Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen,
Running Wild
(Rounder, 2001)

Here's a CD with four great pickers who have produced some top-flight albums in the past, both together and with other aggregations of musicians. So why isn't this one as tasty as the others that have come before?

It starts off well enough, with the bouncy "San Antone," and "You're Running Wild," which nicely echoes the old Louvin Brothers recording, right down to the biting vocal whine. There's an effective, slow reading of Lennon-McCartney's "Things We Said Today," in which the tight harmonies show this to be one of the best vocal bands around.

Then things start to slip into a groove that threatens to become a rut. A fairly standard version of Stephen Stills' "4 + 20" is followed by "Two of a Kind," a song similar in tempo and feeling to its predecessor, just rolling along into "Just Passin' Through," an up-tempo number that relieves the sameness of the previous two tracks.

But then the bottom falls out with what has to be one of the worst "topical" songs I've ever heard, the Larry Rice-penned "The Mystery That Won't Go Away." It's almost worth buying this CD just to revel in this groaner, since its awfulness has to be heard. The chorus gives only a hint of the misery: "It's the mystery that won't go away/The murder of little Jon Benet/Lord talk to us, show us a sign/Solve the mystery of this awful crime." The Ramsey case and this treatment of it is a far piece away from those old classics about the sinking of the Titanic and the wreck of the Old 97, and the most tasteless bluegrass song I've heard since "Sugar Daddy."

The song seems to take the album right off the bluegrass track, for next we encounter Buck Owens' "Take Me Back Again," complete with drums and pedal steel. Now I'm not one of the Bluegrass Mafia who instantly gets his back up when confronted with something other than banjer/geetar/mando/fiddle/bass, but instead of a bluegrass treatment, this is mainstream country all the way. Although the next song, "Maybe She'll Get Lucky," starts out as bluegrass, it falls into the country rut as well, which gets worn even deeper by Jim and Jesse's "Hard Hearted." When a band does a cover, the listener ought to think, after hearing it, "Gee, let me play that again," instead of thinking, "Boy, I'd like to hear the original of that again...," which is the case here. A cover needs something distinctive and original added, or it's not worth covering. About the most distinctive thing that happens in a lot of these tracks is taking bluegrass songs and making them sound country (rather than vice versa) or taking country songs and making them sound more country.

"It's a Long Way to the Top of the World" is well done, and boasts some elegant fiddling by Rickie Simpkins, but it's too little too late, and "About Love," though a pretty ballad, seems a weak way to close things out.

All in all, this one's a mixed bag, and has the flavor of a lot of wasted talent. There's not so much a wide variety here as there is a lack of focus. Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen are all over the map on this one, and wind up getting lost anyway.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 30 March 2002