The Grascals,
The Grascals & Friends
(Cracker Barrel/BluGrascal, 2010)

As their first project after a long, now-concluded run with the roots-music powerhouse Rounder Records, the Grascals -- among the most popular of the younger present-day bluegrass acts -- produce a recording that is pretty much reviewer-proof. Who, after all, is going to pan an album some of whose profits go to the cancer-fighting St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis?

Still, as I pulled the disc out of the package in which it arrived, I thought sourly that everything about The Grascals & Friends, starting with the "& Friends," reeked of empty novelty. The cover informs us that the contents comprise "Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin," which translates into collaborations with a host of past and present Nashville stars. Many bad records have come out of comparable efforts.

I can state happily and honestly that this CD works just fine. Its satisfactions are many, starting with solid, if familiar, material which on occasion actually improves upon the original. I think, for example, of the way the Grascals transform Hank Williams Jr.'s bombastic blues-rock anthem "My Rowdy Friends are Comin' Over Tonight" into amiable bluegrass swing. One might add that "Rowdy Friends" is an unlikely choice for bluegrass treatment, but it is among the minority of songs here to receive straightforward genre arrangement. Another is the superb Rodney Crowell/Donivan Cowert country-folk song "Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," once a hit for -- of all acts, they must be the unlikeliest -- the ordinarily saccharine Oak Ridge Boys, who reprise the number here.

Hearing "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" -- sung by its composer, Tom T. Hall -- I am reminded what a magnificent ballad that is, and how perfectly suited to bluegrass. Other songs bring drums, electric guitars and pedal steel into the mix, with bluegrass audible only in the vocal harmonies. Buck Owens's "Tiger by the Tail" (with current country superstar Brad Paisley) may defy bluegrass in any form but radical reinvention. Johnny Cash's (by way of Gordon Jenkins's "Crescent City Blues") "Folsom Prison Blues" -- the "friend" on this cut is another megastar of the moment, Dierks Bentley -- is just not bluegrass, period. I would have sworn that I never again wanted to hear Charlie Daniels's (by the way of Stephen Vincent Benet) "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," but the Grascals and Daniels turn it into a nicely executed neo-bluegrass outing. Virtually anything that Dolly Parton and the late Porter Wagoner wrote together is a guaranteed winner, and their "Pain of Lovin' You" -- performed with Parton -- is among the loveliest.

Like other Cracker Barrel releases, The Grascals & Friends is sold in that chain restaurant. Next time you find yourself in one, I hope you'll give serious consideration to picking it up. Both your ear and your conscience will congratulate you on your good taste.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 February 2011

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