In the close-knit world of bluegrass, the release of a follow-up album on a highly respected independent label like Virginia-based Rebel Records might suggest the unfolding emergence of an up-and-coming band of previously unknown young talents, but in the case of Rock County, their new "Rock Solid" represents another chapter in the ongoing, varied careers of five veteran pickers.
For the band's founder, 48-year-old fiddle virtuoso Glen Duncan, the band's success validates the decision he made to make the bluegrass circuit a big part of his life again.
For most of the past three decades, the Indiana native has been one of the premier Nashville session musicians, with album credits almost certainly numbering well into four digits. By his own estimate, at his peak "I was doing five, six hundred sessions a year."
The story of Rock County, he says, actually goes back to Lonesome Standard Time, the band he co-founded in the mid-1980s with his close friend, legendary Nashville writer Larry "Murder On Music Row" Cordle. For nearly a decade, they had a blast cruising the bluegrass circuit as an outlet to their "day jobs."
"Then, by 1995," Duncan now says, "my session work was just so busy. I was just beating myself coming and going, so I told Larry in the first part of '95 that, hey, I'm gonna have to bail out on this and not travel like this anymore, and so we agreed to just fold up Lonesome Standard Time at that time." (Cordle has since revived the band on his own and is currently touring.)
As the '90s came to a close, Duncan jumped at the opportunity to be part of the bluegrass sessions at a studio on a Massachusetts farm and the farm's name - Longview - became the name of what many began calling a "super group" that, along with Duncan, included Don Rigsby, Dudley Connell, James King, Joe Mullins and Marshall Wilborn.
The success of the three Longview discs to date (two on Rounder, one on Rebel) has led to a continuing demand for concert appearances, and Duncan found that he really missed the experience.
"Longview played a show at the Ryman Auditorium," he recalls, "and the next day we were going to be in Cherokee, N.C. On the way...I mentioned to Don Rigsby...I was going to put something together for 2000, really put it together carefully, with as much planning as you can do, because it's not an exact science...(Don) said, 'Keep me in mind when you do that.'"
The yen to get back in the saddle continued to haunt Duncan, even as the phone continued to ring for session work."I was just going to the studio every day and doing records with people. (Longview) was so much fun, and (we) at that time did maybe a dozen dates a year...I thought, 'man, I really miss this,' you know, playing more with a bluegrass band, which is what I started out wanting to do when I was a kid."
"So actually, my wife and I decided we needed to put together a really good bluegrass band and start doing some stuff...So, a little further down the line, maybe a year and a half later, I said I think maybe in another year and a half or so would be the time to do a record and all that."
With Rigsby on board, the nascent band had not only one of the premier mandolin players on the scene, but also one of the few tenor singers worthy of being described as "Monroe-style."
As Rock County began to form, Rigsby was nearing the end of his long-term association with the Lonesome River Band, and the time seemed right for him to make a move.
With veterans Dale Vanderpool (banjo) and Ray Craft (guitar) lined up, the band was rounded out with Robin Smith on bass, whose resume included stints with not only Del McCoury and Paul Adkins, but with Duncan as well."I first got acquainted with (Robin) when Larry (Cordle) and I had the Lonesome Standard Time band. We were looking for an upright bass player, and somebody said, 'You ought to hear this guy, Robin Smith.' So we were playing up there in Pennsylvania, and sure enough, he was great. So, he took the job, and he drove back and forth for four or five months, and then he moved down here (to Nashville). He's a really good string (instrument) repairman and all that kind of stuff, so he started making banjo necks...he makes all these necks for Stealth banjos and has a company called Heartland Banjo Company. They make tons of banjos...Timeless Timber banjos, and all that, that's his doing."
The sales and subsequent bookings from the first, self-titled Rebel release were good, and Duncan and Rigsby were both enjoying their Longview and Rock County associations. As they set their sights on the second album, Vanderpool departed the band and was replaced by yet another banjo picker with a long record of bluegrass achievement, Scott Vestal.