Life is full of pleasures simple and sophisticated alike, but there’s nothing quite like the thrill of the open road and the soundtrack that comes with it. In the new album Hitchhiking to California, Alan Bibey & Grasstowne hit the highway with a bluegrass melody as the only fuel they need to take us from the heart of southern soul in Nashville to the surprisingly bucolic beaches of the Cali coast — painting us a string-born picture of Americana along the way. Swagger has always had a special, if not secret role in the construction of a quality bluegrass tune, but when it comes to songs like the gritty “Blue Collar Blues,” acerbic “Crime at Quiet Dell” or gospel-inspired “When He Calls My Name,” it’s what makes every instrumental and poetic element cohesive to the listener.
Swing absolutely defines the spirit of the title cut in Hitchhiking to California, the aforementioned “Blue Collar Blues,” self-explanatory “Rhythm of the Rails” and free-roaming jam “Messin’ with Sasquatch.” There are instances throughout the entirety of the LP in which it puts a positive spin on an ominous undertow (i.e. “Take the Long Way Home” and “I Don’t Know When”), and I would even say that the album itself is stylized around rhythm solely as a way of paying tribute to the traditional aesthetics of bluegrass. The grooves, even when they’re remarkably understated, influence the tone of everything here, though it’s worth noting that this never has to be the case — especially in tracks like “When He Calls My Name” and “Lonesomeville.”
The vocal harmonies in “Take the Long Way Home,” “I Don’t Know When” and the Darin and Brooke Aldridge-featured “Daddy & Me” are reason enough to get your hands on this album, and once you given them a listen, I think you’re going to agree. You can just feel the dedication in Grasstowne’s play from the moment the strings commence and glide into each other, forming an almost incendiary bond that will eventually be the catalyst for every cathartic moment Hitchhiking the California has to offer. It’s absolutely demonstrative of how much chemistry this group has, but more importantly, it’s a fair indictment of the contemporary country music scene as a whole and its complete lack of creative structure in 2021.
Alan Bibey has always been a reliable player in my book, but with Grasstowne backing him up in Hitchhiking California (his second album recorded with the group and first of the 2020s), he’s an unstoppable pillar of modern bluegrass. There’s no pretending or rehearsing the maturity he has at the helm of this project into existence; it’s come with time and experience out on the road. That very road provides the fodder for eleven incredibly immersive stories in Hitchhiking to California, and whether told by his own voice in “Blue Collar Blues,” or that of another — mandolins included — we find his trademark sound intact and sounding more and more like a signature than it ever has before in this record.