American-Norwegian country band Buster Sledge released a well-received full-length album Call Home in mid-2022, and followed up with this EP of odds & ends and leftovers as the year was winding down. I hadn’t heard of Buster Sledge before, but this little EP Dreamer is a breath of fresh air.
This band is kind of hard to pigeon-hole. They’re a trio of fiddle (Michael Barrett Donovan, who also does the songwriting and lead vocals), guitar (Jakob Folke Ossum) and banjo (Mikael Jonassen), and both Ossum and Jonassen sing as well. The way they describe what they do is that bluegrass is their “hardware” and many other kinds of music are the “software.” Musically they play a blend of old-time, bluegrass, and country, with lyrics and harmonies from everywhere else including pop, rock, jazz and rap.
The opener “I Could Be Nowhere (Drinking Nothing)” is a stone cold classic country song in the style of dozens of George Jones barroom ballads. Somehow the alchemy of fiddle and banjo frequently gives the illusion of a pedal steel guitar in the mix, but it’s entirely acoustic. Donovan’s mid-tune solo swings like Grappelli and Ossum’s guitar pay homage to Django, and the vocal harmonies are dreamy and loopy. But lyrically it’s a typical tear in my beer song, as Barrett explains: “I have always enjoyed the country-song-automaton – the “I” in the song that can’t exactly explain why, but here they are doing that thing that they really shouldn’t be despite the huge cost to them – and this song is my contribution to that theme.”
“Sit Up Straight” is a galloping newgrass romp with cosmic cowboy lyrics that remind me of Michael Nesmith; the instrumentals are straight out of Flatt & Scruggs, though. So, cosmic bluegrass.
One of Barrett’s previous gigs was in a Grateful Dead tribute band, so it should come as no surprise that the title track here, “Dream,” is an 18 minute acoustic jam that spans rock, country, folk, world, and more. I have no idea what it’s about, but this slab of acoustic Dead with harmonies out of Pure Praire League is pretty great. Billy Strings fans, check out the lightning-struck mid song guitar jam! And when Donovan takes over on fiddle, he plays something like discordant Nordic jazz crossed with Appalachian music. Maybe a bit long for a recording but I bet it kicks in concert! The EP fades out nicely with the short, raga-like final track “Leave The Day.”
The members of Buster Sledge seem to be brimming with muscal ideas and chops. Grand vocal harmonies and skillful picking make this one easy to recommend for fans of acoustic Americana.
(Heilo Records, 2022)