The Del McCoury Band,
The Family
(Ceili Music, 1999)

I'd get little argument from most bluegrass aficionados that the Del McCoury Band is the strongest band playing in the genre today. With sons Ronnie playing remarkable mandolin and Rob an equally fine banjo, the astonishing Jason Carter on fiddle, and the solid-as-a-rock Mike Bub on bass, bluegrass "neo-patriarch" Del McCoury has a perfect ensemble to which to add the best rhythm guitar in the business and searing vocals from the greatest pure bluegrass voice since Bill Monroe.

Sure, there are plenty of great bluegrass bands around, filled with tight ensemble picking and glorious harmonies, but the Del McCoury Band has something that none of the others do -- Del McCoury. His is a voice that sounds of the mountains and the hollers, but also contains a sheer musicality and an emotional outpouring second to none. Equally at home with the bluesy songs that make up so much of his repertoire ("Don't You Think It's Time to Go," "Backslidin' Blues," and "On the Lonesome Wind") and straight-ahead, traditional bluegrass ("The Look of a Perfect Diamond" and "A Far Cry"), McCoury and his band offer up an album of a dozen songs whose only regrettable feature is its brief 36-minute length.

The Family is McCoury's first CD from Ricky Skaggs' new Ceili Music label, and it augers well for both the label and the band. The package is quirky and novel, showing the band as a '20s crime family (never before has Carter's fiddle case seemed so ominous!), a nice twist on their previous CD, The Cold Hard Facts, in whch they appeared as investigators at a crime scene. But what really matters is what's inside, and there's a fine variety of music, something we've come to expect from the McCoury conclave. Along with the blues and bluegrass tunes mentioned above, there are renditions of some country favorites, including a smooth and bluesy "Nashville Cats," with solos from Ronnie and Jason that show what all would-be "Nashville cats" should aspire to, and a lovely version of "Cryin' Heart Blues." Other highlights are a funky take on Jimmy Martin's "She's Left Me Again" and a red-hot instrumental, "Red Eyes on a Mad Dog," penned by Ronnie.

There are two other cuts, however, that are absolutely haunting. One is Mark Simos' "City of Stone," that begins with Del soloing with just his guitar as background, and the rest of the band slowly joining him, eerie mandolin and mournful fiddle setting a marvelously creepy tone. Who else in bluegrass would have the chutzpah to sing a song with the line, "Sweet life quickens even in the charnel..." The other absolute highlight of this CD is Bill Monroe's "Get Down On Your Knees And Pray," a four-part harmony gospel classic that might make even the staunchest atheist seek out the nearest little brown church in the vale. Del's falsetto, and the familial resemblance of his sons' voices to his own make this one sound as though it's sung by one otherworldly voice with four parts. It's a true classic, as is this entire album. The Family is guaranteed to bring new members into the ever-growing family of listeners to whom the Del McCoury Band signifies the ultimate in bluegrass music.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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