various artists,
Bluegrass Express
(Rounder, 2004)

Bluegrass Express takes its title from one of the Osborne Brothers' signature songs. It's the last of the 15 cuts on this collection of train songs, old and new, from the bluegrass repertoire. To many of us, the very phrase "bluegrass train song" says all you need to know; if you're disappointed, something has gone terribly wrong.

Fortunately, there's no train wreck here. These are well-chosen songs, and even the chestnuts continue to give pleasure after all these years. The opening cut, Ralph Stanley's "Riding That Midnight Train," is just about a perfect bleak bluegrass tune, one minute and 53 seconds as intense and precise an evocation of travel and pain as any howlin'-at-midnight downhome blues.

The second cut, the Hank Williams-Jimmie Davis composition "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow," is retitled -- for no apparent reason -- "Lonesome Whistle Blues." It's a great song, and it is just about indistinguishable in structure, lyric and melody from the sort of anonymous ballad that might have circulated in the rural South a hundred years ago. From a 1983 album by the Dreadful Snakes, it suffers from an uninspiring vocal by Pat Enright, and also from the fact of David Childers's astonishingly original (and not at all bluegrassy) reading, captured on his 2002 CD Blessed in an Unusual Way (Ramseur). Childers may have ruined that song for everybody else for a long time to come.

There's also the superb "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome," which Bill Monroe recorded in 1950. It comes out of every country and bluegrass fan's dream collaboration: Monroe with Hank Williams. "The lonesome sound of a train going by" would be lucky to sound like this -- one of the most gripping train songs and performances ever. Jim & Jesse's "Freight Train," from a 1977 recording, breathes new life into the Elizabeth Cotten composition that might otherwise have expired from overexposure during the previous decade's folk revival. I have loved "Wreck of the Old 97" since I was a kid and had never heard the phrase "folk song." Connie & Babe and the Backwoods Boys do it just fine. The cut is taken from their 1992 Rounder recording.

The standards as done by bluegrass' founders set a standard too high perhaps for the later generations of merely mortal bluegrassers to reach, but you'd have to be sour in soul indeed to object to Alicia Nugent's "Blame It on the Train" or Mountain Heart's "Gospel Train." But if you've got your bluegrass and if you've got your trains, and then you put the two in the same place, it's pretty hard to go down the wrong track. The trip aboard the bluegrass express proves, naturally, to be purely pleasureful.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 24 July 2004

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