Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle,
Aim High
(Rural Rhythm, 2016)

Edgar Loudermilk,
Georgia Maple
(Pinecastle, 2016)

Stuart Wyrick,
East Tennessee Sunrise
(Rural Rhythm, 2016)

To those of us who love it, straightforward bluegrass is a certain refuge from life's storms and strains, where the spirit is calmed and tranquility is restored. Among the stranger things I've read as a consumer of music writing was an assertion by the editor of a magazine allegedly devoted to roots music that bluegrass does not interest her if it isn't experimental. To its audience, bluegrass overwhelmingly is seen as a modern expression of older traditions that began in the Appalachian South. A good part of its appeal, in other words, is its claim to a rich historical lineage. If you don't like traditional bluegrass, you don't in fact like bluegrass very much.

No one will accuse the acts under review of spurning the tradition. Each in his own way extends the sound that began decades ago with Bill Monroe and first-generation bands such as Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers and others. But of course traditional bluegrass outfits don't all sound the same; the trick is to make the old sounds seem fresh. Over the decades performers have grown ever more proficient as their instruments, the guitar has become a lead instrument, and not everybody sings in the voice of a mountaineer.

Early 'grass bands usually had a limited repertoire that borrowed heavily from the Flatt & Scruggs, Monroe and Stanley songbooks. Many still do. The band referenced in the title of RFD-TV's Cumberland Highlanders is essentially a Monroe tribute group, albeit a very good one. I am struck how many other acts highlighted on that show, devoted to hard-core 'grass, are indebted to the Stanley Brothers and the late Dr. Ralph Stanley. Over the past two or three decades, however, professional bluegrass songwriters have emerged, and many bands have taken to composing their own material. Still, the Southern groups in particular tend to stay close to the tried and true themes, namely the old mountain home -- no genre is more homesick than bluegrass -- love true and broken, the road, murder and, inevitably, Jesus.

All three of the albums under review give the last-named a shout-out in the liner credits, and each takes care to feature at least one gospel number. Such considerations usually indicate that the music is indeed rooted and authentic. As we all know, even we Northerners, evangelical Christianity is deeply implanted in the rural South. Songs of home represent a comparable, if ostensibly secular, piety. At the same time few bluegrass songs are explicitly political; those that are tend to give voice, unsurprisingly, to conservative sentiments, implicit or explicit, though some songs about coal miners complain about greedy and uncaring bosses.

In any event, these are all finely crafted traditional recordings which, if devoid of surprises, provide the usual pleasures. At least on Georgia Maple vocalist/bassist Edgar Loudermilk (related, by the way, to the Louvin Brothers, whose birth name was Loudermilk) offers up homesick tunes such as "Home in Caroline," "My Kentucky Home" (not Stephen Foster's Old one) and, er, "Homesick Blues."

Owing possibly to his genetic heritage, Loudermilk is an unusually appealing singer, so much so that he's able to render credible material as unpromising as "It Must Be Love," which is -- no surprise -- pretty dumb. (One wonders why anyone would bother to write, much less to record, something so tritely conceived. Even more mysteriously, it's credited to the ordinarily able Bob McDill.) On the other hand, in something like a stroke of genius, Loudermilk revives the neglected chestnut "I'll See You in My Dreams" which in this reading is a true joy and an album standout.

Riding high atop the bluegrass charts as I write these words, Aim High is the latest installment in Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle's distinctive take on the music: rooted arrangements and vocals (Gulley possesses a strong baritone which he uses most effectively) coupled with sometimes outright country-pop material. That particular fusion doesn't always feel comfortable, and occasionally the material is less than first-rate. Gulley & Tim Stafford's "Love Brings You Home" is little more than a compilation of inspirational cliches. At the same time Gulley & Stafford are responsible for the deeply in-the-Appalachian-tradition murder ballad "Deceitful Kind," a scary narrative related by a man who is manifestly a psychopath.

"Good Road" (by Weisberger/Buller/Simos) is just about a perfect bluegrass song, one that could have been sung proudly by any of the greats, though Gulley's own reading is impressively robust. If one song can speak to bluegrass' unique charm, this is it. Carl Jackson & Keith Sewell's "A Man of Your Word" is a wrenching hard-country exercise, even resorting to the word play associated with classic honkytonk. "Closer to the Shore," by Carl Jackson & Jim Rushing, while employing familiar images from sacred song, works in good part because of Gulley's sensitive interpretation.

Two or three decades ago, when I was still reading rock critics, the phrase "good old rock 'n' roll" became such an annoyingly overused phrase that it was banned from public discourse. I haven't encountered the bluegrass equivalent, but Stuart Wyrick's East Tennessee Sunrise does tempt me to interject "good old bluegrass" into the conversation.

Wyrick, a veteran of a variety of worthy traditional bands and currently a member of Flashback (consisting of alumni of the influential J.D. Crowe & the New South), is among the most skilled and tasteful banjo pickers around. Because he doesn't sing lead (though he does engage in baritone harmony), his new release depends upon guest vocalists including Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley, the latter of whom thrills with her inhabitation of Dolly Parton's "When Someone Wants to Leave." Is there any better Parton interpreter than Bradley? "Walking the Floor," Ernest Tubb's most famous song, gets a bewitching bluegrass-swing treatment. The one gospel number is titled, apparently via typo, "The Lord Will Make Away Somehow." Presumably, "Make a Way" is intended; "Make Away" has an entirely different, and less savory, meaning. In any event, Vic Graves renders it somberly and movingly. The four instrumentals, all but one written by Wyrick, constitute a particular source of delight.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 September 2016

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