The husband and wife team of Michael and Jennifer McLain aren’t novices to the world of popular music. Michael toured a number of far-flung locales from an early age with his family’s bluegrass band before settling into a decade plus long career as an instructor at Tennessee’s prestigious Belmont University while his wife Jennifer has graced a number of recordings and appeared onstage with iconic performers like Vince Gill. Their first full length album Hit the Road and Go is a twelve song collection incorporating original songs, instrumentals, and a handful of classic and mildly unexpected covers. It has warm and intimate production that highlights the vocals and instrumental work in a perfect balance and, overall when considering the number of songs and the length of each, listeners will step away from hearing this album with the feeling they’ve heard quite a satisfying work of musical art.
They have the good sense of get the album off to an uptempo start. “This Old Heart (Is Gonna Rose Again)” hits the ground running and doesn’t look back. The players have the sort of well-honed chemistry that’s a product of skill, but more so from their ability and willingness to listen to each other and respond in kind. The cascading fiddle lines help carry much of the melodic weight for this track and Jennifer McLain’s voice is a good fit for the material. They refurbish the rocker “Restless” from the legendary Carl Perkins into a percolating bluegrass number. The fiddle lines spin off the low-key banjo providing much of the song’s rhythmic muscle underneath. They acquit themselves rather nicely on Alfred Brumley’s classic “Jesus, Hold My Hand”, but some listeners might long for a little more gravitas on these sort of songs than what the McLains see fit to provide. There’s plenty of longing communicated by the music and vocal alike, but none of the desperate need defining the song’s undercurrent. “Southbound”, originally written by Doc and Merle Watson, finds Michael McLain taking his first vocal on the album with only a smattering of contributions from Jennifer McLain’s backing vocals. It’s quite a stylish number but, once again, it sounds like it’s missing something of the artistry of the original thanks to a performance that smooths out all the inherent rough edges.
“Up This Hill and Down” is a song about the pains of working hard for little reward and takes on a much more bluesy veneer, cut with a jazzy bounce, than any of the other tracks thus far. The acoustic guitar playing on much of Hit the Road and Go is quite lyrical, but it has physicality here that might surprise some listeners. Jennifer McLain turns in a far grittier vocal that we are accustomed to on the title track, a Johnny Cash song that the casual Cash fan will not recognize. The track listing makes clear, if nothing else, that the McLains are far more than mere novices in the genre and the songs chosen for this release were picked without any commercial regard. “Busy Bee Café” is one of the best straight ahead bluegrass songs on the release and has a fierce circular banjo figure that keeps the tempo humming from the start. Mandolin, guitar, and fiddle make their presence felt as well.
The relaxed, yet studied, approach that the duo takes on traditional materials pays off with the final. “I’m Ready To Go Home” sounds relieved and hopeful despite the subject matter. It’s difficult, with such emotional fraught material, to embody feelings like welcoming death without casting a downbeat note, but the McLains do an exceptional job. It ends Hit the Road and Go on just the right now and in a manner consistent with what has come before.