Third time out, they hit pay dirt together, on their own in their own band.
Since 1991, IIIrd Tyme Out gradually became one of the better bands in bluegrass. Having made a name for themselves on the road, it seems only logical that they've recorded a trio of live albums, including their latest, "Back to the Mac."
A follow-up to 1998's well-received "Live at the Mac," IIIrd Tyme Out revisits Eastern Kentucky's Mountain Arts Center, the scene of the previous "Mac" album. Founding member Ray Deaton, the band's bassist who also shares vocals with the other four members, says the decision to return to the MAC was really no decision at all.
"Well, the Mountain Arts Center, that thing's got a studio built in," Deaton says by phone from Mt. Airy, N.C. "The crew of people there are the greatest folks in the whole world. Man, they've got their stuff down. It's the best place I've ever played to record a live album. Ever. Their facility there is unreal. The acoustics, the engineers, the people who run the place, they're just awesome people and some of the nicest folks you've ever worked with. We've got a great following in East Kentucky."
Still, from a fan point of view, another live album was a logical choice, Deaton says. With the first live at the Mac album, Deaton says that fans were so enthused and cheered so loudly, that they had to mute their sounds in the mixing stages so that the music could be heard.
"We had so many who liked "Live at the Mac" (IIIrd Tyme Out's stellar album from 1998), we thought we'd just keep it a goin', keep on doin' it," Deaton says. "We had a lot of requests to do another one."
Deaton says that that album sold extremely well. Therein lies another reason for returning to the scene of that success. See, believe it or not, folks, bluegrass bands do not straddle loads of cash. Yeah, Ralph Stanley drives a Jaguar, but hey, he's worked for 55 years.
IIIrd Tyme Out are but 10 years old. So, while wondering why another live album, just consider that these guys are not wealthy. Look at live albums this way, they cost less and sell well, so therefore the band makes more money.
"There's lots of differences in costs" from a studio and live album, Deaton says. "Probably $10,000. We're fixin' to start tapin' all our shows. We've got a CD burner and are fixin' to record ‘em all."
Still another reason pertains to the fact that as a band, IIIrd Tyme Out simply play better live. Most bluegrass acts do. Also, unlike most other live albums - typically greatest hits affairs with slight-if-any twists - IIIrd Tyme Out chose material that deviated somewhat from their studio records.
For example, Deaton says that instead of rolling out band staples like "Grandpa's Mandolin" or "Only You," they instead chose tunes for inclusion on the album normally used for backstage warm-ups.
"We did ‘Only You' that night at the show, but we just decided not to put it on there. These are a lot of songs that we play backstage before we do a show," Deaton says. "Rehearsing or doing a soundcheck, we do those songs. We thought, well, we'll never go into a studio and record them. A lot of them are standards, and things had done in the past, but they're some of our favorites."
Among those favorites, Bill Monroe's "Come Back to Me in My Dreams," Jimmie Davis' "I Hung My Head and Cried" and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis' "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." Deaton personally chose the latter one and Doyle Lawson and Pete Goble's "Please Search Your Heart" for inclusion.
Also included are stellar renderings of Molly O'Day's "When My Time Comes to Go," George Jones' "The Old, Old House" and one of the year's outstanding instrumental performances on the traditional "East Tennessee Blues."
Now, in addition to having culled warm-up tunes, Deaton says that the band also chose from those that crop up on occasion on the bus. See, as they ride from here to there coast to coast and North to South, like most any other band, IIIrd Tyme Out will waltz out a favorite and sing for the pure pleasure. One of those songs, Hank Cochran's "A Little Unfair," a middling hit for Lefty Frizzell from 1965, is a favorite of lead singer Russell Moore.
"Russell sang that a lot on the bus," Deaton says. "So, we put it on there to add some variety. We tried to do as much variety as we could."
Don't get the idea that the seven-time International Bluegrass Music Association Vocal Group of the Year sing every second of every mile they travel. As inspiration strikes, notes fly. But hey, they do sleep, ya know.
"A lot of times somebody will set up with the driver, but not all of us are up," Deaton says. "It's hard to sing on the bus because you can't hear as good. We work up new material sometimes on the bus when we're gettin' ready to do a new album."