Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick,
Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray
(Spruce & Maple Music, 2014)

Born in Arkansas before moving west and settling there, Vern Williams & Ray Park met in Stockton, California, in 1959. Williams, a mandolinist, and Park, a fiddler, went on to form a -- the adjective is not employed loosely -- legendary bluegrass band Vern & Ray. The group dealt in razor-sharp harmony singing and hard-driving Southern mountain sounds on a level of brilliance seldom encountered then or now. If you didn't live on the West Coast, though, you needed to be a hard-core bluegrass devotee simply to have heard of them; their recordings were few and treasured. It didn't help that they were far from bluegrass' geographical center, even today located in the Southeast. The duo broke up in the early 1970s, though the Vern Williams Band continued to produce fierce and compelling 'grass into the 1990s, including two Arhoolie collaborations with country pioneer and fellow Californian Rose Maddox.

As young musicians Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick, now hugely respected figures on California's folk and bluegrass stages, knew Vern & Ray, and Lewis played bass for a time in Vern's outfit. The first Lewis & Kallick collaboration, Together, released on Rounder in 1991, was dedicated to Vern & Ray. Their second, The Songs of Vern & Ray, is just what it says. Specifically, it's 18 cuts chosen from Williams and Park's stellar songbook. They were as adept at choosing songs as they were at delivering them.

I don't hear every bluegrass album that's released over the course of a year, and frankly, I'm pretty sure I don't want to. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and there's plenty of other good rooted music meriting attention. But I do love bluegrass, and I've been hearing it most days of most of my life. So take my word for it: Songs just plain sparkles, and it's as good as any bluegrass recording you'll encounter in 2014. It'll restore your faith in the genre if you've found it faltering lately as weak-in-the-knees pretenders have offended your sense of bluegrass' truth and power. It's also a return to form for Lewis & Kallick, whose most recent, singer-songwriterish solo efforts, while not bad, hardly represent their strongest work.

It bears noting that Vern & Ray's music was, one might say, high-testosterone stuff, tough and intense enough to peel the paint off any building in its way. Lewis & Kallick do not attempt to imitate the originals. They don't have to; their own approach is robust and confident enough to produce a music that is fully credible on its own terms. Sometimes the two recall a bluegrass-era Carter Family, and not just when they're performing A.P. Carter's "My Clinch Mountain Home," though I suspect that the original Carters, if still around, would be thrilled at what's been done to their song.

Stephen Foster may seem an unlikely source for bluegrass songs, but Vern & Ray managed to make "My Old Kentucky Home" seem as if actually from an old Kentucky home. Lewis & Kallick resurrect it with harmonies that will make you weep some more, though in a nice way. The album opens with a high-stepping version of "Oh! Susanna" that turns out to be a much better song than you may have remembered. Lewis & Kallick gallop through the range country of Ray's celebratory "Montana Cowboy," Vern & Ray's one enduring contribution to the bluegrass repertoire (covered by Emmylou Harris among others), and cut through the heart of the Carters' doleful "Cowboy Jack."

In all of this, they have superior musical backing from a small ensemble featuring Lewis's longtime musical partner Tom Rozum (mandolin) and Patrick Sauber (banjo) while Kallick plays guitar and Lewis fiddle and bass. Banjoist/guitarist Keith Little, once a member of the Vern Williams Band, joins them here and there, as does resophonic guitarist Sally Van Meter. Annie Staninec adds a second fiddle to the exquisite "Thinkin' of Home," a rare Park/Williams writing collaboration.

Tribute albums are sometimes -- well, mostly -- pointless exercises. Not this one, the product of love and sincerity, certainly, but more than that, of talents equal to the ones being celebrated.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 September 2014

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