Donna Hughes Takes Bluegrass to New Places at Madison Square Park
Yesterday the most impressive and entertaining act at the bluegrass festival at Madison Square Park was Donna Hughes and her excellent band. She’s a quick study. It didn’t take her long to size up the crowd: “My manager wanted me to let you know that we’re also available for private parties and weddings,” she grinned – obviously, the kind of wealth she was playing to here isn’t so abundant in her native North Carolina. She bills herself as a singer-songwriter, which makes sense: throughout her show, there were all kinds of hints that she came to this music the long way around the mountain. But it also seems like she’s found a home in bluegrass – and is taking it to good new places. Her opening tune, Sad Old Train had a familiar ring to it, maybe because of the cover by the Seldom Scene. Hughes doesn’t go for high lonesome drama, instead maintaining a calm, gracefully nuanced vocal presence that was often chillingly plaintive (a gymnast who still coaches in the sport, she knows a little something about balance, and what the slightest move in one direction or another might mean). Like every other style of music, the best bluegrass is deep, whether that means deeply sad or deeply fun, and Hughes gets that. Playing acoustic guitar, she was backed by the effortlessly fluid flatpicking of guitarist Brian Stephens and his wife Maggie’s terse, casually strong bass pulse, plus the similarly skilled Thomas Wywrot on banjo.
There were plenty of good songs in her set, but one gentle knockout told the story of a dead lady’s possession’s being auctioned off (Hughes’ dad was an auctioneer: she was obviously paying close attention when he was working). It took took that woman a lifetime to get those things, and a day for them to be scattered into the fingers of whoever could afford them. Kitty Wells would have been lucky to have had that song in, say, 1955. Although Hughes told the crowd that she gravitates toward sad songs, they’re more complex than that, both moodwise and musically. One wryly chronicled what it’s like to date a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde kind of guy; Wywrot’s rolling banjo propelled a bitterly amusing minor-key tune listing pretty much everything that can slip through your hands.
Brian Stephens told the crowd that Hughes’ idea of writing a bluegrass song about a pirate was half-baked – until he heard the song. And then they played it, a stark, minor-key number possibly titled Bluebeard’s Ghost. Hughes put down her guitar, since she’d written it on piano, with an unexpected jazz tinge to the tune. As expected, the energy in the crowd picked up for the familiar tunes, Flatt & Scruggs’ Down the Road – sung by Brian Stephens, with a warm, down-home energy – and an instrumental version of Jesse James. Hughes also played a solo tribute to her late father, a vivid and unselfconsciously pretty song that would have been even better with the band lending a hand. But maybe they didn’t know it.
The bands afterward also took bluegrass to new places, but not particularly interesting ones. No matter how much you may try to gussy up a lame pop song with flashy bluegrass chops, at the end of the day it’s still a lame pop song.
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