taking a listen

by Ryan Snyder

reviews of the moment


There’s little doubt that we live in a distinguished time for acoustic and bluegrass music. Twenty-five years ago, the great young pickers of our day would have been teasing their hair out and stuffing themselves into leather pants in preparation to play awful music specifically geared for picking up high school girls. Nowadays, it’s cool to grow a beard and trade sweeppicking for three-finger style. The most inevitable outcome to the rise of a new generation of super-pickers is a litany of minor derivations made to the generations-old formula, the negation of the old-school formalism that bluegrass demands of its players. Asheville quintet Sanctum Sully are no doubt grounded in that tradition, but have built up a sterling reputation as a band capable of unfailing energy on stage geared toward the barroom rather than the back porch, mixing in Phish and Doors covers along with old-timey staples, propelled by glassy three-part harmonies and clean, colorful arrangements. On their new album Trade Winds, they take on the roots of Appalachia and collide it with the more consistent strains of country. On a song like “Ain’t That Good,” where you’d expect vocal harmonies to ascend skyward like a McCoury family communion, Sanctum Sully spins it into minor-key, Oak Ridge Boys-inspired pop refrain. The crux of Sanctum Sully is indeed their powerful instrumental abilities, and on the album’s title track they embark on steady picking runs, breaking stride only to punctuate Jay Franck’s gentle tenor. The band is most reflective of their live energy on the plucky instrumental breakdown “KMA,” while at their most engaging lyrically in singing about the “competition orange and matching rust” of their shine-running truck on the rowdy, sometimes bawdy “Custom Deluxe.” With the help of veteran bluegrass producer Bill McDonald, Sanctum Sully retain a close affinity to the traditional, while still involving just enough swagger to tick off their teachers.


Sanctum Sully will debut Trade Winds at The Blind Tiger on Friday, April 6 with Yarn in support.

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