The solo project is a curious thing for a myriad of reasons, mostly because of the “why?” factor. But even more peculiar is the solo project of a songwriter whose main band registers mostly as an indie fave in the obscure “newgrass” genre. Eclecticism makes a band unique and heroic, but not radio or Billboard darlings. Given these parameters, Drew Emmitt’s Freedom Ride is a surprise in many ways.
The first refreshing observation is no surprise at all, actually. Emmitt, co-founder of Colorado’s Leftover Salmon, has a very organic musical approach, completely void of rock-star posturing. He is a damn good original songwriter who has mastered nearly every stringed instrument he cared to pick up - a fast fading talent in pop’s new age. Second, the superior independent label, Compass Records, noticed just how good he is and allowed him to make Freedom Ride. Compass knew the record would probably not be a huge moneymaker but it continued to buck the trend of steadfast, conglomerate-type labels. Finally, Emmitt has proven that he can indeed do it all, but this album is not entirely convincing—the biggest surprise of all.
The smartest thing Emmitt did with Ride, however, was put The John Cowan Band behind him. By adding friends and surrounding himself with some of Nashville’s heaviest hitters (Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Randy Scruggs, and Stewart Duncan), Emmitt created a can’t-miss atmosphere. Salmon pals Vince Hermann and Greg Garrison are peppered throughout a few tracks, but used sparingly.
Freedom Ride takes some time to get going, but when it does, it really soars. I can’t help thinking that it might have been better served in a vinyl format because it’s filled with a duality that might be over-looked in the streaming CD style. On vinyl, at least, the track listing could be rearranged in such a way that Emmitt’s vision would be better understood. There are too many great energetic workouts that get interrupted by slower-paced songs. The slow side/fast side dynamic might make it more palatable. It would give the listener a choice of themes on opposite sides, much the way Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington had success with Ella at Duke’s Place. But vinyl is rare these days and a much-less prudent option.
Given this, my first bit of advice would be to skip the first track, the neo-country title cut, and come back to it later. Jump on into the stellar “Bend in the River” for starters. A Leftover Salmon retread, “River” is given a facelift and sounds so good (again) it seems destined to become a bluegrass classic. With crisp, gorgeous vocal harmonies between Emmitt, Jeff Autry, and Emmitt’s hero John Cowan, this ditty is spiked with Nashville home cooking. Unfortunately, it’s followed by “Solid Ground,” a weepy new-age-y ballad that never finds a direction.
“Valley of the Full Moon” works as a great foil for “Paving Eisenhower.” An easy, breezy tune, “Valley” might be easily skipped if not for “Eisenhower,” which also serves as the record’s turning point of sorts. An awesome hoe down of a song, “Paving Eisenhower” features more than one mandolin duel between Emmitt and McCoury, and is so brilliant it’s almost legendary.
Back-to-back cover songs make for a foot-tappin’ middle couplet. They also represent the album’s choicest cuts. J.J. Cale’s “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma” pairs Sam Bush’s masterful mandolin with Emmitt’s sweet picking. Stuart Duncan and Luke Bulla help beef it up with double fiddle action. Bob Dylan’s super-classic “Tangled Up in Blue” is one of the first Dylan covers that actually becomes a different song while staying true to the original. It sounds impossible, but that’s what makes Emmitt’s rearrangement and Cajun-grass punch so much fun. Everyone covers Dylan at some point in their career, but who knew one of his tunes could actually become dance-worthy?
“Lonesome Road” is another Salmon groover that is paced by Garrison’s thumping upright bass. Scruggs’s countrified guitar work is an absolute blast here. The song is so mellow and paced with a perfect beat it’s a good thing it never picks up any more steam; it works perfectly as is.
Peter Rowan’s “Rainmaker” would be considered a cover song if he hadn’t sung it himself. Emmitt chips in sparingly with a few mandolin bursts, but on the whole this is Peter Rowan recording with a great band. Joel Price’s bluegrass standard “Memories of Mother and Dad” finishes the record off with arguably its prettiest tune. Rowan lends the perfect vocal stylings to Emmitt’s often-reedy take. Together, and with plenty of country flair, the song works as the perfect sendoff.
Upon reflection, Rowan’s “Rainmaker” presents a scenario that might have made Freedom Ride flawless. Salmon’s highly successful Nashville Sessions employed a unique philosophy that made it a smash: guest vocalists backed by Leftover Salmon. If only Emmitt gave up the mic more often, some of the thinner tunes might have been great.
Freedom Ride is a good, fun record and Emmitt should be proud of his efforts because the album is a success. The amount of great tunes—original and cover—help keep the record’s balance and make it winner all around. The less-good ones (too good to be called bad) only grow better with repeated listening. Hell, the guest musician’s names alone could keep the record afloat, but it’s a shame some of them weren’t used better. There’s something here for everyone. Salmonheads will dig the fresh take on Leftover Salmon standards and reworked covers. Crossing themes of love and nature will appeal to a slightly older audience right off the bat, but it’s the killer instrumentation that would leave any bluegrass or country fan stomping for more. The album moves flawlessly from one tune to the next with a rich, full sound. It is this dynamic feature that often saves the slower-paced songs. The good folks at Compass Records would be wise to encourage Emmitt to take a second go-round on his own.
Drew Emmit ~ Freedom Ride
1) Freedom Ride (Bazilian/Chertoff/Forman/Hyman)
2) Bend in the River (Emmitt)
3) Solid Ground (Emmitt)
4) Valley of the Full Moon (Emmitt)
5) Paving Eisenhower (Emmitt)
6) If You’re Ever in Oklahoma (Cale)
7) Tangled Up in Blue (Dylan)
8) Lonesome Road (Emmitt)
9) Rainmaker (Rowan/Nicholson)
10) One Step at a Time (Emmitt)
11) Memories of Mother and Dad (Price)