Paul Kelly & The Stormwater Boys | Foggy Highway (GAWD AGGIE/EMI)

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Although primarily known in this country (if you’ve heard of him at all) for “Darling It Hurts” and “Dumb Things,” two top-20 rock singles from the late ’80s, Australian Paul Kelly deserves much more attention than that resumé would imply. A friend and music junkie from Perth described Kelly as “an iconic figure in Australia.” The subsequent justification for this description could have been an American waxing on Bruce Springsteen’s popularity in the States, as she explained how Kelly’s appeal crosses all segments of Australian society, from the working man (who relates to the song subjects) to the intellectual (who is hooked by the cerebral lyrics). A review of Kelly’s career makes a comparison to another North American musical icon, Neil Young, seem apropos. Similar to the twists and turns of Young’s career, Kelly’s career arc has seen him work in a variety of genres, including rock, R&B, technology-influenced music, and, on the disc in question, bluegrass.

No doubt bluegrass purists will find quibbles with that characterization. The instrumentation (fiddle, bass, mandolin, banjo, and guitar) fits, but the lack of harmony vocals on most tracks will have some questioning that description. Although you won’t find any murder ballads (a staple of bluegrass and old-timey music) the subject matter of most songs (generally sentimental subjects, often with religious overtones) should satisfy the purists. Most of these quibbles are meaningless; lacking a better label, we’ll call it bluegrass.

“Passed Over” is one tune even the purists will embrace. Everything about this song, from its call-and-response harmonies to the subject (an unsettling, but ultimately uneventful visit from the angel of death), is a solid fit within the bluegrass canon. Traditionalists should also appreciate Kelly’s cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Learning,” a duet with Australian country star Kasey Chambers.

The message of the title track—that we have to depend on our own internal resources to make our way through many of life’s struggles—could be the message of the disc as a whole. The opening cut, “Stumbling Block,” is about the difficulties we create for ourselves and have to get past on our own, while “They Thought I Was Asleep” is the story of a child’s recognition that his parents aren’t as perfect and omnipotent as he once thought. The religious imagery in some tunes (“Down to My Soul” and especially “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air”) implies the possibility of help from a higher power, but in the end, isn’t this really drawing on our own internal strength? Foggy Highway is bound to find favor among those who enjoy Americana, folk, and country music, and possibly even a flexible bluegrass fan or two.

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