Home of Bluegrass
Jussi Syren and the Groundbreakers aren’t just a band that plays traditional bluegrass. They are a traditional bluegrass band that formed in 1995. Consider this. They are the first generation of bluegrass music in Finland. Just like the first two generations of American bands, most of their gigs are in smoke-filled bars. Jussi writes his own songs prolifically. This band has absorbed the genre to such a degree that it’s their music played and sung with passion and commitment. Bluegrass Singer displays all these fine qualities.
Jussi has been dedicated to bluegrass for more than thirty years. He is justifiably proud of keeping his music both original in material and rooted in the early years of bluegrass. As soon as you hear him sing, you know he has been working hard at developing a convincing, authentic vocal style. On Jussi’s best moments, such as the title-cut and “Convict On The Run,” his soulful singing gets stunningly close to Ralph Stanley. At his worst, which is still quite good, he sounds as if he is teaching someone how to sing that way, demonstrating by exaggerating the distinctive traits. A decade into Jussi’s total commitment to bluegrass music, Bluegrass Singer is their tenth album. Like any band that stays together for a long time, these musicians know where their bandmates are headed. Their singing and playing forms a whole that is greater than any individual member.
Banjoman Tauri Oksala deserves particular praise. His playing is crisp and energetic, obviously influenced by Scruggs and Crowe, but with some of himself in his picking. On Jussi’s “Banjo Song,” Oksala manages the Olympic feat of convincingly playing in the styles of six different five-string masters in one song. Jussi distinguishes himself as a composer of contemporary songs that sound classic. Most of his songs could be slipped in among first-decade bluegrass songs. “Daddy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a perfect “poor pitiful” piece. “Convict On The Run” delivers a fine example of another bluegrass theme. “Alleghany Waltz” would fit right in with the waltz phase of the late 1940s.
Indeed, the two covers are the weakest part of this excellent album. I’d much rather hear two more written by Jussi. As a North Carolinian of a certain age, the auctioneering on Leroy Van Dyke’s 1960s country hit “The Auctioneer” bothers me. Maybe it’s the echo effect, but it sounds a little like you could hear in the warehouses redolent with the sweet smell of freshly cured bright leaf tobacco.
Bluegrass Singer is strong, enjoyable, well-grounded bluegrass in the spirit of the true vine. Sometimes a special album this way passes. This is the real deal. (Home of Bluegrass, Kuusikkokuja 2 C 6, 01380 Vantaa, Finland, www.syren.fi.)AM