Barbara Jean, a singer/songwriter out of Minnesota, avoids modern tropes on her debut, The Great Escape. It is a record that, while not straight country or bluegrass, still mostly delivers on what makes traditional music great. She plays the banjo, fiddle and viola, writes songs equal part heartbreak and hope, and veers away from the high-speed riffs and wankery that can make straight bluegrass irritating.
Right out of the gate "The River" is a smooth, seductive song I could hear Barbara Jean sing to me over and over. Several of the tracks follow this lead. If the record ever falters, it's only that cuts like "Not What You Thought" could use a little more vocal grit. Whether at a stroll or gallop, the instrumentation never overwhelms, and Andy Dee's pedal steel playing throughout is gorgeous.
The Great Escape could be the soundtrack to a collection of Bonnie Jo Campbell stories. There's darkness, longing and lyrical proof that you can have unhappiness and redemption in the rural midwest without bloodshed and murderous meth-fueled rampage.
Barbara Jean plays the Top Hat Thu., Nov. 7, at 6 PM with Erik Koskinen. Free.