Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie,
Dancin' Annie
(Rural Rhythm, 2014)

Matt Wallace,
For a Season
(Pinecastle, 2014)

Banjoman Bill Emerson has been a bluegrass fixture since the mid-1950s, when he co-founded the Country Gentlemen, among the most influential bands in the genre's history. In later years he worked with a range of other bluegrass acts, including a memorable run with Cliff Waldron. These days Emerson tours alongside the three-member Sweet Dixie; on recordings, the sound is supplemented by additional pickers on fiddle, dobro and harmony vocals.

If they introduced modern, urban bluegrass (and, not incidentally, tied the music to the emerging folk boom), the Country Gents cast so long and wide a shadow that their innovative approach, once startling, has become so integral to the bluegrass sound that it nearly defines much of the style in our time. Emerson's new disc, Dancin' Annie, is not a Country Gentlemen record by another name, but it does echo some treasured sounds. Not least of Emerson & Sweet Dixie's virtues is that they know solid material when they hear it.

I have to say, though, that nothing this time quite matches the extraordinary selection on their last, The Touch of Time (I reviewed it in this space on 14 April 2102). The title song alone -- by band member Chris Stifel -- is as true and pure a bluegrass number as anyone has written so far this decade. And then the powerful likes of "Today I Turned Your Picture to the Wall" and "Last Night I Was There," and that's not to mention the gripping arrangement of the traditional folksong "Little Pink."

None of which is to imply that Dancin' Annie is anything other than a satisfying exercise, starting with the first cut and title song (again by Stifel), which recently and deservedly topped the bluegrass charts. It's a song awash in irresistibly sweet melancholy. The band is definitely melody-focused, thus nothing much in the way of exhibitionistic picking, which is not even a temptation, I suspect. What you get are soulful harmonies accompanying anthems of love (lost) and faith (found). If one occasionally wishes for other, less standard themes, it is undeniable that Emerson and associates do what they're doing pretty close to perfectly.

For a Season is the first solo album of young bluegrass bassist Matt Wallace, whose current gig is with another Pinecastle bluegrass act, Mark Newton & Steve Thomas. Before them, he served with such notables as Jesse McReynolds, Paul Williams, David Parmley, Audie Blaylock and Pine Mountain Railroad. In other words, he isn't coming out of nowhere, and there's no shortage of experience under his belt.

On this disc he's signed up some contemporaries, including Jesse Gregory, a young woman whose disturbingly dark vocal on the opener, "Creepin' In," launches the proceedings on a decidedly spooky note. Wallace's own tough-minded lead singing supplies the grit that defines five of the ten cuts. Gregory returns on Maybelle Carter's "Lonesome Homesick Blues," while Paul Brewster, Jerry Cole and Wayne Taylor tackle one each, proving that this is one of those outfits with no shortage of impressive vocal heft.

While this isn't exactly oldtime mountain 'grass, it's still something like a smoother yet hard-boiled 21st-century equivalent, even when it's reworking a Neil Diamond song ("Long Gone," which sounds oddly not out of place). The gospel "Mercy Walked In" is not only a terrific song but a terrifically performed one (Wallace sings), sufficient to stir even any unbelievers who happen to hear it. Wallace's able acoustic bass affords the songs drive and strength, but the rest of the pickers aren't bad either. And if Gregory, who like Wallace is at the start of a career bluegrass lovers will want to watch, chooses to record the phone book, just tell me where to send the check.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 March 2014

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