Foxhounds & Fiddles
(Pinecastle, 2017)

The Garrett Newton Band,
Young Heart, Old Soul
(Pinecastle, 2016)

Banjo picker J.D. Crowe was among the most revered living figures in bluegrass when he retired some years ago. Crowe was also noted for the quality of those he hired as bandmates. His celebrated 1975 Rounder disc J.D. Crowe & the New South boasted the young Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice, all soon to find their way to bluegrass superstardom.

Flashback comprises five men who served in Crowe's band in the mid-1990s. So no bluegrass fan will be surprised to find that Foxhounds & Fiddles turns out to be an awfully good album. To me it amounts as well to reassurance that traditional 'grass, or in any case its modern-day equivalent, lives and thrives in an era of genre history (seven decades after inventors Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs) when many younger bands are experimenting, at varying degrees of success, with pop, rock, jazz and Americana. Bluegrass has always been open to innovation -- indeed, Crowe himself modernized both sound and repertoire -- but at some point a longtime listener is bound to wonder, with some current artists, if what he or she is hearing is accurately or usefully labeled bluegrass at all. That doesn't mean, it should go without saying, that the music has no legitimacy. It's just that when one sits down to listen to bluegrass, one wants something like it to waft from the speakers.

Foxhounds is bluegrass, all right, though not the hard-core mountain stuff in the Stanley Brothers mold, or the driving, lowland-Kentucky variety associated with Monroe. You can trace the sound back to Flatt & Scruggs, who pioneered a toned-down but hardly less memorable approach. By the early 1960s they and the Foggy Mountain Boys had begun incorporating material learned from (or recycled through) urban folk singers, including traditional songs as well as newer ones by Woody Guthrie, Utah Phillips and Bob Dylan. I doubt that any bluegrass band will ever improve on their readings of Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and "Hard Travelin'."

That first New South recording, still reckoned among the greatest albums bluegrass has ever produced, has cuts from the pens of folk stalwarts Phillips, Ian Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot's songs would not strike one as natural bluegrass material. I know his work fairly well, and on such authority I can say that I have heard only one song of his (the obscure "Long Thin Dawn") that I think he wrote with (somebody else's) bluegrass treatment in mind. It's possible some 'grass band picked it up, but if so, I haven't heard it. Still, Lightfoot numbers show up in modest but still surprising numbers on bluegrass discs.

One of them is not Foxhounds. Even so, Lightfoot is a clear and present influence here, especially in the numbers with which master flat-picking guitarist Richard Bennett is associated as lead vocalist and/or songwriter. The smooth-flowing "Two Rivers," which he wrote with Shawn Lane, encompasses the dreamy romanticism, the vivid pastoral imagery and the melodic richness of Lightfoot's most robust work, not to mention an affecting tenor through which the song unfolds. It would also have been a perfect choice for country star Don Williams in his 1970s prime. One can, moreover, imagine it, almost, as an alternate-universe collaboration between Stephen Foster and the Carter Family. A much better song than it could have been, "Georgia Backroads" recalls, at least if one has Lightfoot on the brain, "Alberta Bound." "The Hag Song" (with Lane) is a touching paean to the late Merle Haggard as one can envision Lightfoot might have done it.

There's tastily performed, more standard bluegrass here, too, including a delicious version of Carter Stanley's "You're Still to Blame." After all, the other members of the outfit are Curt Chapman (bass), Phil Leadbetter (dobro), Don Rigsby (mandolin) and Stuart Wyrick (banjo), all respected, amply recorded genre veterans. Only Leadbetter and Chapman aren't singing in one capacity or another. Just a single cut feels out of place, the tediously generic country-pop "Autumn's Not That Cold," best skipped. Otherwise, this is an outstanding album, one that exemplifies nearly everything that gives bluegrass its unique appeal.

The Garrett Newton of the Garrett Newton Band is a banjo prodigy from rural North Carolina. If I may judge from the photos with Young Heart, Old Soul, he's in his early to mid-teens. Even so, this in no way comes off as a novelty recording. It's fully formed, entirely convincing traditional bluegrass through and through. Young Garrett picks Scruggs- and Reno-inflected banjo with skill and brio beyond his years. Actually, you wouldn't know his age if you ignored the liner notes.

Produced by Lorraine Jordan, who leads her own splendid 'grass band, Young Heart incorporates the talents of impressive older bluegrassers, among them Jordan and guitarist Allen Dyer, who handles the lead vocals. The dozen cuts are as solid as one could ask for, all traditional or trad-based numbers done straight-up. The title piece, by Brink Brinkman and Terry Foust, fondly notes a certain young musician's arrival into the world 40 years too late, well after the reign of Scruggs, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash, rendering him a "throwback to another time and place."

Other highlights (there are no dim ones) include a stellar instrumental arrangement of "Bells of Saint Mary," the traditional "Take This Hammer" and Jordan's old-fashioned mountain ballad "Last Hanging of Wise County." And Gordon Lightfoot, too. His environmental fable "Redwood Hill" conveys a message more urgent than ever.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 April 2017

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