James Reams, Walter Hensley
& the Barons of Bluegrass,
Wild Card
(Mountain Redbird, 2006)

More and more, bluegrass -- anyway, a significant part of the movement -- embraces an uptown, acoustic-pop approach as it seeks mainstream acceptance (and, of course, the enhanced revenues that follow). The result is what I think of as accomplished blandness, something that can also be said of the mainstream Nashville music to which bluegrass is, or once was, thought to be an "authentic" alternative.

Happily, however, traditional bluegrass survives, and not only in the performance styles of still-active older artists and bands. Though younger of years, vocalist and guitarist James Reams, a Brooklyn teacher who grew up in Kentucky, attends the old school. Often fronting the New York-based Barnstormers (whose most recent CD, Troubled Times, I reviewed on 24 June 2006), he has delved deep down into the music's roots in search of distinctive repertoire and, with Tina Aridas, written songs the equal of any in the genre.

On the immensely enjoyable Wild Card he's teamed up with the respected banjo veteran (and fellow native Kentuckian) Walter Hensley. Backed by the three-piece Barons of Bluegrass (Mark Farrell, mandolin, fiddle; Jon Glik, same; and Carl Hayano, acoustic bass), they have given us a dozen unabashedly rural bluegrass songs and tunes, reminiscent, perhaps, of a harder-edged Flatt & Scruggs.

Reams and Hensley, who know the music and its history better than most, revive some superior but obscure songs, among them Alton Delmore's "Kentucky Mountain," Aubrey Mayhew and Johnny Paycheck's "We're the Kind of People That Make the Jukebox Play" and the 1945 Eddy Arnold hit (heretofore unknown to this longtime country listener) "You Must Walk the Line," whose title must surely have inspired a young Johnny Cash to pen one of his most enduring songs. Reams and Aridas contribute a memorable folk-style ballad, "Where No Heart Goes Hungry," inspired by -- of all people -- William Faulkner. "I always thought that Faulkner would have made a great bluegrass songwriter," Reams dead-pans. With no fear of correction I believe I can pronounce this the genre's first and only Faulkner-influenced song.

A.E. Brumley's familiar "Dreaming of a Little Cabin" gets a heartfelt reading, while Reams and Hensley keep it -- its worn and schmaltzy subject matter (memories of Mother and her Bible) notwithstanding -- from sinking in corn syrup. Bob Johnson and David Johnston's rolling "Old Cane Press" is great fun, and the title tune, an instrumental Hensley composition, is a model of restraint and melodicism, in the manner of the early bluegrass and old-time bands that played tunes, not hot licks.

In their understated but quietly confident way Reams, Hensley and compatriots make some of the most satisfying bluegrass around. I suppose that there is no one way that bluegrass is "supposed" to sound; nor, I'm sure, should there be. But if there were, it ought to be something like this, where the singers, the pickers, the songs and the soul of the music are as one.

by Jerome Clark
7 October 2006

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