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CD REVIEW: Taking Care of Bluegrass by Holly Norman

Holly Norman’s thirteen song extended tribute to the music of Elvis Presley brings her bluegrass chops to bear on the King’s songs to a spectacular result. There’s no question that there’s a lot of hard work that went into rearranging these songs into bluegrass versions, but it’s always equally easy to hear why the transformation is so successful. The roots of Presley’s original rock and pop songs are far removed from those sustaining bluegrass music; it’s a matter of using the same language in a different dialect. The banjos, dobros, mandolins, and acoustic guitars powering Taking Care of Business – A Tribute to Elvis are joined by appearances from a number of famed former Presley collaborators. Guitarist James Burton appears on one song while Terry Blackwood & The Imperials providing backing vocals for a number of songs on the album.

She gets things off to a wild and wooly start with her reinterpretation of “C.C. Rider”. As promised in the opening paragraph, Presley’s songs lend themselves to this sort of interpretation and the key becomes the artist’s talent for realizing the possibilities. This is a full bluegrass band effort and the instrumental interplay has a seeming effortlessness that’s quite exceptional. The mood and tempo slows for her cover of “In the Ghetto” and she has emotional interplay with the backing vocals. The vocal melody sounds like it can be tricky for singers, but Norman artfully tumbles through the required phrasing without missing a step. The seminal “Always on My Mind” is like a small, sparkling gem – there’s no dross with this performance, no wasted motion.

“Moody Blue” is a natural choice for a first single thanks to persistent tempo and energy, but it never reaches a strident level. It’s continually impressive how Norman’s vocal interpretation can capture the spirit of Presley’s original vocal while still maintaining its own personality.

“Kentucky Rain” is one of the best pure pop songs that Presley ever scored a hit with and Norman’s interpretation of this classic strips away the sheen of the original and places the onus of carrying the song squarely on Norman’s voice. She is up for the challenge. Bluegrass always plays like a genre where the musicians can’t get back on workmanlike technical ability alone; there has to be chemistry for the weaving effect of a bluegrass band to take effect. Norman has assembled a top notch crew of musicians and guests for this project with an ear towards how well different combinations complement each other. Terry Blackwood & The Imperials join Norman for “Little Cabin on the Hill”, a relatively obscure Presley track that shows, if nothing else, that Norman truly knows her stuff about the King’s discography. The dobro playing here is particularly excellent and the vocal exchanges between Norman and her guests ranks as one of the album’s highlights.

The light bluesy yearning in Norman’s voice on “Separate Ways” makes this performance a real heartbreaker. An equally sensitive approach defines the musical arrangement; overall, this is one of the album’s most affecting moments. Another of Presley’s finest ballads, “I’ll Remember You”, gets an exceptional treatment thanks to the perfect chemistry between Norman and the return of Terry Blackwood & The Imperials for the second of their three songs. It doesn’t have such a pronounced bluegrass edge and, instead, comes closer to acoustic country, but no matter – it has the same delicately rendered beauty of some of the album’s best ballad performances. Taking Care of Bluegrass is one of the finest tributes you’ll hear and its refusal to slavishly imitate the source of its admiration is a big reason why it is successful, Holly Norman further solidifies her position, as well, for being one of the brightest vocal talents working in the Americana genre today.

INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/hollynormanmusic/

by Lydia Hillenburg

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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