Cedar Hill,
Portrait of a Song
(Hay Holler, 2006)

The Country Boys,
Sing Bluegrass & Gospel
(Hay Holler, 2006)

If you're worried -- as any hard-core fan is wont to be these days -- about bluegrass' growing blandness, when (not to pick on this mope in particular) one member of a new, much-hyped band says he doesn't mind if what he and his bandmates are doing is something like today's commercial, mainstream Nashville music -- take comfort. Plenty of the good stuff is out still out there. You just have to dig a little deeper for it. It may be buried, but it ain't dead yet.

The Hay Holler label, headquartered in Blacksburg, Va., is one of a small number of independent imprints dedicated to keeping traditional bluegrass available to those of us who don't or can't plan our summers around the festival circuit. Many of the bands on these labels are not household names, but they preserve bluegrass' homey virtues and attract passionate followings among those who've had a chance to hear them. Two fairly recent releases document the many pleasures to be had in this still-vital genre.

Formed in 1967, Cedar Hill boasts of its roots in the Ozarks, home to such bluegrass luminaries as the Dillards and Rhonda Vincent. The band's sound, however, nods more toward the smooth Tennessee style pioneered by Flatt & Scruggs, arguably the most influential bluegrass outfit in history after Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. The Cedar Hill gang has pretty much everything going for it, not the least of it excellent taste in songs and, in Frank Ray (mandolin), Mel Besher (guitar) and Lisa Ray (fiddle), three inspired lead singers. All of these are also able composers.

Self-written or contributed by others, the material on Portrait of a Song is as solid and consistent as one could hope for. Even when he's writing two songs about the same subject, Frank Ray commands your attention. The almost hymn-like "Ozark Hills" grips the heart, and "Piney Ridge" celebrates those mountains with an amiable, up-tempo melody more than a little reminiscent of "Rocky Top." And if "Four Dollar Fight" (written by Ray with Ferrell Stowe) doesn't get a rueful laugh out of you, it can only be because you've never been married. On a darker note, Darren Haverstick's "Pearl" and Thom Gardiner's "Hobo's Wings," beautiful yet utterly unsparing, look back to the stark storytelling song traditions of early country music and, beyond that, 19th-century balladry.

The Country Boys (could they have possibly chosen a more unvarnished name?) have been around for three and a half decades, their membership -- only bassist Donald Clifton remains from the original lineup -- drawn from the Mount Airy, N.C., area, just south of the Virginia border. The model for the Andy Griffith Show's Mayberry, Mount Airy is well known as a center for bluegrass and old-time music, but even there, with plenty of stiff competition, the Country Boys are a deservedly revered presence.

The band's three-part harmonies are its most immediately notable and appealing feature. Each of the harmony singers -- Clifton, Tim Bowman and Johnny Joyce -- takes turns at lead vocals, too. The picking is not flashy, just capable, straightforward, intended to underscore whatever theme or mood a song or tune carries. Like Cedar Hill, the Boys know how to pick songs, though they seldom write their own.

The album opens with Gordon Lightfoot's environmental parable "Redwood Hill," whose reappearance long after it was written (ca. 1970) seems particularly apposite in this age of what looks ever more worryingly like an imminent planet-wide ecological crisis. Bluegrass & Gospel concludes with a lickety-split, set-closing arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Walking Down the Line." There's nothing wrong with the song -- which Dylan surely wrote with bluegrass settings in mind -- but to my hearing this version is too showy to be fully effective. It is jarringly uncharacteristic of all that has gone before, namely lived-in, fiercely compelling readings of heart songs, gospel affirmations and, yes, two dead-child ballads: the traditional "Little Bessie" and the Country Gentlemen's vanishing-hitchhiker fable "Bringing Mary Home." Parents of small children, be warned.

review by
Jerome Clark

19 May 2007

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