Kids are sent to summer camp to make friends, learn skills and
give their parents some relief. Who knew camp could lead to touring the country in a bluegrass
That’s what happened for Bearfoot, whose original members met at a bluegrass camp for kids in Alaska during the ’90s. In 2001, they released their debut album and won the band contest at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, an honor they share with Nickel Creek and the Dixie Chicks. Welcoming non-camp members into the fold, their 2009 album, “Doors and Windows,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart.
Now 2011, Bearfoot is on its third lead singer, and just two of Bearfoot’s original members remain. That may sound like a bad thing, but a listen to their new album proves otherwise.
“American Story,” Bearfoot’s fifth album, was released Sept. 27 on Compass Records.
Since their last release, Bearfoot has moved to Nashville, and founding members fiddler Angela Odean and mandolin player Jason Norris added guitarist and singer Nora Jane Struthers, guitarist Todd Grebe and multi-instrumentalist P.J. George to the group. A band already embracing Americana and country, the latest lineup progresses even further on “American Story.”
Odean and Norris are foundational to Bearfoot’s bluegrass sound, and Todd Grebe brings the bluegrass flavor, too, with his two boisterous originals, “Mr. Moonshine” and “Come Get Your Lonesome.” Struthers brings captivating lyrics and voice, and George provides the instrumentation that adds modern edge to vintage sound.
Struthers assumes the lead singing and songwriting position, leading the way for the overall feel of “American Story.” The opening song, “Tell Me a Story,” presents a theme that reappears in other places in the album.
“This song, and in some ways, this album, is really about escapism,” Struthers said. “We all have different ways of removing ourselves from reality, and I get myself lost in stories.”
She wishes to be enchanted by stories, but it is Struthers who does the bewitching with her lyrics and expressive vocals. She has an ability for simple, yet deep-reaching storytelling, as heard in “The Dust” and “Eyes Cast Down.” Without going into incredible detail, Struthers is still able to paint a vibrant picture that is easily understood by the listener. Her voice connotes the emotion of the song, covering any spots where details may have been omitted.
Oudean often harmonizes with Struthers, adding to the density of the vocals on “American Story.” All of the members of Bearfoot are exceptional singers, as shown by the vocal arrangement, “Billy.”
Though it’s the shortest song of the album, it’s one of the most attractive. The ability of the members to harmonize so perfectly points to Bearfoot’s current lineup being a fine fit.
One of the qualities that make Bearfoot stand out is their incorporation of non-conventional instruments into bluegrass. Some traditionalists claim there is not place in the genre for drums and electric instruments; Bearfoot discounts that claim. Instruments like accordion and P.J. George’s drums and electric bass, when added to Oudean’s fiddle and Norris’ mandolin, result in a refreshing brand that offers an alternative for those who prefer to hear bluegrass evolve instead of stagnate.
With “American Story,” Bearfoot brings a charisma that was previously missing from its previous lineups. Struthers champions this allure, but it is the complete presentation that in the end wins Bearfoot’s listeners.
Oudean and Norris not only deserve kudos for helping to lay down the trailhead for Bearfoot, but for also keeping a good thing going. Hopefully, Bearfoot will keep on this path well into the future.