Self-defined as “their own version of bluegrass music, mixing the acoustic stomp of a string band with the rule-breaking spirit of rock & roll,” not many groups live by their tagline better than Greensky Bluegrass. If the great outlaw country singers broke the rules of country music, then Greensky Bluegrass is the outlaw of bluegrass music. Featuring drums, swear words and intricate live light shows, this 5-man group opts for transcendence over traditionality. In their newest album, Stress Dreams, Greensky Bluegrass dismantles and reconstructs the very definition of Bluegrass adeptly.
“Absence of Reason” kicks off the album on both ends of the instrumental spectrum, featuring a gritty electric guitar and a fiddle/banjo section. Contrasting sounds and ideas— trying to do good when everything seems bad, rock and bluegrass—all come together to make “Absence of Reason” what it is: a convoluted mess of emotion. Though slightly muddy, it is a bold and respectable first track.
The next track, “Monument,” swings more towards traditional bluegrass roots. However, hardly one to anchor themselves firmly to musical tradition, a hint of grunge can be heard. These two sounds put together to create a more upbeat song similar to the likes of Zac Brown Band’s bluegrass tendencies.
“Stress Dreams,” the title track, finds a way to bend notes in non-traditional ways to create an incredibly pleasing melody—exactly typifying who this group is. Lead singer Michael Bont croons, “I’ve been working for hours before my day even starts.” Within the lyrics, the fantastic, repetitive, eerie nature of dreams comes to life. The instrumentation is dream-like as well and one of the best tracks on the project.
“Give a Shit” is the only explicit track on the album and Greensky Bluegrass acts like it. A higher-tempo, honky-tonkier, grittier side of the group comes out to play on this track, especially when met with the first line: “Yesterday I said goodbye to all the questions without answer, without reason why.” The carelessness of the lyrics adds to the reckless fun of the song coming out in a Bob Seger-esque manner. For raucous entertainment, tune to “Give a Shit.”
The most traditional bluegrass you will find on the album is in “Cut a Tooth.” With the fast tempo, intricate banjo and (though some might argue with me about the traditionality of this) light drums, bluegrass is the only genre you could point to. As such, for fans of Kentucky mountain music, this is your song. After “Cut a Tooth,” a slight switch comes in “New and Improved.” Keeping with their same style, this track opts for what can only be described as a playful, happy melody. What makes this interesting though, is that the character in the song is pleading for another chance for a woman he was unfaithful to.
“Grow Together,” along with “Stress Dreams” and “Monument,” make up the three most popular songs on the album and are not only the most popular, but are heads above the rest. With all different moods and styles, “Grow Together” is the slow, reflective great song on the project. Slow, in bluegrass terms, is still quite fast, but when listening to the lyrics everything slows. Speaking on the fleeting aspects of life, particularly love, this song marks a chance for Greensky Bluegrass to show completely what they are capable of when it comes to placing the correct lyrics with the correct song. Emotions, instruments, voice inflections, harmonies, and words all come together to create a complex cocktail of perspective. Though it may not be as popular as “Grow Together,” the last track on the album, “Reasons to Stay,” has a charm of its own. A lamenting tune on healing, forgiveness and learning to love again, this final song is a perfect frame for a back porch sit.
Overall, lyrically and musically, Stress Dreams is a very solid album. Next time, instead of looking to Alison Krauss or The Steeldrivers for your fix of bluegrass, try your hand at Greensky Bluegrass. Though more experimental, they blur the lines of country, folk, bluegrass and rock expertly and in a way that proves to be accessible to mainstream country music fans and can be appreciated by lovers of music anywhere.