Jacob Underwood The Banjo Files Plum River Records 4 stars (out of 5) By Aaron Keith Harris Jacob Underwood has been a professional bluegrass picker since 2007, when he joined his father and grandfather as a full-time member of Bluegrass Express. He’s won notable contests on mandolin, fiddle, and banjo, and made banjo his primary instrument in 2013. Underwood played all the instruments on his first solo CD, Grass Clippings (2012), but The Banjo Files has him, naturally, focusing on the five-string—but also playing a little guitar and mandolin. Underwood’s banjo style adds an inventive melodic sense to his precise sense of rhythm, and his four original pieces reflect that well-balanced sound. The chord progression and melody of “Banjoology” go in unexpected directions, but Underwood’s banjo is well in control, laying the ground work for a nice mandolin break of his own, and some good and greasy fiddling from Steve Thomas. The same formula works well on the more straightforward “Turbulence,” which contains some nice tuning peg work to illustrate the feeling conjured by the Title. Sierra Hull (mandolin) and Ron Stewart (fiddle) add slick breaks and fills to the other two Underwood compositions—the unhurried, sweet “November Wind” and the propulsive album-opener “B-5.” Hull plays mandolin on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” one of three gospel numbers—including “Softly and Tenderly” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”—that feature Underwood’s banjo tracing the melody with the same care a singer would, calling to mind similar work by Don Reno and Sonny Osborne. Likewise on “When You’re Smiling,” that includes Thomas’ fiddle playing a jazzy solo that would have sounded fine on one of Louis Armstrong’s recordings of this famous song. Add an appearance from Mike Scott, who joins Underwood for a double-banjo take on “Bully of the Town,” and a breezy rendition of the Bill Monroe/Byron Berline classic “Gold Rush,” and you’ve got a fine album by a young picker we’re going to be hearing great things from for a long while.
JACOB UNDERWOOD THE BANJO FILES Plum River PRP1115 Underwood is a 19-year-old banjo picker who plays with the band Bluegrass Express. He’s helped here by some big name friends on this ten-track effort. He wrote four of the cuts, and they show his approach to bluegrass banjo. He’s about the melody and drive, but does not bowl the listener over with excessive speed. Timing is the thing. He is joined by Mike Scott on “Bully Of The Town” for a tasteful banjo romp. He handles a medium tempo pop evergreen, “When You’re Smiling,” with taste and restraint. Steve Thomas’ fiddling throughout the project borders on the sublime. Underwood plays the mandolin and guitar with great flair as well. He is his own man with both instruments and stays clear of the cliches that riddle so many players’ work these days. The list of guest players is long here and includes Ron Stewart and Tim Crouch, fiddle, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Matt Wallace and Greg Underwood on bass, Justin Moses on resonator guitar, and Emily Hall on guitar. If your tastes run to solidly played, straight-ahead bluegrass, you should find lots to like on this project. -Robert C. Buckingham, Bluegrass Unlimited - June, 2016
Jacob Underwood, The Banjo Files (jacobunderwoodmusic.com). Fan of bluegrass banjo? Jacob Underwood, joined by a passle of other talented musicians, lays down ten knock-you-out banjo instrumentals. Included: “Softly & Tenderly” and “When You’re Smiling.” Way fun to listen to! -Mitch Finley, The Bluegrass Blabber - June, 2016
The banjo is arguably the core of bluegrass music. For many folks, it’s the key to whether or not a song or album can be considered bluegrass. I’ve heard many a traditionalist despair that it’s been all downhill since Manzanita. Fear not, fans of Scruggs style, for there are plenty of up-and-coming musicians ready to keep the five alive. Jacob Underwood, the banjo player for Illinois-based group Bluegrass Express, is fine evidence of this fact. He recently released his second solo album, The Banjo Files. Underwood has included ten tracks on The Banjo Files, all instrumentals. It certainly helps that’s he surrounded by some of bluegrass music’s best musicians – Steve Thomas, Justin Moses, and Matt Wallace form his core band, with assistance from Sierra Hull, Ron Stewart, and others – but he’s no slouch on the banjo, himself. Underwood’s playing is crisp and tasteful, and he does a fine job at finding the tune’s melody and sticking with it. His picking leans firmly into the traditional side of things (you won’t find any eight-minute jam sessions here), though several of the tracks have a lighter, more contemporary feel. Four tunes are originals from Underwood. Opening track B-5 is full of modern traditional drive, reminiscent of something you might hear from Volume Five or even the Boxcars. It’s a powerful song, with a chugging rhythm and strong solos, including some snazzy mandolin work from Hull. Turbulence has a classic bluegrass foundation, but Underwood also plays around a bit with the tune’s melody and gets to use his D-tuners. It’s one of two songs that features Underwood’s dad Greg on electric bass, which gives the track a good groove. The other electric bass number is Banjoology, on which Underwood handles not only banjo duties but also throws in some impressive mandolin solos. The final original is the easygoing, mid-tempo November Wind. Underwood’s banjo sets the song’s wistful mood, which is also captured perfectly by Moses on resophonic Guitar. Five-string aficionados should enjoy the double banjo version of Bully of the Town, which features Mike Scott playing harmony and a brief solo, and also includes some first-rate fiddling from Thomas. There’s also a fine version of Gold Rush, with triple duty from Underwood. In addition to banjo, he offers up a mandolin solo in the spirit of Bill Monroe and straight-forward guitar. Straying from the bluegrass canon a bit is the cheerful and gently rolling, When You’re Smiling. Rounding out the album are three instrumental versions of Gospel songs. Underwood proves his talent at locating a song’s melody on the thoughtful What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Clocking in at about a minute and a half, it’s a showcase for the banjo. Thomas’s fiddle traces the melody line throughout the background of Softly and Tenderly, then steps into the spotlight for an impressive solo. When the Saints Go Marching In is a fun, traditional romp with a propulsive rhythm set by Underwood’s banjo and Wallace’s bass. Fans of Scruggs-style banjo should find much to enjoy when they search through The Banjo Files. Underwood shows an ear for composing, with Turbulence and November Wind particular highlights, and also handles himself well on new interpretations of older tunes. For more information on Jacob Underwood and his new album, visit the Bluegrass Express website at www.bluegrassexpressband.com. -John Curtiss Goad, Bluegrass Today