Don Rigsby answers the call – September 2006
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Don Rigsby answers the call  Print

By John Lupton, September 2006

Veteran bluegrass singer, mandolin picker and producer Don Rigsby, 38, is Mississippi-bound on a late night errand as he talks via cell phone about his multi-faceted music career. Almost as an omen, it's just past midnight when the conversation wraps up, since he's savoring the mid-July release of his debut recording as leader of his own band, Midnight Call, which was the title of his 2003 solo release on Sugar Hill.

He credits his wife, Tina, for choosing the name (and acknowledges with a wry chuckle that it works better than the title of his earlier solo effort "Empty Old Mailbox"), but laughs as he relates that the name has had unintended side effects.

"It's kind of funny. One of the guys in my band, an earlier version of the band, took one of the paychecks to the bank, and they thought he was working for an escort service - 'What kind of outfit are you working for?'"

Rigsby is a native of Isonville, in the same part of eastern Kentucky that produced Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, who happens to be Rigsby's cousin. The new album, "Hillbilly Heartache" (on Rebel) is a testament to the people and culture that Rigsby grew up around, and while the word "hillbilly" still opens old wounds among many of Appalachian heritage, Rigsby is among those who openly embrace it.

"I am what I am, you know, and I have a college education, but that's beside the point. You can be an educated hillbilly. I'm just so proud to be (from) where I'm from, I just try to extol the virtues of my heritage. People that were born and raised where I'm from are hard-working people, and they've got plenty to be proud of and don't need to be ashamed."

The opening three cuts of the album, in fact, speak volumes about the undercurrents of mountain life that all the "hillbilly" clichˇs and stereotypes never touch on. The album's title track echoes the panic of hearing the siren that signals a mine disaster; "Daddy Was A Moonshine Man" is more about economic necessity than the morality of temperance or prohibition; and "These Golden Fields" serves as reminder that growing your own food is among the hardest but most satisfying work there is.

"Those three songs...tell us about people who are proud and hard-working. It doesn't tell that they did anything that was bad, if you take note of the lyrics. They tell about people that had a hard lifestyle, and if you can make it growing up in that kind of a region and somehow kind of scratch out a living, well that to me is a pretty impressive thing."

Unsurprisingly, decades of condescension and derision from city folk and other flatlanders prompts Rigsby to a typically blunt and forthright assessment.

"Folks that have a tendency to look down on folks from Appalachia, you know, I just kind of have to say shame on them because they just don't know a whole lot about it. I don't put a lot of value in what they have to say anyway, I mean, I've seen so much of that garbage on television, etc...You know, those songs aren't bad things, they're just facts of life. All three of those songs are just facts of life, and I don't see anything bad about them, do you?"

From his earliest days as a sideman for the likes of J. D. Crowe and others, the liner notes of bluegrass-oriented labels are peppered with Rigsby's name.

Probably best known for his stint in the late '90s and into 2001 with the Lonesome River Band, he's also been a driving force in the "supergroup" projects released under the Longview name (three so far, but he lets drop that a fourth is "in the can" and projected for possible spring '07 release on Rounder).

Add in the two duet albums with longtime friend Dudley Connell, his partnership with Glen Duncan in Rock County, the aforementioned solo studio projects and literally dozens of projects he's produced, guested on, or both and the inescapable conclusion is that Don Rigsby may be the busiest man in bluegrass.

His evolution to band leader began to take shape with a pair of life-altering events that took place in May 2001 as his time with the Lonesome River Band was winding down. The first was the birth of his daughter, Sarah. As a new father, he was feeling more and more keenly that, as successful and popular as LRB was, the success didn't translate into security for himself and his young family.

"I'd just been blessed with good health, never really needed anything like (retirement benefits and insurance), but my wife had just given birth to a child. I was looking at my future and saying, 'You know, as much fun as this has been and as magnanimous as I consider it, I don't have retirement. I don't have health care. I don't have a guaranteed paycheck, really. The band (LRB) was really good, but we were kind of at our zenith. and I couldn't really see - nothing at all against anybody in that band (Sammy Shelor, Ronnie Bowman and Kenny Smith), they're all stellar musicians and performers and wonderful people, I consider them all friends - but we were kind of at the pinnacle of what I considered we could do, and I had to try and look out for my family."

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