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Tradition is in with Continental Divide

By Tom Netherland, January 2002

Tradition's in. With last year's phenomenal success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack leading the way, both bluegrass and country music have begun looking to the past for today's sounds.

First, Patty Loveless vacationed from her country sound for a hard-core mountain music album, last summer's "Mountain Soul." Subsequent tradition-based releases included ones by the Mark Newton Band and Rhonda Vincent & The Rage.

Add David Parmley & Continental Divide's new Pinecastle Records release, "Pathway of Time," to the mix. Material plucked from the pens of such legendary musicians as the late Randall Hylton, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and even country icon Merle Haggard help steer this one straight outta the newgrass and into tradition's grand ol' bluegrass.

Greener pastures? No doubt.

"I would describe the album as modern traditional," Parmley says by phone from his parents home in Ferrum, Va., where he was on vacation through Christmas. "There's a whole lot of new songs, but they're all in a traditional frame. More in the flavor and taste of what the Bluegrass Cardinals was."

Mind you, Divide's latest doesn't stay grounded quite as far into tradition as titan Jimmy Martin would record, but there are several moments that come close.

"There's a song on here that's called 'Leave or Stay.' Now, that does sound like something that Jimmy would have done," Parmley says. "Musically, it's right up his lane."

Translated, that rascal smokes. Drenched in driving bluegrass, it fires on all eight cylinders as if flying up, around and over the mountain.

"That song was written by a couple of guys in the band, Danny Barnes and Mike Anglin. One of their buddies, who also used to be in the band, Elmer Burchett, who played banjo on the "Rocking Chair" CD, also helped 'em write the song. That's the kind of stuff he liked."

Parmley, who with father Don led and recorded 15 albums with the boundary pushing Bluegrass Cardinals from 1975 until 1992, has as time's gone by gradually drifted to the shores of tradition.

Perhaps the Parmley pair's collaboration with Del, Ronnie and Rob McCoury on 1992's "Parmley and McCoury - Families of Tradition," helped.

Didn't hurt. After all, it won an International Bluegrass Music Associa-tion award for recorded event of the year.

"That was a fun project," Parmley says. "Del and I are real good friends, and I see him real often in Nashville. I've always liked his music, so it was kind of a thing where dad and I and Del and his boys would just get together in festivals. If we were gonna stay the night, we was gonna have a jam session. Both loved the same kinds of music, you know."

Since then, Parmley's recorded three stellar solo albums, in addition to a quartet of rousing releases with Continental Divide. A quick scan of guest musicians on his solo albums indicates his pull. Among the more noteworthy, Dan "Soggy Bottom Boy number one" Tyminski, Carl Jackson and the Osborne Brothers have all given of their talents.

"When I first started Continental Divide with Scott Vestal, we took the music in a whole different direction. It was more real contemporary with a whole bunch of flashy instrumental stuff and all that kind of stuff, you know. Then, after Scott and I decided to split up, I just took the band backinto that vein of the Cardinals music. That's what I'd done for so many years, and that's what the fans kind of expected out of me anyway."

Bluegrass fans don't like change. Not normally, anyway. Play traditional? Then stay traditional. Perform newgrass? Then do that.

"Bluegrass people, when they hear something they like, they want to hear it for the next 20 years," Parmley says.

Now check Continental Divide's current lineup. In addition to Parmley on vocals and guitar, they include band original Anglin on bass, Ben Greene on banjo, Steve Day on fiddle and tenor vocals and Barnes on mandolin and tenor vocals.

Look into each member's background. Three Kentuckians, one North Carolinian and Parmley, a Californian, is the lone member whose birth came beyond bluegrass' traditional stomping grounds. Little wonder, then, that newgrass finds little room to grow in this band.

"Well, (traditional bluegrass) was around my house. My dad listened a lot to Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, and that was about it, you know. So,that's how I grew up in California. I' waskind of an outcast in school because I didn't like the music everybody else did. I wanted to listen to bluegrass."

Though all around, Parmley never listened to the rock music of the day. Never listened to the Grateful Dead. Rolling Stones. The Doors. Consequently, his music bears a more traditional bent to it given that no opportunity was given for such outside influences.

"It's good to have an open mind and listen to different types, you know. (This one guy's) not a member of the band any more, but so many times I'd turn around and name off an old traditional song to him, and he'd give me this stupid look. I'd say, 'man, what'd you spend your whole life listening to?' He was all the time listening to something else other than bluegrass. I said, 'why, how come you ain't out playing that kind of music for a living?'"

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