Holly Norman’s willingness to devote her sophomore full length album paying tribute to Elvis Presley speaks volumes about how strongly she feels about the King. Taking Care of Bluegrass is a thirteen song tribute to Presley re-filtering twelve of his songs through a bluegrass prism with an additional original track written about Norman’s love for Presley as a performer. Her talents command enough respect that she proved able at securing the services of Terry Blackwood & The Imperials and guitarist James Burton to appear on some of the songs. Her other musical collaborators on the songs are all top notch musicians who seem to strike fire from the first notes and sustain that heat through every song. Norman’s song choice pulls from Presley’s more popular numbers while also opting to cover a few lesser known tracks that give her equal chance to shine.
Opening with “C.C. Rider” is a bit of an audacious move. It is sort of a middle of the road number in terms of its popularity, but there’s a bit of a message in choosing this, particularly in light of some of the songs that come later. It has a propulsive, headlong rush from the first and the bluegrass mode adopted for the song gives it a breezy melodicism that the original lacks. One of Presley’s best known later-day ballads and an attempt at social relevancy, “In the Ghetto” gains a stark form of poetry in Norman’s hands that it lacks in the more grandiose original. Much of Presley’s music from that period was surrounded with a theatricality that too often obscured the quality of his phrasing and the beating heart of the song buried beneath the glitter. The album’s first single is a surprising choice. “Moody Blue” is one of the best and most underrated pop songs Elvis ever performed and some of that pop sophistication still comes through despite the different instruments. Norman uses backing vocals throughout the album in a restrained and classic way, but she scarcely needs any reinforcement. Her voice is recorded pitch perfect throughout every song and she inhabits the lyrics with respect and imagination alike.
“Kentucky Rain”, much like “In the Ghetto”, is a glossy late pop entry from Presley’s career before the final rot set in. The subject matter, naturally, couldn’t be any more different, but Norman’s performance of “Kentucky Rain” proves that this song arguably has much more of an emotional impact in its bare bones state. It stresses the lyrical and storytelling quality in a stronger fashion and draws increased attention to the melody. James Burton plays some fine resonator guitar on this. Fredrick & The Imperials join Norman on “Little Cabin on the Hill” has stronger vocal interplay than any song up to this point. It’s a perfect illustration of the knowledge she has about Presley’s recordings that helps give this tribute a special distinction.
The verve and big stage gusto powering Presley’s original “Suspicious Minds” is muted to a desperate plea in Norman’s hands. The hushed quality of the instrumental performance and vocal alike gives the impression of a speaker holding on by their fingertips and that perfect stillness before they fall for a final time. “Viva Las Vegas” has a bluesier tone than other songs and Norman manages to really get a real sense of fatalism and celebration alike in her voice. “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” marks the final appearance of Terry Blackwood & The Imperials and the album’s last song. The warm and expansive harmonies opening the track set the stage for a performance that feels closer to an early Stanley Brothers song. It brings the album to an end like a leaf wafting to the ground.
8 out of 10 stars