IIIrd Tyme Out,
John & Mary
(Rounder, 1999)

As a fan for many years I hate to admit this, but for a while there I thought IIIrd Tyme Out was getting a little ... stale. Despite its technical brilliance, 1998's Live at the MAC came across more as a way of marking time than as the heartfelt tribute to the first-generation bluegrass masters it was intended to be. When I last saw them, in March 1999, even their stage show was beginning to seem slightly less than inspired. [Note to the band: At first, your cover of the Platter's "Only You" was startling coming from a bluegrass act. But it's not a novelty anymore.]

It's with great pleasure, then, that I can give John & Mary an enthusiastic four stars. It's easily IIIrd Tyme Out's finest non-gospel release since their 1993 breakthrough, Grandpa's Mandolin.

The IBMA has chosen IIIrd Tyme Out as the Vocal Group of the Year six times now; lead singer Russell Moore is a two-time Male Vocalist of the Year, and Ray Deaton's how-low-can-he-go bass vocals are justly celebrated as well. It goes without saying that the vocals on any IIIrd Tyme Out release are going to be stellar. The musicianship has seldom failed to live up to them: Mike Hartgrove, Wayne Benson and Steve Dilling, on fiddle, mandolin and banjo, respectively, are widely acknowledged as among the best in the business. So what makes one IIIrd Tyme Out album better than another? The song selection -- and it's hard to find fault with the choices they've made here.

The band is equally comfortable with the Osborne Brothers' gospel classic "I Pray My Way Out of Trouble" (written by Loretta Lynn) and non-bluegrass material such as the old Western swing/rockabilly chestnut "Milk Cow Blues." On the latter, guest Rob Ickes' dobro blurs the boundary between bluegrass and blues much as Ickes' own band, Blue Highway, does; at the same time, the vocal arrangement is pure IIIrd Tyme Out. It's a perfect example of the band's talent for making old songs sound new, and they're just as capable of making a new song sound like an old standard, as they do on "Blue Ridge Mountain Memories." The entire album, in fact, looks back fondly on the past while taking bold steps into the future. That it all sounds of a piece is proof positive that IIIrd Tyme Out is still at the top of their game.

The two finest moments on John & Mary come from opposite ends of the bluegrass spectrum. The title track is propelled by Wayne Benson's mandola -- hardly a traditional bluegrass instrument -- and the frequent changes in tempo also mark the song as a departure from the norm. As does the subject matter: bluegrass artists have recorded happy love songs before, but precious few so exuberant and unsentimental at the same time.

"Snow Angel," on the other hand, could be straight off a mid-'50s Bill Monroe album, complete with an enigmatic lyric to rival "Along About Daybreak" or "Walls of Time." I have no idea why the singer is so upset by the angel he has made in the snow, but his lament is so mournful that by the end of the song I'm ready to "cry a sea of bitter tears" myself. And if that isn't the mark of a great bluegrass performance, I don't know what is.

[ by Chris Simmons ]

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