Big Country Bluegrass,
Open for Business
(Mountain Roads, 2008)

No, Big Country Bluegrass does not take its name from the 1980s Scottish folk-rock band Big Country, no matter that both outfits were formed in that decade. As befits this hard-driving, hard-core traditional group, the first two words of the name are derived from an instrumental by bluegrass giant Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), with whom BCBG founder (with wife Teresa) Tommy Sells used to hunt coons.

Long a highly regarded regional act -- in this case along the fabled Virginia-North Carolina border, where mountain music and its modern descendant bluegrass have long thrived -- BCBG had a stellar year in 2008, driven by Open for Business, its first for Karl Cooler's Mountain Roads label, and a single (the album's opener), Grady Bullins's "High Alleghenies," popular on bluegrass radio. To every appearance -- happily for all who should hear what BCBG's "business" is -- soon BCBG and regional may not reflexively share the same sentence.

In its more than two-decade history, the six-member BCBG -- like any durable band in the genre (or any genre) -- has undergone its share of personnel changes. Tommy (mandolin) and Teresa (rhythm guitar) Sells remain the core of the band. Since On Fire, its last album (which I reviewed in this space on 14 July 2007), Lynwood Lunsford and Johnny Williams have replaced Billy Hawks and Ramona Michael, at least on vocals if not on the same instruments. Jeff Michael, who also performs with the old-timey Elkville String Band, is the most versatile member -- fiddle, lead and rhythm guitar, and clawhammer banjo. If that weren't enough, he also sings and writes a couple of cuts. Only Alan Mastin (upright bass) and Tommy Sells don't contribute lead or harmony vocals.

Besides their tight ensemble sound and high-atmosphere vocals that chill the spine even as they warm the soul, BCBG has impeccable taste in material, obviously the result of intimate knowledge of bluegrass and the traditions that formed it. The closest thing to a modern country song is "All That's Left" (by the prolific and ever reliable Tom T. & Dixie Hall, without whose presence it is no longer legal to issue a bluegrass record), and that's only because it mentions compact discs. Otherwise, this is a musical universe defined by old Appalachian folk traditions and early commercial hillbilly sounds, though BCBG's members give the impression of speaking in an entirely natural, almost timeless language.

The songs and tunes neither disappoint nor suffer from over-familiarity. "Nashville Jail," from the repertoire of the late Larry Richardson, credits him as composer, though it's based on an older prisoner's lament originally known as "Roy Dixon." The blues-tinged hobo's lament "Weary Traveler" is a Cliff Carlisle tune picked up, I suspect, from Bill Monroe, who first cut it in 1943 and revived it memorably as the title piece of an excellent 1976 album.

I would love Open for these two selections alone, but BCBG has more dazzling music up its collective sleeve. Not least is the good-natured closer, Uncle Dave Macon's "The Bible's True (The Monkey Song)," inspired by the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. There can't be another bluegrass band around with the wit to record that long-forgotten topical song -- at once sincere and hilarious -- or, for that matter, to be aware that it exists.

review by
Jerome Clark

20 December 2008

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