Buddy Jewell first made a name for himself on the national level as the winner of the first season of Nashville Star, an American Idol-style talent contest that focused on country music in the early 2000s. Following his win, he quickly shot up the charts with popular songs such as Help Pour Out the Rain and Sweet Southern Comfort. Since then, he’s released several CDs, dabbling in traditional country and Gospel styles most recently, and has received award considerations for several original Gospel songs.
His latest effort, however, takes him into bluegrass territory. Bluebonnet Highway, released last month from Diamond Dust Records, layers Jewell’s warm country vocals over skillfully-played bluegrass instrumentation, leading to an album that’s sure to please country fans who miss the sounds of a few decades ago.
Bluebonnet Highway is an interesting combination of songs, featuring new originals, Jewell’s take on songs from some of his favorite artists, and a couple re-cuts of his previous hits. One of the highlights is the lead single, Teardrop in the Gulf of Mexico, which Jewell co-wrote with Jerry Salley. It’s definitely bluegrass radio-friendly, reminiscent of some of Salley’s own releases, filled with gentle mandolin and fiddle and finding the singer regretting a broken relationship. The title track is also a Jewell original. Another nice slice of country-tinged grass, it rolls along at a laidback pace and looks forward to a future when the singer is finally over a lost love.
Country fans, especially those who favor music of thirty or forty years ago, should recognize quite a few of the songs here. Waylon Jennings’s I’m a Ramblin’ Man opens the album, with nice banjo filling in for the honky-tonk sounds of Jennings’s original. Jewell’s voice is well-suited to singing this style of song – I could be down for a Waylon or Merle Haggard style album from him. He also tackles Tom T. Hall’s, Hero in Harlan, with ease. The bluegrass instrumentation suits this song – and Jewell’s straightforward delivery of it – well. I also enjoyed his vocals on the cut of The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, though the bouncy arrangement doesn’t quite match the desperation of the lyrics.
Ed Bruce’s My First Taste of Texas is a standout here, with warm, plainspoken vocals guided by tasteful banjo. You’re the Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had also comes from Bruce. With a clever twist on the word “break,” the lyrics make it an enjoyable listen. In contrast with the gently rolling melodies of these two numbers is Jewell’s version of Georgia on a Fast Train. It isn’t quite as rollicking as Billy Joe Shaver’s version, but Jewell still seems to have a lot of fun with it.
Jewell’s backing band and harmony vocalists on the album includes several names bluegrass fans will be quite familiar with, including Kenny and Amanda Smith, Michael Cleveland, Danny Roberts, and Josh Swift, among several others. Though Jewell’s vocals are generally the star of the show, the musicianship here is strong and often well-suited to the bluegrass-style updates of older songs.
Covid-19 threw a bit of a wrench into the recording of this album, with the music being tracked prior to the pandemic and Jewell’s vocals being recorded several months later, which leaves a bit to be desired in the production. However, I feel like he would put on a great live show with a tight band backing him up – think the mix of country and bluegrass you get from artists like Marty Raybon or Dave Adkins. Bluebonnet Highway may still fall a little closer to the country side of the spectrum than bluegrass, but bluegrass fans who also enjoy traditional country will still appreciate this album.
For more information on Buddy Jewell, visit his website. His new album is available from several online music retailers.