Breakthrough self-titled album, “The Goodwin Bros.” making headway
column by Stephen Burchwell
Last year was the first time we heard anything from The Goodwin Brothers. It was in the middle of the pandemic when myself (along with around 50k others according to the statistics on their page) heard the video tribute to their musical heroes, The Osborne Brothers, in the form of a medley of three classic Sonny and Bobby songs. After which, names like Dan Tyminski, Doyle Lawson, Dana Williams (Diamond Rio), Sonya Isaacs, Ronnie Reno, and even The Chief himself (Sonny Osborne) among many others chimed in applauding the brother’s tribute. Since then, we’ve not heard much. But all of that is about to change. To recap, the nucleus of the band is Jonathan & William (Vocals, Guitar & Mandolin) along with Kenneth (Chase) Bush on vocals. They have collectively assembled an all-star cast of musicians that accompany them on their new self-titled album, and in their live shows.
The brothers comprising the eastern Kentucky-born band are anything but newcomers: Jonathan & William Goodwin began their musical journeys playing together in the early 90s, Jonathan was 8 and William 6.
Prior to that they spent time singing separately for the most part in church, school plays and events. It wasn’t long thereafter the young talents released their first studio album (1999). Jonathan was 14, William 12. They began singing on the bluegrass festival circuit across the eastern US, a tenure that had refined their sound to a level typically reserved for older players with bigger discographies.
Let’s meet the boys.
Jonathan has spent the last 2 decades working full-time in the music business as a label owner, head of an artist management company, and as an award-winning producer (1-time Grammy Award nominee & multiple DOVE Award nominee). While most of his work can be heard on the hundreds of Christian recordings he has produced or appeared on, he continues to be a regular “first call” having crossed over into nearly every genre of music and now even film. His productions consist of top-tier musicians in the best studios in the world. Being a vocalist and musician, himself has garnered him one of the most respected song and vocal arrangers in gospel music today. He has served as the keynote speaker for Music-Business conferences across the globe. It started at the age of four when he began playing piano. Within a decade he was an accomplished musician mastering multiple instruments. Jonathan has been a guest musician and/or vocalist sharing the stage with award-winning artists in almost every genre of music.
As we dig more into the history of The Brothers, we find that this isn’t William’s first rodeo either. After serving in the Kentucky National Guard out of high school, he then attended Morehead State University where he became a vocal-major and was an often featured soloist with the MSU Black-Gospel Ensemble (Talk about diversity and being able to adapt). He graduated in 2013 with a degree in Political Science and then began traveling as the lead singer of the, then popular, Christian music band (ASSEMBLED). Their projects were produced by his older brother, Jonathan, and within that ensemble, they garnered multiple awards within the gospel music community. Not sure about their current live shows, but on this project, William is the featured lead singer on 80% of the songs and the shoe certainly fits. He also plays mandolin for the group.
To round off the three-part harmony, (that seems to be a staple for the brothers) is Kenneth Chase Bush. Not a Goodwin, (yes, I noticed too) however you would never know it listening to their phrasing and harmonies. You would be safe to assume that although Kenneth (goes by Chase) isn’t a blood brother, the three have undoubtedly been singing together for many years. Jonathan says the ‘Goodwin’ boys first met Bush at a church gathering as young teenagers in the small town of Winchester, KY. While he may be new to the bluegrass scene, Bush has certainly had his fair-share of time spent on stage. In 2006 he left the small town of Richmond, KY. and landed on stage in Hollywood as a top contestant on American Idol. Even then he was being prepped for ‘group singing’ as he was paired with Idol’s eventual season 5 winner, Taylor Hicks. Randy Jackson says of Bush, “You remind me of a young Wayne Newton.” In a genre that prides itself in fast picking and hard driving instruments, you better have more than just a typical voice to keep this crowds' attention without an instrument in hand. Bush certainly fits the bill. The Brother’s take on “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” (Written by Carl E. Jackson / David William Wills) highlights Bush’s lead vocal as the ‘brothers’ harmonize on the choruses.
Still, despite arriving individually with a pages-long résumé, The Goodwin Bros. is still popularly thought of as their debut — perhaps because everything about it seems to signal a new beginning.
It’s been nearly a decade now since the Grammys™ gave the first award in the newly created American Roots categories, which encompass bluegrass, blues, folk, gospel and anything too left-of-center for the country mainstream. Since then, the global bluegrass music community seems to nearly double each year. Today, the music community known as Bluegrass has too many stars, scenes and subcategories to count. Beloved artists like Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle who in another era might have been all but ignored by bluegrass gatekeepers, have found a welcoming community and household-name status. But the music under this umbrella wasn't always the stuff of major festivals and glitzy awards shows, or of such broad interest to the youth market whose tastes help drive the industry. At the turn of the 21st century, progressive-minded artists in this world were likely to be scattered across granular labels like contemporary Folk or Americana with smaller audiences and fewer entry points for a casual listener. Traditionalists, meanwhile, carried on in the passionate but niche scenes they had occupied for years.
