Every now and again it’s a beneficial thing to step away from one’s usual watering trough and give something new a try. Can’t do it all the time, but on occasion it’s one of those godsend sorta things. The Roys appear to be a case in point. Bit odd to be reading about them here, one reckons, so apologies if we’ve jarred your senses a bit with this one. But keep your boots in the stirrups a bit and come on along up the trail a piece. There’s something surprisingly cool here, and I guess today just might be one of those every now and again times.
The Roys are a brother/sister duo, potentially one of those schlocky pre-packaged flashes in the pan that Music Row likes to load up with faux emotion and use to assault the senses in brutal fashion on a semi-regular basis. But it turns out this isn’t necessarily one of those times. Expected it to be, frankly. Got surprised in pleasant fashion.
The industry pushes Lee and Elaine Roy as a bluegrass act. Not sure that’s entirely accurate, at least beyond significant portions of the instrumentation involved. (and it’s some stellar accompaniment, to be sure) But the overall feel on New Day Dawning is much more relaxed and peaceful, more at ease than at least the perception of bluegrass music I’m accustomed to. The vocal arrangements here flow more readily to the traditional country side of things, with occasional elements of pop mixed in but by no means in overbearing fashion.
In my experience, bluegrass is vital and alive and fast moving. Maybe my experience needs enhancement. But what’s here is at times languid, at times fetching, and at times capable of removing a listener from his or her environs and setting them down firmly in the middle of memories from half a century ago. Powerful stuff that sneaks up on you, that’s what this is.
There are moments where maudlin seems to be the thing, and one of them, unfortunately, is the very first track. Call it an inauspicious start. It’s pretty, easy to listen to, but chock full of apparent platitudes:
The darkness melts away
Everything will be okay
Hope’s the beginning
That leads you on the road to living
It’s a new day dawning
Argh. Excerpt from the soundtrack to another Joel Osteen homily or something. And yet, there’s something tangible lying fast beneath what seems at first blush to be just another shiny Music Row veneer. Something in Elaine’s voice here strikes a chord, gives one a sense that, well, she really believes this. Simplistic as it is, she’s buying it. Which starts questions buzzing around in the brain about whether simple’s really such a bad thing in the end. Tantalizing questions.
They get quickly answered on the record’s second cut, “Daddy To Me.” Lee takes over vocals on this one; he’s got an easygoing and well sanded tenor that’s soft on the ears but evocative enough to strike some of the chords of memory we all strive to hide deep inside our tattered hearts. The song is again simple, though nowhere near as tepid lyrically as the opener. Rather, it’s the story of a father viewed through the perspective of the attendees at his funeral. That’s the top layer, anyhow. Underneath it’s a mosaic of rural America (or Canada, where the Roys did some of their growing up) and a fading way of life that by nature incorporated timeless simple things like honor and accountability and genuine love. It’s a reminder of the ways one life can have an impact; it’s a sermon you can dance to if you’d rather not sit in a pew.
And that is more consistently the flavor throughout New Day Dawning. The band stretches it wings at times; for instance, “Still Standing” sounds and feels like the kind of back hills stomp the uninitiated like this reviewer tend to expect when the term bluegrass gets tossed out. “Grandpa’s Barn,” meanwhile, revisits and maybe reinvents the territory covered in “Daddy To Me.” Beautiful melodies and absolutely perfect harmonies are everywhere. “Windin’ Roads” is chock full of metaphor and meaning, another song that’s simple on the surface but in truth mines far deeper veins than a first look can necessarily notice. The charms of rural life and the rewards of honest work remain a staple, but it’s impossible to listen to this in the middle of our modern world without realizing that the winding roads that take us home aren’t always just concrete and dirt. They are the byways of the spirit, the paths of the heart, the trails of the spirit and the soul. And if we follow them as we should, if we push on through the twists and turns, at some point the winding stops and there’s a straight driveway leading right to a hearth and a home we probably shouldn’t have ever left to begin with. Maybe you can’t ever go home again. But then again, yeah, you sure as hell can. It’s all in how you’re looking at it.
These layers and allusions and depth beneath the seemingly simple are a key part of what sets New Day Dawning apart from the usual Music Row pseudosongs. There are lyricists who make form and meter work, who know every tear-jerking catchphrase in the book, and combine both to write new Kenny Chesney throwaway hits that’ll never stand the test of time. Then there are lyricists who write from the soul and through their work evoke memories of the very best of us. At least on this record, Lee and Elaine Roy appear to be the latter. And they sing like angels, son.
I always say when I’m deciding whether music is worthwhile that I just look for the artist pouring out his or her soul on a six-string. Apparently I need to start thinking about the ones pouring themselves out on a banjo, too, at least every now and again.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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