The Travelin’ McCourys balance paying homage to their roots while honing their own musicality.
Brothers Ronnie and Rob McCoury were born into bluegrass. Del McCoury, their father and renowned bluegrass musician, raised his sons to understand the foundations of music while they searched for their own musical soundscapes. Despite being an offshoot of their father’s band, and even including some of the same musicians, the Travelin’ McCourys’ eponymous debut album doesn’t just echo the brothers’ roots but also forges a distinct musical identity.
The album begins with a cover of Passenger’s “Let Her Go.” Jason Carter’s fiddle speeds up the tempo as Ronnie’s mandolin deftly carries the track’s melody. Ronnie’s interlude demonstrates why he is an eight-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year, and while Rob’s banjo is subtly layered into the music, it’s easily overlooked as Carter’s fiddle dominants. At the track’s halfway point, Carter and the McCourys share a fiery musical back-and-forth with each providing a riotous solo. By featuring highly skilled musicians, the Travelin’ McCourys add depth and resonance to the pop single.
The album includes an array of cover songs including Doc Watson’s “Southbound” and Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield.” The Travelin’ McCourys’ versions pay homage while incorporating their unique bluegrass perspectives. For instance, their version of “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” relates Waylon Jennings’ evocative sense of fatigue and disenfranchisement, and yet the Travelin’ McCourys realize Jennings’ pain is not their story. Jennings’ ends “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” with a melancholic country yodel that is barely audible in the song’s last moments, and his vocals are noticeably vulnerable compared to his signature voice. The Travelin’ McCourys’ version, sung by Carter, is contrastingly resounding, and the yodel showcases Carter’s vocal range while endowing the song with a sense of jubilation.
The self-titled album includes several Travelin’ McCourys’ originals. The track “Days I Wish I Had” reflects classic folk’s use of sorrowful lyrics underscored by jovial music. Bassist Alan Bartram is credited as the main songwriter for the other original tracks: “The Hardest Heart,” “The Shaker” and “Travelin’.” These tracks specifically highlight Bartram’s songwriting ability and the steady pulse of upright bass.
“Crowhop,” the album’s only instrumental track, is derived from the colloquial baseball phrase for gaining momentum before a throw. The song illustrates propulsion by displaying the band alternating solos. “Crowhop” begins with an emphasis on Ronnie’s mandolin, and as the song builds, Rob’s banjo becomes the focus while Carter’s fiddle simmers in the background. With the next momentum shift, Carter’s fiddle becomes central. Cody Kilby’s guitar is showcased here, and the musicians find an interplay that coalesces into an energized track.
The covers of the Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues” and “Loser” are too closely duplicated. The melodies on “Cumberland Blues” mimic Jerry Garcia’s and Phil Lesh’s vocal textures. The major difference between the versions is instrumental, as the Travelin’ McCourys’ mandolin, fiddle and banjo replace the Dead’s use of pedal steel. The Travelin’ McCourys’ have developed a reputation for their crystalline Dead covers; they even created the Grateful Ball, a popular bluegrass-inspired tribute. In this regard, both “Cumberland Blues” and “Loser” accurately relive the Dead’s vibe. Yet the focus on their musical accuracy is not an absolute critique, it’d just be preferable for the band to incorporate their own unique interpretations.
The Travelin’ McCourys’ self-titled album balances paying homage to their roots while honing their own musicality. Throughout, the band melds bold musical personalities to form a cohesive sound. In doing so, the album offers foot-stomping originals and cover songs that evoke the energy of front-porch jam sessions and expeditious contra dances.