The tribute album has become a common occurrence, and bluegrass has not been an exception to the trend. Sometimes, it’s to honor tradition, sometimes it’s because it’s hard to get new music heard. At its worst, this can lead to weak imitations and a sense of hiding behind the cloaks of those that have gone before.
However, at its best, it can produce a body of work that simultaneously honors, builds upon, and creates a new energy with the best of the old and new combined. Fiddler Mike Barnett’s Portraits In Fiddles is definitely a best-case outcome. On a collection of a dozen tracks on which he collaborates with Bobby Hicks, Tony Trischka, Jesse McReynolds, David Grisman, Buddy Spicher, and Bryan Sutton, Barnett is able to walk the fine line between curator and innovator.
It doesn’t hurt that the band he brings to the table features Stuart Duncan, Noam Pikelny, and mandolinist Casey Campbell, with cameos from Tim O’Brien, David Grier, Chris Eldridge, Rob McCoury, Michael Daves, country singer Tim Mensy, and many more. Giving an assemblage such as this a coherent sound is a challenge that Barnett lives up to, thanks to careful arranging, generous sharing of showcase space and, of course, exquisite playing by all involved.
It’s easy to hear and feel the joy the participants feel in reinventing classic tunes such as “Waiting On Vassar,” “Dixie Hoedown,” “Fiddle Patch,” and “Tennessee Waltz” with some of the legendary players identified with classic versions of these tunes. The album is interspersed with a handful of spoken interludes by the veteran musicians and, surprisingly, they are effective and remain so on repeated listenings. One of the unexpected pleasures of this recording is bassist Sam Grisman, whose playing on half the album is mixed in such a way that his deep tone and solid groove really bolster the album’s vibrancy. He also contributes the album’s opening track “Old Barnes.”
Portraits In Fiddles has plenty that will appeal to lovers of music new and old, and not just for fiddlers. This is a rare tribute album that manages to both complement and compliment its honorees and is a prime example of how effective this type of project can be. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)HK