various artists,
The Rough Guide to
the Music of the Appalachians

(World Music Network, 2002)

This anthology of Appalachian music could just as easily have been called The Rough Guide to Depressing Bluegrass, since that's what the vast majority of the generous 19 tracks here entail. Except for a single Dock Boggs cut, all the music here is taken from commercial bluegrass sources (and by the '60s, old Dock was pretty commercialized himself). That's not a bad thing, and there's a lot of fine music here, but there's far more to the music of the Appalachians than bluegrass. Although the blurb on the back talks about "old-time, gospel, folk and country sounds" as well as bluegrass, it's the big BG that's on tap here. That in itself isn't a bad thing, but most of the songs here are of the old "mountains are miserable" stereotype, musical tales of woe, sadness, heartbreak, loneliness, death and warts. If these songs are indicative, there's very little joy to be found in these mountains.

Still, there's a lot of good listening. We start off with two bands notable for their tight vocal harmonies, Claire Lynch's band and the Laurel Canyon Ramblers both doing fine gospel songs. Rhonda Vincent turns her lovely voice into a sad old train whistle on "My Sweet Love Ain't Around," and banjoist Tom Adams' minor-key "Box Elder Beetles" is slow and doleful. Peter Rowan offers an effective weeper with "Wild Geese Cry Again," and Del McCoury sings a wailing blues. His voice is unequaled as a bluegrass lead singer. The man could wring tears out of granite.

The list of miseries continues with "Another Lonesome Morning" from the Cox Family and a lengthy "Jerusalem Ridge" from the Tony Rice Unit. (But if you want real Appalachian roots, why not use Kenny Baker's recording?) Blue Highway offer up an only slightly less depressing "Still Climbing Mountains," but we're thrust back into "The Old Church Yard" to contemplate dead folk with Larry Sparks and are told by Ginny Hawker that "My Warfare Will Soon Be Over," when she's dead, no doubt. "I don't expect nothing here but sorrow and grief and pain," she sings. The same might be said of this CD.

Ralph Stanley delivers the real sound of Appalachia in "Two Coats," and Rafe Stefanini finally relieves matters with an up-tempo instrumental (but the title, "I've Got No Honey Baby Now," is still sad). Soon we're back in the dumps with the Bluegrass Album Band's "River of Death" and Jeremy Stephen's "Hard Times," an instrumental that's actually in a major key half the time. Joe Thompson's rollicking "Old Corn Liquor" brightens our spirits, and the good times get better with Norman & Nancy Blake's cheery "Hello Stranger." Dock Boggs sobers things up with "(Hard Times in the) Wise County Jail," and Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, one of the cheeriest bluegrass bands I've ever seen, close sadly with the lovely minor-key tones of "The Trail of the Ancients."

Look, don't get me wrong. I love a sad, tragic song or tune as much as the next guy, but when a CD is supposed to show the wide range of Appalachian music, but scores 15 out of 19 on the "Music to Drive You to Hang Yore Pore Self From the Nearest Pine" scale, it's more than a little deficient in achieving its purpose. There's a lot of lively music that came out of those mountains, and it would have been nice to have heard some.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 1 February 2003

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