Dean Sapp and the Harford Express
Above the Dixie Line
Old Train Music DS 8194 CD
Review by Art Menius for Bluegrass Unlimited March 1995
Above the Dixie Line Am I Dreaming Last Public Hanging Nana’s Paw I Touched the Stone The Soldier’s Song Tears of Joy Big Sandy I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years The Blue And the Grey Will You Love Me Intro to Brown Mt. Light Brown Mt. Light I Heard My Mother Call My Name In Prayer Diamonds In The Rough When God Comes To Gather His Jewels Nellie Bly Long Black Veil
Formed in 1969, Maryland’s Dean Sapp and the Harford Express render well a bluegrass sound rooted in 1960s styles often ignored outside the DC-Baltimore and Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana areas. Sapp’s seventh recording project displays some excellent lead singing and instrumental support on the slower songs, plenty of original material on venerable themes, and a refreshing change of pace from today’s vocal trio oriented approach. Above the Dixie Line, on the other hand, offers a bit too much of a good thing; variety is a necessity.
Sapp possesses a deeper voice than most bluegrass lead singers. This also encourages the band to choose slow and medium tempo material. Among the cover tunes “I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years” gives readers the best idea of the sort of songs on which he shines. Folks will notice the Charlie Moore influence long before Sapp dedicates “Brown Mountain Light” (curiously credited to Public Domain rather than composer Scott Wiseman) to the late vocalist. As a songwriter Sapp proves a pleasant throwback as well. Three of his seven compositions relate to American Civil War themes, and all could have been written thirty or forty years ago. For outside material the group skillfully picks classic titles that have avoided overexposure and renders them generally with a very appealing sincerity.
In short, Dean Sapp and the Harford Express have produced an enjoyable, generally well-crafted CD in Above The Dixie Line. But the project also reveals a few shortcomings that have prevented the group from gaining recognition outside the Mid-Atlantic area. Sapp comes across extremely well as lead vocalist on the slow to medium songs they favor, but that strength restricts the ability of the band to deliver sufficient variety to sustain listeners’ interest through out 17 cuts and 53 minutes. This brings up a rule of thumb for bluegrass in the 1990s: to break out as a national act today an ensemble needs at least two outstanding singers. The band compounds matters. On the slower stuff they deliver deliciously subtle back up that works exceptionally well, but attempts to jack up the speed drift toward a too busy sound. That said, add a high, lonesome singer who can really cut it on fast songs like “My Little Georgia Rose,” and Dean Sapp and the Harford Express could become quite a force.