Pop Quiz: Who’s in Sideline? That’s not meant as an insult. It’s meant to show what makes this band special. The material and pickers may have changed during the bands years on the road, but Steve Dilling’s outfit has always kept nuanced traditional sound and the new album ‘Colors and Crossroads’ does the same.
Chris Jones’s tune “Uphill Climb” kicks off the album, along with Steve Dilling’s banjo. It’s a perfect microcosm of what we are in store for. The first thing I notice is that the guitar rhythm sounds forceful and heavy, and low and behold it’s Skip Cherryholmes, one of the most underrated rhythm players out there since his family band days. I like to hear the chords emphasized, and on this first tune, it’s especially enjoyable to hear that 3rd7 ring. Speaking of ringing, Brian Aldridge has pipes. This isn’t his highlight song, but his high smooth voice definitely sets the tone. This is one of the strongest openers of any album of 2016 along with Blue and Lonesome’s ‘You’ll Pay’ and Lonesome River Band’s ‘Anything to Make Her Mine’.
The next track is the title track, and its lyrics hold up to the lofty expectations created from killing the downhill momentum from the upbeat first track. I believe the second track should keep up the pace and you save the speed for the third track, but instead they deliver beautiful lyrics like “God’s blanket holds the mountains/ like the mother holds a child,” for this album slot and it works perfectly. Again, the pull-offs of Cherryholmes is a highlight.
The pace is picked back up with Tommy Long’s ‘You Don’t Know What You Got Until It’s Gone.’ If by some chance you have not heard this tune, the premise is pretty darn self-explanatory and the extra four five turnaround on the chorus is proven to always make a song one hundred times better. Another thing that gives this tune extra flavor, is Nathan Aldridge on the fiddle. While Skip’s strong rhythm kept me distracted for the first couple tracks, Nathan shines on this track along with Dilling on the banjo. This is by far the hardest driving song on the album which will make it a highlight in my book and I assume many others who enjoy bluegrass driven by banjo and gumption.
Now on to the downside of this album. While Steve Dilling is solid banjo player and front man, his voice can’t lead a band let alone a song. This issue is unexplainably highlighted further by their arrangement of ‘Beggar in Heaven.’ To start the song, we are left only with Skip’s rhythm. Not a bad start. But then the growl comes in, and it’s also off key. This issue doesn’t get remedied when the rest of the band comes in. What’s humorous about this, is that the chorus is saved by Brian‘s tenor. The ring of his high voice overpowers Dilling’s to give the listener a break from a man struggling to sing in places below and above his range. This song also highlights dobro player Brad Hudson who is not one of my favorite dobro players. He and Brian Aldridge play a conservative style, but this style is not used to enhance right hand force and band power, instead they meld into the background and their solos become forgettable.
After traditional favorite ‘Are You Waiting Just For Me?’ comes the best track of the album. While ‘Unwanted Love’ was written by Reno and Smiley, Sideline takes advantage of the Johnson Mountain Boys’ popular version of the song and allows Dudley Connell to take the lead vocals. This obviously creates one of the greatest bluegrass forces heard in the last few years. Connell’s voice following along with bass all-star Jason Moore is a combination that is needed much more in the future.
Sadly, the albums highlights after this point are marginal. After an atrocious clawwhammer version of “Darling Corey”, gospel and melodramatic songs close out the album. I will admit that a few of these are potential highlights for fans of the slower and more gospel aspects of the genre. ‘The Blame’ is a strong love song that’s a cover of the 80s country band, Highway 101. Lyrics like, “You’ve got your side/ and I’ve got mine/the truth lies In between.” Are candid and potentially lazy, but actually work well with the rest of the tune. The last track on the album, ‘I Believe’ is one of the best gospel songs I have heard in a while. Aldridge sings like a man possessed and it’s astounding to hear. The chord progression does everything to highlight his natural abilities. While Aldridge has great ability as a singer, there is not enough harmonic accompaniment and instrumental ability to make Sideline more than a second tier band. This group of sidemen is a professional traditional group, but the wow factor is yet to be there with this new lineup.