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Irene Kelley

These Hills – 2016 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Irene Kelley

Irene Kelley has created a bluegrass record, which seems just right - well-conceived with outstanding songwriting and singing and powerful musicianship.

From the trickle down banjo run which introduces "Carolina Wind" to the soulful mountain vibe which exemplifies the final cut, "Before You Call Me Home," Kelley makes a case for the currency and relevance of bluegrass music in 2016. Kelley's voice is true and the song-writing never falters. She has written songs for The Gibson Brothers, The Whites, Rhonda Vincent and many other bluegrass stalwarts over the years. Now, she's front and center.

With stout material like this, it makes sense that Kelley surrounds herself with elite bluegrass sidemen: Bryan Sutton (guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Scott Vestal (banjo). They do not disappoint. Each brings not only solid musicianship, but a personality to their instrument, which plays to the song in a way which enhances, not detracts. An uncredited Dobro turn on "These Hills" stands out, and backing vocals featuring Sharon White, Claire Lynch, Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gully (among others) add texture to these fine songs.

There's so much to appreciate here. All the songs are written by Kelley, and there's not a dud in the mix. The aforementioned "Carolina Wind" seems like it was written in the 40's and was just waiting for Kelley to discover it.

The selections cover the well-trod range of bluegrass subjects: coal mining exploitation ("Coal Train"), mountain life ("Up In These Bluer Rdge Mountains," "These Hills") and even the aspirational appeal of S&H Green Stamps ("Johnson's Hardware Store"). But the oft-traveled path can be improved, and Kelley has done that here.

Although hailing originally from Latrobe, Pa. Kelley's voice is distinctively from the hills she writes and sings about. (This a world where "edge" rhymes with "ridge"). The vocals recall early Emmylou Harris with just the right bite and melodic fluidity. Vestal always enriches any record, and Sutton picks his Bourgeois guitar with heart and rich tone. Sutton is at home here as he is on bro-country records like Dan + Shay.

"Moonlight Is Falling," toward the end of the record, is a rolling number with the sidemen contributing two or three measure licks, but letting Kelley's voice weave the story. The penultimate cut, "Do You Think of Me?" could be maudlin, but, rather it's a taut, upbeat number with claw hammer counterpoints and Duncan's soaring fiddle licks.