Following the band’s stellar “Stories” album, this is their second release on the reputable Hay Holler label that is known for its stalwart advocacy of traditionally-based bluegrass. Recorded over a three-day period in December, 2005 at Raney Studio in Drasco, Arkansas, this album is also subtitled and referred to as “The Drasco Sessions.” Engineer Jon Raney did a fine job capturing the Cedar Hill sound, charm and mystique. While they have a distinctively traditional stamp, their music’s demeanor emphasizes originality. Thirteen of the 15 songs are new originals from Irl Hees, Frank Ray, Mel Besher, Kenny Cantrell, Darren Haverstick, and Thom Gardiner. Covers include Johnny & Jack’s lovingly profound “What About You,” and Red Allen’s “I Beg To You” in which Mel and Frank sing “On my knees I beg to you if I thought that it would do any good at all / I'd kiss the ground you walk upon / I know now that I was wrong to leave you all alone.” Cedar Hill has a knack for knowing what it takes to write great songs. Their originals have clear messages, smoothly flowing melodies, uncomplicated chord progressions, and lyrics that grab your attention. Take Frank Ray’s “Piney Ridge” and “Ozark Hills,” for example, that are also demonstrative of his songwriting development with two pieces written in 1968 and 2005. Back in 1968, Frank wrote “Piney Ridge,” and he provides the lead vocals about a place where “The tall pines grow on Piney Ridge / You can talk to the wind up there / We ain't got much on Piney Ridge / But what we got we share.” His more recent homespun composition, “Ozark Hills,” has even more and well-developed imagery with words like “From the cradle of life, many years have passed /since I sat by a campfire on a mountainside / to listen to the hounds run and the stories told / seen the diamondlike stars of an Ozark night.” Frank also wrote four other fine songs on this project. A lucky man decides to “Let it Ride” and find a fortune at the craps table based on a gypsy woman’s advice. “Gonna Have a Time” depicts an optimistic picture of that Heavenly home in Glory. Like literary works, the reverent songs about home set a stage and pull you into their stories. It’s no wonder that the band has a large legion of Missouri fans who can appreciate and relate to lyrics in the opener from Irl Hees – “Another Tear somewhere there is falling / Another heart is breaking silently for you.” Most appealling are the heartfelt and passionate sentiments that are expressed. Mel Besher and Billy Smith’s “Who Am I” assumes a devout tone as it recognizes that human frailties and weaknesses often lead one to question God’s direction. Ballads with evocative, loving or uplifting statements are some of my favorite songs. Darren Haverstick’s “Pearl” is a tale of time passing and affection of a man for his hunting dog. Thom Gardiner’s “Mary O’Grady” is another touching ballad with acoustic country flavorings that speak to the river of life, love, time and memories. Besides painting a beautiful portrait, the song is a sweet and fragrant “bouquet for the prettiest girl in town.” Gardiner also penned the album closer, “Hobo’s Wings,” a slow, reflective plea to be taken home. Kenny Cantrell’s instrumental, “McKenna’s Hoedown” is a tribute to his granddaughter, and Frank Ray’s “Black Diamond” weaves together the melodic fabric of mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. In keeping with their personalized signature sound, “Portrait of a Song” emphasizes story songs typically presented with slower to moderate tempos that allow Cedar Hill to accentuate the messages of their compelling narratives. Their songs paint pictures that dramatically describe life’s ups and downs. While life is certainly full of travails and struggles to be reckoned with, Cedar Hill doesn’t dwell on them. I’ve always appreciated Cedar Hill’s music because their messages typically resonate with consolation, inspiration, and resolve.
Joe Ross, staff writer, Bluegrass Now