Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver,
Life is a Story
(Mountain Home, 2017)

With their new release the prolific Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver are closing in on their 40th album. A vocalist whose principal instrument is the mandolin, Tennessean Lawson is not a product of bluegrass' first generation -- few remain from that, and those who yet perform are well past their prime -- but he comes close. His resume is impeccable. He got his professional start with foundational figure Jimmy Martin in 1963, then joined J.D. Crowe's band three years later. He spent nearly all of the 1970s in the Country Gentlemen before forming Quicksilver in 1979 and going off on his own.

Aside from their general excellence Lawson and his outfit (with many lineups over the decades) are known for their stirring harmonies, rooted in mid-century white and black gospel. Indeed, gospel has always been an integral part of the DLQ sound, along with a broad message -- one might fairly call it an ideology -- of religious, social and (implicit) political conservatism.

Consider, for example, the opening cut, "Kids These Days," with its lament for the passing of what are represented as small-town values, one of which is said to be prayer in school. Well, I attended grade school, not recently by any stretch, in a couple of tiny rural Midwestern towns, and we didn't worship there; our teachers were too busy tutoring us in the basics of literacy, grammar, history and arithmetic. As they should have. We got our prayers on Sundays. I guess what DLQ is singing about is a Southern thing.

I think that at least some current bluegrass bands (e.g., the borderline off-putting Farm Hands) have fashioned themselves into vehicles for messages congenial to an audience in considerable part rural, white, insular and hard-Southern. Having listened to bluegrass nearly all of my life, I had never given the genre's ideology much thought until a few years ago. As the nation has grown ever more polarized, I began to see how some 'grass bands (in fairness, hardly all) are drawing, consciously or unconsciously, their own culture-war battle lines.

Though not a country act as such, DLQ is equivalent to a couple of Nashville vocal groups and one-time hit factories, the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys. And that's not only in their shared close harmonies but in their general sensibility, which means a joining of piety and sentimentality with (on occasion) the shocking and the gothic. No more so on Life is a Story than on the late Harley Lee Allen's "Little Girl," a pitch-dark tale apparently intended, strangely, to be inspirational. Go ahead, just try to imagine "Murder of the Lawson Family" as a gospel tune.

I do like -- a lot -- the grassified arrangement of the r&b classic "What Am I Living For" (Fred Jay/Art Harris). There is also the sharply etched story-song "Guitar Case" (Donna Ulisse/Marc Rossi). That one is genuinely gripping, with an unanticipated twist at the end, a song that touches without collapsing into sappiness. It's good, too, to hear "Bluegrass Blues" from a brilliant but neglected 1980s album by the long-extinct O'Kanes (Kieran Kane & Jamie O'Hara).

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 July 2017

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