Pathway Bluegrass & Gospel

Which Path Will You Take....


Bluegrass Unlimited


Mountain Roads Recordings

More than the solid instrumental skills displayed throughout, and more than the fine songwriting that fills 11 of the 15 tracks, Pathway succeeds best on their singing. They can play—no doubt about it. Just listen to their cover of the instrumental standard “Soldier’s Joy” or the gentle setting they create for Tommy Hill’s slow, traditional country weeper, “You’re Looking For An Angel.” Or listen to the melodic sense they bring to the classic “One Tear” or to Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “They Don’t Make Girls Like Ruby Anymore.”

They can also write—no doubt about that either. Each of their songs, among them “What Must I Do,” “Somewhere Tonight,” and “Pathway,” show a thorough understanding of song construction and good ears for a turn of phrase.

It is, however, their singing that most catches one’s attention. Four of the bandmembers—Casey Byrd (resonator guitar), Justin Freeman (guitar), Mark Freeman (banjo), and Scott Freeman (fiddle)—have good lead voices. Which one leads which song, the liner notes don’t say. I was most impressed by whoever sings “What Must I Do.” His voice is the most resonant and the richest in timbre, though the other three are not far off. In harmony, which all share, including the remaining two members—Mitchell Freeman (bass) and Jake Long (mandolin)—their blend is seemless and very smooth.

Such good leads and tight blends are especially important for a band that emphasizes gospel music as much as Pathway does. Eight of their fifteen tracks are of that genre and all are original and all are good. Of those eight, “Pathway” with its velvet lilt, and “Somewhere Tonight,” with its energy and sense of mission rise above the rest.

This is this Mt. Airy, N.C., band’s debut for the Mountain Roads label and makes a strong promise about its future. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Hwy. 421, Bristol TN 37620, BW

Somewhere Tonight
(Mountain Roads, 2009)

It wasn't all that long ago -- or anyway, it feels that way to me -- that nearly all bluegrass bands were named So-and-So and the geographical-feature (mountain, valley, river) or political-unit (state, county, town) boys. It was rock bands, at least after the mid-1960s, that claimed the one-word singular names. These days, though, bluegrass outfits can call themselves just about anything that pleases them. Such as, in the present instance, Pathway.

Not to fear; the distance between Pathway and Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys -- masters of smooth, confident, melodic traditional 'grass in whose pathway Pathway walks -- is as short as any distance between two points can be. The band hails from the musically affluent Mount Airy, North Carolina (hometown to Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry) and is signed to the reliable bluegrass/oldtime label Mountain Roads. You'd think that with a combination like that, failure would not be an option, and you'd be right.

At its core Pathway is a family band, formed around the Freeman brothers Mark (banjo, guitar), Mitchell (bass), Scott (fiddle) and Mark's son Justin (guitar), along with friends Casey Byrd (dobro, guitar) and Jake Long (mandolin). Four of the group's members share lead vocals, an indication of how unusually well-endowed Pathway is in that department. The instrumental chops are clean, to the point, and devoid of pretense, doing what they need to do and no more -- which means that the pickers are so good that they don't bother to remind you.

All but four of the 15 cuts are originals. If a name like Pathway suggests a Christian message to you, you won't be surprised at the abundance of gospel material; in fact, there's even a song (written by Mark) called "Pathway." But there are as many secular numbers. Sacred or profane, the songs are stellar: beautifully sung with solid lyrics and strong melodies, and sailing on heavenly harmonies.

There is also the obligatory, if always welcome, Tom T. & Dixie Hall song, without which it is apparently now illegal to release a bluegrass album. This one -- "They Don't Make Girls Like Ruby Anymore" (written with Keith Bilbry) -- is Tom T. Hall's second concerning a young woman with that name, though the extroverted, sunny Ruby here will never be confused with the enigmatic, aloof "Ravishing Ruby" known to all connoisseurs of country music at its most Olympian.

The CD concludes with an imaginatively conceived modern arrangement of the centuries-old fiddle tune "Soldier's Joy." It will make you feel good, and as you reflect that this is only Pathway's first album, the thought of the next will make you feel even better.

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