Crowe, Lawson & Williams,
Standing Tall & Tough
(Mountain Home, 2014)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver,
In Session
(Mountain Home, 2014)

Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition,
Lessons Learned
(Rural Rhythm, 2015)

Bluegrass has been around for seven decades now. Only a very few of the genre's first generation survive and continue to perform (notably, Ralph Stanley, Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman). The artists whose latest albums are reviewed here, if not precisely first generation, are pretty close, though. Ronnie Reno is the son of the pioneering bluegrass banjo master Don Reno (of Reno & Smiley), and J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams, who played (not necessarily simultaneously) in Jimmy Martin's band, have worked in bluegrass since the latter 1950s.

As you'd expect of musicians with long experience and long-demonstrated talent, they've turned in strong new albums. Stylistically, they're -- of course -- traditionalists, but traditionalists in a specific vein, where the influences are manifestly the bluegrass strain that Flatt & Scruggs invented in the early '50s, which was a smoother yet still rural sound different from the hard-driving approach of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe. Another influence is the country music that coincided with bluegrass' founding era, when 'grass pickers and honkytonkers rubbed elbows on the Grand Old Opry stage and elsewhere.

Doyle Lawson (mandolin, guitar) in particular has a fondness for traditional country, accounting for the presence of three Louvin Brothers songs on Standing Tall & Tough, the second of his collaborations with two esteemed colleagues. (I reviewed the first in this space on 16 July 2011.) "The truth is," Lawson remarks in his liner notes, "I have never heard a Louvin Brothers song that I didn't like." I don't believe I have either, though I can't say I've heard them all. One I hadn't heard before is the gospel "Insured Beyond the Grave." In my earlier review, writing of bluegrass gospel, I cracked, "Sincerity always helps whether you're singing about Jesus or selling insurance (come to think of it, not entirely dissimilar efforts)." I would not presume to speculate about a connection between my words and the trio's decision to cover this particular song -- in which Jesus is transformed into a spiritual life insurance salesman -- but I wonder.

Anyway, Standing boasts worthy material expertly performed, from the traditional murder ballad "Hills of Roane County" (about a blood-soaked yet curiously unexplained family feud) to the sorts of hard-core country songs that never become tiresome (Lawton Williams' "Fraulein," Bill Anderson's "Once a Day"), plus three that Paul Williams wrote with Martin during his days as a Sunny Mountain Boy, including "My Walking Shoes," among the most beloved of bluegrass classics.

Quicksilver, the name of Doyle Lawson's band for many years, is a shifting assembly of young pickers who are getting schooled in bluegrass with an older, more experienced performer just as Lawson himself, Crowe and Williams learned in their respective youths from Jimmy Martin. Many Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver albums are entirely gospel-focused, but In Session is mostly secular, or maybe all secular since the traditional "Evening Prayer Blues" is an instrumental. A lovely number, it's an album standout, alongside Carl Jackson and Aaron Wilburn's almost literally haunting "Calling All Her Children Home."

As always on a Lawson & Quicksilver record, the songs are capably picked, in both senses of the term. I have to say, however, that the closer, Fagan/Alderman/Ryan's "Americana," is the kind of thing that drives me a little nuts. Not very originally, it depicts small-town life as exemplifying true American values, and it is even ham-handed enough to mention Norman Rockwell by name. The singer has briefly left the interstate to pass through some tiny burg far off the beaten pathway; based on what he's seen as he drives through, he blithely pronounces, "I was really seeing America all over again." Let me put it this way: I happen to live in a tiny burg far off the beaten pathway, and to put it bluntly, this is pure hogwash. Life is no more "real" or "American" in small towns -- unless of course, as I sometimes suspect, those adjectives are meant to stand in for white and conservative -- than it is anywhere else within the geographical boundaries of the United States. I've resided in the big city and in the rural village, and basically, to me the core difference is that it's easier to find a parking spot in the latter. Not a small consideration, by the way.

The genial host of RFD-TV's Saturday-evening Reno's Old Time Music, Ronnie Reno (mandolin, guitar) issues his first album in 10 years with Lessons Learned. Only the last song, a cover of the Lefty Frizzell evergreen "Always Late," is something other than Reno's own composition; "All That's Worth Remembering" is a collaboration with country songwriter Wayne Carson. Reno grew up in bluegrass and spent time in Merle Haggard's mighty band, the Strangers. He's played more casually with a range of bluegrass and country artists and written a hit song or two for others. Nothing in his background would lead one to believe this would not be a mature and satisfying album, and one would be correct.

In my listening -- I have never met Reno and know nothing of his private life (which in any event is none of my business) -- Lessons Learned feels like a confessional record, an occasionally uneasy meditation on marital and family matters. Whatever the circumstances that inspired them, the songs touch the heart and conjure up emotions and experiences most listeners will recognize. The title song is particularly compelling in that regard. Reno, pro enough to eschew most of the cliches of bluegrass writing, delivers the songs in a convincingly lived-in voice. In common with all thoughtfully conceived recordings, it seems to get better and deeper with each listening.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 June 2015

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