Blue Canyon Boys,
Next Go 'Round
(independent, 2012)

Flatt Lonesome,
Flatt Lonesome
(Pisgah Ridge, 2013)

Purely in musical terms, the Colorado-based Blue Canyon Boys are awfully enjoyable, offering up solid songs, appealing performances and a distinctive take on the bluegrass tradition. I also like them because they are irreverent in the adjective's original meaning. Inside the CD package, you'll find a picture of the four of them, with mandolin player Gary Dark glaring out with red devil's horns sketched on either side of his forehead. To most of us, of course, this is just harmless goofing. To evangelical bluegrassers, those to whom (as the Louvin Brothers once warned in a memorably scary song) "Satan is real," this may not be so funny.

Well, not much worried that Satan is real myself, I appreciated the gesture, inasmuch as the printed matter that accompanies many bluegrass records is wearingly laden with shout-outs to the Big Guy. (As an immediate example, six of the seven members of Flatt Lonesome thank Him first and above all in the credits.) Perhaps those whose first instinct is to take offense will be assuaged by the BCBs' poignant treatment of sacred songs such as the late Vern Gosdin's "Goin' Up" and the Bahamian spiritual "I Bid You Good Night."

The BCBs don't sound exactly like the Country Gentlemen, who were among the finest and most influential bands in bluegrass history. Still, they just sort of feel like the Gents. There's something of the Gents' folk-revival sensibility, and the lovely yet barebones arrangements are driven by gripping harmonies, and no fiddle. And there's the consideration that Dark pronounces himself "another huge Country Gentlemen fan" as he explains why the BCBs are reviving the 19th-century parlor ballad "Darling Alalee," which the Gents recorded early in their long career.

The 15 cuts are split evenly between originals and covers. The latter are seldom warhorses, even though drawn mostly from the often-raided catalogues of the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs along with the well of tradition. I was especially pleased to hear "Roustabout," a neglected gem first put to wax by Flatt & Scruggs in the mid-1960s and composed by Foggy Mountain Boys Buck ("Uncle Josh") Graves and Jake Lambert. The opening cut, BCB Jason Hicks' heart-felt "Up on the Hill," has the feeling of an enduring classic.

The slick and showy Flatt Lonesome remind me a little of the McCarter Sisters, a briefly popular act on the 1980s country-music scene. FL is two young sisters, who do the bulk of the lead singing, and four young men, one a brother to the sisters. If not a full-blown disaster, it's not a notable success either. Some major misfires overwhelm the occasionally more interesting performances.

The problems commence with the opening cut, an ill-conceived effort to cover the late Hazel Dickens's bitter kiss-off "You'll Get No More of Me." Dickens was a mountain-style vocalist of such scorching intensity that even other rage-and-contempt specialists have been reluctant to encroach on that territory. Suffice it to say this version is not one you'll return to soon. Worse is an embarrassing attempt at "Jackson," the 1967 Johnny Cash-June Carter hit (from the unlikely songwriting partnership of Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber). "Jackson" is a semi-comic ballad of marital conflict triggered by frustrated desires and wandering eyes. The earnest, Bible-toting likes of FL just aren't up to it, and it certainly doesn't help, to put it mildly, that Buddy and Charli Robertson, who sing it, are brother and sister. Sex is definitely one thing their music isn't about.

On the positive side, "Just Any Moment" (written by band member Kelsi Robertson, who in the liner notes thanks "God for my salvation") has a fiery sincerity and raw power rarely evident in the secular songs. Maybe it's not just the religiosity that holds FL back. These are, after all, six young people -- and sheltered ones, I would surmise -- who have more living, not to mention singing and picking, to do before they're able to communicate life's hard realities more compellingly than they manage here.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 June 2013

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