The latest puzzle piece of the bluegrass and Americana string music revival is in bloom: Pickin’ On Nirvana: The Bluegrass Tribute Featuring Iron Horse springs into stores with a physical vinyl release for Record Store Day on Saturday, April 22.
With a roster that includes Pickin’ On tributes to artists such as the Grateful Dead, Modest Mouse, and Metallica, it is safe to say these guys might know what they are doing, intentionally swapping the LOUDquietLOUD formula that Kurt Cobain embodied so wholly for a deeper examination of the melody and songwriting genius beneath his tormented veneer.
With that being said, I don’t think this record will make new bluegrass fans out of old Nirvana fans that aren’t already open to trading heavily distorted guitars and feedback for the crisp twang and clear story-telling of bluegrass. Similar to the rest of the Pickin’ On series, Pickin’ On Nirvana aims for a specific niche of music fan that is especially evident in the track selection.
Featuring two tracks from their debut album Bleach, five tracks from their breakout album Nevermind and four tracks from their final full length LP, In Utero, the Pickin’ On tribute covers a wide range of Nirvana’s catalog without limiting themselves to the über popular radio singles like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Lithium” or “Heart-Shaped Box”.
But in digging a little deeper, and dissecting the songs they had to choose from, the songs are going to be the less radio friendly and darker takes, anyone familiar with Nirvana ought to be able to infer that. The only thing I was put off by in-the-moment of listening, were minor adaptations to a handful of lyrics, especially on the album’s opening track “All Apologies”, a radio-hit, suffers. Occasionally throughout the album other minor lyrical changes were made, but they at least served the purpose of maintaining a consistent meter throughout the song’s musical transposition from alternative grunge rock and roll to fast banjo picking bluegrass.
Beyond the minor lyrical adaptations however, Iron Horse’s tribute to Nirvana is nearly impeccable. “About A Girl”, the second track on the album, and “Sappy”, the ninth track, are both from 1989’s Bleach and feature some of Kurt’s most simple arrangements and leaving the door for bluegrass frills wide open and inviting.
“In Bloom” comes in third on the album. The first of three songs in a row off of Nevermind, it is the first track in the collection that feels like it was meant for bluegrass with its whole-note vocal melodies and inquisitive musing from the end of the chorus. “Polly” and “Drain You” translate across genres with ease in largely because of how bouncy and rhythmic the vocal melodies truly are.
A quick 1-2 punch of unsuspected greatness arrived next with a pair of In Utero tracks: the radio-friendly abortion song “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”, numbers six and seven on the album, respectively. Both in their original format and in even through a bluegrass tribute, these two songs encapsulate the essence of Cobain, his pain, and his band.
“On A Plain” and “Sappy” continue to highlight those lyrical qualities that are quintessentially Cobain and that don’t lose impact or meaning by changing the music. “Dumb” is not the last radio-friendly hit by Nirvana that is included, but closes the album along with Nevermind’s “Come As You Are”, two of the slower and more meditative tracks on the album. Their reduced tempo felt off kilter and jagged alongside the rest of the album, but after a few listens it seems to be the other way around: these songs were stripped down and given the most contemplative treatment
In fact, it is arguable that these songs collected for the album were always meant to be reimagined as bluegrass performances, utilizing tempo changes over volume changes and fast fingers over pedal effects. Cobain, in the end, was a master of dynamics and lived between extremes. In a year that would have been Cobain’s 50th, I don’t find it hard to imagine he would approve of the mixed reactions a bluegrass take on his music would bring about.