Charlie Waller
& the Country Gentlemen,
Songs of the American Spirit
(Pinecastle, 2004)

Charlie Waller passed away last August, and this was the last album to be assembled (if not released) during his lifetime. As such, it would be nice to report that it's a perfect culmination of a sterling career in bluegrass. Unfortunately, though Waller's voice was still fairly strong and distinctive, this is not the best album Waller & the Country Gents ever recorded. Of course, it's hard to top in any event the early work of the Waller-Duffey-Adcock-Gray lineup, but the nationalistic theme of this CD may initially stick a craw in the throat of those bluegrass fans who don't necessarily believe that their home country is perfect in every way. If you can ignore (or program your player to skip) three of the potentially offensive songs, you'll have a pretty solid and non-political bluegrass album.

As for those you may want to avoid, the first is the belligerent, Vietnam-era Merle Haggard anthem, "Fighting Side of Me," which is stuffed with lines bemoaning those "gripin' 'bout the way things oughta be," and suggesting "If you don't love it, leave it," while fatuously saying that "I don't mind them ... standin' up for things that they believe in" -- apparently as long as they're the same things you believe in, too. It's a jingoistic ditty that should have been relegated to the '60s rather than being reintroduced to a new generation, and it's a pretty combative way to start an album. "Be Quiet When Willie Walks By" isn't as aggressive, but its tale of the town drunk who was once a war hero is unabashedly sentimental. The sentimentality also richly drips in "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," which celebrates Custer, among others, in this story of a crippled mountain boy who wants to "help to bring the Axis down a peg."

If you can handle or ignore that blindly patriotic trio of ditties, there's some other fine music here for the listening. "Between Fire & Water" is a decent love song on which the band unleashes some tight vocal harmonies, followed by the old chestnut, "Crying in the Chapel," which Waller effortlessly transforms into a country gospel song. His band, consisting of Greg Corbett, Darin Aldridge and Randy Waller, provide smooth backup singing here and throughout. "Joe," the first of two Dixie Hall songs, tells the simple and affecting story of a kind and gentle, um, protagonist.

There's some social protest (of the kind that the narrator of "Fighting Side" would probably have called unpatriotic) in the hard-edged "A Miner's Life," in which the rest of the band gets some vocal solo action to fine effect, after which they show off their pickin' chops with "Blackberry Blossom." "My Heart is On the Mend" is a smooth and bluesy bluegrass weeper that the band does to perfection, and "River of Tears" is an ideal song for Waller's plaintive voice. Waller enters Grandpa Jones's territory with a delightful "Stay in the Wagon Yard," followed by the up-tempo gospel, "The Vision." Dixie Hall's "Let Me Fly Low" brings the album to a doleful but touching end.

Long-time Waller fans will want this farewell opus, but others may want to hedge their bets with earlier CG recordings. There's a lot of good music here, but the few songs that lean heavily to the right may turn off some listeners. If you can overlook these few, you'll find a good solid blend of bluegrass and country.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 21 May 2005

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