Playing Hard to Forget
(Rural Rhythm, 2016)

Holly Norman,
Taking Care of Bluegrass: A Tribute to Elvis
(Freedom Entertainment, 2016)

From North Carolina, in many ways the epicenter of the Appalachian musical tradition, the four-member ClayBank (yes, that's how it's spelled) offers up a solid program of hard-core bluegrass on Playing Hard to Forget. There are things in life (the last three words being the title of a memorable song by the late banjo-picker Don Stover, by the way) of which one eventually tires. Not true-vine 'grass, however. I certainly am not opposed to contemporary bluegrass, much of which is pretty decent, but I am not automatically drawn to it. As soon as I heard what ClayBank was up to and I determined it could handle the job, I was drawn in.

You can make the case, and I trot it out occasionally, that there are two kinds of bluegrass bands: those outspokenly allied with "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (the phrase, to be found in the liner credits, is always worded thus) and those that don't say one way or another. ClayBank is among the former. In so declaring their theological allegiance, the ClayBankers, every one of whom without exception so testifies, also expose their deep roots in the culture of the rural South, bespeaking the sort of social conservatism that values the preservation of organic musical styles, ultimately to the benefit of anyone anywhere who treasures them.

Aside from their overall sound, prominently the high harmonies defined by bluegrass' mid-century creators, ClayBank is able to look behind it to the older mountain songs out of which bluegrass evolved. Thus, "Demise of Handsome Molly" (credited to Eli Johnston and Kevin McKinnon), a modern sequel to the well-known traditional "Handsome Molly." In the original the singer encounters the named young woman while on his way to church, which proves a mistake: I could see her mind was changin'/ By the roving of her eye. He resolves his sorrow by expressing the wish to set my foot on a steamship and sail the ocean round. In the present instance he acts out his unhappiness by murdering her and dumping her body into the ocean. Given that my daughter Molly was named in part after the folk song, I hear "Demise" with a certain amount of queasiness.

More truly problematic is "I'll Stick with the Old Stuff," written by Stephen Paul Phillips. It would be just another take-its-message-or-leave-it bluegrass gospel exhortation but for one verse, which takes a gratuitous swipe at another venerable world religion. I am willing to wager that neither Phillips nor the ClayBankers who sing his words know anything of consequence -- or at all -- about Buddhism except that it isn't Bible-based. I am no more a Buddhist than I am an evangelical Christian, but I do try to respect other people's sincere religious convictions. Buddhism today claims more than 300 million adherents worldwide. And speaking of the "old stuff," the band appears blithely oblivious to the reality that Buddha's teachings predate Jesus's by five centuries. Come on, guys.

Aside from his early rockabilly sides, Elvis Presley's appeal was always something of a mystery to me. Not that the man couldn't sing; obviously he had formidable talent there, but sadly, for the bulk of its career it was applied to largely mediocre material cheesily arranged. Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography helped me to understand how that happened (Elvis's insatiable drug habit and Col. Parker's relentless greed, basically), but it didn't make me want to go back and listen to Elvis records.

Happily, you don't have to. Just put Holly Norman's Taking Care of Bluegrass on the player and bask in some well-chosen Elvis-associated songs -- well, Mac Davis's "In the Ghetto" is still mawkish, and its chorus still doesn't scan -- done in tasty bluegrass arrangements. Holly Norman is an exceptionally supple singer with a keen feeling for the material -- proving that atop all the slush the occasional worthwhile pop song floats. I can't say, though, that I envy Norman's having to wade through the, uh, stuff in search of same.

Probably predictably, my favorite cut is the opener, "C.C. Rider," as Elvis refashioned the traditional folk-blues "See See Rider." ("Rider" was Southern black vernacular for sexual partner. That's why there are all those old rural blues tunes about ponies, by which the singers did not mean young horses.) "Suspicious Minds" and "Viva Las Vegas" make the transition from pop-rock to bluegrass smoothly, almost thrillingly, no doubt owing to the contributions of such notable pickers as Rob Ickes, Aubrey Haynie, Glen Duncan and Stuart Duncan. Taking Care of Bluegrass manages to take care of business. One can't imagine a more satisfying Elvis bluegrass tribute out there in the future.

A final note: Till now, I hadn't known Elvis cut Flatt & Scruggs's "Little Cabin Home on the Hill." God bless him for that, and thank you, Holly Norman, for reminding us.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 December 2016

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