Bluegrass Alliance,
(Copper Creek, 2001)

The group known as Bluegrass Alliance has run through a number of permutations since it was formed 30 years ago, and some of the hottest of today's pickers have come up through its ranks. The current roster includes Barry Palmer on banjo, Johnny "Doc" Martin on guitar, Tom Hicks on mandolin, Chuck Nation on fiddle and La Rita Buchanan on bass. One of the fun things about the bios is that the day jobs of the members are all included (respectively, pharmacist/dentist/computer analyst/pastor/legal assistant). It's a charmingly self-effacing detail, but it's an unfortunate reality that Bluegrass Alliance falls a few steps short of being a really professional-sounding aggregation, despite their mining a wide variety of genres.

They start off with a short and sweet "Friend of the Devil" in which the back-up singers sound like a whole choir behind the lead. One of my favorites, "Ready for the Times," is next, highlighting the first of La Rita Buchanan's lead vocals, the highlights of the CD. Unfortunately, I can't praise Tom Hicks' lead vocals on "Sea of Heartbreak," which tend toward the flat end of the spectrum. His mandolin solo, however, is clean and crisp.

There's more solid mando work from Hicks on the instrumental, "Panhandle Rag," along with a great fiddle solo from Nation. The sum of the band's harmony vocal blend is better than its parts, as can be heard on "Satan's Jeweled Crown," on which the choruses just ring. There's another great vocal by Buchanan on "I Still Miss Someone," but the harmonies don't fully mesh on "Black Still Waters," being quavering and, well, watery.

Carter Stanley's classic "Lonesome River" gets a nice reading, but I found "Sugar Daddy" one of the creepiest bluegrass songs I've heard in years, not only in its sexual connotations, but in its surface meaning as well. From the first verse that sees the object of affection as "running off and making waves like children do on holidays" to the chorus of "Sugar Daddy gives you candy / And I hear candy makes you true," this is pretty appalling stuff. If it's an old song, it should've been left in the vault.

Hoot Hester plays fiddle on most of these tracks, and the twin fiddling gives the album much of its distinctive instrumental sound. The fiddles are heard to great effect on "Wayfaring Stranger," blending nicely with Buchanan's bluesy vocals. The primary weakness of this band, however, is the lack of any strong male vocalist. Most of the men are determined to sing solos just the same, and Tony Rice's "The Seeker" suffers from the weakness of Nation's lead voice. The band goes out on a bright note, however, with "If You're Ever in Oklahoma," due primarily to Buchanan's taking the lead vocal again.

Bluegrass Alliance has potential. They're all good pickers, Buchanan is a fine lead vocalist, and sometimes the vocal harmonies achieve a high caliber, but too often they don't, and there's a crying need for strong, powerful male lead vocals. At this point, Bluegrass Alliance is wise to hang on to those day jobs, but should start scouring the bushes for a few good high lonesome voices.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 8 December 2001

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