Rookie bluegrass bands face a daunting challenge these days. Torn between tradition and the temptations that come with the effort to gain populist appeal, they have to determine what’s worth compromising while still maintaining a certain musical standard.
So credit National Park Radio with towing the line between between admiration for past masters and a desire to navigate their own way forward. Featuring songs written and sung by frontman Stefan Szabo, The Great Divide, the band’s full length debut, draws comparisons to the Steep Canyon Rangers, and to a lesser extent, the Avett Brothers, given its equal emphasis on both melody and musicality. Propelled by the insistent strum of banjos and mandolin, the musicians create an insistent sound, an irresistible rallying cry that finds the listener getting caught up in the rhythms and remaining riveted throughout. There’s a decided charm and appeal to songs such as “Steady,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “The Walking Song,” but that jaunty jangle doesn’t diminish the rush of adrenalin that purveys such veritable anthems as “I Will Go On,” “The Great Divide” and “Rise Above.” The accessibility factor remains intact throughout, and even an occasional ballad like “Monochrome” or "Virginia" doesn’t diminish the edge or effect.
After an earlier EP and the support of National Public Radio, The Great Divide indicates that this Arkansas-based quartet seems likely to gain a devoted following on the festival circuit and anywhere else where the strains of bluegrass and contemporary music overlap. Wholly infectious and immediately appealing, The Great Divide boasts the kind of sound from which true classics are conceived.