The familiar bucolic sway ushers us into the glowing pot of harmonies that’s simmering just below the surface in “Kentucky Highway,” the new single by acclaimed bluegrass group Williamson Branch. The melodic, sunlit whisper of lyrics penetrates the groove, leaving behind it a streaking tail of colorful vibrato dripping through the speakers. The string play glimmers and catches the light that the vocals are emanating, and starts to come alive from the pressure the rest of the band is churning out note by note.
We’re cascading through the opening stanza at the pace of raging whitewater rapids, but the band is unfazed by the brisk tone they’re creating. The chorus descends upon us and spreads out over everything in sight, and any notion that “Kentucky Highway” is another cut-and-dry bluegrass song is destroyed on the spot by a single shuttering of the rhythm. Williamson Branch digs into the blissful harmonies of perhaps their most endearing composition yet with a wistfulness that is somewhat somber at first glance and sharply cutting upon closer inspection, and fans who were hoping for an expanded version of a sound suggested in their previous works will be quite pleased with what they find here.
A slightly heavier mix of “Kentucky Highway” might have served the shrewd demeanor of the song’s structure a little better than what the band eventually decided to go with, but you could make the argument that the hollow-point sound of this version is just as provocative as it could have been otherwise. The harmony that clings to the strings in this track is staggeringly intrepid and should garner as much adulation as the conceptual arrangement does; if it weren’t as reflective and springy as it is in this situation, I don’t think I would have been as attracted to this single as I was. The mix might not do much for the back end, but the play doesn’t suffer too terribly as a result. This song is filled with positive space but its creative lines are never overly defined. The players don’t sound like they’re competing for our attention; instead, they’re playing off of each other with exquisite synchronicity, as only a group of this kind can.
As classic as “Kentucky Highway” feels in spots, Williamson Branch didn’t let their new single go over the top in retro aesthetics. What makes this song so distinctive from its similarly stylized country crossover counterparts is steeped in its wry application of lyrics to an intentionally cluttered arrangement of the instrumentation. The resulting sound is something that skirts the boundaries of countrified experimentalism but remains faithful to the blustery bluegrass of the band’s past works. “Kentucky Highway” is a snapshot of Williamson Branch at their most creatively vulnerable and uncorrupted, and listeners who can appreciate the virtues of improvised bluegrass complexity will likely enjoy what they encounter in this track. As a fan who has been keeping an eye, and an ear, on this group’s work for some time now, I can vouch that neither longtime listeners nor newcomers to their sound will be disappointed by what is found in this single.
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