The Virginia Ramblers,
The Virginia Ramblers
(Hay Holler, 2006)

The Virginia Ramblers began their life as Alvin Breeden & the Virginia Cutups. Thirteen years later, on the occasion of Breeden's retirement, the three remaining band members -- Charles Frazier (guitar), Donnie Shifflett (bass) and Jeff Vogelgesang (mandolin) -- found a new banjo player (Zack Deming) and a new name and went boldly forward. Both bands' focus was and is on the classic bluegrass sound of the early days, which is to say the 1950s and Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse, the Stanley Brothers and the like.

Once these foundational bands simply defined bluegrass, no qualifying adjective need apply. Today, as many bluegrass acts look as much to the future as to the past, outfits like the Virginia Ramblers are seen as practitioners of "traditional" bluegrass. That means they're closer both to a purer Appalachian spirit and to the then-mainstream, more rural country of five decades ago (though in those days bluegrass was less a distinct genre than just one variety of Grand Ole Opry-style music).

I love traditional bluegrass and, most of all, I love traditional bluegrass when it's done so well that, as I hear it, I am reminded why it won my heart in the first place. The Virginia Rambles do that for me. While they're all accomplished pickers, they play no more notes than are called for to express the emotion the piece seeks to convey; thus, every one of those notes has to count, and does. In addition, their harmonies are as piercingly heart-felt as one could ask, and Frazier and Shifflett are commanding, no-nonsense lead vocalists. The Ramblers load their repertoire with inspired songs, some of their own compositions, others well-chosen covers -- for one sterling example, Marty Brown & Paul Overstreet's heart-in-the-throat "I Couldn't Find My Walking Shoes," best known from the Seldom Scene recording but magnificently reimagined here.

There is also the sorrowful "First Fall of Snow," written by Lorene Rose and originally recorded by Hank Williams. It recalls the mostly forgotten 19th-century strain of songs concerning the death of children, from an age when many children did not survive to adulthood. Though the composer is (mis)identified as "Lorene Snow," I remember first hearing this song on an album by the late Hank Snow, possibly where the Ramblers picked it up, too, perhaps explaining the curious error. On the other hand, the instrumental "Movin' On" -- written by band member Deming -- is not to be confused with Snow's well-known "I'm Movin' On."

The late Jimmie Osborne's "God, Please Protect America," revised as a cheering endorsement of Bush's Iraq adventure, presumably done up in the initial blush of what would prove to be gravely misapplied enthusiasm -- amounts to the album's low point. At least, however, the listener can appreciate where it comes from, if not politically then musically: a long tradition of pious pro-war anthems that entered country music during World War II and since have had the misfortune of championing less noble interventions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. There are good reasons, actually, why anti-war songs -- from "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" to "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" -- tend to be more durable.

On the other hand, originals such as Frazier's "Daddy's Grave" and "Wind in the Pines" (an old-fashioned murder ballad), with sturdier roots, keep the music grounded and well-suited for the long haul. The Virginia Ramblers, one hopes, will keep doing it right for years to come.

review by
Jerome Clark

16 June 2007

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