Alex Leach Brings a DJ’s Taste and Touch to “I’m Happiest When I’m Moving”

Apr 16, 2021 | Welcome Column

Bluegrass fans have heard about Alex Leach long before his hit single “Mountain Heartache” became a jam standard in the blink of an eye. Becoming a DJ at the age of 9 in East Tennessee at WDVX, Alex began his musical career behind the scenes and not on the stage. Of course, that didn’t stop him from soon moving towards songwriting and putting himself in front of the microphone. Playing with the likes of Ralph Stanley II and Larry Gillis, Leach has been steeped in the lonesome sound. But one wouldn’t know that from looking at the cover, or the album title, for the new project I’m the Happiest When I’m Moving. If this album had come out back in the heyday of bluegrass, they might have been dismissed as a cult. Or worse, hippies. But don’t worry folks, they’re merely gypsies. And what’s more lonesome and bluegrass than a bunch of wayward musicians in a van picking across the country?

Not only does this album have the blessing of such performers as Jim Lauderdale, who produced the project, the record finds a way to re-enliven tried, but true melodies that are eerily familiar yet exhilarating thanks to Leach’s ear for songwriting and how a record should be constructed. Putting a radio show together can be achieved through many strategies. Themes, styles, sub-genres, personnel etc. can all be useful while crafting a program that represents more than its parts, and Leach has learned to excel at constructing such a show. This skill is shown in a perfect allotment and order of tracking that also manages to feature different members of the band throughout the project.

“Take the Long Way Home” begins with the rings of the banjo and Alex’s distinctive twang. The conversation between banjo player Brandon Masur and fiddler John Rigsby continues to recur throughout the track until the band stops and the unison voice come in with an eloquent message, “Not the quickest way to get there/ but adventure sure is somewhere/ better take the long way home while you can.”

This cheerful and upbeat number is followed by a driving 3 quarter time number that is about that time in a young man’s life when he hears “Jim and Jesse singing on the turntable that pa gave to him.” While most songs about the genre are upbeat, but tell a troubling story about the loss of the art form, this song inverses that assumption and brings a cheerful message of family lineage with a lonesome sound.

Being in the CBA all of my life, I have been the kid in the song that becomes enchanted by bluegrass after hearing the first notes. And as a CBA lifer I have also seen this same experience

for the people that came after me. One youngster who I have seen this happen to with my own eyes is Josh Gooding, the mandolin player for the Alex Leach band. Inspired by the likes of Jesse McReynolds and Frank Wakefield, Gooding is undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic and thought provoking mandolin players out today. Like Leach, Gooding has been versed and baptized in the music giving him one of the most enviable tool kits out there. Yet instead of using this immense tool kit to perfect previously conceived styles, Gooding instead breaks apart everything into smaller pieces that he then places together like a puzzle that more closely resembles Picasso’s cubist period than a landscape. For those that may think I’m just pulling references and analogies out of nowhere, please tell me how one should describe his break on “Rambler’s Return” or his outro lick for his instrumental feature “James Russel Rag.”

With Gooding unleashed during the second half the album, and Masur highlighted on tracks such as “Ellen,” a clever prequel to “Poor Ellen Smith,” the softer tracks such as “Take me Back” and “October Fall” highlight Alex’s wife Miranda Leach. The conversational tone of “Take Me Back,” is a welcomed transition from the barnburners that make up a good amount of the record. When festivals come back around, I can already imagine the couples waltzing next to the stage. This track is a keeper.

The closing track, “I Can’t Live on This Way,” an underutilized standard, perfectly encapsulates an album that excels in both vocals and musicianship as well as the nuanced and complicated art of song selection and ordering. The track sounds like a victory lap, with all instruments and voices moving high and fast to close out an album that is one of the most promising of the year.

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