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Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick

Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray – 2014 (Spruce and Maple Music)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick

Vern Williams and Ray Park were both Arkansas natives, and like many young Southern men in the 1940s and 50s, they emigrated to California in search of better opportunities. Though raised only a few miles apart, they did not meet until joining the country and bluegrass scene in Stockton and within a few years had become the standard-bearers for the brand of uncompromising, hard-core traditional bluegrass of their Ozark homeland.

The list of young West Coast musicians who fell under their influence came to include the likes of Tony Rice, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen (who played banjo in their band for a time). Also playing close attention were Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick, a pair of female pioneers in what was still, in the '70s, very much a male-dominated branch of music. After they co-founded the (mostly) all-female Good Ol' Persons, Lewis broke off to form her own band, but the two remained close friends and collaborated for "Together" in 1991 (originally on the Kaleidoscope label, later on Rounder), which they dedicated to Williams and Park.

More than 20 years later they're finally back with another tribute, this time featuring a dozen and a half of the songs that defined the Vern and Ray style. Park, a powerful guitarist and fiddler, passed away in 2002. Williams, who died in 2006, was a driving mandolin player whose voice, as Kallick aptly describes it in the liner notes, was "jaw-dropping, razor-sharp, laser-beam." For the East Coasters who didn't much get the chance to hear them in person or on record (there are relatively few recordings of them in circulation), it was something akin to hearing Joe Val or Bob Paisley, a brand of bluegrass some like to call "take no prisoners." Lewis and Kallick both knew Vern and Ray well, and in their own way are well suited to taking on this kind of material. Both have voices that can be sweet, yet carry a razor's edge of their own, and Lewis's fiddling resonates with the same passion as Park's.

Many of the tracks here are tunes that Williams and Park grew up with: "My Clinch Mountain Home" and "Cowboy Jack" (both from the Carter Family); "Oh Susanna" and "My Old Kentucky Home" (Stephen Foster); and traditional songs like "Black-Eyed Susie" and 'Little Birdie." Park, however, was also a startlingly good songwriter. "To Hell With The Land" is as intense as the way they performed it, and Lewis and Kallick maintain that intensity. "Montana Cowboy" may perhaps be his best-known song, having been covered by a variety of artists through the years. It's a treat to have Lewis and Kallick recording together again, and this was clearly a labor of love.