Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie,
The Touch of Time
(Rural Rhythm, 2011)

Banjo player Bill Emerson co-founded the Country Gentlemen, among the most important and influential bands in bluegrass history, in the late 1950s. Remarkably, he is still active, still producing music to drop jaws by. In The Touch of Time, as he has always done, Emerson fuses modern and traditional sounds into an irresistible whole. These days there's a lot of high-grade bluegrass out there done by accomplished bands, but even so, as the saying (not to mention a visual pun on a New Lost City Ramblers album cover) goes, Touch is outstanding in its field.

Sweet Dixie, Emerson's current band, is a rock-solid, five-piece ensemble with an ingeniously chosen repertoire of covers and originals, eschewing bluegrass' usual warhorses. Every one of the dozen cuts affords its own variety of pleasure, from Emerson's instrumentals to a gorgeous arrangement of the traditional Appalachian "Little Pink," rarely encountered in the bluegrass songbook where otherwise old Southern folk songs are not hard to come by. The title piece, written by band guitarist and vocalist Chris Stifel, harrowingly recounts the narrowing of life's possibilities that the passing of years renders inescapable. Unlike many bluegrass songs on the subject of mortality, this one is bracingly unsentimental. And if you're of a certain age, be warned: it'll haunt you.

Besides Emerson and Stifel, the band consists of Wayne Lanham (mandolin, vocals), Teri Chism (acoustic bass, vocals) and Jenny Leigh Obert (fiddle). The group produces a sound that is at once lean and robust, seeming to distill just about everything that gives bluegrass its particular character: true-to-life songs, heart-stopping harmonies, picking so sophisticated that it sounds simple. Of course, Emerson started out more than half a century ago already an acknowledged master, and the decades have only honed his skills. And the younger -- sometimes much younger -- Dixies are performing beyond their years.

The result is 21st-century bluegrass of sometimes startling excellence, with taste, intelligence and imagination in spades. What more can I say? This, I suppose: if you love bluegrass, let Time touch you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 April 2012

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