Friday, June 11, 2004

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: HILLBILLY HEAVEN

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican

Although Jerry Garcia died in 1995, for the past several years there has been a steady flow of CDs — and one movie, Grateful Dawg — documenting his partnership with mandolin magician David Grisman.

For Garcia, his low-key acoustic sessions with Grisman were something of a return to his beginnings long before the Grateful Dead burst into the cosmos. Garcia’s music of choice was bluegrass, jug band, old-timey blues and hillbilly tunes.

But according to the liner notes of the latest of these collaborations, Been All Around This World, this will be the last of these sweet collections.

This CD shows a wide array of source material. Garcia and Grisman play the Jimmy Cliff reggae classic “Sitting in Limbo” (which also was on the Grateful Dawg soundtrack album) and James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” which shows that as a soul shouter, Garcia was a great guitarist. They delve into traditional Irish sounds on “Handsome Cabin Boy Waltz” and do a jazzy take on “Nine Pound Hammer” with Matt Eakle on flute.

But my favorites are a couple of country tunes. “Drink Up and Go Home” is an obscure Freddy Hart honky-tonk waltz with Joe Craven on fiddle.

Even more impressive is their version of Leon Payne’s classic (made famous by George Jones), “Take Me.” Although this aching love song was a big hit for Possum in the mid-1960s — and I believe it is among his very best recordings — for reasons best known to the Byzantine barons of the music publishing biz, it rarely appears on Jones’ greatest-hits collections. While Garcia doesn’t have Jones’ vocal ability by a long shot, there’s so much sincerity in his voice that he and Grisman do the song justice.

Although these Garcia-Grisman collaborations aren’t exactly essential recordings, it saddensme to think there won’t be any new ones.

Also recommended
*Morning Glory Ramblers
by Norman & Nancy Blake. This CD by multistring man Norman Blake and his wife and longtime music collaborator Nancy is just a sweet joy from start to finish.

Norman’s hoarse drawl takes you immediately to the hills and hollers. His voice has always sounded the way you’d imagine some backwoods balladeer from centuries past would. And on this record — the Blakes’ first duet album in nearly a decade — it’s great to hear a bigger contribution from Nancy. Her voice is a perfect complement to her husband’s.

The songs are traditional, or at least traditional-sounding. There are religious numbers (“The Wayworn Traveler,” sometimes recorded as “Palms of Victory,” is a standout), songs of sin (“Short Life of Trouble” and the Hank Williams/Luke the Drifter morality rap “Men With Broken Hearts”), love songs (“Loved You Better Than You Knew”) and a hard-times lament (“All the Good Times Are Over”).

But for me, the coolest thing about Morning Glory Ramblers is the fact that Norman & Nancy included a song by longtime Santa Fe picker and singer Jerry Faires: “Precious Memories (Was a Song I Used to Hear).” This is the second Faires song Norman has recorded. Jerry’s “D-18 Song (Thank You, Mr. Martin)” appeared on the 1990 album Norman Blake & Tony Rice 2. (Check out www.dualtone.com.)

*An Evening Long Ago by The Stanley Brothers.The 20 songs on this CD were recorded late one night (early one morning?) in 1956 at a radio station in Bristol, Va.

These sessions have been sold at Ralph Stanley concerts (in a vinyl version) — and those who have been to a Ralph Stanley concert know that Ralph will sell anything that’s not nailed down — but this is the first CD release.

According to the liner notes by Larry Erich (who set up the mikes for the session), the stop at WCYB capped off a full day for the band, including “radio shows, barn dances, hog auctions and the like.”

Besides Ralph on banjo and the late Carter Stanley on guitar, there were Curley Lambert on mandolin and Ralph Mayo on fiddle.

Most of the songs they recorded at the station were old traditional tunes. There are ballads of murders — “Poor Ellen Smith” — and other assorted tragedies (a mining disaster in “Dream of a Miner’s Child,” a fire in “Come All You Tenderhearted).” The best of these is “Story of the Lawson Family,” which the Stanleys wrote based on a true Christmas murder-suicide in North Carolina in the late ’20s.

But not everything’s so grim here. “My Long Skinny Lanky Sara Jane” has lines like, “Well they say her breath is sweet/But I’d rather smell her feet.”

*The Essential Earl Scruggs. The name Earl Scruggs is practically synonymous with bluegrass banjo. This two-disc collection covers Scruggs’ career from his work with Bill Monroe in the late ’40s to his “solo” work in the early ’80s. (Thankfully, it overlooks his 2001 collaborations with Sting, Elton John and Melissa Etheridge on the guest-star-heavy Earl Scruggs and Friends.)

Twenty-five of the 40 songs here are cuts by Flatt & Scruggs after they split from Monroe’s band. Their lengthy partnership, which lasted until the late ’60s, helped define bluegrass as much as Monroe or the Stanley Brothers did. Their powerful 90-mph 1950 recording of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” is still breathtaking, while “Old Salty Dog Blues” (with fiddler Benny Sims on vocals) is just as cocky as rockabilly, which hadn’t even been born yet.

But while the tracks with Lester are the main strength of this collection, the latter-day Scruggs stuff has some gems as well. There’s a fine version of “I Still Miss Someone” with Johnny Cash on vocals. And there’s one of ex-Monkee and underrated country songwriter Mike Nesmith’s greatest tunes, “Some of Shelley’s Blues,” done here by the Earl Scruggs Revue, which featured the banjo man’s sons.

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