Kristin Scott Benson,
(Mountain Home, 2016)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver,
Burden Bearer
(Mountain Home, 2016)

As often as not, successful bluegrass musicians have extended careers and thus produce more than a handful of recordings. Under his own name or in collaboration (most recently with two other genre veterans, J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams), Doyle Lawson has something like 50 albums under his name. It probably helps that, besides his extended exposure to the bluegrass songbook, he possesses a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of country and gospel music. A listener as much as a performer, Lawson can be counted to pick -- in both senses of the verb -- solid material, a virtue not shared by all of his colleagues.

As the title suggests, Burden Bearer is Lawson & his longtime band Quicksilver -- a shifting ensemble of younger players getting schooled as the young Lawson did under the late Jimmy Martin -- wearing their gospel caps. Unusually for a bluegrass album it stretches to a generous 20 cuts. Even better, it's divided between a cappella singing and instrument-backed arrangements.

Those who know their bluegrass gospel know how good unaccompanied four-part harmonies can sound, and practically nobody on the current scene does them better than Lawson and associates. The version of the traditional spiritual "Wrastlin' Jacob" is a particular wonder, and "The Cross in the Garden," for all its hopeful message, feels almost spooky in this masterly rendering. Among the accompanied songs, "God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign" (associated with the Carter Family but in fact much older) and "No Storms That We Must Fear" rivet the listener and move the heart. But everything here measures up to the usual Lawson standard, once again affirming his status among bluegrass' all-time greats.

Though younger by a few decades than Lawson, Kristin Scott Benson has made a mark as one of her generation's leading banjo pickers. She holds down that slot in the popular Grascals, who began as Dolly Parton's band during her bluegrass phase some years ago. Happily, the outfit continues, and once in a while Benson goes off on her own to cut a solo album, of which Stringworks is the latest.

Not a vocalist, she could have laid down a strictly instrumental disc. This exercise, however, calls periodically on the talents of some exemplary guest singers, including the notable likes of Claire Lynch (on Cheryl Wheeler's terrific "When Fall Comes to New England") and Chris Jones ("All I Want Is You," learned from Flatt & Scruggs). The instrumentals, half of the cuts, highlight Benson's taste, restraint and keen love of melody. These aren't blinding explosions of notes but considered, felt statements, the sorts of things intended to communicate to all listeners, fellow musicians or otherwise.

Entertaining as they are, the Grascals can come across on occasion as, well, maybe a shade too exuberant. On her own, Benson fashions a thoughtful, even -- I can't think of a better word -- intelligent 'grass. Stringworks offers, in short, a welcome alternative to the usual approach.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 September 2016

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