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The Piedmont Melody Makers

Wonderful World Outside – 2016 (Vigortone)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by The Piedmont Melody Makers

Although this is their debut release as a quartet, The Piedmont Melody Makers (the band name is a nod to their North Carolina home base) have individually been well-established in the realm of bluegrass, old time and old country music for what adds up to decades of more than a dozen. The two senior members, Alice Gerrard and Jim Watson have nearly a century of experience between themselves alone. Gerrard's bluegrass partnership with the late Hazel Dickens that began in the mid-1960s opened the door for sterling female talents like Alison Krauss and Laurie Lewis. Now in her 80s, she remains a musical force. Watson was a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers in the early 1970s and spent a couple of decades or so as part of Robin and Linda Williams' "Fine Group" (in fact, on more than a few occasions over the years, he was the "Fine Group" in its entirety). Standout singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Brashear has a string of solid solo and collaborative releases in his catalog, while the youngest of the four, Cliff Hale has been a standout for traditionally-oriented bands like the Rye Mountain Boys.

And in fact, it's Hale's voice that may come as the most pleasant surprise to those who may be more familiar with the work of his bandmates, a rich and resonant baritone that evokes the sounds that made the "Hanks" (Williams, Snow, Thompson and Garland) million-sellers in their day. No surprise, then, that one of the most arresting cuts is Hale's lead vocal on Williams' "Six More Miles," among the lesser-known gems in the Alabama legend's catalog. That fondness for selecting their material from the vast "where have I heard that song before?" repertoire is also a major part of the album's charm.

Most of the 16 tracks draw on the early stars from the days before the term "country music" came into common usage - Charlie Poole ("Just Keep Waiting Till The Good Times Come") and the Carter Family ("Poor Little Orphaned Boy"), with nods to later stalwarts like Ray Price ("I'll Be There") and the Stanley Brothers (the title track). That's no surprise considering the pedigrees of these folks. The arrangements are appropriately retro - almost entirely acoustic (guitar, mandolin, fiddle and double bass; no drums and only a few electric touches in the form of pedal steel guitar. In a nod to pre-pedal days, "Six More Miles" has a Don Helms-style classic steel accompaniment.

We often describe certain songs as being "country" songs, or "pop", or "jazz" or any of a dozen or more labels. With the exception of an original each by Gerrard ("Kentucky Home") and Brashear ("One and Only") and a pair of instrumentals, the songs recorded here reflect a time when American musicians were drawing on a variety of sources, from city to rural areas. Such labels didn't yet exist. Another of the striking tracks is "Are You Lonesome Tonight," perhaps best known from Elvis Presley's 1960 pop version, but the Melody Makers rely on the Carter Family version for inspiration, recorded not long after the song was written in the mid-1920s. A good song is a good song, no matter where or when it came from, and the Melody Makers treat each of these old gems with loving care.