How does one carbon date the origins of newgrass music? Did it begin with Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival, or with the Country Gentlemen, or as Bush himself has said, "Blame the Osborne Brothers-it ain't no spring chicken." It has a history, stylistic divisions, and subdivisions, and offers plenty of grist for milling arguments about "What is newgrass anyway?"
One possible answer: The Coloradobased Hot Strings is newgrass music, as solidly downthemiddle as the Johnson Mountain Boys were bluegrass. By its very nature, newgrass music blends various styles with bluegrass, tends to take more chances, and breaks all sorts of bluegrass rules. Thus, I can't really agree with Hot Strings' press materials when they say that HS "pushes the envelope." When "pushing the envelope" is virtually required of a newgrass band, you're not really pushing it anymore, but instead residing in a huge envelope.
But within the big newgrass envelope, HS are one of the best things to come along in a decade. Collectively, the band can boast firstplace victories in the Colorado State Fiddle and Mandolin Championships, the National Mandolin Championship, the Rockygrass and Telluride bluegrass band contests, and membership in the San Juan Symphony. Josiah Payne (mandolin), Jared Payne (guitar), Carson Park (fiddle), and Lech Usinowicz (bass) know how to play, and they sing well, too, though the CD fails to identify who sings what.
The hallmarks of newgrass music are all here-the range of influences including jazz, a tad of reggae, a healthy dollop of Celtic and rock, ambitious arrangements, shifting meters, a program made up mainly of original songs, extended instrumental passages (aka jamming), and particularly on tunes like "Spirit Of The Night" and "I'll Be Here," that exploratory, questing ambience that infused the New Grass Revival's ethos. The instrumental, "March Of The Ents" (what's an Ent?), is a highlight of the album that hits all these marks.
And speaking of NGR, "Uncharted" was produced by Pat Flynn, the guitarist/singer/composer who was part of arguably the ultimate newgrass group, the Bush, Cowan, Fleck, and Flynn incarnation of New Grass Revival.
"Uncharted" is an exceptional album in a field that tends to attract plenty of players whose desires outpace their abilities. Hot Strings lives up to the name and then some. (Hot Strings, 262 Simmons Pl., Pagosa Springs, CO 81147, www.pagosahotstrings.com.) DR [David Royko]