Four or five years ago, a new(er) four piece bluegrass gospel group played at the Milan (Michigan) Bluegrass festival. I’d never seen or heard of them, but we gave them a pretty good listen. I remember feeling pretty sorry for them after their show, sitting way in the back in the dark at a tiny table with few fans.
We’ve seen them several times a year over the past years, and they seem to be on a steady upward climb. The core of the band for the past couple of years has been origionals Carl Williams, Jr. and Tim Shelton along with 2 or so year band member and bass man Randy Barnes.
NFR has a put-together-sound, smooth, that comes at you in a big kind of way. They aren’t doing gospel music exclusively now. The band has a relatively new (to them) mando player, and a brand new (to them) fiddle player. They have a contract with Rounder (flatter, blacker) Records, for whom they are working on their second release. There is a long list of performance dates on their schedule. They drew a good crowd, on a Monday night, in Maumee, Ohio. They love to perform and sing, and they do well with the fans.
Bluegrass and bluegrass type music isn’t a huge market, although it may have drawn new fans over the past few years. There are a finite number of places to play, and there is a limited crowd to play to. I took a look at the NFR schedule and found that they are playing some shows in places that might see limited bluegrass exposure, or, perhaps draw a different crowd than the normal festival circuit. I also see the Station Inn, Rudyfest and Dollywood.
Being a big name in bluegrass, with the possible exception of Ricky, Rhonda and Alison, isn’t a path to riches, or even to becoming a household name. The three I just mentioned get a lot of press, but also sing a wide variety of music and get some cross-over action. Alison’s recent (excellent) project with Robert Plant has little resemblance to bluegrass, and both Rhonda and Ricky have at least some “country” type following and get some airplay on country stations.
Somehow, somewhere, there has to be room for groups that honor the tradition of bluegrass music in a way that expands the audience without abandoning the basic sound and feel. Now, and perhaps forever, what instruments are used, how they are played, and what songs are sung and played and how and where the music is presented is a subject of constant discussion among purists. Sometimes I wish that everyone would shut up and listen. We won’t all like the same thing, but you can’t figure out what you like until you hear and compare.
Which brings me back to NFR. Last year I purchased a shirt off their table, perhaps at the Marshall (Michigan) festival, or perhaps at Milan. The last time I bought a band shirt, it said, “Hot Rize”, another not completely traditional, but wonderful band packed with excellent musicians. I wore the NFR shirt it last night, it’s comfortable and I like it. I also like NFR, they are comfortable in a way that isn’t strictly traditional. They are good at what they do, and they enjoy it. I hope they find a way to continue, as they have since I first saw them.