Lonesome River Band
Outside Looking In
(2019) Mountain Home
Approaching a new album from perennial bluegrass stalwarts the Lonesome River Band, a few things are assured. Exceptional instrumental prowess, propelled by Sammy Shelor's 5-five string, strong lead vocals from Brandon Rickman and Jesse Smathers, good to great song selection, and arrangements that flow along the slicker edge of contemporary bluegrass.
"Outside Looking In" checks all those boxes, and offers a few surprises as well. This consistent lineup of LRB is one of the strongest encountered during the group's thirty-plus years.
Rickman (guitar) has been one of bluegrass music's most interesting vocalists since he started with LRB a dozen or so years ago. Two numbers, "Wreck of My Heart" and Mark Knophler's "Calling Elvis," demonstrate his impressive range. The first shows his traditional, almost-country side while the latter stretches things a bit, a take on the 'Elvis Lives' oeuvre. The instrumental arrangement of "Calling Elvis" is especially brilliant, reinvigorating the late-period Dire Straits song as a pure-grass piece.
Smathers (mandolin) provides LRB with vocal diversity. His 'up-and-at-'em' approach to Skip Ewing's "Your Memory Wins Again" is on-point, while "Little Magnolia" is more conventional but well-executed. Still, one is increasingly uncomfortable with songs extolling the virtues of 'little' Misses; songwriters are invited to take note.
Speaking of songwriters, Daniel Salyer places three songs including the stellar immigrant's tale, "Cassidy's Prayer Book," co-written with Terry Foust and the breezy "Going With the Flow," sung by Rickman, I believe. The 'she's left me' number "New Ballards Branch" comes from Eli Johnston and Kevin McKinnon, and Larry Cordle and Galen Griffin offer a persistent "Rough and Tumble Heart." Rickman wrote the betrayal-tale "Circle of Lies," with the band also covering David Powelson's tale of retribution, "Outside Looking In."
While there is no shortage of places where Sheler and fiddler Mike Hartgrove shine, their interpretation of Bill Emerson's instrumental "Home of the Red Fox" is notably impressive.
With Barry Reed on bass and Tony Creasman on drums and percussion, the Lonesome River Band have continually met expectations over the last several albums. Most likely, we take the group for granted. From start to finish, "Outside Looking In" is a very strong collection of modern bluegrass.