New spin on an old sound
While the mainstream popularity of banjos, fiddles and mandolins may have given way to a more electric vibe, bands and songwriters are still embracing the rustic sounds and moods of mountain bluegrass — much to the benefit of music fans who look for folk-rooted songs with a modern twist. The latest of these bands to put forward a full-length is National Park Radio, whose debut LP The Great Divide offers 11 tracks.
National Park Radio is headed by singer-songwriter Stefan Szabo, who calls himself “an old soul, 30 going on 60.” He’s relatively new to the songwriting game, having just started three years ago and released a 2013 EP, but the group’s first full-length called the The Great Divide reflects a cohesive, powerful instinct that plays like the work of a longtime traveling troubadour. His style falls in step with the likes of Mumford and Sons or The Avett Brothers, full of both wistful drawl and bouncy movement.
Szabo’s voice is clear as a bell and boomy, as if made for the stage. He often sings with a fevered urgency, hitting each note and syllable with accuracy and leaving it on for the next. Like a real folk balladeer, Szabo lets the lyrics drive the song. His thoughts are at their best when they hover in the inspirational realm, with lyrics about finding yourself and your home and your family delivered in perfectly rhyming couplets and verses. “This place will be just where I’m from,” he sings on the opening title track.
National Park Radio is filled out by players like Heath Shatswell, Mike Womack, Jon Westover and Eli Barrett, and as a band they couldn’t be more cohesive. It could come from one of two places, or a mix of both: either Szabo acts as band leader and constructs the parts, or these musicians are all so steeped in the folk and Americana traditions of the Ozarks that they know exactly what the parts need.
The second track “There Is A Fire,” is an early standout devoted the strength of the individual, and offers one of the album’s more memorable hooks. “Ghost” grapples with the teachings of religion in a beautiful, introspective with a silky thread of a melody. It’s one of the most beautiful songs on the record — and not just because it’s one of the most thought-provoking. “Once Upon a Time” has its own religious references and imagery, as well as a solid call-and-response vocal ending.
The personal power returns on “Rise Above,” when Szabo sings “I will not lay down until I die/I will rise above/who knows how high.” On this track, this hook is followed by a great mandolin solo and jamming session. The foot-stomping and hand-clapping aesthetic continues, “and we are broken by the ones we love the most/there’s more to do more than we’ll ever know.”
At times the bank seems to overly rely on kitschy touches: Szabo plays with electronic vocal modification effects on “The Walking Song,” plus a playful scat section and kazoo solo. Backed up with an oomph-pah-pah beat, no one could fault these musicians for failure to commit — but the effect pales into comparison to the band’s weightier work that embraces the fundamentals. The album ends on the strong note of “Virginia,” a ballad of love and loss and memory. It’s just Szabo accompanied by acoustic guitar and fiddle, and the album ends on a somewhat surprising, unresolved note.
The Great Divide offers listeners a dedicated effort from musicians who truly seem to want to know and hone the craft of folk music. For some, the group’s twang and tropes might seem outdated in more ways than one, but the sincerity of the songs from National Park Radio is evident, emotive and altogether worth appreciating for a good ole honest listen.