Big Country Bluegrass is a strong instrumental outfit, one that benefits from a terrific lead vocalist in Eddie Gill. There isn't too much fancy about the group-there is no apparent attempt on their part to compete with Rhonda, Doyle, or the other 'headliners' who get the finest festival slots. Rather, the band appears content to work within the genre, continue to hone their craft-their latest album is their 18th!-and provide a very solid bridge to the way bluegrass has been played for nearly seven decades.
Big County Bluegrass has established a fine relationship with Tom T. Hall and, before her death this year, Miss Dixie. Some of the band's most popular recent songs-"The Boys in Hats and Ties," "The First Rose," and "I'm Putting On My Leaving Shoes"-emanate from these bluegrass songwriting legends, and on their new album the group again turns to the Halls for new material. "The Bluefield West Virginia Blues," co-written with Troy Engle," is already high on the national airplay charts, and one suspects "The Hound Dog From Heaven" will follow in its success. Still, there is more to Big Country Bluegrass than the songs of the Halls.
One needs to be reminded once in awhile that this gloriously wonderful music has its very foundation in bands like Big Country Bluegrass. Big County Bluegrass isn't my favourite bluegrass band, but they are a dependable outfit. Someone needs to fly the hardcore, traditional bluegrass banner high, and Big Country Bluegrass certainly do.
The first time I saw a bluegrass band in concert and truly had my listening path transformed was seeing a top-notch regional band, Jerusalem Ridge. Like Big Country Bluegrass, JR (as they became known locally) was never going to win any awards, but they were more than competent vocally and were stellar instrumentalists. Like Big Country Bluegrass, JR performed mostly covers, although they favoured the Country Gentlemen/Seldom Scene stream of bluegrass rather than the Martin-fed bluegrass of the band currently being discussed.
Jerusalem Ridge's music and approach-viewed from a distance-may not have been terribly original or groundbreaking, but I needed to hear that type of music live in order to fall under its spell and begin my own bluegrass journey. They were interpreting the music for me, serving as an introduction to a sound that I hadn't yet fully embraced. I imagine Big Country Bluegrass do something similar at their shows-they appeal to the already converted, but have the ability to attract the uninitiated with their sparkling renditions of older songs performed in a style that is increasingly rare to encounter.
One doesn't need to be reminded that Martin, Monroe, and their ilk are no longer around, and if folks are going to fall under the true bluegrass spell, hearing the music performed in a manner similar to how those stalwarts and similarly influential artists approached the music is going to be transformative to some. The Earls of Leicester get it; so do Big Country Bluegrass. Big Country Bluegrass isn't mimicking the founders of the music; their charm is that they are creating their own contemporary interpretation of the music under the heavy influence of the originators.
Therefore, I have no problem with Big Country Bluegrass not breaking significant ground for the big tent that bluegrass has become. Hey, I like The Infamous Stringdusters as much as anyone-I just purchased the deluxe edition of their "Silver Sky" album this week-but not every band needs to be as far out on the bluegrass limb as they. Similarly, not every bluegrass band needs to attempt to emulate Blue Highway, Quicksilver, or The SteelDrivers.
Fortunately, there is a lot of room within bluegrass and a nice sliver of that space needs to be afforded to groups that are maintaining and exploring the foundations of the music. A song like "Just an Old Friend" isn't performed terribly often these days, and that's fine: hearing it here is made that much more significant for its rarity.
A lively new song, Dale and Connie Morris' "A Heart is Like a River" will tug at some heartstrings, as well the aforementioned "The Hound Dog From Harlan." These two tracks, which cover different ground at different tempos and with very different approaches, provide an ideal example of the group's range. Additionally, by soliciting new songs from outside sources, the group demonstrates their willingness to add to the genre. "A Hound Dog From Harlan" has several Hall classic touches-an observant protagonist, a sandwich, a dog, a funeral, and a very satisfying conclusion.
For those with very deep bluegrass memories, exquisite performances of songs like "Till I Met You," "Blue River," and "Snow White Grave" will be familiar, but for listeners of more recent generations, these songs will perhaps serve as introduction to the likes of the Kentucky Travelers, Garland Lambert, and Jimmy Martin.
Eddie Gill, who joined the group on their previous album, "Memories of the Past," has a real strong bluegrass lead vocal style. The distinctive charm he brings to songs like "The Bluefield West Virginia Blues," "Country Livin'," and "My Lonely Heart" elevates the group. Teresa Sells also sings lead, and she more than holds her own. "The Cotton Mill Song" benefits from her homespun style, and her harmony vocals elsewhere are appreciated.
As always, Lynwood Lunsford is a hoss on the 5-string; he certainly knows how to get the tone for each song 'just right.' Those familiar with his opinions understand he has strong convictions for what bluegrass is...and isn't! Tim Laughlin provides harmony vocals with his fiddle a natural fit for the group while Tony King keeps the bass thumping along. Band leader Tommy Sells plays mandolin and co-produced the recording with the group's input. His instrumental style is central to the group's sound, and tracks like "Easy Memories" benefit from his chop.
Big Country Bluegrass is obviously not for everyone, and this new release has garnered some criticism for it is viewed as derivative. I take the position that "Country Livin'" is performed well-within the parameters of a tradition that has remained relevant for nearly seventy years. It offers a fresh take on a classic music, and as such is as vital to the health of the bluegrass industry as the latest bluegrass album to receive accolades from the wider Americana community.