The Gentlemen of Bluegrass,
Carolina Memories
(Pinecastle, 2014)

Rich in Tradition,
(Mountain Roads, 2014)

Carolina Memories is the North Carolina-based Gentlemen of Bluegrass' first album. The five members, all middle-aged or older, have backgrounds as sidemen in others' bands or as homespun pickers. Memories is produced by Lorraine Jordan (of the popular bluegrass ensemble Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road), to whom Tom Langdon, the Gentlemen's dobroist, is married.

The Gentlemen lay down a pleasantly melodic sound, some tasty harmony singing and deft if unspectacular playing. The song selection is exemplary, including a rare bluegrass cover of the 1950s Reynolds/Rose "Waltz of the Angels," a once widely recorded country song, now all but forgotten, set to an unforgettable tune and lyrics that blur the distinction between a love song and a gospel song. Ordinarily a cliche, "Amazing Grace" justifies its inclusion here because it's performed, and movingly, as a shape-note piece. Paul Craft's "Keep Me from Blowing Away," best known from versions by Seldom Scene and Linda Ronstadt, is given a sprawling, meditative treatment. Mac Wiseman's beautiful tearjerker ballad "Blue Birds Calling" is one of those rare songs that so impressed me I still recall when I first heard it. It also happens to be a retelling of the plot to "The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee," a late-1800s popular song cut in 1925 by Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers and ever since an oldtime-stringband staple.

Oddly, Steve Young's "Traveling Kind" is misattributed to someone named Clifford Fleetwood. The Country Gentlemen may have been the first bluegrass band to record it -- the Gents were always open to the sort of songwriting that came out of the folk revival -- and perhaps the Gentlemen whose album I'm reviewing here learned it from them, though the original Gentlemen correctly identified Young (who also wrote the better known "Seven Bridges Road") as composer on their eponymous 1973 Vanguard album. By their very name the Gentlemen of Bluegrass acknowledge their debt to the previous Gentlemen -- a smooth, modern bluegrass which nonetheless feels traditional -- without sounding merely imitative. The engaging Carolina Memories, their debut album, has me looking forward to more.

Also out of North Carolina, Rich in Tradition is stylistically schooled in Flatt & Scruggs, which historically falls halfway between the hard-driving Bill Monroe sound and more easy-going Country Gentlemen approach. Lonesomeville, the four-member band's second release on Mountain Roads, is an enjoyable collection of 12 songs and tunes, three of them originals. I like all of the songs except Steve Wariner's "Where Did I Go Wrong," a country-pop piece of no particular distinction (actually, in common with most Wariner compositions in my experience). Wariner had a hit with "Life's Highway" on country radio in 1986 -- he did not write it, however, and it is not to be confused with Bill Monroe's original of the same name -- and it's an inspired choice here; Rich in Tradition's version might lead you to believe this was a bluegrass tune all along.

Other songs hail from the Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills repertoires (in the last category, there's a splendid reading of Wills's big 1939 hit, "Silver Bells," written by Arthur Smith). Credited to Ralph Stanley, "Long Journey Home" is in fact a traditional song traceable to the late 19th century. "Branded Wherever I Go," probably learned from the mid-1960s Flatt & Scruggs recording, is credited to Roy Acuff, who claimed credit for it though the actual composer (according to country music historian Bill C. Malone) was Jim Anglin.

Like the Gentlemen of Bluegrass, the guys in Rich in Tradition don't set out to reinvent the genre, only to reaffirm its power and pleasure. They show that bluegrass capably and thoughtfully performed still delivers.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 July 2014

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