Big Country Bluegrass,
On Fire
(Hay Holler, 2006)

Formed in January 1987, the three-men, two-women Big Country Bluegrass champions a hard-driving traditional form of bluegrass characteristic of the area from which it hails: the North Carolina-Virginia border, specifically the towns of Mount Airy in the former and Galax in the latter.

That region has long been famous for the abundance and excellence of its old-time mountain music and the bluegrass that evolved from it. Fans of the old Andy Griffith Show, whose Mayberry was Mount Airy under a slightly different name, will recall that even that Hollywood production acknowledged the richness of local musical traditions -- though the Dillards (who played a recurring role as a hillbilly family band called the Darlings) actually hail from Missouri.

In any event, Hay Holler's stellar line-up of soulful bluegrass acts includes this very fine group. On Fire, as I can attest, stays fresh and invigorating after repeated spins on the CD player. This is a tight ensemble blessed with the superior lead vocals -- somewhat reminiscent of Larry Sparks' -- of fiddler/guitarist Jeff Michael, confident enough to tackle George Jones/Hal Bynum's deeply mournful, and deeply demanding, "Old, Old House," never an effort to be attempted by the faint of heart.

The choice of material speaks to the band's splendid collective ear. It includes sparkling versions of the Charlie Monroe classic "Bringing in the Georgia Mail" and the African-American folk song (credited here to the Louvin Brothers) "Let Her Go, God Bless Her." Banjoist Ramona Michael provides crisp lead vocals on Ron Sweet's "Hicker Nut Ridge," and rhythm-guitarist Teresa Sells turns in a heart-felt reading of Aubrey Holt's "The Rose Will Bloom Again." All in all, this is the sort of thing I listen to bluegrass for, and if like me you insist that it be pure and unadulterated, Big Country has the good stuff.

review by
Jerome Clark

14 July 2007

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