Ronnie McCoury,
Heartbreak Town
(Rounder, 2000)

I've often said that the Del McCoury Band is the best band in bluegrass today. That's due not only to the fantastic instrumentalists playing in it, but also to the vocal sound. Del himself is the epitome of the high, lonesome sound that makes bluegrass bluegrass, and his sons, banjoist Rob and mandolinist Ronnie, both got a big load of Del's vocal genes. Those genes are heard to terrific effect on Ronnie's new CD, Heartbreak Town.

Ronnie McCoury is in good company here. Del and Rob are on hand to sing backup, and Jason Carter and Mike Bub are also around to provide fiddle and bass. In addition, there are Stuart Duncan and Jimmy Campbell on fiddles, Gene Wooten and Jerry Douglas on dobro, Bela Fleck on banjo, David Grier and Terry Eldredge on guitar, Larry Atamanuik on drums and percussion, and David Grisman makes a sole appearance on mandolin.

But the main props have to go to Ronnie, who has put together a wide variety of music on this 13-track CD, and whose singing, writing, and playing place him solidly in the first rank of contemporary bluegrass artists. The title tune starts us off, and it's a good 'un -- great tight bluegrass with vivid, somewhat noir lyrics from Ronnie and a brief but jaw-dropping David Grier solo. "The Road from Coeburn to Warren" is a McCoury-composed four-bar instrumental that could have been written by Bill Monroe. It smacks of Big Mon from the great mando picking (Ronnie lets Grisman replace him on this one) down to the eerie twin fiddling by Carter and Duncan. This one's bound to be picked around bluegrass festival campfires for years.

"Somebody's Gonna Pay" takes us back into McCoury country. Nobody plays and sings bluesy bluegrass like the McCoury band, and Ronnie does a sweet job with this Jamie Hartford song. His voice has the same timbre as his father's, but there's a more melodic quality to it. He's a great lead singer, and it shows here in spades. "Lily Hoskins" is a bluegrass waltz with more of that glorious twin fiddling sound that you don't hear much of anymore. It's more than welcome.

Ronnie gives Grisman the mando stage again, with an instrumental composed for Dawg himself -- "Dawggone" -- and it's a hot one, with stellar work (as usual!) from Grisman and a great solo by Bela Fleck. Two vocals follow, Ronnie's "Our Love Never Dies," straight from the sorrow-and-the-pity school of bluegrass songs, and "Evangelina," an older country song with a Spanish flavor. It's got some great vocal harmonies on the chorus.

"Glen Rock" gets us back to a straight-ahead bluegrass instrumental, with bassist Mike Bub getting a chance to shine as he slaps that doghouse for all it's worth.

"When the Hurt's Talkin'," another original, mines the blues vein again, and it's the kind of song no one does better, especially when Ronnie and Del wail together, accompanied by those moaning twin fiddles. "Cold Lonesome Feeling" again shows off Ronnie's voice to great effect, but because of the similarity to his father's, you can't help but compare, especially since Del is there singing backup. There's no more expressive voice in bluegrass than Del McCoury's, which has a kind of conviction that Ronnie (and everyone else) can't quite match. Maybe it's something that comes with age and experience. It's still a fine song, well sung.

One more rocking instrumental, "Noppet Hill Breakdown," and then we're into the last song, fittingly titled "Last Call" (for alcohol), which has a good chance to become a bar anthem in the tradition of "Friends in Low Places." It's a honky-tonk angel of a song and a logical place to wind up after a tour of Heartbreak Town.

This album is a terrific debut solo set from a young man who carries a classic bluegrass bloodline. His mandolin playing is superb, his singing is excellent, and his writing is top-notch. He's surrounded himself with the best players in bluegrass. If you're a fan of this music, buying Heartbreak Town is a real no-brainer. You can't go wrong with this one.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



Buy Heartbreak Town from Amazon.com.