Marty Raybon,
Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)
(Rural Rhythm, 2012)

Marty Raybon was a mainstay of Shenandoah, a vocal group patterned after Alabama (the act, not the state). Not exactly a trad-country outfit, Shenandoah scored some radio hits a couple of decades ago before folding in 1997. In later years Raybon returned to his bluegrass roots, employing his muscular voice -- also suited, I imagine, to blue-eyed soul and Southern gospel -- to fashion a hard-edged, driving 'grass of the old school.

Southern Roots & Branches, his latest release in that vein, ought to please anyone who likes the music delivered with lots of sincerity, grit and tight, no-nonsense arrangements.

If I must pick nits, I must note, however trivially, that everything here isn't strictly bluegrass, if one insists it takes the presence of Scruggs-style banjo to define bluegrass (and it does). Still, banjo or no, the instruments are acoustic and stringed, the singing rural. As one who paid little attention to the band during its existence, I was surprised to learn that three songs, including the moving sacred piece "Beulah Land" (not to be confused with the 19th-century hymn of the same name), were originally cut by Shenandoah. I guess that goes to show how easy it is to miss good songs when they're saddled with schlocky production. Hugh Prestwood's "Ghost in This House," another Shenandoah cover, is the sort of unsparing honkytonk heartbreaker one usually associates with George Jones in his prime. Raybon's voice is more than up to the job.

Not quite half of the cuts honor bluegrass immortals Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and Flatt & Scruggs. All are carried off with such complete assurance that none feels at all like a pointless retread. On listening to the mostly traditional "Down the Road," the album's concluding cut, I realized for the first time -- though I first heard this Flatt & Scruggs standard long ago -- that it's another variant of the ubiquitous "Ida Red." I don't know how that got past me all this time, though sometimes I suspect I may not be all that bright.

A CD this good doesn't have "highlights" because the material is consistently first rate and the players -- who count among them the likes of Bryan Sutton, Tim Stafford and Rob Ickes -- include the finest the genre has to offer. No wrong turns are taken, and every road takes the listener directly to the heart.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 June 2012

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