There’s no reason you shouldn’t like Cumberland’s Grand Ole’ Ditch. Even if you’ve been opposed to the recent bluegrass-ification of mainstream music, the group’s latest set is so inoffensive and so charming that you can’t help but root for the guys to succeed in whatever they do. Come on, now. They’ve got a dude called “Fiddlin” Ray Bruckman in their band. Just reading that should make you smile.
If anything, these guys might just be too innocuous for their own good. Because despite the storytelling chops they display throughout all of their most recent set, “Big Red Ball,” one can’t help but be struck by the naivety and assembly-line nature that sometimes creeps between lyrics like “Evil skies surround me down / My eyes are here beside this town” or “Inside them hills / I killed my lover.” Yeah, everyone can understand why those tropes appear within the fabric of traditional folk music. But hearing those words come from voices so unassuming that they might make Steve Martin and all of his Steep Canyon Rangers blush?
Yeah, that’s a tough line to walk.
Still, there’s a lot to value here. “By and By,” arguably the most memorable track, works because of its pleasantry. Written by mandolin player Lucas Mathews, it’s an irresistible form of comfort music, led solely by Mathews’ laid-back voice. It’s a shame he doesn’t take the lead on more songs here, if only because of how inviting he sounds. Better yet is the song’s minute-and-a-half mark, which opens up into a section best described as epic. Or, well, as epic as bluegrass can sound, Bruckman’s violin slashing through the staccato acoustic stabs to create the power of a full orchestra. At a little more than six minutes, its the record’s most complete moment.
Elsewhere, opener “Pigeon Eatin’ Catfish” is barrels of fun with its quick, hummable hook questioning why the lord made the story’s protagonist so mean. It’s a great way to ease the audience into the record because of how curious and attention-grabbing its lyrics prove to be. Its follow-up, “Take Me Back,” then ensures that attention will not waver. Driven by some excellent banjo work between verses from Craig Miller and various spit-fire soloing, its appeal is its nostalgia, which is highlighted by Miller’s plea to go home.
Another essential element of the group’s formula is their natural vocal harmony chemistry. “Dark Rider” tells the tale of a scoundrel navigating his way through a pitch-black night, yet each time the hook hits and those voices come together, it sounds like the sun rising, a bright combination of strikingly contrasting colors. Ditto for “Cabins in the Laurel,” which also benefits from a touch of calypso throughout each verse. Think the Punch Brothers vacationing in Margaritaville.
The only time the set falters is when Grand Ole’ Ditch get too cute for their own good. “Man’s Best Friend” might play well for super-duper dog lovers, but there’s an inherent cheesiness to the production that refuses to be ignored, no matter how hard you try. For proof, look no further than this refrain: “It’s the end of the day, you’re tired and blue / You fetch me a treat and I stare at you / I’m so happy to see you, I’m waggin’ my tail / You drift off to sleep and I chew on the rail.” The intentions are pure, of course, but at the end of the day, the song feels half-thought.
That’s forgiven with a track like “Sadie Mell,” which is as simple as it is short and as affecting as it is impressive. At less than 2 1/2 minutes, its the record’s shortest song, but it’s also the prettiest. With a multiple-part vocal harmony that continues throughout, it’s lovely — despite being a song about killing a lover, of course. Even so, you can’t deny the longing that seems to creep through each singer’s voice, the dichotomy between song and story a borderline brilliant touch. It makes the sum worth far more than the band’s singular parts.
And all told, that’s what makes Grand Ole’ Ditch so Grand Ol’ Great. Sure, some spots are better than others, and yes, this isn’t necessarily a perfect record. But if nothing else, “Big Red Ball” is a hell of an endearing album and that doesn’t waver from from start to finish. “Sittin’ in my cabin in the laurel, smokin fast and killin time,” Miller sings during “Cabins in the Laurel.” “Walkin’ through the thickets in the hollow, they’re cluttered like the alleys in my mind.”
Cluttered as they may be, keep exploring, young man. Because if “Big Red Ball” suggests what you or the rest of your band might have stored away, the treasures you guys might find could be endless.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **