Those surnames are enough to make one sit up and take notice.
Three legends of bluegrass, each a member of the IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame. All three led (or lead) very successful bluegrass bands, although Williams’ gospel-based Victory Trio is the least generally known. Each is a capable instrumentalist, with historically Crowe having been possibly the most influential banjo player this side of Earl Scruggs.
J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams’ new, self-assured second recording was released just a bit ago, and there is no doubt that it is a goodun.
Rather than repeating with a bluegrass gospel, this time out the long ago Sunny Mountain Boys have chosen to move forward with a well-rounded collection of contemporary bluegrass that is deeply rooted in the traditions of the music.
The album kicks off with the first of three songs most frequently associated with the King of Bluegrass, and their former employer, Jimmy Martin. “My Walking Shoes” is certainly the most familiar of the three Martin-Paul Williams co-writes included here (the others being “Little Angel in Heaven” and “Pretending I Don’t Care,”) and it is certainly an appropriate song to set the mood for this upbeat and inspiring set.
While Crowe and Lawson are the more famous of the three, for my money this album is all about Paul Williams. It is so good to hear him singing straight-ahead bluegrass again. While he has guested here and there, and was an integral part of the Jimmy Martin tribute Audie Blaylock and others put together several years back, with his focus on bluegrass gospel for so long, many have lost sight of what an important component of bluegrass he has been. (For those who don’t know, when you see a songwriting credit for Paul Humphreys, that’s Williams.)
One of the most iconic of country songs, “Once A Day” is sung by Williams in a startling clear voice; I believe he is approaching 80, and I swear he has seldom sounded better than on this collection. He also takes on the classic “The Hills of Roane County” and the ever popular “Fraulein,” a song that I must admit I don’t care for no matter who is singing it. Still, “The Hills of Roane County,” with its mountain blood feud storyline, sounds like it was made for Williams. Lonesome, too true.
There is nothing on this album that would make one think that J.D. Crowe doesn’t have many years of 5-string playing ahead of him, and Doyle Lawson has long been known to have good guitar skills. Crowe understands he has absolutely nothing to prove, and his supportive backing is every bit as impressive as his leads. Again, Williams’ mandolin playing is just lights out.
Of course, Lawson sings real nice with Williams and their take of the Louvin Brothers’ “Don’t Laugh” is another highlight. Their real shining moment comes on an old Williams co-write I don’t believe I’ve previously encountered, “Blue Memories.” With voices singing ‘brother close,’ the three should be up for some type of vocal award for this one. It is one stout performance.
Tim Surrett (bass), Josh Swift (reso and percussion), and Jason Barie (fiddle) complete the six-man lineup. No argument with anything they do, and Barie’s fiddle is prominent—especially on songs like “The Hills of Roane County” and “Pretending I Don’t Care”— but the focus rightly remains on the three senior members.
Standing Tall and Tough reveals three long-time friends as a formidable bluegrass presence.
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