Holly Norman – Taking Care of Bluegrass
Holly Norman has established herself as one of the most promising new talents on the bluegrass scene today. Her debut album attracted enough positive attention that she was able, for her second album, to recruit some heavy hitting special guests. Her second studio release Taking Care of Bluegrass is a thirteen song collection celebrating the life and music of Elvis Presley performed in Norman’s first rate bluegrass style. Norman works with a cadre of top notch players in the classic country and bluegrass tradition to help pull these songs off, but she isn’t happy with just following the arrangements and not twisting things up a little. Some of the songs take a decidedly different approach to their originals. Much of the song selection favors the second half of Presley’s career and Norman shows a little too much reliance on ballads for her recording, but there’s no question that she tackles all of the material with the enthusiasm of a true devotee.
“C.C. Rider” gets Taking Care of Bluegrass off to a mildly raucous start. Norman puts a great deal of added zest in her vocal to give this a light, near rockabilly edge not far removed from the Presley original. The track “Moody Blue” has a sweet, melodic lilt that keeps the song percolating from the first and Norman’s voice matches that constant upswing with its own bright liveliness. One of the best examples of Norman taking a well-known Presley song and overcoming any preconceptions listeners might have comes with “Kentucky Rain”. His original version is a great song but adorned with heavy production common for the era and that period in Elvis’ career. Norman’s cover, however, takes an entirely different approach. It is a pastoral longing in her hands and the smooth, but throbbing beauty of her voice makes it a quietly dramatic listen. The best transformation of a well-known song comes with Norman’s performance of “Suspicious Minds”. Presley’s take on the song is boisterous and has huge crescendos, but Norman gives it an entirely different emotional tone. There’s a lot of regret here and shaped with a carefulness lacking in Presley’s iconic recording. Naturally, much of this is attributable to the difference of instruments, but it’s more than that. Norman has different needs from the song but still the invokes the spirit of his original.
“Viva Las Vegas” is a little predictable, perhaps, but there’s no question that she makes the best of its familiarity while also, ultimately, transforming the song in some key respect. The original is a little self-consciously cuddly, but Norman turns it into what it really is – a cry of not giving a damn anymore and relishing it all. The considered and beautiful “Long Live the King” says more about Norman’s love for Presley than it does anything else, but it is a well-constructed song that comes at a good place in the track listing, The final song and second appearance of Terry Blackwood & The Imperials “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” is one of Taking Care of Bluegrass’ highlights. Norman places her voices against their note perfect harmonies and it creates an intensely musical, unifying effect over the song. Holly Norman is one of the most impressive singers working in country or Americana and deserves all of the mass exposure that will serve her career. Taking Care of Bluegrass – A Tribute to Elvis is a fine second album and one that will likely stand up over the course of her career as one of her best.
9 out of 10 stars