Despite releasing an album in a genre known to spark arguments over what counts as "authentic," The Goodwin Brothers seem far more concerned with realizing their own vision than hewing to hard-line conventions — like sticking to a strict repertoire of mostly traditional bluegrass songs and standards. The arrival of this project seems to speak all these languages at once: unafraid to push the boundaries of its primary genre, and packing the musical chops to bring such an eclectic vision to life.
I’ve reviewed the full project now. My thoughts? Let’s discuss.
Ostensibly a bluegrass album, it could certainly be seen otherwise. The Brothers have found plenty of opportunities to challenge the notion of what bluegrass is. The virtuosity of the opening classic “Callin’ Baton Rouge“ quickly establishes that these guys aren't messing around. Both to mainstream ears and those steeped in grass music will find their sound is fresh, consistent and all-around uplifting. They’ve found creative and playful ways to infuse their bluegrass instrumentation with everything from traditional bluegrass (Stanley classic, “On A Lonesome Night”) to a country ballad ( “Little Rock” made popular by Collin Raye in the early 90s’) and even a rock-n-roll hit that became controversial (“Still The One” written by John Hall of the group Orleans) a song that sparked controversy in 2004 as the Bush campaign played the song at campaign events until Orleans co-founder (and future Democratic congressman and Bush critic) John Hall commented publicly that the campaign had never received permission to use the song. The campaign later dropped the song from its playlist. But let’s keep this about the music shall we! On this project you hear influence from the newgrass movement. It’s hard to find anyone (of any genre) to match the tight, close harmonies that NGR came onto the scene with in the 70's. Typically, I would suggest to not even try, but these boys made the songs their own and kicked tail doing it. You find traditional songs next to Neil Young material about flying spaceships in After the Gold Rush. More specifically, here are the songs from the collection that I deemed noteworthy:
“After the Gold Rush” - written by Neil Young
The cinematic intro and reprise that bookend this song seem to make time stand still. It’s a dreamy song with a strange message. The ethereal fiddle pads, impeccable harmonies and swooping and swirling “ah’s” and “oo’s” during the solo is immaculate. When Neil Young was asked about this song and what the meaning behind it was his answer was simple, “To hell if I know…” (end quote).
“Little Rock ” - written by Carl Jackson
“Well, I know I’ve disappeared a time or two. Along the way I lost me and you.“ And in 30 seconds, you’re already crying. The sheer melodramatic depression of it all. This classic ballad was so well done by Collin Raye in 94’ that It charted for 20 weeks and peaked at number 2. All it needed to be a number 1 song (and still be in my playlist after nearly 30 years) was some tight harmonies and bluegrass instrumentation. Thanks fellas!
“The Curtain” - written by Paul Secord
Recently, the boys posted a video on their social media from the writer of this song, Paul Secord. According to Secord, it was written for a true legend of country music, George Jones. Although The Possum soon became ill and wasn't able to record it, the boys certainly tell his story with honor and class.
“Angel Eyes ” - written by John R. Hiatt & Fred Koller
You can’t always trust a love song in bluegrass music. But the smooth-talking verses leading up to the harmony driven chorus should make any girl blush! The high tenor vocal shines throughout the choruses. Especially as it progresses throughout the song.
“Anywhere with You” - written by Ben Hayslip / David Lee Murphy / Jimmy Yeary
The combination of somewhat random subject matter with the asymmetry of the lyrical structures makes this a great bluegrass song. This song is pulling much more weight than a typical track. That hook on the fiddle keeps your attention. Bluegrass music needs more songs with this energy, excitement and repetition (think "John & Mary" IIIrd Tyme Out) Put it on repeat. A well-deserved number one.
Though bluegrass still tends to be characterized as staid and traditional, it has a long history of drawing from traditions other than itself. As Bill Monroe himself once said of the style, "It's got a hard drive to it. It's Scotch bagpipes and old-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a story. It's played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you."
That makes The Goodwin Brothers and their debut a critical point along a storied timeline, one whose innovations offer countless connections between the genre's origins and its future. We can only hope that this project, these harmonies, and this music hints at what they’ll be doing in the coming years. These boys will fit firmly within the ranks of Bluegrass & Americana music — however nebulous, layered and diverse that realm may be. They have only themselves to thank.
The album is now available everywhere music is sold.