It’s not easy to put together a highquality instrumental bluegrass CD, so it’s especially impressive that a regional band, albeit a veteran one, has done such an impressive job. Buddy Merriam, leader and mandolinist with New York’s Buddy Merriam & Back Roads, has assembled a rich and enjoyable collection of original tunes.
“Back Roads Mandolin” hits all the right notes in every sense of the word. The 14 tunes are put together with as much variety in arrangement and instrumentation that you could possible manage, using the same basic core of players. Yet Merriam manages to keep the music rooted in bluegrass while occasionally integrating the influences of gypsy jazz, native American music, and even a touch of polka. Each of the players is given chances to kick off various tunes as well.
Every instrumentalist has a distinctive musical voice. Merriam has a woody tone and a Monroe-esque backbone that comes through, allowing the listener to hear every bit of varnish and wood grain in his mandolin.
Jerry Oland and his banjo are the relentlessly solid engine that propels each tune. Fiddler Greg Oleyar is more of a chameleon, using overdubbed twin fiddling in some places that hearkens back to the Blue Grass Boys’ sound, while, in other spots, plays with daring imagination. Guitarist Bob Harris is one of those unheralded regional treasures, showing hints of David Grier’s influence, but still manages to create fiery and amazing lead breaks that are uniquely his own. And Ernie Sykes needs no solos on the bass to give a cohesive bottom and drive to the album’s sound.
Greg Cahill’s liner notes are too intriguing to try and summarize, except to say that the story behind Merriam’s musical career and the inspirations behind each tune (further elaborated upon by Merriam in the sleeve notes) are fascinating and memorable. And it says a lot about the quality of this project that the only thing I can find to quibble about is that those same notes are printed quite small for these rapidly aging eyes. But, it’ll be worth your while to dig out your magnifying glass or bifocals, crank up your stereo, computer, iPod, or Victrola, and treat yourself to a tasty collection of original instrumental bluegrass.