Brad Hudson,
Next New Heartbreak
(Pinecastle, 2017)

Remington Ryde,
A Storyteller's Memory
(Pinecastle, 2017)

Wilson Banjo Co.,
Spirits in the Hills
(Bonfire, 2017)

My 2017 in bluegrass -- no other 'grass discs dropped on my doorstep before the turning of the New Year -- ended on a happy note with these three discs, each by an artist or band I hadn't heard before. Each champions the traditional sound, with the occasional contemporary touch, evincing the sort of approach you get when commitment and talent stand boldly and equally at the forefront of the enterprise. These are natural evolutionary developments from the genre's first decades, the years between the late 1940s to the early 1970s, by which time more modern and, eventually, experimental approaches were pushing their way to prominence.

Some 21st-century strains, sigh, are beginning to resemble a kind of acoustic country-pop -- the earthquake you feel beneath your feet is courtesy of Bill ("that ain't no part of nothin'") Monroe as he thrashes in his grave -- and I suppose that's inevitable. Pop music is nothing if not pernicious, and every musical genre, however pure its original sound, is eventually forced to surrender to it or at least to come to terms with it. The three acts under review are counted among the resisters.

While this is his first release, Brad Hudson sounds as if he's been around longer than he has. His resume, stretching back to guitar mastery in his young childhood, documents connections with country, gospel and bluegrass notables, including but hardly limited to a recurring association with the Parton family and Dollywood. Dolly sings with Hudson on her "Appalachian Memories."

On Next New Heartbreak his principal instrument is the dobro, and he attends to lead and harmony vocals. Sometimes the effect calls to mind classic Flatt & Scruggs, especially in the sweetly melancholy "I Wonder What You See in Your Dreams," among the stand-out cuts. Hudson transforms Loretta Lynn's brilliant hard-country "World of Forgotten People" via an arrangement that might delude the unwary into thinking the song had been bluegrass all along. There's also a charming version of a folk-revival evergreen, Tom Paxton's "I Can't Help But Wonder (Where I'm Bound)," plus a stirring reading (with the gospel duet Jeff & Sheri Easter) of "Beulah Land." The set ends with a tuneful original dobro instrumental, "My One & Only (Crystal's Song)."

Known as the "Bluegrass Storyteller" (thanks to Tom T. Hall, who knows something about musical storytelling), James King had a deep, gravel-tinged voice, a taste for interesting compositions (mostly as an interpreter rather than as composer) and a soulful way of delivering a song. A recovered alcoholic, he died in 2016 of liver cancer, a revered figure who, like his hero Hank Williams, passed on before his time. Ryan Frankhouser, vocalist and lead guitarist of Remington Ryde, sought to honor King's legacy and introduce him to those who may not have known of his contribution.

A Storyteller's Memory is an able exercise, though naturally it only hints at the riches of King's output. Of the 11 songs, one is performed by King himself, nine are covers and one is Frankhouser's "Mr. King." Inevitably, King's most famous song, Rob Crosby/Marnie Wilson's "Bed by the Window," makes an appearance. Boasting a twist that would have done credit to O. Henry, it's a story, in the tradition of particularly doleful bluegrass ballads, that no listener soon forgets. Purely as a song, narrative aside, however, I prefer the album opener, Cullen Galyean's "Days of Grey & Black," which deserves to be at least as well known.

King wasn't known for cutting mediocre material, so you needn't fret about encountering any of it here, certainly not when the content draws on the likes of Hazel Dickens (the great "A Few Old Memories"), Jimmy Martin ("The Voice of My Savior") and Glen Neaves ("Old Swinging Bridge"). If bluegrass is about anything, it's about songs and sentiments like these. Memory will have you wanting more, and you'll find it wherever James King recordings are sold.

The South Carolina-based Wilson Banjo Co. is the creation of Steve Wilson, who you will be startled to learn is a banjo picker. His band's lineup boasts the gifted fiddler and vocalist Sarah Logan, who turns in a notable performance of Bob McDill/Allen Reynolds' often-cut "Catfish John," with a coda from the 1970s Tanya Tucker hit "Delta Dawn." The songs range from the familiar (Michael Martin Murphey's "Carolina in the Pines," Brother Claude Ely's "Ain't No Grave," actually adapted from old African-American spirituals, Lester Flatt's "I'll Stay Around") to the more recent and less known (the spooky title piece from Brink Brinkman and Andrew Crawford) to Wilson's original songs and instrumentals. The opener, Troy Spencer's "40 Years of Trouble," wins my heart both because it's a good song on its own and because Spencer clearly knows the traditional Appalachian lament "Let Me Fall," long a favorite of mine.

Beyond that, all you need to keep in mind is that you won't like Spirit in the Hills if you don't like bluegrass. That's not likely if you're reading these words. Besides, you'll be glad for the reassurance, as each of the generously supplied 14 numbers spins off the player, that good pickers are still picking good stuff.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 January 2018

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