Bluegrass is a genre I admittedly had trouble appreciating when I was younger. I’ve always respected the genre, but it was something that was hard for me to sit down and truly enjoy. In the earlier days of the blog I covered some bluegrass and writing a review was like pulling teeth from me. Even before that I was exposed to bluegrass from my grandpa. Maybe that’s why when Sturgill Simpson mentioned having a similar experience with his own grandfather that it allowed me to connect to this two volumes of Cuttin’ Grass even more. So admittedly these albums finally made me wake up and appreciate bluegrass a lot more and I’ve been slowly diving into the genre since the release of Simpson’s first volume.
When I was searching for upcoming bluegrass releases, Justin Moses’ album caught my eye and I gave a listen to some of the pre-release singles. The sound immediately caught my ear. Keep in mind I didn’t even know until I dove into Fall Like Rain that he’s the husband of bluegrass star and mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, who blew me away with her work on Simpson’s bluegrass albums and her own album 25 Trips released last year was quite impressive too (definitely worth your time if you haven’t heard it). Moses’ work though is quite talented in his own right, as he delivers a really good record in Fall Like Rain.
The title track kicks off the album and it should be noted it’s an Eric Clapton cover from his Pilgrim album. Moses does a great job making it his own and re-contextualizing it within bluegrass, as the aching pain of heartbreak that permeates in the lyrics suits the bluegrass sound well. Hull joins Moses on “Taxland” for a captivating instrumental that shows off both of their impressive picking abilities. It’s so much fun and the energy of it is amazing. When I hear a song that jams this hard it only makes me miss live music even more, as I imagine this song would be even more fun to hear in-person.
Prominent bluegrass artist Dan Tyminski joins Moses on “Between the Lightning and the Thunder.” Even if you don’t listen to bluegrass, Tyminski’s voice is quite distinctive, as he’s been featured in some major hits in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Avicci’s “Hey Brother.” With that in mind I was surprised at the restrained nature of Tyminski’s vocal performance. It’s a solid track, but as someone used to Tyminski’s vocals being more prominent this caught me off guard. Not to mention the theme of the song centering around the clashing of lightning and thunder would be seem to call for a more powerful sound to reflect this.
“Walking to Lebanon” has an appropriately Middle Eastern-inspired sound to open the album, which really catches my ear. The songwriting is just as distinctive, as Moses tells the story of a young girl who lives amongst violence and chaos in a Middle East country and is forced to walk across the desert to Lebanon with her sister to escape the bombings that have ravaged her home. It’s a tragic story with a small sense of hope that peace can be found for the young girl. I also appreciate the line from Moses when he sings “It’s hard on us all, but it’s meaner for some,” contextualizing the difference of a tough life in a first-world country versus a tough life in a third-world country. For me it’s a small reminder that somebody somewhere is experiencing something that I will likely never have to go through and I should both take solace in this and sympathize with those who are struggling.
Moses gets a chance to show off his own picking chops in a solo capacity on tracks “Wise & Born” and “Watershed.” As I said in my review of Tyler Childers’ Long Violent History, the key to great instrumental music over the course of an album is variety and conveying mood within the listener as they listen to it. And Moses does this quite well on Fall Like Rain. There’s a distinct character to each track, as “Wise & Born” feels like you’re taking an exciting ride along the countryside and “Watershed” has a soaring, flying feel about it that captures my attention.
Bluegrass legend Del McCoury joins Moses on “My Baby’s Gone.” The impressive picking of Moses combined with the high-pitched twang of McCoury make for a sweet combination on this heartbreak song. I particularly enjoy McCoury’s closing vocals on the track as he hits the highest notes of the song, as it leaves a lasting impression. It also shows the blues of bluegrass and it’s influences on the genre (hence why I liked Moses’ pick of a Clapton cover too). By the way the guest features on this album are great and Moses delivers one more when Shawn Lane of Blue Highway joins him on “Looking for a Place.” I had never heard Lane sing before this, but his voice really stands out with it’s distinctive softness. It also makes for great harmonizing with Moses on the chorus and adds to the breezy melody that envelopes the song.
“U.F.O.” and “Locust Hill” close out the album in a strong way. The former is a quiet observation of the climb we all experience in life, but remaining hopeful that we can one day find the “streets paved with gold.” It works not only in a biblical context, but also striving to find that inner peace in life too. This song underscores the subtle theme throughout the album of acknowledging the rough spots we all experience, but still finding the strength and hope to overcome them and reach the heights we aspire to in our lives. It’s quite the uplifting message to take away from this album. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the tight instrumentals too. The small break before the instrumental reprise at the end of “U.F.O.” is a nice touch. It also provides a good contrast to the fast-picking of “Locust Hill,” as Moses leaves the listener with a real shot of energy and allows all the players on the record to really stretch their legs, which is a standard in the world of bluegrass. The collaborative nature of the genre is without question a shining aspect.
Justin Moses really delivers a fun and memorable listen with his first full-length bluegrass record Fall Like Rain. Almost all of the features are utilized well and there’s plenty of catchy melodies throughout. And unsurprisingly the picking by all the players on this project is top-notch. I would liken this album to warm comfort food for me: it’s not the flashiest nor the most distinctive. But it’s something I can come back to again and again because it’s just so solid and reliable all-around.