Josh Williams,
Down Home
(Pinecastle, 2009; Rounder, 2011)

First, a little background: Down Home was originally a 2009 Pinecastle release. As with other artists and releases, the disc went homeless when Pinecastle closed its doors in February 2010. Under new ownership the label reopened later in the year. In the meantime, guitarist Josh Williams had taken the disc to a new label, the much larger Rounder Records, which is sort of the Columbia/Sony of roots music. I write these words from my hearing of the no-longer-available Pinecastle edition. The Rounder reissue is a week away from where I sit at the moment. At least in terms of songs and sequencing, the two CDs are (I infer) identical in all but imprint.

Williams -- the cover photograph would lead one to believe he's in his mid-20s -- already has a solid bluegrass resume as guitarist in Rhonda Vincent's high-profile band, The Rage (as in the fashion, not as in the pissed-off), and as solo act on two previous albums. A listening to this CD, which with apparent effortlessness merges older and contemporary approaches, suggests the influence of another bluegrass-bred acoustic guitarist, Tony Rice. Rice appears here, in fact, in a rendering of the much-loved Delmore Brothers standard "Blue Railroad Train." Even better, Rice is actually singing, if not in quite the same smooth tenor as the one he possessed before vocal problems silenced him for years. No matter; he sounds fine, and what a pleasure to have him back. It's a delight, too, to encounter Josh Williams at an early stage of what is certain to be a notable career.

In common with other releases in bluegrass' late history, Down Home strays slightly here and there from the standard Monroe-dictated instrumentation and into a kind of (mostly) acoustic honkytonk. There is, for instance, the late Homer Joy's "Streets of Bakersfield," a hit over two decades' distance for Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam and among the all-time great West Coast hillbilly songs. No version will ever match Yoakam's, which Flaco Jimenez's conjunto accordion elevates into another dimension of sound and storytelling, but Williams' -- taken outside bluegrass and into country territory with Doug Jernigan's pedal steel -- is a perfectly respectable one.

In their time Reno & Smiley seemed more progressive than traditional in their approach to the evolving genre of bluegrass, but their enduring -- and endearing -- "Polk on the Banjo" is (next anyway to "Blue Railroad Train") the most oldtime-sounding piece on the record. Williams, who also happens to be an outstanding vocalist, pulls it off, occasioning smiles all around. There's also a sure-footed reading of Jimmy Martin's mockingly self-pitying "The Last Song." Other treats: Dixie & Tom T. Hall's "We'll Burn That Bridge," Murray F. Cannon's "Dream of Me," Michael Ballew's "Blue Water," Carl Jackson's title song (performed with full-strength country band) and ... well, pretty much everything. Beyond that, let us hope, lots more coming down that pike.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 March 2011

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