Bo Isaac & the Rounders,
(Out of the Woods, 2012)

If Bo Isaac hadn't been born and raised in Floyd County, Kentucky, one supposes, that big-man's voice would have led him to some musical genre other than bluegrass. Let us, then, rejoice that he is and remains the son of Appalachia. Dollar delivers a hard-driving bluegrass sound, suited in its uncompromising way to 2012 but always unself-consciously attuned to the traditions that brought it into the early 21st century.

Backed by the Rounders, not a permanent lineup but a rotating group of pickers whose individual members back him when circumstances permit, guitarist Isaac sings on most of the 13 cuts, which include two hardy traditionals ("John Henry" and "Nobody's Business") and a number written or co-written by the band's banjo player Elmer Burchett. Burchett himself, a man of several strong parts, performs his "Whippoorwill" in a compelling back-country voice.

Set mainly in the region where bluegrass grew up, the songs address familiar concerns -- joy and heartbreak, mine disasters, the sacred side -- but present the material with such intensity and sincerity as to afford it an unexpected freshness and immediacy. Isaac's knowing vocals and the Rounders' no-nonsense arrangements blend marvelously to conjure up truths across a range of human experiences. In the album's one nod to the sentimental, "When the Mountain Dew Starts Fallin'" -- "dew" as in precipitation, not as in moonshine -- is a pure, old-fashioned weeper of a heart song, and entirely lovable for that.

If your taste runs to bluegrass that flexes its muscles even as it bares its soul, Dollar is what you want. If Isaac isn't a bluegrass star somewhere down the road, I'll be forced to wonder where bluegrass has gotten itself to.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 February 2013

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