When Chris Jones and the Night Drivers woke up at the beginning of 2013, they were startled to learn that their recording of “Final Farewell” had topped Bluegrass Today’s first-ever annual bluegrass radio airplay chart. To others, though, it came as no surprise. Though the quartet’s “low lonesome”-singing front man founded the group back in the mid-1990s, it’s more recent years that have earned them a growing reputation for their signature sound, distinctive stage presence and deep connection to every corner of the bluegrass world. And now, with the release of Lonely Comes Easy, the first all-new collection since 2009’s Cloud Of Dust and the first for Rebel Records in over a decade, Chris Jones and the Night Drivers are poised to cross into the ranks of the music’s most respected artists.
With two award-winning songwriters in the group—Jones and co-writer John Pennell scored the IBMA’s Song of the Year award in 2007 for “Fork In The Road,” while bassist Jon Weisberger earned the organization’s first Songwriter of the Year trophy in 2012—it’s only natural that Lonely Comes Easy is filled with the group’s own material. Two songs, including the title track, comes from Jones’ pen, while he and Weisberger collaborated on two songs and brought in Chris Stuart, yet another Song of the Year winner, for a story of love that transcends family differences (“You’re My Family Now”). And, in a move that’s increasingly rare in the bluegrass world, the band tackles not one, but two original instrumentals—mandolin player Mark Stoffel’s “Swine Flu In Union County,” and banjo whiz Ned Luberecki’s “Don’t Blink.”
Other co-writers are a small but select group, including the legendary Tom T. and Dixie Hall (“Where I Am,” written with Chris) and popular contemporary bluegrass and country singer/songwriter Lisa Shaffer, whose “Barn Burner,” written with Weisberger, provided the inspiration for the album’s cover photo. Homages to Doc Watson (“Wake Up, Little Maggie”), Jones favorite Charley Pride (“Too Late To Say I’m Sorry”) and Ralph Stanley (“A Few More Years,” lifted from an earlier, out-of-print Jones album) round out the song list, together with the Night Drivers’ most recent #1 hit, a ‘grassy remake of country trucker classic “Wolf Creek Pass.”
Similarly, only a few guest musicians appear on the project: resonator guitarist Ivan Rosenberg, former bandmember Jeremy Garrett (Infamous Stringdusters) and IBMA Momentum Award Vocalist of the Year Emily Bankester (The Bankesters) turn up on two songs apiece, while harmonica maestro Buddy Greene supplies some mournful harmonica on “Wake Up Little Maggie” and Sierra Hull and two-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Claire Lynch cheerfully tackle the role of female chorus on “Wolf Creek Pass.”
Though it’s thoroughly contemporary, Lonely Comes Easy stays squarely in the bluegrass groove, reflecting the quartet’s appreciation for the ability of earlier masters to bring their own, unique voices—and creative twists—to the style while honoring its traditions. And while there’s plenty of room for the classic themes of lost love and hard times, Chris and the rest of the band serve up plenty of the deft, subtle—and, occasionally, not so subtle—humor that has brought them growing acclaim as live performers.
Thanks to Chris and Ned’s roles as on-air talent for SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction continent-wide satellite radio channel, the Night Drivers have enjoyed a broad and growing audience that knows—and appreciates them—as personalities and, to use the classic bluegrass phrase, radio friends. Now, with the release of Lonely Comes Easy, Chris Jones and the Night Drivers have served notice that they’re among the strongest contemporary artists that the music has to offer as well.
9/14 Glenmont, OH – Mohican Bluegrass Festival