"Joe Walsh? Like the dude from the Eagles?" That's what I thought, too, until last summer when I saw him killing it at the mandolin master's tent at Grey Fox. Playing with Ronnie McCoury, Sarah Jarosz, David Grisman, and Buddy Merriam, he still impressed with his exceptional playing. His day job is as the mandolinist for the Gibson Brothers, a bluegrass group very popular among the traditionalists. I haven't gotten a chance to check out the Gibson Brothers, either live or on disc, but when I learned that Joe Walsh was coming out with a solo album, I thought I'd check it out.
Bluegrass solo albums, particularly from a gifted instrumentalist like Walsh, can be indulgent affairs, showing off the skill and virtuosity of the artist without necessarily much regard for anything else. The album is about half instrumentals, but they're not mile-a-minute notefests. A representative tune is "Sunday Morning Reel," which sets the tone for the whole album in a lot of ways; it's an ideal Sunday morning listen, bright and melodic, Walsh trading licks and playing harmonies with fiddler Darol Anger.
Most of the album follows suit. Much of Sweet Loam features typical bluegrass instruments, but only the waltz "Early" and the energetic "Hold Whatcha Got," two tunes where the Gibson Brothers guest, are really bluegrass in the traditional sense. Or at least the Bill Monroe sense. Where Big Mon would pound, drive, and wail, Walsh is going for something more subtle. Walsh may provide a bluegrass chop on his cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," but it's more of a groovy feel than Monroe's relentlessness. The songs are often sparse and arranged interestingly; a cello riff backs opener "Ain't No One Like You," and Scott Law's guitar rings out like an autoharp at times. You can hear every note on the album; everything seems arranged and purposeful. There's a ton of talent here, but there's no compulsion to cram them into every song
If there's a critique, it's that it doesn't challenge the listener, but sometimes I don't want to be challenged; I just want an album to listen to on a Sunday morning, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the sun rise as the smell of bacon and eggs wafts from the kitchen. Sweet Loam is the perfect album for that.
Download the album from Bandcamp