The Piedmont Melody Makers,
Wonderful World Outside
(Vigortone, 2016)

The Piedmont Melody Makers are a quartet of musicians with decades-old resumes in traditional Southern music. Most who follow the music will immediately recognize the names Alice Gerrard and Jim Watson, who separately have recorded (solo or in collaboration) more albums than you could shake a stick at, if you were so inclined, which would be a singularly ungracious thing to do. The other Melody Makers are Chris Brashear, who has a handful of worthy albums under his belt, and Cliff Hale, veteran country-folk singer.

How do you could get a mediocre CD out of a lineup like this? Well, you don't, of course. The Melody Makers are essentially reviewer-proof, as seasoned, superior performers tend to be. It helps that they have never fallen out of love with the music, rooted in oldtime and early country, here fleshed out with a handful of originals by Gerrard and Brashear as well as a couple of numbers from Hank Williams and Ray Price. Hearing the former's "Six More Miles" for the first time in a while, I am struck, one, that it is an outstanding song even by Hank standards and, two, that it feels older than it is. And you could add that for a song about death, you can't help noticing how much life the Melody Makers breathe into it.

As they are in so much Southern music, grief and loss loom large on the misleadingly named -- at least until you heard the title song -- Wonderful World Outside. A song from the Stanley Brothers, "Wonderful World" is wrapped in the pitchiest of darkness, and the Melody Makers make sure no unwelcome light shines through the narrative, related by a prisoner who is serving "90 and nine" with no prospect of a pardon. The opening cut, "Some Old Day," is not the well-known Flatt & Scruggs prisoner song, but something of a variant of it, collected by Hale's father many years ago from Roanoke, Virginia, street singer Sam "No Legs" Fincher, about a soldier somberly contemplating what lies before him and hoping to get home alive.

The 19th-century "Over the Sea" follows in a powerful unaccompanied-harmony reading. Delivered with the sincerity and sensitivity in evidence here, hymns like this communicate hope and transcendence even to those of us not taken to biblical literalism. Gerrard's "My Kentucky Home" visits a not-unfamiliar theme, about individuals forced from their rural homes into the big city, never losing their dream of returning one day. This, however, is a particularly touching treatment of this subject, as old as America's creeping urbanization. Watson (with whom -- transparency requirement -- I've been friendly since the 1980s) bears a soft spot in heart and head for sentimental parlor ballads such as "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (from the Carter Family, not the Elvis hit) and "Just Keep Waiting Till the Good Times Come" (from Charlie Poole). If any living singer does them better, his or her name eludes recall.

Relatively few groups boast naught but first-rate lead singers, but the Melody Makers manage as much. As those who've heard his previous recordings are aware, Brashear is also a strong songwriter, and his pure country "One & Only," with Allyn Love on pedal steel, will warm the heart of anybody who grew up on the hard stuff.

Wonderful World counts 16 cuts and nearly 50 minutes, which happens to track precisely with the quantity of happiness it delivers.

music review by
Jerome Clark

24 September 2016

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