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|Robert Hale||Guitar, Vocals|
|Steve Thomas||Fiddle, Mandolin|
|Matt DeSpain||Dobro, Vocals|
|Robert Hale||Composer, Producer|
|Anthony Jerome Martin||Composer|
Posted September 9, 2011
"Crash Course in the Blues" is a fitting album to celebrate a fine band's tenth anniversary in the bluegrass business. Wildfire burst on the scene with their contemporary 'grass in 2000. Four of the original members had worked with J.D. Crowe who once said Wildfire is "a great bunch of pickers with a lot of talent." They turned a lot of heads and were nominated as IBMA's Emerging Artist of the Year after only one year in the business. Three albums on the Pinecastle label (Uncontained 2001, Where Roads Divide 2003, Rattle of the Chains 2005) were also very well received. Of the band's original members (Phil Leadbetter, Robert Hale, Darrell Webb, Barry Crabtree, Curt Chapman), only guitarist Hale and bassist Chapman remain with the band. The rest of the current lineup includes Steve Thomas (fiddle, mandolin), Johnny Lewis (banjo) and Matt Despain (Dobro). Hale, Thomas and Despain ably handle the vocals. Scott Vestal guests on the five-string on the title cut. Previous albums had foregone their use of fiddle within the context of their bluegrass, and I am pleased to hear their radiant sound has now been cultivated to treat our ears to all the driving bluegrass instruments without allowing them to clash.
Now associated with Lonesome Day Records, Wildfire is poised to keep right on burning during their second decade in this new millennium. Wildfire's smooth signature sound is one that's always been expressive with rhythmically enticing vocals and shining solos. Arrangements are tasteful. Their smart, tuneful repertoire draws from traditional, country and original material.
Besides being a soulful lead vocalist, Robert Hale is also a talented songwriter who penned "Lies That You Told" and "In This Town." Traditional offerings include "Paint This Town" and the Gospel-infused closer "When He Reached Down His Hand For Me" with guest vocalist Chris Davis in the mix. Tapping into country repertoire yields some alluring bluegrass renditions of songs from the likes of Vince Gill, Keith Whitley, Bill Howard, Steve Wariner/John Jarvis/Don Cook, and Anthony Jerome Martin. Done in waltz time, the song "21 Years" sounds more like one from Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers, but it's credited as traditional Irish folk. It certainly takes a lot of strong musicianship and raw courage to cover Lionel Richie's "Oh No," but Wildfire pulls it off admirably. One or two instrumental offerings could have been nice additions to the project to really shake it up.
"Crash Course in the Blues" could be accused by some of being a bit short at 40 minutes, but that length is fairly standard today and the album's varied material conveys a copious amount of raw energy and brash attitude. Congrats to a formidable band on this album that is a fitting document to their first decade of inspired contemporary bluegrass music. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)