Jack Cooke,
Sittin' on Top of the World
(Pinecastle, 2006)

Curly Seckler,
Bluegrass, Don't You Know
(Copper Creek, 2006)

Jack Cooke and Curly Seckler aren't household names, but committed bluegrass followers know them well and fondly from their long associations with, in Cooke's case, Ralph Stanley and, in Seckler's, with Flatt & Scruggs, then Lester Flatt (after the duo split in 1969) and then Flatt's band Nashville Grass, which Cooke took charge of after Flatt's death in 1979. Seckler retired in 1994, though he makes occasional appearances at festivals and on other, smaller stages. Cooke remains the bass player and vocalist -- harmony and occasionally lead -- in Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.

As figures revered by fellow bluegrass musicians, each gets all-star backing on his solo outing. At various points Cooke's backing pickers include Del McCoury and his band, Ralph Stanley, Ralph Stanley II, Jim Lauderdale, David Grisman and James Shelton. Seckler claims the likes of Herschel Sizemore, Larry Sparks, Dudley Connell, Rob Ickes and Tater Tate. In short, nothing but the very best for these two deserving veterans.

Not surprisingly, Seckler picks up on songs from the Flatt & Scruggs songbook, one of the strongest and most enduring in the history of the genre. These songs always sound good, of course, though it perhaps doesn't help that the originals are easily available for comparison, and only serve to underscore the reality that Seckler is singing in an 86-year-old voice.

Cooke, too, draws mostly on standards, his choices from Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers and tradition. He also turns in an enjoyable reading of the late Tillman Franks' "North to Alaska," Johnny Horton's last major hit before his departure from this world via car accident in late 1960.

The disc opens with a lively "Gotta Travel On," Paul Clayton's rewrite of a traditional fleeing-outlaw ballad, with Cooke's high tenor in splendid form. Nashville composer and periodic bluegrass performer Lauderdale contributes the album's one new song, "That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles," ostensibly a generic romantic complaint but in fact an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek tribute to a fellow musician whose nickname happens to be "Cookie." All well, good and better -- but really, isn't it well past time to mothball "Long Black Veil"?

Notwithstanding that passing irritation, Sitting on Top of the World is a joyously executed, acutely agreeable recording sure to brighten the moods of bluegrass buffs fortunate enough to find themselves within hearing distance of it.

by Jerome Clark
24 February 2007

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