Darron and Vanessa Nichols: Serving the Word, and going somewhere with it

Glory Bound
By David McGee

Common Strings
Rural Rhythm Christian

Welcome the new Common Strings. Not the same Common Strings of 2008’s impressive debut, The Rain Came Down, but fundamentally unchanged at the core, in that the team of Georgia-born Darron and Kentucky native Vanessa Nichols are the alpha and omega of this outfit. Gone from the earlier lineup are Blake McDaniel and Ethan Walker, replaced on bass and banjo, respectively, by Ben and Ed Jenkins. But the Jenkins’s are absent from Somewhere In Glory. For this Appalachian gospel outing, the Nichols’s draw on outside help, and whoa Nellie! It’s something to write home about: Brandon Rickman is on guitar on seven cuts; Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley both are on harmony vocals; Mike Hartgrove is on fiddle; Jimmy Creed is on bass; the Lonesome River Band’s Sammy Shelor is on banjo; Phil Ledbetter adds dobro on one song, and Mac Traynham sits in on clawhammer banjo on another track.

All these guests are here to serve the Word, as it has been handed down through the ages of Christian song. The Nicholses have deep-mined the gospel songbooks for revealing texts that date back, in some cases, to the 1700s. Those that aren’t quite so ancient nevertheless evoke the ancient tones, such as a pair of Darren originals (“Golden Streets of Home,” a driving, jubilant celebration of reunion in Heaven that gives Shelor, on banjo, and Hartgrove, on fiddle, wide berth to add enthusiastic solos; and the sprightly “Glorious Power,” a series of Biblical stories recounting the spiritual transformation of historical figures such as Moses, with Shelor’s three-finger guitar picking establishing the song’s backwoods ambiance) and the warm hallelujah for salvation’s glory in “Beyond the Mist of Blue,” by Vanessa’s father, Wayne King, who contributed the devastating “Daddy I Love You” (concerning a young boy who’s father was killed by a drunk driver) to The Rain Came Down. From the towering epistles of Alfred Brumbley the Nicholses cover “Prettiest Flowers,” a lilting, beautifully harmonized vision of the afterlife in Heaven, with a tender but awestruck lead vocal by Vanessa and a sumptuous female blend of the Nichols and Bradley voices.

Common Strings—Darron and Vanessa Nichols—in concert, Pineville, KY, with Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley on harmony vocals, performing ‘Hardhat For a Halo,’ a song about a coal miner’s death and ascension to Heaven, from the band’s new Appalachian gospel album, Somewhere In Glory, on which Gulley and Bradley appear. Coal miner’s daughter Vanessa sings it like she knows it. The second song in this clip is another miner’s song, 'Deep Mines and Dark Hollows,' from the band’s debut album, 2008’s The Rain Came Down.

Otherwise the fare is drawn from the public domain and arranged, as per Darron’s liner notes, much as it must have been back in the day, with spare acoustic accompaniment and clear, ringing vocals designed to rivet a listener’s attention on the messages. Some, such as “Twilight Is Fading” (celebrating the promise of everlasting love in Heaven) and the album closing “The Revelation” (a dream of the world engulfed in flames of the Apocalypse and a prophecy of endtimes), are carried by Vanessa’s unadorned voice—direct, piercing, impassioned and, in “The Revelation,” as chilling in its certainty (and helped along in that regard by Hartgrove’s discreet, low moaning fiddle as the sole instrumental voice) as it is touching in its sweetness in “Twilight Is Fading,” when the simplicity of her guitar strumming lends the performance an uplifting air. Even on the more ambitious arrangements when a full band is at work—as it is on the low-key strut of the self-explanatory “The Message of His Coming—its ensemble voice lays back discreetly, but not so much that Hartgrove and Shelor can’t add that mountain flavor to complement Vanessa’s assured testifying.

Somewhere In Glory could hardly be a more dramatic turn away from the traditional and especially the progressive secular bluegrass Common Strings advanced on its debut, but there is no news to indicate they won’t go back from whence they started. For the moment, this new work can be enjoyed as a spiritual statement of purpose, of a sort, and somewhere down the line, many more long players from now, how it fits into a larger body of work will be apparent. The Nicholses’ journey is only beginning.

Common Strings’ Somewhere In Glory is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024