Marty Raybon & Full Circle,
The Back Forty
(Rural Rhythm, 2013)

Those whose memories stretch back far enough may recall a time when it wasn't uncommon to encounter anguished hand-wringing about the future of bluegrass singing. As a new generation of bluegrassers had started to replace the original, the tough, high-lonesome vocal style associated with Bill Monroe, the Stanleys and other foundational figures seemed to be fading into extinction, to be succeeded by the anemic and poppish. That concern was hardly baseless, but soon enough, younger musicians stepped forward to prove they could hold their own.

Marty Raybon is among them. His singing stands up to just about anybody's, past or present. It's a full-bodied, full-hearted tenor, punctuated by inflections that will make a sad song even more sorrowful or a sacred one even more divinely ordained. Besides that, he doesn't waste his voice, as some do (no names here), on inferior material. There's not a clunker amid The Back Forty's 10, only songs whose quality is incontestable and whose degree of success depends in its entirety upon what happens to strike an individual listener the most empathically.

Among the gifts he and Full Circle bring to the party is a startlingly up-tempo arrangement of a 1954 Webb Pierce country hit, Tommy Miller's "Slowly (I'm Falling)," which it never would have occurred to me could be possible. On the other side is Raybon and Jerry Salley's "Mountain Love," notable more for its lively performance and for its melody (adapted from Appalachian tradition) than for its piffle lyrics. Then again, bluegrass lyrics are only occasionally profound; by the genre's very musical structure it is not designed to convey verbal complexity. In that way it's sort of like rockabilly, to which bluegrass bears some other resemblances as well.

Since his return to his bluegrass roots a few years ago (he was a member of the once-popular country-pop ensemble Shenandoah), Raybon has been cutting albums so professional and accomplished as to be critically bullet-proof. If you're already listening to bluegrass, you don't need me to tell you that. And if you aren't, you ought to check him out.

It bears observing that if Raybon and his band are genre traditionalists, they don't pay much heed to the old ways of recording, unlike a few current outfits that insist on more or less live studio performance around a single microphone. The small print informs us that the instrumental tracks were cut in Tennessee, the vocals in Alabama. Still, in common with most bluegrassers then and now, the guys take care to "thank Our God and His risen son Jesus," just in case you might think they're gettin' above their raisin'.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 April 2013

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new