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Dan Tyminski “God Fearing Heathen”

For some music fans, Dan Tyminski is instantly associated with his global EDM smash hit collaboration ‘Hey Brother’ with Avicii – over a billion streams worldwide do tend to have that effect, after all. To others, his name stands out as the voiceover for George Clooney that sang ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ in the Cohen brothers 2000 film – and gateway drug to bluegrass for many – “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”. For yet others, Tyminski is best known as being an integral part of Alison Krauss & Union Station band for a mere three decades and counting.

All of the above obviously matters a lot in the grand scheme of things. But when you listen to ‘God Fearing Heathen’, for all Tyminski’s remodelled solo version of ‘Hey Brother’ pops up again as the second track of its total of ten, the whole fantastic album is a reminder of how epically accomplished a bluegrass artist Tyminski is in his own right. 14 Grammys to your name really don’t happen by accident.

Tyminski’s previous full album, the much more experimental folk-roots ‘Southern Gothic’ (2017), was perhaps not as readily accessible as more mainstream bluegrass can be, although that’s probably partly its point, and it’s an intriguing, worthwhile listen, too. Equally, his work with Alison Krauss & Union Station tends to stray over the boundaries of traditional bluegrass. So it’s not exactly timely, but certainly there’s a sense of a change in direction and return to the roots with ‘God Fearing Heathen’ which pays magnificent homage to the beauty of the genre’s more original formats, albeit with a bang up-to-date vibe on the production and arrangements.

It may seem odd that ‘Hey Brother’, having been a major club hit with Avicii, is the most memorable of the 10 tracks when it comes to having a timeless ‘feel’. But actually, that colossal outing as a techno anthem only shows how well ‘Hey Brother’ achieves Tyminski’s aim of, as the album blurb puts it, “this time presenting the tune the way he first heard it in his head.”

What we get to hear all round on ‘God Fearing Heathen’ in any case is simply spellbinding, but – and this is a stroke of genius – with music that’s consistently understated and very deeply driven, rather than flashy and getting too smart for its own good. Tyminski sets the note by his notable absence of showy, impassioned displays of emotion in his singing, but in a style as inherently collaborative as bluegrass that kind of quiet intensity he opts for instead is arguably exactly the best approach to give each component on the album its integral worth.

Indeed, the individual players on this are so strong – take a big bow, Harry Clark on mandolin, Maddie Denton on fiddle, Gavin Largent on Dobro, Jason Davis on banjo and Grace Davis on bass – and the opportunities provided for them to shine with an expert bluegrass player like Tyminski as producer for the album are so plentiful – it’d be wrong to pinpoint any of them in particular. Rather song after song zips past in a shimmering, seemingly faultless haze, delivered with a kind of fired-up, understated energy that contains a heady combination of simultaneously adrenalin-filled, palpable enjoyment experienced by the musicians who created it, together with displays of nailed-on but lowkey professional talent.

It’s almost as if the band is saying this is music that you have to listen hard to from start to finish to enjoy most completely (and credit to them for assuming we’re people with long enough attention spans not just to get our kicks on from streaming minute-long Tik-Tok videos and its ilk) rather than aiming for knock-out blows. That’s because by going for the long haul rather than having major high points then quieter moments in the album (‘Hey Brother’ is probably the one exception to that ‘rule’) it’s one of those albums you respect as a whole, rather than pulling out individual tracks.

If there is a downside (and it’s a minor quibble), it’s that given the relatively muted tones Tyminski uses when singing, subjects touched on in the lyrics are slightly buried. That’s despite some of them, such as ‘Silence in the Brandy’, about a soldier battling PTSD before the condition was fully understood, having some genuine knock-out power.

Yet for all that, as this immensely powerful, engaging album is one you want to come back to listening again so quickly, the subtle but outstanding quality of each individual component – be it the words, the musical arrangements or the talent of each player – becomes something you want to try to concentrate on individually and try to enjoy in their own right. And on ‘God Fearing Heathen’ at least, you won’t ever be let down, either.

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