march 2009

No Doubt

By David McGee

Pam Gadd: Taking her artistry to a higher level

Pam Gadd
Home Sweet Highway Productions

Songwriter, vocalist par excellence, and a pretty fair banjo picker, Pam Gadd can pretty much do it all when it comes to music. She's done exemplary work as a member of the New Coon Creek Girls, the Muddy River Band and the beloved Wild Rose, as a backing vocalist for the likes of Patty Loveless and Porter Wagoner, and especially as a solo artist. Benefit Of Doubt takes her artistry to a higher level than ever with, arguably, the best original songs she's ever committed to disc; impeccable, soulful country and mountain vocalizing; and the support, vocally and instrumentally, from some of the finest artists of the day. The album hews to traditional bluegrass and country, with some tasty instrumental forays punctuating the sharp focus on each song's message, which is another way of saying it's Gadd's deeply involved singing that's the story.

The typical bluegrass gambit of a barnburning opening number is toned down here with the easygoing kickoff, "Hold Whatcha Got," a midtempo love letter to her man back home, featuring concise solos from Gadd on banjo, the redoubtable Bryan Sutton on guitar, a weirdly off-mic Wanda Vick Burchfield (a problem that crops up more than once) on dobro and some energetic mandolin and fiddle work throughout by Andy Leftwich. Vocally reminiscent of Rhonda Vincent, Gadd sings her homecoming promise with a delightful, breezy enthusiasm infused with the joy of the impending return to her lover's arms. Following that comes an exquisite, gently shuffling bluegrass love ballad, "Just Love Me," with Gadd offering her joyous lyrics with a mix of country soul and torch singer's smoldering sensuality, aided instrumentally by tenderly rendered, atmospheric solos from Aubrey Haynie on mandolin and Burchfield on dobro. Otherwise, Gadd ranges far and wide thematically: the appropriately frisky "Tennessee Hound Dog" (by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant) is a delightful, keening defense of a treasured canine that's become "an old age home for fleas" and a "backyard Romeo" who hasn't lost his lust for the distaff hounds (with Marty Raybon credited as the "Shouting Ignoramus" who directs his pa to shoot the dog). The barnburner shows up, of course, in the form of "Hit the Highway," a furiously attacked tale of a family tradition of musicians answering the muse "that's in the blood/in the heart and in the soul," the first verse sung by a daughter trying to understand how the road could lure her father away from her, the last verse being the daughter, now a musician herself, explaining to her beloved "the reason we must be apart tonight." In between, guitarist Sutton, Gadd on banjo, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and mandolin and Burchfield on dobro (and on mic) have time to inject some fiery, breathtaking instrumental quotes into the proceedings, each player stepping up to meet the challenge poses by the preceding solo. And not least of all, Dolly Parton shows up for a backwoods hoedown on Gadd's treatment of her classic tale of the ace apple and banjo picker, "Applejack." Gadd tones down the tempo just a shade from Dolly's original, and brings out the beauty of the melody in her solo vocal and in harmonizing with a gloriously plaintive Dolly, who can't help injecting the proceedings with her own joyous forcefield of personality by calling out to Gadd and other musicians during the take.

The album ends on a warm, heartfelt note. "Farewell Wagon Master," somber and soulful, honors the artistry and friendship Gadd shared with Porter Wagoner, whom she not only backed but also recorded a duet album with in 2004, Something To Brag About. With Burchfield adding a mournful fiddle line, Gadd sends up a moving tribute to the country great, appropriating a touch of "Green, Green Grass of Home" in the melody and slyly inserting "the cold hard facts of life," "green, green grass of home" and "we'd all come" (for "y'all come") into her deeply felt benediction. The ol' Wagonmaster may be gone, but Pam Gadd summons his spirit in full and, for 3:43 he lives again. Porter always enjoyed good company, and in Benefit of Doubt he's mingling with some music aspiring to the same exalted heights he scaled in his legendary career. In that light, there is no doubt for which Pam Gadd needs the benefit. She's never been better.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024