Feller & Hill,
Brothers & Heroes
(Rural Rhythm, 2017)

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle,
Time Won't Wait
(Rural Rhythm, 2017)

Shannon Slaughter,
Never Standing Still
(independent, 2017)

Though it doesn't always seem like it, traditional bluegrass lives on even in an era of modernization and experimentation within the genre. True, even in its pure form bluegrass is not an ancient folk music, as sometimes naively presumed by outsiders, but a form of commercial country invented in the middle of the last century by Grand Old Opry star Bill Monroe. What makes bluegrass distinctive is that its first and second generation artists did not hide -- to the contrary, celebrated -- roots in oldtime Appalachian music. At the same time bluegrass took inspiration from the popular country sounds of the period, which happened to be the golden age of honkytonk.

Tom Feller and Chris Hill are too young to have been around then, but they've impressively absorbed the approach, as evidenced by Brothers & Heroes. Anyone who has followed bluegrass history will know that Feller & Hill aren't trying to be up to date or to clean up the tradition. This is the tradition. While they aren't brothers, one inevitably thinks of the great outfits that were: the Stanleys, the Osbornes, Jim & Jesse, the Louvins, even the Everlys. They feel as if they were schooled in a shack in Kentucky or Tennessee, miles from town.

The Louvin Brothers get covered on the heartbreaker "Childish Love," the Everly Brothers on the very different "Wake Up, Little Susie." To my ears the latter is, if not really bad, the least interesting cut, probably added to their song list as a sure-fire crowd picker-upper. Except for its rocking rhythm, novel in those days, it wasn't much of a song even in its 1957 iteration. Still, it may cause you to reflect, as it did me, on how courting rituals and sexual mores have changed since the song's subject matter seemed near-scandalous.

The Patsy Cline hit "Back in Baby's Arms" is sheer fluff driven by a lethally catchy melody you can't get out of your head, however much you might want to. Close to psychic torture, songs like this, which your rational brain tells you not to enjoy, endanger one's peace of mind. My advice: relax. "Love is a Stranger" and "Lord Help Me Decide" (not a gospel song; the decision in question is between the singer's wife and his honkytonk girl) attest to the bedrock emotional truths of 1950s country, too "unsophisticated" not to be brutally real about heartbreak, adultery and alcoholism.

There's also a trilogy of Civil War-themed numbers, including the often-covered Aubrey Holt ballad "Atlanta is Burning." "Duncan & Brady," in the variant learned directly or indirectly from Dave Van Ronk's influential 1959 Folkways album, is an authentic folk song, detailing a real-life murder in a rough neighborhood of St. Louis in October 1890. It's entered the bluegrass repertoire (probably via the sadly defunct Johnson Mountain Boys) in recent decades, and Feller & Hill's driving, harmony-dominated arrangement leaves listeners with nothing but the thrill of a well-told and -sung story.

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle deliver strongly flavored bluegrass on Time Won't Wait. A ubiquitous presence on the current scene, Gulley steps easily into various roles as singer, bandleader, songwriter, producer and (probably) bottle-washer. His vocals well up from a deep place, a baritone at once tough and tender. Though Gulley doesn't sound at all like the mellow-toned Lester Flatt, one does hear Flatt & Scruggs, even with the harder edge, in his overall approach. New Pinnacle consists of three young guys, all beefy (what is it, by the way, about beefy young guys in bluegrass these days)?

Another touchstone for the band is the sort of country, well outside the Nashville mainstream now, that once you could hear in any blue-collar tavern in America. On one cut bluegrass attire is shed for a perfect honkytonk work duds that adorn "I Can Almost See Houston from Here" (written by Ray Willis, made popular by Ronnie Milsap), with drums and pedal steel. It's followed by bluegrass with a country feeling, the Jim & Jesse favorite "Congratulations Anyway." In short, Time Won't Wait is the good stuff pretty much all the way through.

On Never Standing Still, his second solo project, Shannon Slaughter weds trad 'grass to Randy Travis-style country, his baritone vocals sometimes uncannily akin to the onetime superstar's. Nothing wrong with that; Travis was and is a hell of a singer, and you must be blessed with muscular pipes to get anywhere near that level of artistry.

Most of the 15 numbers are co-writes, the best of them (notably the powerful opener, "You Can't Outrun the River," composed with luminaries Tim Stafford and Ronnie Bowman) as good as any new bluegrass tunes recorded recently. The musicianship is first-rate. Heather Slaughter proves a perfect singing partner on the duet "Better Move It on Home," written by Ray Griff., and on "Dying to Live Again" she takes the lead impressively. On the hard-core honkytonker "Trying To Be My Own Man" Slaughter drops in steel guitar and piano, leading one to wonder why this sort of sound, which used to be the soul of country, has gone silent in Nashville studios.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 December 2017

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