Kathy Kallick Band,
Between the Hollow & the High-Rise
(Live Oak, 2010)

Rich in Tradition,
Black Mountain Special
(Mountain Roads, 2010)

As bluegrass enters its seventh decade, one can only marvel anew at its durability. Country music itself, in whose midst bluegrass arose as one commercial strain, long ago relegated the genre so far to the margins that few even define bluegrass as "country" anymore. Long ago, Alan Lomax famously called the then-emerging genre "folk music with overdrive." Or, if one prefers to stress its relationship to mid-century country music, one might think of it as a form of it that, far more than any other, recalls its rural and regional origins.

Though the culture that created it barely survives, bluegrass -- the child of the isolated world of the Appalachian mountains and lowlands -- thrives. That has at least something to do with its having been adopted by northern musicians and taken to a national -- and then international -- audience. The new CDs by the Kathy Kallick Band (Kallick's 15th) and Rich in Tradition (its first) exemplify bluegrass' wide appeal and showcase its expansion across the national landscape. Kallick and companions hail from the Bay area of California, while Rich in Tradition holds down the old home place in North Carolina. Each performs the music with a distinctive accent, but both do something that is joyously, indisputably pure bluegrass.

I can't pretend to have heard all of Kallick's albums -- I reviewed the Kallick Band's Warmer Kind of Blue in this space on 30 July 2005 -- and in any event not all of those recordings are bluegrass-based. Even so, I am sure Between the Hollow & the High-Rise must rank among the finest of the lot. Focused more than most bluegrass recordings on strong melodies, it attests eloquently to Kallick's strengths as a vocalist, songwriter and picker of others' material. The covers are generally recognizable to those who've put in a lot of bluegrass listening -- for example, Josh Graves's wistfully romantic "Come Walk with Me," the Louvin Brothers' energetic gospel "There's a Higher Power," the playful folk song "Cindy" (curiously, rarer in the bluegrass repertoire than one might suppose) -- but they're none of them exhausted and unwelcome. Besides, the band's impeccably restrained picking and heart-catching harmonies are not there to be resisted. Kallick's compositional skills are on glad display in six outstanding cuts, my personal favorite being "My House," a sort of secular treatment of the metaphor Stuart Hamblen employed in the gospel standard "This Old House."

The overall effect is a sweet, California-flavored music that is neither too sweet nor too California. Hollow does feature something fairly rare in bluegrass: an outspoken, side-taking protest song, Kallick's rewrite of the 109-year-old "White House Blues" (here "New White House Blues"), intended for those -- I am one -- whose memories of a certain former Presidential administration are less than overwhelmingly adoring. I imagine that the band resists the temptation to play this one when it performs at festivals in red states.

The latest from the recently established but already estimable Mountain Roads label, Rich in Tradition's Black Mountain Special is so exuberant in its celebration of the old-time mountain-bluegrass sound that you'd almost think these five guys -- all native sons -- had invented it. Guitarist and lead vocalist Mickey Galyean is the son of well-regarded bluegrass songwriter/banjoist Cullen Galyean (the subject of a tribute disc, Born Into Bluegrass, which I reviewed here on 13 February 2010). In fact, the title (also opening) cut is the work of the elder Galyean, who died on July 13 of this year. On this and others the younger takes on the bulk of the vocal duties, but when Greg Jones (mandolin) and Brad Hiatt (bass) step forward to the microphone, the listener will begin to grasp how truly deep the talent pool is.

If the Kallick band brings (as already noted) "sweet" to mind, the relevant adjective here is "tough" in the manner of the hard-core traditional outfits, where the drive is propulsive, the harmonies fierce, the recitation of life's hardships stoic. The original songs -- individually by Galyean, Jones and Hiatt -- are keenly written, plainly stated. The covers are solid, perhaps none more so than the seldom-revisited "Red & Green Signal Lights," co-written (with lyricist Harry V. Neal) around the turn of the last century by Gussie Davis, the African-American songman also behind the original "Irene, Goodnight." The story is sort of reminiscent of the one that frames the icky 1970s super-hit "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree," but even with its full-bodied immersion in old-fashioned sentimentality, Neal/Davis's telling is infinitely superior. Other cuts draw from mountain folk balladry, George Jones-style country and rural gospel. Wherever the music comes from, the boys sing it and play it like champs.

Whether it's sprouting in new ground or old, bluegrass yet grows as colorfully and sturdily as a patch of wildwood flowers. The Kathy Kallick Band and Rich in Tradition are living evidence of how fertile the soil remains.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 November 2010

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