Ten years ago, I reviewed Danny Roberts’ first solo recording, Mandolin Orchard, giving it solid marks. Now comes Nighthawk, a step up all across the board. Begin with the sound quality improvements. If you remember his first, you’ll notice this immediately. This is much clearer, much more sonically pleasing. That in itself goes a long way, but then there is the addition of three vocals numbers. Roberts could have easily followed the all-instrumental format of his first, but having his daughter, Jaelee, sing a gorgeous “How Great Thou Art” and belt out stunningly “Oh, Atlanta,” and having his wife, Andrea, lead a stirring “I Went Down A Begger,” lends a welcome variety.
Which brings us to Roberts’ compositional skills and what is the most important change. While his first recording had solid originals, varied in style and certainly well-played, they rarely approached in interest or tunefulness the album’s lone cover, “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Here, that has been largely corrected, beginning with the Monroe-sounding, bluesy stomp of “New Gil Ramble,” featuring a sparkling triplet-laced solo from Ronnie McCoury. Also Monroe-influenced, albeit tempered with some modern rhythmic punctuations, is “Nighthawk,” which includes some ear-catching note slides from Roberts and the expert mandolin and sinuous fiddle of Sam Bush. Then comes the ultra-fast “Big Stone Gap” in the breakdown tradition and later the Celtic Reel and bounce of “Coppinger’s Court” and, later still, a bluesy stroll with guest Mike Compton on “Walking To Winslow.” Woven among them are the antique/jazzy blending of “F-5 Rag,” the light mandolin/banjo duet of “Danielle’s Waltz,” the rip and twist of both “You’ll Have That” and “Derrington Drive,” and the surprisingly-noted melody of my favorite, “Swing-A-Long.” Not a one will fail to intrigue or impress or, for that matter, surprise.
Co-creating this excellent recording are the stellar core group of guitarist Tony Wray, banjoist Kristin Scott Benson, and bassist Tim Surrett, along with tracks from fiddlers Jimmy Mattingly, Adam Haynes, and Aubrey Haynie. (Mountain Home Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.)BW