The Circuit Riders,
Let the Ride Begin
(Pinecastle, 2007)

Charlie Waller, who helped found the Country Gentlemen in July 1957, died in August 2004, to the day of his passing the mainstay of one of the most venerated bluegrass bands in history. Over the course of their long history, the Gents (as their fans called them) employed more than 100 members, no small number of whom later went on to lead their own bands and to become major figures in the genre. Based in the D.C. area, the Gents were both thoroughly modern and intensely traditional, mixing new and old with such natural precision that their sound still communicates marvel and mystery.

The Circuit Riders come out of the last generation of Gents under Waller's stewardship. (A band headed by Waller's son continues as Randy Waller & the Country Gentlemen.) After Waller died, three members left to form their own outfit, and this is their first CD. Darin Aldridge (mandolin), Greg Corbett (banjo) and Billy Gee (bass) joined up with Greg Luck (guitar, formerly of IIIrd Time Out) and Jaret Carter (dobro) to advance an approach sufficiently grounded in the 21st century to cover a fairly obscure Neil Young song ("Powderfinger") and to allow for percussion -- albeit light percussion -- on a couple of cuts.

These are more than capable players, and the lead vocals (handled variously by Aldridge, Luck and Carter) are strong. There's a big, fat sound here -- bluegrass albums are often produced like rock and pop records these days -- showcasing lots and lots of hot picking. The material is generally well chosen, though here and there a misstep (e.g., Luck's lackluster country-pop "The Fall") causes momentum to stumble.

On the other hand, "Mama, What Does Heaven Look Like There?" (by the prolific and dependable Tom T. & Dixie Hall, with Troy Engle) is a hillbilly tearjerker like they used to write. Dave Maggard & Bobby Spencer's "Take Me Back to Old Kentucky" may bear a title so generic as to border on self-parody -- not to mention a melody that plainly takes its inspiration from Billy Edd Wheeler's "Coal Tattoo" -- but it still moves the listener with an unabashed, old-fashioned sincerity not always in evidence elsewhere.

Overall, Let the Ride Begin is the sort of album that this longtime bluegrass fan probably won't be returning to obsessively. Perhaps my taste is now so retro it can't quite warm to the changes that a musical genre, even a rooted one, has to undergo to ensure artistic (and, perhaps more pointedly, commercial) viability, though I might add that I think Blue Highway is one hell of a modern bluegrass band, a consistent source of aural satisfaction to these jaded ears. I listen to bluegrass for the same reason I listen to blues -- for riveting, soulful performance -- and the Circuit Riders, like so many current younger acts inspired by the example the Gents set, only make me wish Charlie Waller were still singing, still ripping my heart open.

by Jerome Clark
17 February 2007

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