Ron Block's "Hogan's House of Music" works on several levels. The release is a lively and admiring tribute to traditional and bluegrass sounds that made him the player that he is today. And, the work could be included in an aural time capsule to demonstrate the state of play in the bluegrass establishment, circa 2015
"Hogan's House of Music" gets its name from a record shop in Los Angeles County, California, which Block's father ran for three decades and in which Block learned the ins and outs of the bluegrass tradition. It's a story worth telling, since the "I learned about life at a record store" narrative has disappeared in the Spotify era.
"Hogan's" has a tasty mixture among traditional, time-tested and newer original instrumental material. It works well. Each selection features fine, textured playing, with a minimum of flash. Yet, lack of flash does not equal lack of command.
The sparest of arrangements (on the traditional "Seneca Square Dance") is perhaps the richest. Block plays banjo, with a hint of roll and a lot of left hand energy. On 'Seneca," the estimable mandolinist Sierra Hull meets and exceeds Block's challenge on the melody line. "'65 Mustang Blues," a Block original, has swing and sass; Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (Dobro) and Byron House's bass complement Block's leads on banjo and guitar.
Block's song-writing shows his roots; he grew up in the country north of Sacramento before moving onto his House of Music days in the south. His compositions ("Smartville," for example) evoke sunny days, dusty roads and music's unrivalled ability to transport from the here and now. The non-Block selections (from Stephen Foster's "Gentle Annie," the mixolydian "Brushy Fork of John's Creek" to Stanley's "Clinch Mountain Backstep") are at once brisk and true. "You Are My Sunshine" could be a hoary throw-in on most records, but Block's slick banjo style and Stuart Duncan's fiddle give it unexpected freshness.
Ron Block has long been a mainstay of Alison Krauss and Union Station. His Union Station mates provide solid support throughout. The consequences are manifest: the CD amply demonstrates what first-rate players can do. "Hogan's House of Music" displays a solid devotion to the form and ethos of traditional bluegrass music.