‘That’s Why I’m Lonesome’ review: Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass come back instrumentally improved, but lack the material to put themselves over the top

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 What are the hallmarks of traditional bluegrass? In contrast to “modern”, the assumptions are that it is less flashy instrumentally, more concise and conventional in terms of form, and that the lyrics will be more “heartfelt” and sympathetic with the bluegrass canon. For years Danny Paisley and Southern Grass have excelled in all three of these aspects. With old time roots along with a vast amount of experience playing with some of the originators of the genre, the Lundys have long been the hallmark for “classy”, cohesive breaks that never leave the audience awestruck, but always keep the momentum of the song moving forward and the audience focusing on what matters more: Dan or Bob singing some heart wrenching lyrics. While Bobby is on bass and not banjo on this album, TJ is back on fiddle and… better than ever. Obviously, when compared with Mark Delaney on banjo, both TJ and Bobby’s styles are very composed and understated, and if we are discussing vast improvements I think there’s another member of this band who has made even greater strides, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that this band has changed despite a lack of lineup changes at least instrumentally.
Obviously, I am not going to say that an improvement in instrumental skill is a death sentence for a traditional oriented band, but this instrumental improvement seems to have come at the sake of what has made the Paisley’s my favorite band for most of my life: the songs. One skim through the track titles or one non-committed listen through the project leaves the listener definitely recognizing a difference between this project and their past ones. Out of the 13 songs on this project, 3 are instrumentals. Granted, they are eclectic, with a fiddle tune, a mando tune, and a banjo tune all spread across the album. Regardless, this is a problem I have brought up for such instrumental heavy weights as the Punch Brothers, and clearly no matter how good Ryan gets at mandolin, he ain’t gonna be Chris Thile. Speaking of Danny’s mandolin playing hoss of a son, I can’t help but think that the project’s instrumental heavy flavor has to do with Danny wanting to showcase his son in a way that fit both father and son.
Before y’all start asking questions you shouldn’t be asking, I’ll get into the meat and potatoes. The title track “That’s Why I’m lonesome” already deviates from the conventional form rule I mentioned, but does with clever effects. Lundy’s raw double starts first act as a goofy contrast, but then become a stark interruption as they continue on with each break. A bigger surprise one has when listening to this track is, “Wait, that’s Ryan playing the mandolin? The same mandolin style that was resorting to inaccurate positional breaks last time he was at Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival?” Yes, the very same. I have had the privilege of seeing this group numerous times since their last appearance here in California, so I wasn’t as shell shocked as I am sure some listeners will be when they hear this for the first time, but it’s still surreal how Ryan has created a loose right hand style that has become all his own.
Another possible reason for the multitude of instrumentals on this album was simply a lack of strong vocal material. Instead of heart wrenching tracks like “I Overlooked an Orchid,” “Room Over Mine,” “Old Hickory Cane,” “ At the end of a Long Lonely Day” ( I can go on, obviously) we are left with old and new Paisley songs, that while well executed don’t gut punch us like unearthed Paisley material has in the past. The closest we get is Danny’s version of an old Bob song “Does it Have to End This Way” Both versions honkey-tonk the song up more than this song tends to be and the Paisleys tend to enjoy, but it definitely hits home. Unfortunately, it’s now such a cemented war horse like other tracks such as “Rainbow of My Dreams” to truly be transcendent, even with Dudley Connell singing the lead.
Unfortunately, this album seems rushed and could have been improved with more time simply picking stronger material. I understand the necessity of recording new projects for touring purposes, and I understand wanting to highlight the newly found skills of your son Ryan, but when you’re Danny Paisley, the standard for some aspects is lower than average and higher for some. Unfortunately, this project emphasized aspects (such as guest vocal appearances from Rhonda Vincent and the previously mentioned Connell) that don’t vastly improve a traditionally oriented band while deemphasizing what has made this group great in the past.

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