Jeff White – Right Beside You
It’s been sixteen years and change since Jeff White, respected collaborator with some of country music’s top figures over the last thirty years including Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, released his second solo album The Broken Road. In those nearly two decades since then, White cemented his position as one of the genre’s top guitarists and an exceptional backing singer. His contribution to the work of those aforementioned performers is inestimable. Many of them return the favor on his third and latest solo album, Right Beside You. Gill, in particular, is a major musical and vocal force on the album and this virtuosic Americana music legend brings much to the material. White co-wrote or wrote much of the album’s material alone, but the smattering of covers rounding out the track list are markedly different than what one might expect from albums of this ilk.
The first cover of note is White’s version of Bill Monroe’s “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road”. Gill’s beautiful mandolin playing has a major impact on the song, but the guiding power behind its success is White’s vocal. He never strains too hard to sound like Bill Monroe but rather has a measured and accurate reading of how to suggest the original while still infusing his own performance with its own identity. Carter Family patriarch AP Carter’s prolific pen lodges an appearance with “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow”. This is, perhaps, a little less successful than the original for purely aesthetic reasons – there’s something about the primitive recording quality of those early Carter Family recordings that invests them with an unusually supernatural-like quality. Modern production seems to diminish that hint of the fantastic, but make no mistake, this is a well written track that stands the test of time. White’s interpretative powers are strong enough to hint at the hard-bitten experience underlying the song’s narrative. The album’s final marquee cover is an impressive take on Dock Boggs’ “Wise County Jail”. Jerry Douglas’s fiery dobro seems to spar with the other instruments and White’s vocal, augmented by Gill’s tenor voice, provides a worthy melodic counterpoint.
White’s original songwriting is the album’s center and core strength. The first impressive entry is the album’s second song, “Blue Trail of Sorrow”. White proves that, as a lyricist, he’s capable of refurbishing old clichés in inventive and personal ways without losing his target audience. His phrasing is top notch on the track and its emotive edge effectively dramatizes the track. The album’s title song is a memorable cut thanks to its well-oiled songwriting, reflective nature, and a stirring contribution from harmony vocalist Alison Krauss. Jerry Douglas shines on “The Cold Hard Facts” with a blistering exhibition of his prowess on dobro that will astound novices to the instrument and remind longtime fans about why Douglas is considered such a monumental player.
Right Beside You isn’t merely a retro album. It’s a reminder that labels like retro and classic don’t really matter – the end game with an art is how it moves or otherwise affects its intended audience. It’s impossible to listen to this album and, if you love music at all, not respect the skill and emotion that obviously fuels its completion.
9 out of 10 stars.