Don Rigsby,
Empty Old Mailbox
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

I don't know where Don Rigsby finds the time. Empty Old Mailbox is his second solo release in two years, not to mention his 1999 album with Dudley Connell, Meet Me by the Moonlight. How he manages to squeeze these projects in between his full-time job with the progressive Lonesome River Band and his traditionalist gig with Longview is beyond me.

Fans of the latter group be warned: Don Rigsby stretches his musical boundaries on Empty Old Mailbox, not always with the best results. I'm no Bluegrass Police -- as Jimmy Gaudreau calls those who shake indignant fingers at musicians who stray from a strict interpretation of the Gospel According to Monroe -- but I do feel it's a shame to waste a high lonesome tenor like Don Rigsby's on the mediocre newgrass/pop confection "If I Had a Mother Like You." Worse still is "Dust to Dust," which is so awful I wondered how it came to be included on the album. (Checking the liner notes I found it was written by Rigsby's co-producer, Jimmie Lee Sloas.) A more cynical reviewer might blame "Dust to Dust" on an attempt to break into the contemporary Christian charts; ironically, what is far more likely to get the Spirit moving is Rigsby's stirring duet with Larry Sparks on the decidedly uncontemporary "I Am a Little Scholar."

Happily, these missteps are overshadowed by the rest of Empty Old Mailbox, and no wonder: the album's songwriting credits read like a Who's Who of bluegrass and country songwriting greats. Tom T. and Dixie Hall are responsible for the mournful title track, which proves Tom T.'s diet of "Bill Monroe for Breakfast" has paid off. You are what you eat. Besides his vocals, Larry Sparks also contributed "These Ole Blues" to Empty Old Mailbox. The hard-driving "Louise" comes from the pen of the always-reliable Paul Craft. John Hartford's "Here I Am in Love Again" is a minor gem that originally appeared on Hartford's 1972 release, Down on the River. Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm's sorry "Bad Day in Akron" demonstrates yet again that these two belong in the very top tier of bluegrass songwriters. The straight-ahead "I Won't Be There" was written by Don Rigsby himself, along with Dale Ferguson.

Rigsby assembled a group of tremendous musicians to play on Empty Old Mailbox, including his former New South boss, J.D. Crowe, and Lonesome River Band mate Sammy Shelor on banjo, dobro wiz Jerry Douglas, Blue Highway guitarist Tim Stafford, and Gabe Witcher on fiddle. Though the album focuses on Rigsby's singing rather than instrumental fire, there's plenty of hot picking backing him up. (It would be nice, by the way, if the liner notes listed the musicians on each track.)

Overall, a solid effort by the ubiquitous Mr. Rigsby. Here's hoping he continues his workaholic ways.

[ by Chris Simmons ]

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