The Charlie Sizemore Band, |
Charlie Sizemore, who has been performing bluegrass professionally since he was 17 years old, started out at the top -- with Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys, where he replaced guitarist Keith Whitley, who went on to achieve country stardom before his sudden death in 1989. Leaving the group after nearly a decade, Sizemore entered the University of Kentucky. Eventually, he moved to Nashville and earned a law degree.
Ever since, with a day job to occupy the bulk of his attention, his solo recordings have tended toward the infrequent and keenly anticipated. The last was The Story Is... (Rebel, 2002), which I'd put on any list of, say, my 25 most beloved bluegrass albums. Half of that is Sizemore's fine singing, and the rest is the uniform excellence of the material, all from the pen of esteemed country/bluegrass/folk composer Tom T. Hall.
So I suppose I'd better report up front that the material on his Rounder debut, if generally all right, is not always stellar. Any match-up of Sizemore with Hall (along with spouse and frequent writing partner Dixie Hall) is made in heaven -- not to mention a hard act to follow -- by definition. On Good News the Halls contribute "Whiskey Willie" (not to be confused with Michael Hurley's song of the same name) and co-write "The Silver Bugle" with Sizemore. The latter features Danny Barnes' clawhammer banjo and Matt DeSpain's Hawaiian guitar, taking the arrangement outside the standard genre treatment. Both ballads concern events of the Civil War, a conflict that has long captivated bluegrass writers.
These are among the strongest songs on an album which on occasion lapses into fairly generic stuff that while not actively lousy isn't exactly inspired, either. There's also the sort of fluff that's amusing once and vaguely irritating later. Here I think in particular of "Alison's Band," a good-natured but short shelf-life joke on Alison Krauss and her Union Station, written by Sizemore and his producer, Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon. The other -- and better -- song about a musician is Jeff Barbra and Steve G. Jones' "Blame It on Vern," a tribute to superior hard-country singer Vern Gosdin, who after a few hits in the 1980s has passed out of country music's ever shorter-term memory. Those whose memories haven't terminated will enjoy the witty use of Gosdin melody snippets and song titles ("Chiseled in Stone," "Set 'em Up, Joe") to shape the narrative, set -- where else? -- inside a barroom.
Sizemore, a marvelous singer, virtually defines "warm tenor" in a bluegrass context, with a command of phrasing that in some ways recalls Lester Flatt's. His overall sound, in fact, is more Flatt & Scruggs than Stanley Brothers, and the album has a rooted but well-oiled and unforced tone. Still, Hank Cochran's "My Dying Day" feels genuinely haunting. Its effect is enhanced by the restraint with which Sizemore handles the subject -- not literally physical death, but a well-developed metaphor about the sort of psychic devastation that a relationship's abrupt end can trigger.
When it's good, Good News' news is good indeed. I'm sure that just about any bluegrass fan will take to it. Perhaps next time, though, Sizemore will choose more consistently robust material.
2 February 2008