Bryan Simpson and Matt Menefee Return to the 2010s with The Golden Age

Mar 8, 2021 | Welcome Column

After getting signed by Ricky Skaggs and touring with Mumford and Sons, it seemed like Cadillac sky had options inside and outside of bluegrass. Cadillac Sky’s albums fit in a similar precarious position. For every psychedelic instrumental arrangement or use of rock influenced instrumentation, there is a Monroe style mandolin lick and gospel song theme. This mixture resulted in a band that was one of the most important edge bands in bluegrass of the 21st century. After their breakup, two of the original members, mandolinist and vocalist Bryan Simpson and banjoist Matt Menefee went their separate ways. Many would have seen Matt Menefee recently playing banjo for Darin and Brooke Aldridge at the Father’s Day Festival. As for Simpson, he continued with his songwriting journey by leading the group The Whistles and the Bells, a group that still consists of Menefee on the banjo. While Simpson’s previous project’s timbral decisions had moved the music out of the further regions of bluegrass, The new project from the duo inches closer to the bluegrass influenced sound that caused such excitement for Cadillac Sky ten years ago.

The largest difference between these two iterations of the Simpson Menefee duo is the maturity presented on I’m Sure it’ll be Fine. Lyrically, this can be recognized by tried and true song writing strategies, such as the list song “If Rifles Shot Roses” The three quarter tempo, driven by the hyperactive banjo roll meshes with the sparse fiddle fills. The song seems to slowly churn along as Simpson states that he, “wishes that beer always stayed cold, and old dogs didn’t die, and people smiled Sunday morning like Saturday night.”
While not nearly as break neck as Cadillac Sky, “My Drunk Uncle” proves they can still whip out the chaotic, fiddle/banjo old time sound. This track also may be the most political statement for a group that usually refrains from it. Comparing America to a drunk uncle, has been done more often in the last few years, but few songs can create a musical representation of that feeling with the use of sliding fiddle licks and a rising melodic line. The fiddle and voice call and response transition back into the chorus is another nice example of the chaotic nature of this track which helps as a good reminder of what Cadillac sky used to be.
The walking bass of “Young love don’t Age Well” also creates a strong forward momentum for the closing track. Again, the forward momentum and the loose feeling of the rhythm leaves traces back to the iteration, but everything just seems more air tight and pre conceived. The song builds well at the end with the instrumental depth growing and growing until it disappears. It is also a good counterpoint to the EPs opening track, “Animal” which uses a staccato back up which keeps the momentum much less unbridled than on “My Drunk Uncle” or “Young Love don’t Age Well.” The background vocals are also more of a call and response style than a traditional bluegrass style. This style creates a great effect on the chorus when all the tension has been released and one hears the angelic voices singing above Simpson.
The sparse and echoing introduction to ‘Encyclopedia Galactica” reminds Cadillac Sky listeners of tracks on their last project Letters in the Deep, except, again, the arrangement seems a lot more refined and about quality, not quantity, and about details, not force. Unlike a song like “Trapped under the Ice” the tension is not released to the same degree and it never genre jumps into a heavy rock song like an old Cadillac Sky track. Instead, the instrumental conversation between the fiddle and banjo becomes busier and busier until the instrumental interchange takes over completely and the song concludes. The conclusion of the song, a reverb filled fiddle stroke, is a perfect transition into the bluesy tremolo mandolin riff of lead single “Weirdo.” Lines like, “they keep punching holes into your sore thumb soul, and the cosmos feels so cold I know,” made this an obvious single choice. Again, the instrumental conversation between the fiddle and banjo fit the mood for the song and create an old school blues feel which is emphasized with extra percussion.
While the project doesn’t shock and awe like old Cadillac Sky projects, Simpson and Menefee were right to return to their roots. There is still clearly more to explore in their sound world, and each of them are incredibly gifted and complimenting the other instrumentally and vocally. I hope this golden age, lasts longer than their last one.
Sorry for missing the last few months gang! For those unaware, I moved to Belize a few months ago and it has taken a while to get everything sorted out. But with a few months under my belt, I feel confident saying I can get back to my monthly columns!

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