Big Country Bluegrass is one of the finest unheralded bluegrass groups working today. You won’t find their names—collectively or individually—on the final IBMA nomination lists, and they don’t command appearances on late-night talk shows, but their presentation of roots and hollers bluegrass is as strong as you are going to encounter in 2019.
Mountains, Mamas and Memories (which could easily have been titled Moonshine, Mortality, and Mines) features a dozen terrific performances, not a single ‘skip-it’ song in the bunch.
Eddie Gill is a tremendous vocalist, and—meaning no disrespect to his colleagues—his solid country voice carries much of the album. “Country Boy, Banjo and Flat Top Guitar,”—a song most of us didn’t encounter when first recorded a few decades ago, and BCB’s latest chart-flyer—“The Whiskey or the Coal,” and “Is This Seat Taken?”—their subject matter foundational to the genre—sound fresh and inspired. “You Can’t Buy Your Way Out of the Mines,” one of two new Tracy O’Connell songs, is a standout.
“Carolina Traveler” is another song about the music, and it as animated as anything contained on the set. So convincing is Gill’s delivery that even a song that is challenging from a sociological standpoint—“Times Were Good When Times Were Bad”—is appreciated. One of Bill Anderson’s earliest hits is cranked up a degree or three—“Dead or Alive” moves like the pursued convict telling this tale.
Teresa Sells has a down-home vocal delivery reminding one of Gloria Belle, with a little Delia Bell when she draws-out her rhymes. It is very appealing, and on “Mama’s Radio” she sits the listener down directly and vocally constructs around us the old home filled with the sounds of “voices of long, long ago.”
A six-person group, Big Country Bluegrass centers their approach about the driving rhythm of bassist Tony King—I’m not sure if he is pushing the beat, or pulling it, but it is right out front in the mix. No shrinking violets, here—the Big Country Bluegrass sound is stout, resolute in its traditional grounding.
Tim Laughlin’s fiddle weaves in, out, and around just like it should—“The Hills of Caroline” being a bit of a showcase—and John Treadway is no slouch on the 5-string: on songs like “Back to the Mountains” his runs and fills are much appreciated. G-runs abound, as do workmanlike-licks—nothing too fanciful—as Gill and Teresa Sells keep the guitar parts interesting, and Tommy Sells doesn’t allow his mandolin to be hidden within these invigorating arrangements. Their songs feature three-part harmony, and the combination of Teresa’s tenor and Laughlin’s lower baritone is dynamic. Treadway also sings some harmony, proving that the band is blessed with four able singers.
I’ve seen folks write that bluegrass is a tired formula, one that has little going for it but a few notes and hokum: recently a writer in a major outlet derided the music, claiming “’Bluegrass again? What more can you say about it?’ Plinking banjo, thumping bass, and a good deal of yee-haw. Good fun, but often not much difference between one song/band and another.”* [https://www.nodepression.com/album-reviews/frank-solivan-dirty-kitchen-stretch-the-bluegrass-envelope]
Such a simplistic, narrow view of a powerful music is unfortunate, and I’m guessing the writer hasn’t heard Big Country Bluegrass.
Big Country Bluegrass—album after album— prove that bluegrass is as vital and powerful as any of its Americana cousins. Mountains, Mamas and Memories is bold and bright, filled with the beautiful bounty that the best of bluegrass offers.
[Review based on supplied CD.]
*The mentioned writer ended up writing compliments for the album under review, but continued to include phrases of derision:
- “There are some traditional songs on If You Can’t Stand the Heat. Try “Lena,” about as frenetically bluegrassy as it gets with as much plink and yee-haw as you could want. Or listen to “Crooked Eyed John” — slower, but hillbilly as all get out (to use a culturally appropriate phrase)” and
- “But the band does use it quite successfully to show that bluegrass instruments and style can stretch quite far without being ridiculous or a spoof (such as the wonderful Hayseed Dixie).”
I’m tired of folks who should know better looking down their nose at bluegrass, and spreading their lazy thoughts onto others. Any praise contained in such a review has to be viewed as faint, if not categorically uninformed.