“As fast as we roll, we’re always catching up/as much as we have, it’ll never be enough/as hard/as hard as we work, we just work our fingers to the bone/what do we have to show?”
Listening to this catchy chorus of the final song (“Fast As We Roll”) on New Day Dawning, it’s hard not to think Lee Roy, the brother half of the sibling duo with his sister Elaine, isn’t singing about the quickening pace of the Roys’ career in the past year-plus. It was early 2011 when the Roys made their debut on Rural Rhythm with Lonesome Whistle (their second album, following 2008’s Good Days long player for the Pedestal label) and were greeted with near-unanimous acclaim out of the box and more demands on their time as fans got wind of their well-crafted tunes that bridge country and bluegrass styles, and learned more about the solid values and focus on family and faith by which Lee Roy and Elaine define themselves. Even before Lonesome Whistle came around, the Roys had earned Duo of the Year honors in 2009 and 2010 at the Inspirational Country Music Awards (ICMs); Lonesome Whistle broke into Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums Chart at #7, wound up in the publication’s Top 50 Bluegrass Albums of the Year and earned the duo another ICM award as Bluegrass Artist of the Year as well as recognition of its topical gem “Coal Minin’ Man” as the year’s #1 single. Needless to say, a lot of touring ensued that found them sharing stages with some the biggest names in bluegrass and mainstream country and they didn’t let up on their commitment to charities here and abroad (they are spokespersons for Compassion International and have sponsored two children through that organization’s program). Among their many press accolades, the Roys were featured in TheBluegrassSpecial.com’s (this publication’s previous incarnation) Artists On the Verge 2011 series (and lived to tell the tale).
The Roys deliver a live version of ‘Fast As We Roll’ at the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival held in Dodd Stadium in Norwich, CT, on August 2, 2012.
As the concluding track on the Roys’ slight seven-song third album (isn’t it really an EP?), “Fast As We Roll” seems like a telling personal statement from a group that maybe thought it was going to enjoy a leisurely ride on a Ferris wheel and instead wound up on the Himalaya, racing at breakneck speed in multiple directions, barely able to catch its breath. Except that nothing else on New Day Dawning gives a hint of the Roys doing anything but doubling down on what makes them special: the songs sound as fresh as ever (their collaborators include Brandon Rickman, Steve Dean, Jenee Fleenor, Brian White, Mark Houser, Jay Brunswick and Larry Alderman; Lee Roy and Elaine alone are responsible for one of the album’s liveliest tracks, “Still Standing,” a hard charging bluegrass number retailing a message about summoning the resolve to move forward from emotionally crippling personal travails (a soured romance in this case, but the lyrics are general enough to apply to any trying circumstance,); the musicianship remains stellar, with able assists from Randy Kohrs on dobro (his dynamic solo on the aforementioned “Still Standing” launches the performance onto a whole other level of intensity), Cody Kilby on guitar, Justin Moses on banjo, and Andy Leftwich injecting his sound signatures on mandolin and fiddle in addition to producing; not least of all, as vocalists Lee Roy and Elaine are probing deeper into their songs than they did on Lonesome Whistle, and that’s saying something. Reflections on family bring out the best in them, and one of their finest is “Daddy to Me,” Lee’s co-write with Brandon Rickman (who, by the way, makes every record he appears on better). A tender bluegrass ballad, “Daddy to Me” sails along on a sweet-natured, rustic underpinning sculpted by Kohrs’s gentle, understated dobro and Leftwich’s tear-stained fiddle cry, as Lee Roy sings with wistful but palpable affection of a man who, while being many things to many people (devoted husband, trusted friend), lives on his eyes for the wisdom and guidance he showed as his father. And when Elaine joins him to harmonize on the choruses, the siblings’ plaintive cry “he’s always daddy to me…” induces chills in a listener. For being so warm and thoughtful, “Grandpa’s Barn” (a collaboration between Lee and Larry Alderman) is hard hitting emotionally, as Lee sings of all the comforting memories stored within his late granddad’s barn and stirred anew when he visits after the funeral. Lee (and Elaine, by dint of her harmony support) makes it all the more effective with a vocal full of feeling but never veering off into maudlin or treacly territory, his restraint enhanced by Leftwich’s solemn, unadorned fiddling. Similarly, “Windin’ Roads,” telling as it does of the singer returning to the hills of his raising, with all its attendant memories of his hard working father and the indelible sight of his mother kneeling in prayer, where “nothing’s really changed at all”; the twist is he left for greener pastures, but now finds himself “windin’ down all these windin’ roads again,” back to the sanctuary of the place he called home in his youth. A folk-flavored ballad with country overtones, “Windin’ Roads” proceeds at a deliberate gait propelled by Kilby’s fingerpicked guitar and Moses’s sturdy banjo, with Leftwich adding a fillip of keening atmospherics on fiddle behind the Roys’ poignant harmonizing on the choruses.
The Roys, ‘Grandpa’s Barn,’ live at ArtsPlace, Lexington, KY, September 29, 2010. The song is included on New Day Dawning.
But the Roys don’t spend the entire album buried deep in memories. Like “Still Standing,” the spirited “New Day Dawning” is a feel-good strut counseling fortitude in the face of struggle on the theory that, you might say, the sun’ll come out tomorrow, so you got to hang on to tomorrow, come what may. Elaine takes a rousing lead on this, and that bright, pinched mountain soul sound in her voice is indeed the sunny presence the lyrics demand (she co-wrote them with brother Lee and Steve Dean) and the effervescent arrangement, spiked with mandolin and fiddle flourishes, seconds her emotions. There’s nothing here as topical and pointed as the previous album’s “Coal Minin’ Man,” and you rather wish they might have turned their attention at least once to any number of worthy socially conscious topics, given the state of the union at present. Patience, friends. Fast as they have been rolling, the Roys have been creating new days for themselves with each new album, and life is material. No telling where this particular ride will stop next, but Lee and Elaine are sure to be taking notes on the human condition as they go. Their next communiqué could really be a doozy.