Jack Tottle,
The Bluegrass Sound
(Copper Creek, 1999)

If you're a bluegrass fan and want to introduce a friend to this wonderful music, I can't imagine a better way to do it than with this CD. Jack Tottle is a singer, songwriter and mandolin player, a real triple threat, and he's joined here by a whole major constellation of bluegrass stars, including Del and Ronnie McCoury, Stuart Duncan, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Pat Enright, Mark Schatz and many more. There's a 20-page booklet that explains the bluegrass genre in words and photos, and the disc has CD-ROM content as well. But more about that later -- let's give the music a listen.

Tottle has written all the songs, and the title track is a fine start to the album, giving a history of bluegrass and paying tribute to its pioneers, like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. "Rolling Breaker Blues" reminds us why the "blue" is in bluegrass, and is graced with Tottle's fine mandolin break, while Tony Rice and Stuart Duncan offer bluesy and sensitive guitar and fiddle solos.

Tottle has the gift of writing new songs that have the spirit and feel of old ones while still giving us something fresh and original, and "Louisa County" fills this bill perfectly. "Mountain City Blues" smacks of Jimmie Rodgers, and sure enough, there's a "Yodelay-ee-oh!" by the end. Duncan plays some more great blues fiddle here, fiddling traditionally but with a modern edge that cuts through. Bela Fleck plays the same game on his solo, with some great rhythmic complexities that you never would have heard early Earl attempt. "Cowan's Branch" is an instrumental that sounds as though it might have been written by Bill Monroe himself, and I can think of no higher praise. It has the flavor of a classic old fiddle tune, and ends with a wonderful double-stop solo.

We finally have the ultimate musical tribute to Bill Monroe in "Bill Monroe -- Singer of Lonesome Songs." If you've read Richard D. Smith's recent biography of Monroe, Can't You Hear Me Callin', this song will be especially meaningful, showing how those lonesome songs were born of Monroe's experiences, such as the early death of his mother, the separations from his lover, Bessie Lee Mauldin, and the realization that they still loved each other. There's a direct link to Mister Bill himself, since the song is sung by a former Bluegrass Boy, Del McCoury, who has the finest voice in bluegrass today. I'd love to quote the whole song, but will give just a few lines: "A fire deep inside still a-burnin' / That gives you the heart to go on / The sweat and the lights and the numberless nights / An old man's regret and despair / A broken man covered in moonlight" ... the images go on and on. This would be the perfect theme song to a Bill Monroe movie biography. (What's Tommy Lee Jones up to lately?)

"East Tennessee Twilight Waltz" is an absolutely beautiful fiddle waltz, followed by a tribute to fiddler Scott Stoneman, with the line, "Scotty, don't you let that drinkin' tear you down." It's a real cautionary tale about the music life, dealing seriously with the toll that alcohol takes among musicians. There are smatterings and suggestions of many classic fiddle tunes that Duncan weaves through the song. "Heading Out From The Old Home Town" and "Leavin' the Blues" are two more nice bluesy bluegrass songs, and "Dark Eyed Lady" and "Southland" are a pair of instrumentals that give everyone a chance to shine. "Southland" contains some very jazzy mandolin licks that add to the fun of the tune.

"Crazy Moon" is a change of pace with its tricky chord progressions, more jazz than bluegrass. It smacks of 1930s popular songs. "Love Thy Neighbor" reminds us that you can't have a "compleat" bluegrass album without a gospel song, and this is a good 'un, one of the most inclusive bluegrass songs I've ever heard: "Atheist, Buddhist, and the Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and the Jew / When you serve any one of God's children, you're serving the Master too." A fine message that I hope penetrates some of the thicker and less tolerant bluegrass skulls.

The album ends in fine style with a tribute to "The A.P. Carter Family Fold," but the musical experience isn't over yet. The CD-ROM material is a real treat. Here you'll find lyrics and chords to all the songs, biographies and photos of the musicians, reviews of a 4-CD Bill Monroe set and the video High Lonesome, as well as listening suggestions, an essay on Scott Stoneman, and a section on the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University. It's well organized and easily navigable, a wonderful extra bonus to a great bluegrass album. Tottle should be very proud of this whole package, one that should be on the shelves (and in the CD players and computers) of all who call themselves fans of bluegrass.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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