NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Watch for Cadillac Sky

New Texas Bluegrass Group Is Pushing the Limits

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The best new voice I’ve heard lately belongs to Bryan Simpson, the lead singer, mandolin player and chief songwriter for the new freewheeling bluegrass group Cadillac Sky. He sounds at once authoritative and warm and wise.

Cadillac Sky’s debut major label album, Blind Man Walking, is an impressive effort with admirable ensemble musicianship, all original songs, great harmony singing, inspired arrangements and an overall feel of new energy and spirit. The CD is due for release Jan. 23.

Ricky Skaggs, an artist who clearly knows his way around bluegrass and country music, signed the group to his label Skaggs Family Records (distributed by Lyric Street) after hearing them in Texas. I think they’ve been together for about four years, generating tremendous word-of-mouth. And apparently they’re based in Fort Worth, although their Web site is remarkably free of any personal detail about the group and its members. You can sample the songs from the new album there.

Some of their recent gigs have been at Fellowship Bible Church in Dallas, Jack’s Off the Wall (a Fort Worth club) and Pizza Hut Park (a soccer stadium in Frisco, Texas). I didn’t see it, but I heard that they played one set at IBMA this year with a full drum kit onstage — no doubt horrifying the bluegrass purists in the house. The drummer sat, sticks in hand, not playing until the very end, when he hit one short drum fill. I like that story and hope it’s true. And that reminds me of a joke Skaggs has told before: “Question: How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Four. One to change the bulb — and three to complain because it’s electric!”

I guess C-Sky (as fans call them) didn’t get the memo saying that new, original bluegrass songs can’t be five minutes long, and I’m glad they didn’t. My favorite track here is the lovely “Homesick Angel,” which Simpson co-wrote and which comes in at almost six minutes. It doesn’t hurt that angelic-sounding Sonya Isaacs joins Simpson on vocals on this gorgeously mournful lament.

Simpson also co-wrote an eloquent tribute to Bill Monroe, “Never Been So Blue,” which also clocks in at almost six minutes but is worth every second of it.

I also love the CD cover, which is something I never thought I’d ever say about a CD cover. But the designer, Erick Anderson, has managed to do the unimaginable: create an expressionist bluegrass CD cover. This is not your parents’ or maybe even your own past bluegrass. It’s original and quirky and eminently likable. I hear elements of many other musical forms here, including Middle Eastern rhythms, that I love.

Experimental acoustic and bluegrass groups have been audience and critic favorites, of course, for many years, from the New Grass Revival to the Earl Scruggs Revue to Nickel Creek to the more traditional Grascals and Old Crow Medicine Show. I like Cadillac Sky’s daring approach. They are dancing out on the edge. They miss on some songs, but they’re successful more often than not. I suspect, although I can’t speak for him, they might get Mr. Monroe’s blessing for pushing beyond the bluegrass frontier. Which he invented.

And Monroe was the original bluegrass rebel. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t smile down on other young musical rebels who are following in his footsteps.