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Tradition is in with Continental Divide

By Tom Netherland, January 2002

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In other words, play in Parmley's band and you'd better bone up on the songs and musicians that matter. After all, imagine what Ricky Skaggs would sound like had he not learned the music of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs.

"You've got to spend a certain amount of time learning the roots of this music or you're never gonna have all the tools to do it right," Parmley says. "You need to know all those old standard things."

That doesn't mean that bluegrass musicians should listen to bluegrass exclusively, though.

"I can see, especially as an artist and if you're out doing it every weekend, a lot of times when you come home you want to listen to something else. But in your learning stages, when you're trying to tone your art, I think it's necessary that you learn all that old stuff."

With such a band backing him, covers of Hylton's classic "Thirty Acres of Bottomland" and Flatt & Scruggs' "My Saro Jane" move along like stout slant sixes under the hood, not especially fast but oh so strong.

"We were needing an up-tempo, traditional and kind of driving type thing," Parmley says. "I used to sing that song a long time ago in clubs and stuff when we first moved back east with the Cardinals. And it really hasn't been recorded that much. Flatt & Scruggs was a big influence to me."

Now, for the record "Thirty Acres of Bottomland," "Up and Down the Mountain" and "Wake Up" covers Parmley's Bluegrass Cardinals renditions from years back.

"The reason for me doing those old songs again is that that is all out of print," Parmley says. "I still have people come up wanting to hear it and wondering where they can get it. So, I'm gonna start doing about two or three songs on every record I do of the more popular (Cardinals tunes) so people can buy them."

Not that Parmley recorded the trio of tunes as if by numbers, but they vary little from the original renditions. After all, why alter that which sounds fine to begin with?

"The arrangements are pretty much the same. I was the lead singer on all those cuts anyway. For the longest time when dad (Don Parmley) continued the band after I'd left, I wouldn't do any of those songs. I thought, well, as long as the Bluegrass Cardinals are out there they need to do those songs, and I don't need to. But the fans just kept coming up wanting to hear 'Wake Up,' so I finally started doing them after a period of time."

Elsewhere, you'll not find a single track written entirely from Parmley's hands, though he did co-write one, "The House by the Cornfield."

"I'm not a big writer," Parmley says. "I've never written much. That's not one of my strong points. I like a song that has something to say, and I wish I could write, but that's a whole different mindset."

No question. But that doesn't mean that since a musician rarely writes his own material that he's somewhat less talented, either. Recall that ol' crooner of old, Frank Sinatra? Well, like Parmley, he rarely wrote his own material. As someone once said, a smart man is a man who knows his weaknesses as well as his strengths and acts accordingly.

Instead, Parmley looked all about for fine songs, including "Our Bed of Roses," a track recorded by George Jones for his "Cold Hard Truth" album.

"When I got that album of George's I was sittin' there listening to it on the bus, and when that song hit, I probably re-played it 30 times that day. It just hit me that hard. I just loved it. So, I said that that's kind of in the same vein as 'Wake Up' or stuff I've done in the past. I think people will like that, so I started doing it."

Now, any musician worth two cents does not try to follow in step with the Possum. Can't do it. Wisely, Parmley chose to brand the song with his own style.

"It's more of a real soft thing with guitar and bass and fiddles. We use three fiddles. So, it's a far more soft and laid-back acoustic version. It gives it a whole different feel."

That said, Barnes contributed the album's lone instrumental, "Onion Creek," co-wrote "Leave or Stay" with Burchett and Anglin. The album's title track comes from Barnes' dad, Earl, written 40 years ago.

Now that's tradition.

But let's not assume that a train fueled on tradition moves backwards. Oh no. As proven by fellow 'grassers Ricky Skaggs, Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury, you can chug-a-lug along mighty fine when powered with tradition.

"That's the avenue that Continental Divide is gonna continue in," Parmley says.

To paraphrase a Bill Monroe song, there's heavy traffic ahead along tradition's highway. Friends, hop on board or move it on over.

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