeroGrass), “Stir It Up” (MarleyGrass), and “Take It Easy” (EaglesGrass), but I sure miss the words. “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Teddy Bear” (ElvisGrass), “Ring of Fire” (CashGrass), and even “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” are given rather syrupy Nashvillain renditions that might work for karaoke singers needing some schmaltzy bluegrass backup. When vocals do appear on the albums, they are often just choruses. I can’t quite fathom why verses were dropped, unless the original intent was to record these songs for bluegrass karaoke accompaniment.