various artists,
Life Goes On
(Rural Rhythm, 2012)

If you're looking for an overview of the best that today's tradition-based bluegrass has to offer, Life Goes On is what you want. If you wish to contribute to a good cause (St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, working for cures to childhood cancer), it's right here. In the two discs that comprise Life, you're going to hear every shade of deep bluegrass by some remarkable artists famous or obscure but all fired-up and ready to go.

Of course, in a genre operating on the margins of the music industry, "famous" is a relative proposition. If the names J.D. Crowe, Rhonda Vincent, Blue Highway, Johnson Mountain Boys, Larry Stephenson, Lonesome River Band, Grascals, Tony Rice and Marty Raybon mean anything to you, you're already a fan. I am already a fan, and so I am in a position to attest that all of the just-named perform to their usual high expectation. Some do even better than that. J.D. Crowe & the New South's rendition (Dwight McCall, voc.) of "Goin' Across the Sea," a traditional Appalachian song, is a particular stunner, for but one example that pops immediately to mind.

I'm hearing some artists for the first time, and the introductions are thrilling. There's Brandon Rickman's hair-raising arrangement of "Rain & Snow," a North Carolina murder ballad often covered -- I first heard it by the Grateful Dead in the mid-1960s -- but rarely at this level of intensity. The trio of Connell, Barnes & Kohrs reinvent "Rollin' & Tumblin'," an old-time Mississippi song usually associated with Muddy Waters. Theirs is not bluegrass, strictly speaking; it's just ... something else. Also not quite bluegrass but noteworthy in its own right is Larry Cordle & Michael Cleveland's doom-laden reading of the late Johnny Paycheck's "Old Violin," a cry of existential terror if ever there was one.

Though I'm sure it was nobody's conscious intention, Life Goes On documents bluegrass' roots in a eclectic but related range of influences, from British Isles balladry to mountain music to Grand Ole Opry country to sacred song to folk-pop. Some of the 39 cuts derive directly from those sources, others from bluegrass' own fashioned-within-the-genre repertoire. The song and tune choices are inspired and sometimes surprising (lyrics to the venerable Bill Monroe instrumental "Panhandle Country," a version of the 1974 Dave Loggins hit "Please Come to Boston," the gospel "Paul's Ministry" to the melody of the 1920s prisoner's lament "21 Years"). The music is great, the cause is worthy. I'll be listening to Life Goes On as, well, life goes on. If you do the same, we'll all be happy.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 May 2012

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