Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this review, I’m going to be delving into the extensive debut studio effort of Big Virginia Sky, an eclectic band hailing from their namesake, Virginia. The five piece outfit is a ‘bluegrass-inspired collaboration of American artistry,’ one that pulls heavy influence from both classic and contemporary figures. The band is chock-full of talent, housing several award-winning musicians with a massive combined repertoire. Thus, it’s not particularly surprising, but nevertheless exciting, that the album was actually funded via a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Now, before delving into the music of Big Virginia Sky, I do want to touch briefly on the crowdfunding aspect of this record. It’s actually incredibly admirable. Crowdfunding is notoriously finicky, especially on Indiegogo, and even though the band only raised 46 percent of their goal, they took the money they did raise and they put out an album less than a year after. The campaign closed mid-March and the album dropped last Wednesday. That’s remarkably impressive. Did those 81 funders get the album they deserved? Let’s find out.
Immediately, the title track of the album establishes a distinct level of professionalism. Throughout the song ‘Big Virginia Sky,’ a beautiful level of musical prowess and tactful production is made abundantly apparent. The sonic intricacies of the band’s banter are something to behold, acoustically dancing back and forth with gorgeous expertise. The lyrics are finely written as well, though the vocals seem to sit backseat to such a fantastic instrumental performance. The two accentuate each other excellently.
One thing I sincerely enjoyed about Big Virginia Sky and their new record is made obvious early on in the album: though it’s a bluegrass album, it pulls influence from classic country and Americana themes all over the place. As a result, the listening experience doesn’t drive itself into oblivion after half a dozen tunes. Things remain fresh, and often infectiously catchy, consistently pulling you back into the band’s offering. ‘Sky Is Falling’ is a superb example of that. Yes, it’s bluegrass. But there’s a bit of folky rock and roll in there, too. Bluegrass bands often fall victim to the whole “every song sounds the same” formula. Big Virginia Sky avoids it at every turn.
“They can’t hold me down,” vocalist James Adkins croons over a cascading soundscape of acoustic glory on ‘Southbound.’ I’d actually argue it may be the strongest tune of the first half of the record. Goodness, it’s well executed. Big Virginia Sky is one of those groups that has you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next solo. This is the kind of bluegrass that is accessible for those not quite as into the genre.
‘Sammy’s Breakdown’ embraces that romping traditional bluegrass style, much more so than any of its predecessors. Sammy Shelor, the banjo player, has some incredible chops on the instrument. That said, everyone else in the band can match him perfectly. Oh, and there’s a bowed bass interlude on ‘Sammy’s Breakdown.’ How cool is that?! The song is an awesome instrumental introduction to ‘Pour One For Me,’ a classic rock infused bluegrass tune. The song sounds a bit like the Eagles gone bluegrass.
What would country and bluegrass be without Tennessee? Big Virginia Sky pays epic homage here with the moonshine-soaked ballad, ‘Ole Tennessee.’ Sung by Scott Slay, this soft crooner builds with Phil Spector-esque epicness, accentuated uniquely with very folksy lyrics. As aforementioned, folk influence is prominent in bluegrass - American music genres weave together effortlessly, they aren’t starkly different. Hell, the lyricism and emotion of ‘Whiskey and Long Talks’ can most certainly be traced back to the blues.
‘Bullfrog’ is very similar to ‘Sammy’s Breakdown,’ getting down and dirty with intense bluegrass instrumentalism. Here’s a crazy comparison: these instrumentals actually feel like they walk hand in hand with something like Bob Dylan’s ‘Country Pie.’ Seriously, go listen to ‘Nashville Skyline’ and then come back to ‘Big Virginia Sky.’ The lineage is there.
‘Love Song,’ which is accented by a beautiful female vocalist, Sierra Hull, is the highlight of the latter half of the record. This raw, soulful ballad is so well written and heartfelt. ‘Lay Me Down’ continues the band’s jaunt through original bluegrass lyricism and performance, too, expanding upon some country vibes. Finally, ‘Rye Whiskey’ closes the album out with some killer harmonies and impassioned performances. I dig how this tune seems to be recorded with a room microphone rather than a more controlled setup. It feels like a backwater bar - I love that.
I rarely talk in absolutes; it’s a practice someone in my profession needs to be wary of. I can say, though, that ‘Big Virginia Sky’ is the very best independent bluegrass effort of 2015 so far. (That’s come across my desk, anyway.) The album is absolutely terrific - well performed, well written, and always fun. It’s an experience you need to immerse yourself in if you have any appreciation for country, bluegrass, blues, or Americana in general.
The Album: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bigvirginiasky2