Prescription Bluegrass CD REVIEW - FLATT LONESOME


by: W.J. Hallock

Flatt Lonesome -  Flatt Lonesome

Label: Pisgah Ridge

Released: January, 2013

This CD, by “FLATT LONESOME,” is compelling evidence that the future of bluegrass music is in talented, capable and passionate hands. On this, their debut release on Pisgah Ridge Records, they play with a nostalgic, traditional feel, the result being an authentic homage to their predecessors.

Their vocals shine with a “family” flavor that only siblings seem to naturally and inherently possess. Kelsi, Charli and Buddy Robertson sing three part harmony with the ease of having been born to do it, and in my humble opinion, they have the potential to one day be as good as the Whites or the Isaacs. As young as they are, and as good as they are, it’s only a matter of time.

All three take their turn at singing lead, with the other two harmonizing wonderfully, but, I especially like to hear Charli sing lead and Kelsi sing the harmony under, rather than over, the lead vocal. It makes for a sound not unlike the Everly Brothers had, and Buddy seems to slide in and out between the other two parts at will, adding a third completely individualistic texture to their vocal blend. These familial vocals are the bands primary asset.

Instrumentally, Kelsi plays mandolin, Buddy is on guitar and Charli handles the fiddling. They are joined by Michael Stockton on resophonic guitar, Dominic Illingworth on upright bass and Kelsi’s husband, Paul Harrigill, on banjo. Their combined musicianship is their second major asset.

To bolster just how talented and popular they’re becoming, Flatt Lonesome won the 2012 SPBGMA Band Championship. They’re being noticed, and in all the right circles! The attention they are garnering is due in part to their association with The Andrea Roberts Agency (ARA). This high powered group handles all the bands management, booking, publicity and media duties. Andrea Roberts is also the Producer of this recording.

The packaging that ARA and Pisgah Ridge have put together is flashy, eye catching and top shelf. It seems they have spared no expense to give Flatt Lonesome a well deserved career send off. There is only one thing wrong with this idyllic picture….. the charisma, zeal, personality and raw talent these young people have MUSICALLY, was, for the most part, not captured in the recording studio.

I took this CD with me on a four day road trip, and listened to it extensively. Then I went to YouTube and checked out as many videos of the band as possible…… the difference between the two mediums was dramatic. There is one particular video that is terrific! Image634973790228757022The band is in a hallway at the 2011 IBMA Convention doing the song “The Sad Wind Sighs.” Only a few listeners are visible, brother Buddy is playing 5-string banjo and the camera is looking over the shoulder of an unknown guitar player……. but what a sound! [Watch Video at end of this review]

Every adjective I’ve used to describe them is there in abundance. The energy they display in this one performance is dead on, positive and powerful. The band is clicking on all six cylinders, the vocals are super and their playing is inspired and hot! The heart and soul of Flatt Lonesome was right there in plain sight, burning like a bonfire.

I’ve gone through all the scenarios I can think of, for why this CD doesn’t sizzle…… Is the band short on studio experience? A recording session can be nerve wracking and tense, playback speakers and head phones don’t lie, and hearing your own voice or instrument coming back at you can be humbling, and even more so if you’re young and still finding your way. You have to be as prepared mentally as you are musically. I think that could be part of the problem, because I hear hesitation instrumentally. There are no WOW moments….. Feel, timing and passion matter more, to me, than neat, clean and perfectly in tune.

Is this Producer the best Producer for Flatt Lonesome? This band has a sound all it’s own, and it needed an especially talented Producer to recognize and bring that sound to the forefront. I don’t think that signature sound was nailed down, but I’d be hard pressed to put all that failure on Andrea Roberts. There’s more to the story than just two miss steps….. Technically, this CD sounds great! Balance and levels are all clean and sharp….. the mix was right on the money…. no distortion anywhere, and the bass sounds big and warm. The character of each acoustic instrument was captured beautifully. Engineer Van Atkins at Crossroads Studios in Arden, NC got it all recorded, mixed and mastered in an excellent manner.

