I’ve listened to Big Virginia Sky’s self-titled record more times than I normally would before writing a review, partly because I like bluegrass music—and theirs is really good—but mostly because I’ve struggled to find a delicate way of saying the lead singer is just … average.
Which is to say: He’s competent, but he doesn’t do anything vocally to differentiate the band from hundreds of others in the Americana/“newgrass” genre. (By way of comparison: Union Station is a great band, but would anyone have ever heard of them if not for Alison Krauss?)
Then I discovered that the singer in question, James Adkins, released six of Big Virginia Sky’s 11 songs last year on a solo record called “The Angel And Me.” It’s an impressive standalone effort, but listening to it as a companion piece to the full band’s record is revealing. Adkins’ stripped-down versions—just acoustic guitar and his voice—are reminders of the old adage: “Sometimes less is more.”
I don’t mean to suggest that the full-band arrangements on “Big Virginia Sky” aren’t excellent—the interplay between award-winning musicians Sammy Shelor and Scott Slay on banjo and mandolin, respectively, is first-rate—it’s just that Adkins’ voice often gets lost in the production.
The title track is a perfect example: On the solo record, Adkins is impassioned and triumphant; backed by a full band, he sounds like Marc Roberge of O.A.R. not wanting to wake the kids. (When I listen to the “fuller” version of the song, I can’t help but think of what it would sound like in the hands of a similar band like Carbon Leaf.)
On the other hand, a few of Adkins’ songs really benefit from the added production. Most notably, the shuffle-y “Love Song” is better with the addition of Sierra Hull’s guest vocals and a beautiful violin track, courtesy of guest artist Tim Crouch.
Norfolk residents Dale and Steve Lazar round out Big Virginia Sky, playing percussion and bass, respectively. A number of other Hampton Roads musicians also have credits on the record: Larry Berwald of Seth Stainback & Roosterfoot plays lap steel guitar on “Sky Is Falling,” John Toomey plays piano on “Pour One For Me,” and Logan Vath cowrote “Whiskey And Long Talks” with Adkins.
Guest appearances aside, Shelor and Slay are truly the stars on the record, trading brilliant solos on almost every song, including two excellent instrumentals. Shelor’s banjo work on “Bullfrog” in particular is reminiscent of old-school Béla Fleck.
The band is at its best on the bonus track: a cover of “Rye Whiskey.” It starts and ends with band singing a capella harmony: “If I don’t drink rye whiskey, I surely will die.” The three minutes in between are just classic, fun, dynamic, foot-stompin’ bluegrass. It’s worth noting that this is the only song on the record that was recorded live.
I’m sure a lot of fans—old and new—will appreciate the band members’ pursuit of a “perfect” sound on “Big Virginia Sky,” but I think they sacrificed some grassroots authenticity in the recording studio. I like my bluegrass a little rough around the edges. More “Rye Whiskey,” please.
“Big Virginia Sky” is available for $11 on Amazon, iTunes and other digital music retailers. Adkins’ solo record, “The Angel And Me,” is also available on iTunes.
Big Virginia Sky will host a CD release party at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Jerry’s Restaurant & Lounge in Chesapeake. It will also perform at 10 p.m. Friday at Electroganic in Norfolk. For more information, visit the band’s website or Facebook page.