Berline Crary Hickman,
(Sugar Hill, 2002)

Subtitled "A Decade of Tunes From the Edges of Bluegrass," this CD assembles 15 of the best tracks from the four original LPs recorded by fiddler Byron Berline, guitarist Dan Crary and banjoist John Hickman, and released between 1981 and 1989, when they were joined by bassist Steve Spurgin for the final album. This is nothing less than a master class in acoustic music, and anyone who loves bluegrass should quickly grab this one, even if they have the original LPs. The engineering here is wonderful, and every individual voice stands out from the rest.

The tunes are divided fairly equally between the traditional and compositions by the band members, and it all starts off with "Forked Deer," in which the interplay between mandolin and fiddle is a wonder to behold, as close to a wall of sound as you can get in bluegrass. The inventiveness of these players is immediately obvious, as they create a musicological exploration out of this simple tune, going through permutation after permutation. Berline explodes out of the gate on his "Big Dog," and Crary does some miraculous flatpicking, the whole shebang ending in blazingly fast unison. "Fall Creek" has a Celtic flavor, with a wonderful descending line, while "Bonaparte's Retreat" starts languidly but kicks into gear with a wide assortment of up-tempo variations.

Berline's "Pistol Pete" has some delightfully quirky changes and chromatic shifts, while "Fisher's Hornpipe" is given new life by some alternate chords that accompany the fiddle lead. "Night Run" is a Crary original with a dark, menacing undercurrent and some jaw-dropping guitar work, followed by a live-wire "Turkey in the Straw." Shifting moods and tempos make something fresh of the old chestnut, "Under the Double Eagle," and the follow-up, "Henry's Hornpipe," is great fun.

Berline's "Early Times" is the only one of these tunes whose treatment seemed repetitive to me, but "Storm Over Oklahoma" more than makes up for it, starting off moodily and flashing into a Texas-style fiddle tune. Everyone sparkles on "The Dusty Miller," and the "Old Time Medley" is another wonder, solidly anchored by Jerry Scheff's imaginative bass work. The album wraps up with Berline's "Cricket," a blisteringly fast tune that everyone makes look easy.

What's so impressive about the way these three musicians work together is that while one is soloing, the others don't just play "um-chunk um-chunk" behind, but are doing their own things as well, so that you always have three intertwining and creative voices. This technique makes this album deserve the sobriquet of "Chambergrass" more than just the fact that these guys performed sitting down like classical musicians rather than standing and playing. There was always great musical creativity and interplay occurring at every moment, an unbroken tapestry of sound, and we're fortunate to have this "best of the best" from these four classic albums, now seemingly out of print. Don't wait for this one to get that way -- this music is too good to lose.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 7 September 2002

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