Adkins & Loudermilk,
Adkins & Loudermilk
(Mountain Fever, 2015)

Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time,
All-Star Duets
(MightyCord, 2014)

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle,
Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
(Rural Rhythm, 2015)

Dave Adkins & Edgar Loudermilk come well-prepared to the task of making their mark on the 21st-century bluegrass scene. Adkins is from Kentucky, Loudermilk from Georgia. Adkins, the younger of the two, has cut two albums under his own name (the first with his now-disbanded Republik Steele). Loudermilk has worked with such notable outfits as Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Marty Raybon's Full Circle and IIIrd Tyme Out. He also happens to be related to the revered Ira & Charlie Louvin, birth name Loudermilk.

In the style of hardcore evangelical bluegrassers, each gives his Lord and Savior primacy in the acknowledgements.

Their eponymous debut highlights their commitment to both tradition and innovation. There are lots of good bands out there on the bluegrass scene, and many combine new and old, but none does it quite as these two do. Accomplished, even striking vocalists, Adkins & Loudermilk sing like men raised in the rural South. They take their respective gifts to a range of material, from the well-known spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to, rather bewildering, the late Hoyt Axton's "Spain," a 1971 hit for Three Dog Night as "Never Been to Spain." I'd never paid attention to the lyrics before Adkins & Loudermilk's version, from which I learn I didn't miss much. The song, which seems to start off as a paean to the sexual availability of Oklahoma women, soon dribbles into incoherence, concluding with a question I'm sure all of us have pondered at one time or another: "In Arizona, in Oklahoma, what does it matter?" Still, there is something intriguing about the arrangement, which transcends what most of us would call bluegrass while showcasing the outer reaches of Adkins & Loudermilk and band's musical imagination or ambition.

Between the extremes of tradition and experimentation the two contribute some worthy original songs, alone, together, or with other co-writers. I suppose Adkins' "Turn Off the Love" is in some ways a standard country-pop song within a 'grass arrangement, but his singing is so soulful that it'll depress your spirits, but in a good way. "Blacksmoke George," by Loudermilk and John Wayne Benson, is a dark yarn reminiscent of oldtime outlaw ballads, while Loudermilk's "This Mournful Soul" has something of the resonance of a bluegrass answer to Bob Dylan's "Gates of Eden." The emotional energy, not to mention the impressive musicality, never flags. This is one of the most interesting bluegrass albums I've heard in a while.

A generation older than Adkins & Loudermilk, Larry Cordle long ago established himself as a reliable hit-song writer in Nashville, generating sufficient income to support his bluegrass habit. He and Lonesome Standard Time release a CD every few years. My favorite of his bluegrass songs, "Jesus & Bartenders," isn't on All Star Duets, which more or less celebrates hits he's created for various country stars, some of whom are represented here. Though the arrangements are grassy, most of the artists have little or no professional connection with the genre. The major exceptions are Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury and Alison Krauss.

Unsurprisingly, theirs are the outstanding cuts, along with "Murder on Music Row," a lament (co-written with Larry Shell), at once tongue in cheek and earnestly sincere, for the passing of traditional country from today's "country" scene. As a duet with George Strait & Alan Jackson it was a modest chart success in 2000, generating feigned indignation and pseudo-controversy within the industry and ultimately having no lasting effect whatever; the music just kept on getting worse. Still, it's a good song, here done in fine style by Cordle and old-style honkytonker Daryle Singletary.

Guitarist Steve Gulley is among the most commanding bluegrass vocalists around, the owner of a mighty tenor which he applies to a traditional sound (rooted, perhaps, more in mid-century country than in mountain ballads) which would displease nobody who loves the enduring music that Bill Monroe invented. He's a veteran of some of the better current bands, including Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Mountain Heart and Grasstowne. New Pinnacle, a sharp, tight outfit, consists of Bryan Turner (bass), Gary Robinson Jr. (mandolin) and Matt Cruby (banjo).

Gulley has written or co-written five of the 12 songs. Among the other seven are some surprising choices, none more so than Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." Even more curiously, Gulley's arrangement removes the Bo Diddley beat, of which the song was an early, often remarked-upon example. It was its most notable characteristic, since the lyrics never rise above boilerplate piffle. Gulley and his mates seek out a melody which I would have thought didn't exist in any standard definition. Amazingly, they find one.

Besides the capably crafted originals, other highlights include a couple of country classics, Don Wayne's "It's a Long, Long Way to the Top of the World" and Hank Cochran's "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me?"

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 September 2015

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