Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen,
Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen
(Rounder, 1999)

What is it with groups these days titling their subsequent albums eponymously? When I heard that Larry and Tony Rice, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen had a new Rounder album out using their own name, I thought at first that I had missed one that preceded Out of the Woodwork, supposedly their first one. But nope, I was wrong -- this is a brand new album, titled after the group the way that Blue Highway just did with their fourth (I believe) album. Come on, bluegrass guys, you're confusing us fans. It's hard enough to keep track of who's in what group these days, with mandolinists and banjoists flitting from group to group like butterflies to blossoms.

But now that I have that out of my system, the title, simple as it is, is a clever conceit. The group's name sounds like a law firm, so why not depict it as such? That's what they do, with a glimpse through a law office door suggesting the sophistication to be found within. But in any album, it's the music that counts, and the firm of Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen deliver the verdict you want. These four musicians have a wide range of experience, both in and out of the bluegrass field -- Hillman with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Larry Rice with Dickey Betts, Pedersen with John Denver and Linda Ronstadt, and Tony Rice with many important acoustic music assemblages ... the full list is too long to reproduce here. Let it just be said that many of these influences are present. If you're looking for an album of pure and unadulterated grass, you won't find it here.

But what you will find is a wide and always entertaining variety of musical styles, performed in tight bluegrass instrumentation. There is traditional bluegrass in the mix, and the album ends with a straightforward rendition of Flatt and Scruggs' "I'll Be On That Good Road Someday." Also in the traditional vein is "Side Effects of Love," whose highlights are Larry Rice's clever lyrics and a great dobro solo by Fred Travers. "Never Ending Song of Love" is slightly more contemporary, with a very non-bluegrassy bridge, a nice solo by fiddler Rickie Simpkins, and some tight, classic vocal harmonies. And how can you get more traditional and down home than by singing about "Moonshine?"

But there's a ton of non-traditional material here as well, always well played, well sung, and of interest. "Doesn't Mean That Much Anymore" uses a melody and chord progressions that are more sophisticated than most bluegrass. It's great to hear a Grateful Dead tune, after all the time and energy that Jerry Garcia put into bluegrass, and the band does a fine job with "Friend of the Devil." Tony Rice's solos are immaculate here, as everywhere on the CD.

There are others with a straight country feel, such as "One of These Days." "Out Among the Stars" and "The Year of El Nino" are story-songs with strong folk roots. We find lovely contemporary ballads in "I Will" and "Hearts Overflowing," which offers a wide contrast to its follow-up tune, "The Walkin' Blues," a dandy blues/bluegrass hybrid.

As you can see, there's something here for everyone, except the bluegrass fan who demands firm adherence to the gospel of Monroe. This is a real potpourri of material, and while such variety never allows the album to get boring, it never allows it to coalesce into much of a whole either. As such, it's an album I admired and appreciated, but with which I never became truly involved. The musicianship is superb, but while the wide range of styles lets you wonder at the skill of the players, it never quite lets you look into their hearts.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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