Sister Sadie,
Sister Sadie
(Pinecastle, 2016)

Jeff White,
Right Beside You
(independent, 2016)

In his day job, acoustic guitarist Jeff White plays in country superstar Vince Gill's band, a position he's held, rather remarkably, since 1992. In the meantime he's performed and recorded with Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett and more. He also helped produce two albums on which the Chieftains collaborated with Nashville artists. His early idols, whose influences are still pleasantly detectable, were flat-picking legends Doc Watson, Norman Blake and Tony Rice.

He doesn't record often under his own name. Thus, Right Beside You is an event of note, explaining all the prominent pickers and singers who accompany him here: Gill, Krauss, Ronnie McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski and other esteemed inhabitants of Nashville's rootsier precincts. The result occasions the highest praise I can give a bluegrass album: It reminds me of what long ago attracted me to the genre.

These days it's standard practice in bluegrass and country to qualify the characterization of an artist as "traditional" by appending "in a contemporary context." That's because nothing, musical or otherwise, is precisely as it was. Still, while stamping it with his own imprint, White calls up the spirit of bluegrass circa the 1950s and '60s, when Alan Lomax thought of it as "folk music in overdrive." As with an earlier generation of bluegrassers White has a keen ear for the music's origins in the old Appalachian sound. Right Beside You opens with the oldtime "Run Little Rabbit Run," attributed to Dave "Stringbean" Akeman; the lyrics may or may not be purely traditional, but the melody ("Sail Away Ladies") certainly is. The final number, in partnership with the Chieftains, is the Anglo-Irish-American ballad "Pretty Saro."

The 10 cuts between these two benefit in general from White's exquisite taste. "Wise County Jail" and "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow" come out of the repertoires of towering presences in true-vine Southern music, Dock Boggs and the Carter Family respectively. I'm sure that at some time or other a bluegrass band has borrowed from Boggs, though it would have had to heard of him to do that; not many have. White and associates capably transform Boggs' idiosyncratic oldtime-banjo blues arrangement into bluegrass. They nod to Bill Monroe in a bracing version of the Monroe classic "Travelin' This Lonesome Road" and White's own soulful, Monroe-modeled "Blue Trail of Sorrow."

No gospel song is to be found, oddly for a bluegrass recording. If you aren't listening carefully to the words, though, you might mistake White/Bekka Bramlett's "Another Road" and Tim O'Brien's "Climbin' up a Mountain" for exercises in religious uplift. They are indeed inspirational, but from a secular perspective. If not exactly bluegrass, the former is amazingly lovely, practically guaranteed to drop a lump into your throat. O'Brien's fine song owes a debt to the melody of an old Jimmy Martin favorite, "Free Born Man," learned improbably from Paul Revere & the Raiders. The title song, written by White and James Alan Bartram, is as affecting a statement of love reclaimed as you'll hear.

Along with the superior picking and splendid songs, one should not fail to mention White's resonant vocals, which have something of the particular quality -- call it the ambience -- of the immortal Lester Flatt. By that I mean an easy but assured command which never clobbers listeners over the head even as it keeps their attention fully engaged. Everything in these grooves speaks to how the masters do it, and to what a truly first-rate bluegrass album sounds like.

Sister Sadie started as an informal group of five women active in bluegrass. The original intention was no more than a one-time jam at the Station Inn, Nashville's bluegrass venue, but the event went over so well that the group was soon fielding invitations for other appearances. While each member remains attached to her original band, this eponymous album feels as if it were the work of individuals who've played and sung together for a while.

Besides the wonderful Dale Ann Bradley, among the most impressive singers of either gender in current bluegrass, the members are Tina Adair, Gena Britt, Deanie Richardson and Beth Lawrence. Fiddler Richardson is the only non-vocalist in the bunch, with leads and harmonies scattered among the rest. These are pros who know precisely how to do what they want to do, which is to create a consistently vigorous, thrilling sound without resorting to genre chestnuts. There is, too, a welcome echo, here and there, of pre-bluegrass oldtime music, nowhere more excitingly applied than in the opening cut, "Unholy Waters" (composed by Richardson with Bill Tennyson), a wrenching musical statement on the social costs of alcoholism. It's definitely not just another drinkin' song.

Bluegrass arrangements of Penny Jay Moyer's "Don't Let Me Cross Over," the cheatin' classic Carl Butler made a hit in 1962, are rare, but Adair captures its persuasively real-life agony in the collision between desire and responsibility. Adulterous temptation has seldom been better evoked in a song. It's also a treat to hear Bradley tackle "Blood Red & Goin' Down," the gritty story-song a teenaged Tanya Tucker charted in 1973; contrary to the credit here, though, the composer was Music City songwriting ace Curly Putman Jr., not "Putnam." A Southern preacher's daughter, Bradley, who has a special gift for gospel, also delivers a sacred testament, "Look What I'm Trading for a Mansion" (Paul Chitwood), with intensity and conviction. Less happily, a couple of the love songs will likely strike you as lyrically no more than piffle. On the other side, they have Sister Sadie's magnificent harmonies applied to them.

If you're looking for some outstanding bluegrass to liven up your summer -- and if bluegrass has a season, it's summer, when the festivals that keep the music alive dot the landscape -- Jeff White and Sister Sadie ought to do you just fine.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 July 2016

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