Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press,
New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches
(Rural Rhythm, 2012)

Larry Stephenson,
What Really Matters
(Compass, 2012)

The Osborne Brothers -- Bobby (mandolin) and younger brother Sonny (banjo) -- first recorded under their own name in 1956, then went on to a notably successful career in bluegrass and country music before health problems forced Sonny's retirement in 2005. Bobby (b. 1931) soldiers on with a band whose title nods to the Osbornes's best-known hit, Felice & Boudleaux Bryant's "Rocky Top," which charted in 1968.

Though the Osbornes famously, or notoriously, added drums, steel and amplified instruments to their sound on occasion, New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches happily sticks to the genre's basic acoustic line-up in this solidly workmanlike outing. No doubt at this stage Bobby -- whose singing and picking betray little sign of age -- feels he has nothing more to prove. All he needs to do is to maintain a good band and to release periodic recordings to please the fans. Accordingly, New Bluegrass offers up a set of the sorts of songs we bluegrass buffs can never seem to get enough of, ones dealing with the old home, true love, romantic struggle and murder -- in short, the usual stuff, sentimental and cruel (and at times both at once), of America's grassroots music.

Oddly, the one song that seems the slightest is the oldest, Fred Rose's "Low & Lonely," first cut by Roy Acuff in 1942. I hadn't heard it in a while, but when I listened to it here, I couldn't help reflecting what a piece of poppish piffle it is. Fortunately, it's offset by the full-blooded likes of Phil Rosenthal's "Muddy Waters" (about a flood, not the blues legend) and band fiddler Glen Duncan's "I Wrecked My Life for You," to my ear the album's strongest.

Mandolinist and vocalist Larry Stephenson has received just about every award it is possible to have bestowed in bluegrass. On What Really Matters, his Compass debut, he continues to do what he does so winningly. It must be said that even those unattuned to bluegrass will notice his debt to the Osbornes, but that's simple detail -- like observing Del McCoury's Bill Monroe inflections -- without larger meaning. If you've heard enough bluegrass, you can discern the influences that shape just about any artist and band in the genre.

This time around, the 'grass doesn't drive particularly hard, even on the instrumental "Bear Tracks," where the emphasis is on melody (an excellent one), not speed. The songs, mostly reflective and mid-tempo, lean toward serious themes to which Stephen's yearning tenor is well suited.

The bulk of the material addresses love in both its earthly and divine dimensions, but there is also an endearing take on the frequently covered "Philadelphia Lawyer," Woody Guthrie's murder-ballad spoof. Stephenson smartly revives Merle Haggard's relatively obscure "The Seashores of Old Mexico" and handles its outlaw-fleeing-south-of-the-border story effectively. The earnest and moving gospel harmonies elevate "On the Jericho Road" to standout status. The CD concludes with an in-the-tradition honkytonk song, Betty Sue Perry's "Before I'm Over You," backed -- in another link to the Osborne tradition -- by certifiably non-bluegrass instruments such as drums and pedal steel.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 September 2012

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