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Grand Ole Opry celebrates bluegrass legends McCoury, Lawson and legends-to-be

Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, September 30, 2008

Reviewed by Jessica Phillips

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The Grand Ole Opry gave a nod to IBMA Week by tributing the show to the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe and booking a blend of legendary performers and young hotshots on the historic stage.

Legendary WSM announcer and emcee for the evening Eddie Stubbs introduced the Del McCoury band. Pushing 70, former Bluegrass Boy McCoury still has the deft guitar prowess of someone half his age, and contributed a great banjo line to Don't Put Off Til Tomorrow. Along with his band (including sons and ace pickers Ronnie and Rob), he then let loose into Bluegrass Breakdown, one of Monroe's early instrumentals, tag-teaming mandolin, banjo and fiddle lines.

Hot new band The SteelDrivers ran through the swampy, soulful If It Hadn't Been For Love, and Drinkin' Dark Whiskey (Tellin' White Lies), (nominated for Song of the Year at IBMA this year). With Mike Fleming, Tammy Rogers and Chris Stapleton hovering around one mic, lead singer Stapleton stands out as much for his trademark long hair and ever-present hat as he does for his blistering, gritty Travis Tritt-meets-John Fogerty vocals. On the closer, Blue Side of the Mountain, fiddle player Rogers scratched out a meaty solo. Although the band gave a fervent and professional rendition of each song, the overall sound could have benefited from louder volume level, to let the audience truly feel every impassioned nuance.

Bluegrass has always been a family-oriented style of music. Jesse McReynolds (half of the legendary brother duo Jim & Jesse) and his Virginia Boys kept up the tradition, with McReynolds' granddaughter Amanda guesting on harmony and even taking the lead on Just Someone I Used to Know. McReynolds showed off his signature mandolin cross-picking style on Blues Stay Away from Me, spewing off a rapid-fire solo and wringing emotion out of every note and garnering a rousing ovation from the Opry crowd.

Sugar Hill artists The Infamous Stringdusters were a treat with their country and blues-flavored version of Were You There. Singer Garrett looks and sounds a bit like Roy Orbison. The group is nominated for Instrumental Group of the Year, and their slide Dobro work is superb. Their instrumentals at times cross over into the vein of Montgomery Gentry-style country, sounding more mainstream country than bluegrass. This group was tight, and they played well off each other, bopping almost in perfect sync with each other while trading off instrumental runs.

A highlight was when Stubbs introduced James Monroe, son of Bill Monroe himself, to sing the Hank Williams classic I Saw the Light, and a self-penned tribute to his father, Bean Blossom Festival. Monroe's voice was strained and aged, but echoed the tones of his father. His band was hushed and understated to let Monroe's soft voice take center stage, before turning to Bill Monroe's classic instrumental, Rawhide.

IBMA Award favorites (nominated for 10 awards this year) Dailey & Vincent were relaxed and polished, having each spent years as band members for Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Ricky Skaggs. Their pristine voices were a perfect fit on the Opry stage; their vibratos were in perfect sync, and Dailey should have been nominated for both male and female vocalist at this year's IBMA Awards for his incredible range. They performed their IBMA "Song of the Year" nomination, Name on a Wall, before going into an a capella performance of Don't You Want to Heaven, with Dailey's voice soaring above the rest and earning a stunning applause from the crowd.

Vocal Group of the Year nominees Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver were easily the best dressed group of the night, with their white cowboy shirts, jeans, and hats. They rolled through their hits, He Made Alright, Blue Train and We Missed You.

Two-time Entertainer of the Year and show-closers The Grascals were the most exciting performers of the evening, regularly whooping it up and moving around the stage with ease. They sailed through songs of their latest release Keep On Walking, including covers of Waylon Jennings' Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line, Happy Go Lucky and Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms.

This show was a great bluegrass primer, showcasing today's legends and legends-to-be.