JIM & JENNIE AND THE PINETOPS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Wednesday (June 1). $8.50. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Listen closely to the new disc from Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, Rivers Roll On By (Bloodshot), and you'll notice something never heard on any of their previous recordings: drums.
The added percussion might not seem like such a big deal, but for a group that plays bluegrass music, using a drum kit on a recording is nothing short of heresy. Just pulling out a tambourine at a bluegrass festival can get you appled offstage in most Southern states, or worse.
And having Pinetops banjo player Brad Hutchinson now using an instrument that needs to be plugged in - he calls it a "Banjocaster" - doesn't seem like the best way to make nice with hardcore bluegrass fans whose idea of progress typically begins and ends with faster picking.
While making the fab Rivers Roll On By (which still resonates with the creak of ancient mystery that Harry Smith tapped into on his Anthology Of American Folk Music), Jim Krewson and Jennie Bedford were well aware that some people might not welcome the musical changes, but they had to go where the songs led them.
"We figured that we've put out four good CDs that are nothing but bluegrass," explains Krewson from a stop in Philadelphia, "so it was time we tried something different - particularly with all these great new songs Jennie has been writing that don't really fit the bluegrass format.
"I think the fact that we've become a long-distance band - with Jennie and me living in different cities - has had something to do with the change in sound. This time we've developed our song ideas completely separately from each other, and it turned out to be a really positive thing. Although we went off in different directions musically, we both came up with these really dark songs about murder. How that happened I have no idea."
That's not really difficult to figure out. It seems like some of Neko Case's shadow-world view and maybe even a little deer blood is bound to rub off on anyone who spends as much time on the road with her as Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops have.
"You're probably right," laughs Krewson. "I'd say that touring with Neko has had a big influence on us. She's been made out to be this alt-country diva or whatever, yet she doesn't let that confine her in any way. She'll write a song about anything, use different styles, and somehow it all works.
"Seeing her do that every night after we'd finish our set of traditional bluegrass made us think, 'We don't need to stick to this set-up. We can do whatever we want - drums, anything!' So that's what we did. We invited all our friends over and got them to play different parts. It might sound dark, but it was actually a lot of fun."