Ron Spears
& Within Tradition,
Carolina Rain
(Copper Creek, 2004)

Like most mainstream bluegrass bands these days, Ron Spears & Within Tradition walk the line between modern and older sounds within a genre whose sense of its own history is keener than most. Spears's band reminds me a bit of the Country Gentlemen, who were innovative in their time (the 1950s and '60s, though a version of the group with only one original member survives) and have been influential ever since. The Gents were able to fuse tradition and creativity into a seamless whole, and so do Spears and associates.

Carolina Rain is their third album. Since forming five years ago, the band has gone through its share of personnel changes, while retaining a core of Spears and veteran guitarist/singer Charlie Edsall. The rest of the current configuration consists of three younger men, Phil Bostic (banjo, vocals), Joe Ash (bass, vocals) and Mike Tatar (fiddle, vocals), all -- according to Alan Munde's liner notes -- graduates of something called the "Bluegrass Music Program at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas." Well, I guess these guys must have learned something. They're pretty good.

Besides the fine picking, harmonies and lead vocals, the band gets its strength from Spears's strong original songs. I especially like "Darling, Please Don't Let Our Sweet Love Die," which captures the desperation of dying love in a way that just about any adult who's been through the experience -- in other words, just about any adult -- will recognize. It's one of those dead-on, cut-to-the-bone stories that are much easier to listen to than to live through -- and defines country music at its best. Spears' singing is perfect, the melody ridiculously captivating.

Among the covers is Liz Anderson's "The Fugitive," one of Merle Haggard's most revered early hits. Spears and band's revved-up reading leads one to infer that this escaped convict is in a rather more jittery frame of mind than the sorrowful, reflective, slow-talking one in the original. I don't blame the guys for trying a radically different arrangement, but theirs, while not bad, loses the bitter stoicism that makes Haggard's version so memorable. On the other hand, two tasty instrumentals could not possibly be more pleasing. Between the swing of "Billsville" and the old-time hoedown of "Lost in Nashville," Ron Spears and friends vividly demonstrate how wide bluegrass tradition's boundaries stretch.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 11 September 2004

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