Holly Norman – Taking Care of Bluegrass
Tennessee born and raised, Holly Norman’s time growing up in Knoxville and her first important exposure singing alongside the legendary Dolly Parton set her up for the audience and critical acceptance she enjoyed with her debut release. Her second release, Taking Care of Bluegrass, is a bluegrass influenced tribute to the King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley. Norman isn’t some novice picking from a grab bag of predictable Presley tunes in order to pander to the King’s still considerable fan base, Instead, she mixes a handful of relatively obscure numbers into the stew and tries to choose songs that properly represented Presley’s wide stylistic range. She’s joined on this album by guest stars who once played alongside Elvis; legendary guitarist James Burton makes a memorable guest shot on one song while Terry Blackwood & The Imperials contribute their marvelous harmony vocals to a couple of tracks.
The rockier side of Elvis’ songs pops up early. “C.C. Rider” is an excellent send off and Norman, naturally, gives the track a much leaner presentation than what Presley managed. “In the Ghetto”, likewise, is a big production number in Presley’s history, but Norman wisely foregoes trying to reproduce that in a bluegrass setting and fixes his attention instead on the meat of the song. Norman does a memorably good job with the ballads he chooses for the release and the first, “Always on My Mind”, is a standard Norman sings without even a quaver of self-consciousness in her vocals. There is good instrumentation surrounding her. “Moody Blue” has a real pop flavor with its gently accelerating verses and stirring choruses, but her vocal is equally likeable. She pairs “Love Me Tender/Are You Lonesome Tonight?: together with an ear for the narrative and dramatic potential in both songs. Her phrasing and imaginative talents do more than just give listeners some stiff reading of these early Presley songs; instead, she really moves inside the emotional landscape with great technique that listeners can’t help but notice.
“Kentucky Rain” is another track that, in its original version, played as a great song produced as slightly overblown pomp pop. Holly Norman, however, peels back the needless excess and transforms this into a sort of folk song about love won and love lost. Blackwood and The Imperials appear for the first time on the fragile sounding “Little Cabin on the Hill”. The assortment of voices here working together, playing off one another, helps create a real mood that approximates the original with its own signature style. Instead of following the upbeat pseudo-rock template of Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”, Norman instead chooses to make this something closer to singer/songwriter work in a bluegrass style; it sounds like more of a confession than any sort of out cry. “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” ends the album with a final appearance from Terry Blackwood & The Imperials and it’s the most perfect realization of their collaboration. This is somewhat unknown song, at least compared to other gospel songs Elvis frequently sang, and the lack of familiarity will probably play in the favor of many listeners. Taking Care of Bluegrass – A Tribute to Elvis is a second album that further establishes Holly Norman in the Americana music world and doesn’t limit her future options. Instead, this is a collection focused on versatility and her voice never falters throughout.
9 out of 10 stars