There are eleven songs on this recording, eight of which were good selections. Good… not GREAT! And this is where most of the problem lies. Not one of those eight is memorable, special or intriguing enough to build a career on. The CD kicks off with the Hazel Dickens hit “You’ll Get No More Of Me,” then comes Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger.” Marty Stuart and Paul Kennerly contribute “Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and the Robertson trio does a nice vocal treatment of Darrell Statler’s “My Favorite Memory.” These four all have a slower to medium tempo, which doesn’t help in adding any zing to the arrangements. Everyone plays and sings just fine, but none of these are single release HITS!

The liveliest the band gets is when they do the two gospel songs on this release. “On the Right side,” by Johney Raines and Kelsi’s original song “Just Any Moment” are both vibrant and inspirational. The band seemed to FEEL these two tunes, and their performances on them are uplifting and as focused as their faith. Harley Allen’s fine song, “I’d Miss You,” also gets a warm treatment, with super harmonies and solid solos from the band. But, again, it’s not the hit this CD needed so badly…..

The only song that comes close to standing out enough to be released as a single is banjo player Paul Harrigill’s original “I’m Blue.” The lyrics are catchy, the chorus will have the listener singing along, the harmonies are spot on and the dobro, fiddle and especially the guitar solos are fun to listen to. Paul does an especially good job of kicking the song off and being the main, driving rhythm instrument. A less conventional, more daring arrangement might have done even more for the song. This song has the capacity to be a hit, it just needs more elbow grease.

Image634938367010025187To have your CD considered for review, contact: W.J. Hallock ~OR~ Dan King for specific submission and mailing instructions.

Kelsi’s second song, “One Foot In The Grave,” is confusing….. Is this supposed to be a sad song? A minor key ballad? The chord structure seems totally at odds with the lyric line, which retells the same old story of love gone wrong in a not very original way. With the importance of this debut CD, it should have been vital to make the hard decisions regarding which songs were and weren’t used. Here is where the Producer should have pulled rank……. this song’s slot should have been filled with “The Sad Wind Sighs!” The band already has a great feel for the song, and they do a killer version of it.

The last two selections on this CD pretty much make it clear that nobody in a position of authority had a clear vision of what to do with this band. The Johnny Cash/June Carter duet “Jackson” has been done to death, it’s dated and it doesn’t fit the Flatt Lonesome sound in any way, shape or style. It doesn’t even fit the band vocally, as Charli is having to strain, even with a key change, to reach the notes. All it is, is recognizable….. Were they trying to be appealing to an older crowd? Were they trying to “Country-fy” their sound? What ever the logic, and be it the band or the Producer who made this decision, it fails on all counts.

The final song is just as problematic. No matter how good Flatt Lonesome does the Little Big Town hit record “BOONDOCKS,” it was THEIR break out career hit, and done so recently, that comparisons will inevitably be made, and Flatt Lonesome will come out a distant second place every time. Why give the listener any reason at all to compare them to someone else? Why not do a song that shows them at their very best, and in the most favorable light? They have a video of them doing “My Baby’s Waitin’ On The Other Side,” and it fits them like a glove, why is IT not on this CD?

There are tons of older hit songs that are obscure, memorable and not overly done. There are lots of original, unreleased songs that the publishing houses and writers would love to get recorded by a band this good, and Kelsi and Paul have shown themselves to be good, solid song writers…… those hits, that this band needs to take a giant step forward, are out there somewhere. What this band needs to aspire to, is to have Little Big town want to cover a Flatt Lonesome song!

There is so much about Flatt Lonesome to like. Excellent, expressive vocals, six very talented and vibrant instrumentalists, stage presence to spare in their live performances, song-writers deluxe within the band and the desire to give their career 110%! It’s no wonder ARA and Pisgah Records signed them, they are the complete package, and they deserve a meteoric rise to prominence. What they don’t have are the hit songs and the studio guidance to focus and capture the band’s musical personality. Somehow, somebody dropped the ball……. chalk this CD up to experience, get what mileage there is to be gained from it, get to work, fix the problems and make their next release all that this one was supposed to be. There is no reason for these kids NOT to be successful!

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