Del McCoury,
High Lonesome & Blue
(Rounder Heritage, 2004)

Since this CD is on the Rounder Heritage label and there's an old photo of bluegrass icon Del McCoury on the booklet (and a similar painting on the cover), I had hoped that this would be a collection of McCoury's earlier material (the photo has to date from the '70s or so). Alas, such is not the case. What the compilation holds, however, is 16 tracks from his Rounder albums, recorded from 1987 to 1996.

Though a disappointment for McCoury fans who have this easily obtainable material and are seeking out the earlier, more elusive tracks, this may be the best single collection of McCoury available to date. His Rounder albums were a highpoint of his career, and many of the best tracks from those CDs are here. By 1996 he had put together his greatest (and still current) band, featuring sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on bass, and one hears that progression toward this musical bluegrass ideal throughout this CD.

It starts off with two cuts from 1987's The McCoury Brothers album, "Road of Love" and "Lonesome Wind." Del's voice is high and piercing, and the band is fast and tight. If bluegrass is folk music in overdrive, McCoury's a V8. His voice is utterly distinctive. No one else has his sound, and you will either love it or find it like nails on a blackboard. Either way it'll make the hair on your neck stand right up. Me, I love it, and I don't know a true lover of bluegrass who doesn't.

Del really concentrates on the blues in bluegrass, and the third track, "I Feel the Blues Moving In," is a prime example. This is as bluesy as it gets, and young Ronnie's mandolin solo, one of his first with his dad, shows him as a force to be reckoned with. "You'll Find Her Name Written There" and "High on a Mountain" reveal how McCoury can take standards and make them all his own. The latter in particular is the perfect blend of song and singer, painting an intense musical picture of despair. "I'll Pretend It's Raining" is a weak song, but only in comparison to the rest of the tracks. It doesn't have the modalities and harmonic complexities of the others, which points up one of McCoury's other strong points: his superb song selection. It's not bad by any means, just not up to the high standards of the others.

"Don't Our Love Look Natural Lying There" is a great honky-tonk weeper with the bizarre metaphor of love being like a corpse at a viewing, and "Cheek to Cheek With the Blues" again mines the blues vein for musical gold. There's a slower tempo on "Old Memories Mean Nothing to Me," but we're back in the honky-tonks again with Lefty Frizzell's "If You've Got the Money Honey." It's a rousing performance all around. There are more blues with the wistful and haunting "Queen Anne's Lace," Steve Earle's rockin' "If You Need a Fool" and Bill Monroe's eerie "The Bluest Man in Town."

The next two songs are from the last Rounder CD, The Cold Hard Facts, and the title track shows both the musical progression of the band and of Del's vocal style. He's more of a jazz and blues singer on this track, riding just behind and ahead of the beat, toying with it to his own ends. "Blackjack County Chains" is a brutally explicit story song about convicts and their revenge on a cruel sheriff, and we go out in style with George Jones's "Don't Stop the Music," which Del once again makes his own.

This is a great package, and the 20-page booklet has lots of information about the tracks. Those who have McCoury's Rounder discs, however, will have no need for this new release. It would have been nice to have had a few alternate takes or something new to lure longtime fans, and the 47-minute playing time is a bit niggardly for a compilation of previously released material. Still, it's a great introduction to Del McCoury and his band, with some of the bluesiest and most high lonesome bluegrass you'll ever hear.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 25 September 2004

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