When most people outside of the southern United States hear the term “bluegrass,” stereotypes inevitably take over their perception of the genre. It works the same way when people in the south think of “New York City.” Once people get their mind past stereotypes and what they think they know, only then are their minds free to expand. Once you’re able to musically expand past “American Idol” and other distractions, then bluegrass can be discovered. Aside from jazz, bluegrass is one of the truly original American art forms. What many people don’t realize is that some of the world’s most talented musicians play bluegrass music. Why? Simply; if you are going to make good bluegrass music, then you have to be on another level of musicianship. It’s incredibly intricate, it’s sometimes incredibly fast, and it is purely acoustic. (Sorry, no distortion pedal to hide behind here) Rick Pardue and Tim Massey’s latest album “The Ghost of Noah Hayes”is truly an example of traditional bluegrass at its best.
Rick Parduebegan his lifelong journey into bluegrass at the age of 17 when he got his first banjo at Camel Pawn Shop in Winston-Salem, NC (A Gibson RB100). It wasn’t long after when he joined his first band, The Rocky Branch Boys. From that first band to other bands such as the Carolina Road Band 30 years later, and other solo efforts, Pardue has had a robust career in the genre. No matter if it’s times such as playing his first gig in front of thousands of people or those times when he is playing in front of five people at a chicken stew or even playing at a festival in Europe, Pardue’s talent has been recognized locally in North Carolina, nationally, and internationally of the past 40 years.
2011’s “The Ghost of Noah Hayes”is a collection of Pardue and Massey’s originals. The album also features Jimmy Haley, Jason Tomlin, and David Johnson. Some were written specifically for the album itself while some were new interpretations of songs they had already written as far back as 1995. It’s 12 tracks of a perfect mixture of fast and slow tempos, varying time signatures, and some of the more creative, ardent, and impassioned lyrics you’ll ever come across in bluegrass. Two of the major standout tracks also serve as a mid-way centerpiece for the album. “Talk Sweet to Jenny” is a lyrically strong mid-tempo track driven by some amazing steel guitar work. What makes it stand out is its retranslation potential. Truly great songs, both structurally and lyrically, can be translated across different musical genres. For instance, change the instruments being played and the same song could be a country song or a rock song (in cut time). However, “They Don’t Name Girls Beulah Anymore” easily stands out as a fan favorite on this album. It’s a song that any listener can enjoy whether they are a fan of bluegrass or not a fan. As intriguing as the title was at first glance, it was actually the first track I played before listening to their album in its entirety in order.
Based on events that never happened, the title track “The Ghost of Noah Hayes” features some outstanding mandolin work, as does the next track entitled “Hardly a Day.” Melodically and vocally, the highest spot on the entire album is “Cold Virginia Night.” In true bluegrass fashion, alternating instrumental breaks from instrument to instrument are prevalent, however they pull this off without ever losing the mood of the song (which can easily happen when a band tries to do too much in one song). Every single note fits perfectly into a tight package. It’s extremely well done.
In an interview with Rick Pardue for this piece, he contributed some candid insight into the recording of “The Ghost of Noah Hayes:”
“We were still writing and trying to arrange when we went in Eastwood Studios in Cana, Va. We did have 3 or 4 songs we were confident in enough to begin. (Which by the way is the most important part of a project) You need to get off to a good start. At that point, all the talk about “going to the studio” is over. You’re there. It’s time to get to business at a relaxing pace and not put any pressure on yourself to just get in there and do what you do. We try to cut all the rhythm and instrumental tracks live to get that good groove going, and most importantly to make it feel “live” rather than contrived and pieced together. Well sure we had to fix a thing or two, but when you get that great foundation, it turns out to be one of those “piece of cake” things. Before we began a tune we all ran over it for 10 minutes or so. It’s also important to remember this is the first time these guys have ever heard this stuff. We worked out arrangements and learned them in that short bit of time. No charts and no papers. This is all ear stuff here folks. These are also first class and professional bluegrass musicians, more cake please. After two days and 12 tracks done, all we lacked were the vocals.
That was really the easiest part. Other than some rewriting in a few places, we were done within the next two days. Working in a studio with a great engineer like Wes Easter makes all the difference in the world. He knows his equipment and his business better than anyone I know. Twelve original songs, 5 pickers, 4 days, with zero rehearsal. Hell I know bands that play regularly that would have big trouble doing that…… and I’ve been there too. No cake!”
“The Ghost of Noah Hayes” is a great album all the way through. It’s a group of musicians that are tight as a glove together that have produced a piece of work that is truly a look at how accomplished North Carolina and Virginia musical legends can come together in a family-like atmosphere and create art in a way that others on wish they could. Each track was carefully chosen and masterfully performed, which makes the entire work a major highlight in the already accomplished careers of Pardue and Massey. It signifies traditional bluegrass at its absolute best. (None of the drum-circle hippie “bluegrass” found here) What the listener finds here is the real thing. What makes this album important to bluegrass is that it sticks to the philosophy; which is bluegrass musicians and fans don’t want the art to evolve into something more modern or commercial. It is what it is because it preserves the legacy of its founders and heroes. If it is fine just the way it is, why morph it into something else? Bluegrass musicians want to write and record the same way it was done in the 30s, 40’s and 50s. It’s an art passed down from generation to generation. That’s why it’s a process and a sect of music that preserves its roots and doesn’t stray. That isn’t an accident. Mainstream appeal isn’t important. Keeping the music and culture of the music intact and away from outside influence is what makes the art form special. To me, that is what this album is about. Musical purity.
The album, along with a back catalog of work can be purchased heredigitally or you may even order an autographed CD.
Dustin M Pardue