Not many albums can be said to have an exact date of origin, but Watch It Burn, the collaboration between bluegrass musician-songwriters Justin Hiltner and Jon Weisberger, does – and it’s a dandy: August 21, 2017. That was the date of a total eclipse of the sun, the centerline of which passed barely a mile north of Weisberger’s Cottontown, TN home — a fact to which he’d been alerted months earlier by Hiltner — and the day when, in conversation with other viewing party guests, it dawned on the two that they’d written nearly an album’s worth of songs. It was an auspicious start.
Six years earlier, through mutual friends and the tight-knit nature of the Nashville roots music community, the pair met and sat down for their first co-write. Having spent entire lifetimes writing, playing, touting, and breathing bluegrass music, the songs that poured out were rooted solidly in the traditional precepts of the genre, while simultaneously playing on its innovative fringes. Without deadlines or publishing quotas, they continued to meet and write together in the months and years that followed for a few very simple reasons: They loved bluegrass, they loved creating, and they loved gabbing while indulging in imported cheeses.
The resulting record, Watch It Burn, reflects those preoccupations (except, perhaps for the imported cheeses), blending personal themes with those of classic country and bluegrass in an affectionate, well-crafted, yet emotionally resonant way. It’s a refreshing set of songs given the full-blown bluegrass band treatment by a clutch of outstanding young musicians: there’s a two-stepper that echoes countless country classics in its denial of heartbreak; an old-time flavored barn burner; a meditation on wistful-yetdefiant skepticism; a ‘grassy reflection on loneliness; a brother-style duet that sounds like it came straight from the 1950s, and more. It’s rare to find a collection so committed both to a contemporary insistence on emotional truth and to the masterful use of vintage lyrical, musical, and thematic approaches.
Calling on their best of friends and the tight-knit bluegrass circle that originally brought them together, Hiltner and Weisberger assembled a roster of pickers to rival any of the best roots albums being released today: Molly Tuttle, current reigning International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Guitar Player of the Year brings her signature ruthless virtuosity to the project. IBMA Momentum Award winners Casey Campbell and Tristan Scroggins split mandolin duty, providing a fascinating case study in divergent traditional approaches to the instrument. There’s also compatriot Brandon Godman, who conjured the record’s sole instrumental, “General Kuster,” sawing on the fiddle through nearly half of the album. Grand Master Champion fiddler Kimber Ludiker of the GRAMMY-nominated roots-grass ensemble Della Mae also plays twin fiddle, a much too rare role on modern bluegrass records. Straight-ahead powerhouses Corrina Logston (fiddle) and Amanda Fields (guitar) reinforce the album’s constant homages to the genre’s heritage. And finally, a modern legend of bluegrass music, Tim O’Brien, lends a soulful, vibrant lead vocal to “If I Were a Praying Man,” a slightly angsty song of uncertainty and introspection.
With such a distinctive combination of material and musicians, it’s perhaps no surprise that Watch It Burn seems destined to become an emblem for a new generation of traditional-leaning bluegrass -- rooted in a deep knowledge of and love for the music’s past, yet organically reflective of the diversity that’s essential to bringing it into the future. While that might not have been exactly what Justin Hiltner and Jon Weisberger had in mind when they first sat down to write – or even what they contemplated on that hot August day when the project was born and the sun disappeared – it’s what they’ve achieved, and that’s something special indeed.
Justin Hiltner is a songwriter and banjoist based in Nashville, TN. His high-energy, Scruggs-style picking is unique in its combination of traditional aesthetic and progressive, improvisational, outside-the-box thinking. Over the course of his seven years in Music City he’s toured, performed, and collaborated with bluegrass greats such as Roland White, Laurie Lewis, Jim Lauderdale, Ronnie McCoury, Molly Tuttle, and Missy Raines. In 2016 he was nominated for IBMA’s Instrumentalist Momentum Award. An activist for inclusion and visibility, NPR Music called him “a leader in the burgeoning movement to welcome and highlight queer voices in bluegrass.” He produced the first ever showcase of diversity in bluegrass, now an annual event at IBMA’s business conference and he authors the eponymous “Shout & Shine” interview series, which focuses on underrepresented and marginalized identities in roots music, for The Bluegrass Situation.
Jon Weisberger was the first recipient of the IBMA’s Songwriter of the Year award in 2012. He’s spent the past decade and a half as a member of Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, with whom he’s scored nearly a dozen #1 hits as writer or performer; during that same period, he’s had close to 200 of his songs recorded by a broad array of bluegrass and related artists, from jamgrass favorites like the Travelin’ McCourys and the Infamous Stringdusters to traditional stalwarts such as Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers and Junior Sisk, and released two well-received solo albums. A member of the IBMA’s Board of Directors for 11 years, he has served for the same amount of time as producer and co-host of the popular Hand-Picked with Del McCoury show on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction.