It sometimes seems these days that new groups in bluegrass all fall into one of two camps. There are those for whom bluegrass is at most a predominant flavor in music that otherwise leans on related styles, and there are those who serve up something narrow, fixated on the mid-tempo groove and modal melodies popularly referred to as “mashing it.” You can attend a fair number of festivals and listen to a good deal of bluegrass radio today and not hear too much else.
Even so, I’m glad to report that another approach survives, one that makes the Hamilton County Ramblers’ music not just enjoyable (which it certainly is), but refreshing, too. It is, not coincidentally, a genuine throwback to the real practice of the music’s pioneers — namely, creating music that serves to distinguish its makers from everyone else. It’s music that’s diverse, yet consistent; innovative and surprising at one moment, down-home and familiar at the next. And the more you learn about the music made by those pioneers (and by the greats who have followed them), the more you’ll recognize its echoes on this album.
An attentive listener will discern, for instance, a focus on well-formed melodies and subtle, varied arrangements, even if he or she is unaware of each song’s pedigree (although learning their sources will undoubtedly add to the enjoyment). And it doesn’t take much study to observe that these musicians are more intent on, to use the well-worn but still meaningful phrase, serving the song than they are on showing off or projecting attitude. Nor is it likely that one can fail to notice that, in James Kee, we’re hearing yet another singer who proves that the “high lonesome sound” is just one flavor of good bluegrass singing.
But really, the same notion could be applied to any of these guys. This is a band whose members come from several directions and several generations yet also from one place, both literally (the Chattanooga area, hence “Hamilton County”), and figuratively, in their shared appreciation for and emulation of the genuine, not stereotypical, aspects of the bluegrass tradition. They understand that music — this kind of music, at least — is an art and a craft (and a business), and that respect for it means digging deep at every turn.
In short, this is a debut from a group that has done what good bluegrass musicians of every generation do. And it shows.
—Jon Weisberger, Cottontown, TN, September, 2015