Josh Crowe,
(Pinecastle, 2004)

Bluegrass listeners aware of the work of the celebrated banjo veteran J.D. (James Dee) Crowe may be inclined to suspect, as I did in first flash of ignorance, that Josh Crowe is a relative. He isn't. Born in Georgia in 1957, Josh, a guitarist (mostly rhythm, but occasional lead), and his bass-playing brother Wayne started out on the bluegrass circuit in the early 1970s. For years they performed as Raymond Fairchild & the Crowe Brothers, recording and making regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. In the 1990s, after Wayne retired from music, Josh hooked up with former Johnson Mountain Boy David McLaughlin. Now he is off on his own with a very fine band, including the supremely gifted lead guitarist Zane Fairchild, who happens to be Raymond's son.

On Sincerely, Crowe digs deep into the bluegrass songbag, reviving classic though not over-covered tunes from Reno & Smiley (the beautiful gospel-themed "Into These Hills"), Jim & Jesse ("Air Mail Special on the Fly") and Jimmy Martin ("Give Me Your Hand"). "Country Hall of Fame" (by the late Karl Davis, the Karl of Karl & Harty for those of you who know your old country music) is one of those self-referential songs in which country music reverentially honors itself. These are always exercises in sentimental excess, and I always find them utterly irresistible. This particular serving of corn proves to be an unusually tasty dish.

Crowe is also a wonderfully expressive vocalist. His reading of the sad Tom T. & Dixie Hall composition "Local Flowers" is heart-wrenching without ever slipping into the bathetic. Given the excellence of all that surrounds it, the album's one misstep seems inexplicable: a version of "Man of Constant Sorrow" taken in its entirety from the Stanley Brothers' lamentable arrangement, with the goofy chorus that the Coen Brothers used for comic effect in O Brother, Where Art Thou? One can understand why Crowe and his band might have it in their live-performance repertoire as a shameless crowd-pleaser (sort of like the inescapable groaner "Orange Blossom Special"), but it's hard to grasp why they would want to preserve it on disc, especially since they add nothing to an already sorrowfully misconceived approach -- long abandoned, one might add, by Ralph Stanley himself.

It is, however, the one low point amid points that are otherwise uniformly high. Recordings like Sincerely keep us longtime bluegrass listeners from growing cynical about the genre. It's pretty simple, really: If you don't like this record, you don't like bluegrass music.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 5 March 2005

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