Particularly in the “Internet Age” of the past twenty years or so, the discussion of what is and what is not “bluegrass” has pushed the boundaries of the music to the point that we pretty much have a spectrum these days ranging from the diehard purists at one end, who say that if it doesn’t sound like Monroe, then, as Big Mon himself would have said, “It ain’t no part of nothin”, to the ultra-contemporarians for whom, as long as it’s (mostly) all-acoustic and has a banjo here or there, sure, it’s bluegrass.
That the True North folks consider themselves, from a marketing perspective at least, to be a bluegrass band is evident from the fact that their website is truenorthbluegrass.com. Exactly where along that spectrum they fit in is open to discussion, but given the fact that the publicity material accompanying Elsebound contains terms like “indie-bluegrass” (whatever that means) and, yes, “contemporary” is pretty indicative. So, for those whose musical tastes lean exclusively toward blazing three-finger licks and high, searing tenor vocals, then True North is probably not a band that will satisfy those needs.
What they are is an acoustic quartet (two couples, Kristen Grainger and Dan Wetzel, with Dale Adkins and Suzanne Pearce) with a clear sense of who they are, where they want to go, and how they want to get there. While there are all too many “real” bluegrass bands that are all too willing to engage in the democratic “every band member gets a lead vocal” scheme of things and sacrifice musical coherency as long as everyone, including the bass player gets their share of solo breaks, there is nothing haphazard about the thirteen selections on Elsebound. These folks know exactly what they want to sound like, and they’ve achieved it nicely here.
The keystone of that sound is Grainger, whose only instrument is her voice, a slightly husky soprano, tending toward the alto range, that is sweet and vibrant yet contains inflections that will remind many bluegrass fans of Kate MacKenzie, or even Iris DeMent. At the risk of beating the “spectrum” metaphor to death, it is still a sin among many of the purists for a band member, female or male, to be a vocalist only and not play an instrument, but Grainger’s got all she needs to make it work. Wetzel adds an occasional, subtle banjo backdrop, but mostly plays a fluid rhythm guitar. Adkins is an experienced flatpicker who has a few hot breaks, but is more noticeable for his tasteful fills and accents. Pearce, on bass, is likewise restrained while staying nicely away from the 1-5 rut. As a whole, they’re sometimes jazzy, but not really a jazz band; bluesy at times, but not a blues band. And no, probably not really a bluegrass band.
Grainger is also the writer of eight of the thirteen tracks, and covers a lot of territory. “Angelfish” seems vaguely allegorical in a Biblical sense, while the following track “The Poet and the Carpenter” has absurdist elements reminiscent to at least one listener of Douglas Adams and his Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. “Be Here Now” is the story of a lifelong love affair lived out to a Beatles soundtrack, while “Come & See What I Got For You” is flirtatious and playful. “Shiny Black Shoes” comes closest to straight-up bluegrass. The one hiccup comes on “BFD”, a Don Henry/Craig Carothers song popularized by Kathy Mattea. Yes, “BFD” means what you think it does, but it’s never explicitly sung, and the song is radio-friendly. It’s a clever ditty about a love affair told through the acronyms that have become an inescapable part of our lives, and the version here, while not bad, just doesn’t seem to have quite the same life and verve as the rest of the disc.
Whether or not True North is a bluegrass band is really beside the point. They’re a talented, stylish, experienced quartet performing intelligently and entertainingly arranged acoustic music, and doing it very well.
— John Lupton, SING OUT! Magazine