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Nothin' Fancy

Where I Came From – 2016 (Mountain Fever)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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"Where I Came From" by the Virginia-based bluegrass quintet Nothin' Fancy is the sound of a bluegrass band both looking back on its 22-plus-year career and its musical heritage while also striving to advance the art form by creating its own path.

Reflection here comes in two forms - new songs looking back and covers of songs that helped shape and influence the band and its sound. The title track is an example of the former. Penned by Mike Andes, who plays mandolin and provides lead vocals, "Where I Came From" is a tune about longing for home - both the physical place and the youth that was left there.

"I'm going back to where I came from/There to live, no more to roam/These city lights have made me lonesome/For my old Virginia home/In my dreams I often go there/To the place where I was young/When I awake my heart feels broken/For my old Virginia home."

When it comes to covers, there are four exemplary tunes here. Dave Alvin's "Andersonville," a chilling tale about the misery of the infamous Confederate prison during the civil war, is a perfect fit, both musically and narratively, for Nothin' Fancy's fittingly melancholic acoustic arrangement.

Next, the band tackles "The Hobo Song" from master songwriter John Prine. This tune about hobo culture disappearing from American society is given a slightly sped up arrangement that allows the band to make its mark without altering the song's sentiment. The band takes a similar arrangement approach with "Bringing Mary Home," a chilling tune that could easily have been the premise of a "Twilight Zone" episode.

Saving the best for last, the band's cover of "Simon Crutchfield's Grave," a murder ballad written by Damon Black and popularized by The Wilburn Brothers, is a great combination of story and instrumentation. With its nice harmony vocals and an arrangement that makes the ballad feel older than it actually is, the tremendous Nothin' Fancy version here is more reminiscent of the rendition performed by fellow Virginians The McPeak Brothers back in the '70s - a recording nearly impossible to surpass thanks to the incredible and haunting family harmonies that made the McPeaks enduring bluegrass talents.

Although the collection is fairly traditional in nature, the group also includes some tunes that expand upon the traditional definition of bluegrass. "Friends And Lovers" combines pop melodies with bluegrass instrumentation to create something that straddles the fence between genres while "Lord Hear My Plea" is an original gospel tune that defies typical convention by initially including sparse acoustic accompaniment that slowly fades, leaving the tune to conclude in traditional a capella gospel fashion. Also notable is Andes's "Daddy Made Moonshine," the album's lone piece of comic relief - a tribute to some homemade libations made on the mountain that were both good to drink and perfect for shining up a truck.