Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver,
The Hard Game of Love
(Sugar Hill, 2002)

From the first cut of this new Doyle Lawson CD, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I'm one of the Quicksilver faithful who gets every new album as it comes out, hoping for some kickin' bluegrass and wailin' gospel, but the past two albums have disappointed me in their turn toward Southern gospel and away from bluegrass. Make no mistake, I love Lawson's gospel work, but his bluegrass gospel, and I'm happy to report that this one's bluegrass all the way, with nary a pedal steel or rinky-tink piano to be found. It's a purely secular album, too, which seems to let the band breathe a little easier, and it's absolutely first-class.

While there were some musical imperfections on the two previous albums, this one's a gem. "Blue Train" kicks it off with absolutely perfect vocal harmonies, a splendid Dale Perry banjo solo and a Hunter Berry fiddle break that packed more into 16 bars than I've heard in a long time. The band hasn't sounded this good vocally since 1998's masterful Gospel Radio Gems. There's a great lead vocal on the title track, and when the four-part harmony starts, you'll get goose bumps. It's followed by only the second instrumental ever recorded by Quicksilver, "Oak Ridge Rendezvous," and it's a winner, making you wish they'd do more. The fiddles (Jimmy Van Cleve and Owen Saunders both make appearances on the CD) add a tremendous amount to the overall sound, and the instrumental blend is every inch the equal of the vocal blend.

"We Missed You" is a fine old maudlin love ballad, with another terrific lead vocal and a splendid Lawson mandolin solo. It's followed by "Nightingale," an interesting song with some complex chord progressions (for bluegrass, anyway). The boys get into honky-tonk territory with the bluesy "Standing Room Only," about a convention of people whose hearts have been plumb busted in two: "And when they pick the winner for fool of the year/There's just one big sigh heard instead of a cheer." Guitarist Jamie Dailey provides a hum-dinger of an original with "Poor Boy Working Blues." It's the kind of thing you'd swear you'd heard before, but you haven't -- a timeless song. The Smith Brothers' "In My Dreams" gets a traditional and gorgeous brother-duet treatment.

Bassist/guitarist Barry Scott's "A Thing of the Past" ("bluegrass swing," as Lawson aptly describes it) plays clever verbal tricks with the title idea, and Lawson himself tackles the lead vocals on "My Trust in You." His voice sounds strong and wistful at once, and it's good to hear him again on a song that fits his voice so well. The closest to gospel this album comes is "The Hand Made Cross," but rather than being spiritual, the song is rather dark, and the cross's only purpose here is to mark a grave as the place of final doom. It's despairing and quite effective. The CD ends with an up-tempo anthem of eternal love, "As Long As The World Stands," a great way to end a great album.

The release of this album is an event to make bluegrass fans rejoice. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver are back playing real bluegrass and nothing but, and they sound as fine both instrumentally and vocally as they ever have. Let's hope this is the first of a trend. Now how about a straight-ahead bluegrass gospel album again?

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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