There are all sorts of technical terms for good bluegrass music that I can’t really describe. But what I am certain about is that it’s not all good, so when I find bluegrass that gets to that “next level,” it’s really great. Man About a Horse is one of those contemporary bluegrass bands that seems to reflect the best of the old school genre. They breath new life into a classic art form.
The opener “Take My Heart” has a nice two step to it with a killer banjo part. What my ears are immediately drawn to, though, is the genuineness of the vocals. It seems like oftentimes bluegrass vocalists feel the need to sound like Bill Munroe. Instead, the vocalists in Man About a Horse sound like people living in the 21st century. The art just feels real. “It’s my heart I don’t need if I don’t have you…” It’s a timeless sentiment delivered wonderfully here.
“The Harder They Come” has a bit more of a rolling sound to it. The vocals are every bit as engaging. This track is a bit more like the Chris Thile dominated tracks from Nickel Creek. Although not quite as experimental, there’s something about the non-traditional song structure (including some really interesting and intricate runs) that keeps it a bit off kilter in a good way.
“A Few Hundred Miles” is definitely a travel tune. It’s perfect for one of those “on the road” mix tapes. The harmonies on this one really seem to pop. The reference to “them Carolina hills” resonates nicely with anyone whose ever lived upstate in South Carolina or in the mountains of western North Carolina. The lead singer’s vocals are a bit more gravely, but it works nicely with the juxtaposition of being a “city boy” who longs to be in the Carolina hills. It’s nicely done.
The final track “All You Need Is Love” comes just a bit too soon on this album. Of course it’s a bluegrass version of the Beatles classic. It’s about as tastefully done as it can be, but the previous tracks on the album are much better in style and substance. It would have been nice to hear a real classic like “Rocky Top” or “Wabash Cannonball” here. That’s not to say that the harmonies are not solid, but finishing up with a real classic would have given a good indication of the band’s potential as a touring bluegrass act, able to handle the standards as well.
All of this said, Man About a Horse is a really quality bluegrass band. The banjo, mandolin, bass, and vocals are all where they need to be. The songwriting flows nicely and the performance has a nice even, high quality. I’m looking forward to hearing more from the songwriters in this group. What makes them better than “just another bluegrass band” is the clear artistic vision for various songs on the album. There’s an experimental element to each of the tracks on the album, particularly on the second track. It will be interesting to see where they take the songwriting from here – and I’ll definitely be watching for their full length release.