Buddy Merriam - Back Roads Mandolin

Buddy Merriam - Back Roads Mandolin

BUDDY MERRIAM
BACK ROADS MANDOLIN

LilyPad Records
534

It’s not easy to put together a highquality instrumental bluegrass CD, so it’s especially impressive that a regional band, albeit a veteran one, has done such an impressive job. Buddy Merriam, leader and mandolinist with New York’s Buddy Merriam & Back Roads, has assembled a rich and enjoyable collection of original tunes.

“Back Roads Mandolin” hits all the right notes in every sense of the word. The 14 tunes are put together with as much variety in arrangement and instrumentation that you could possible manage, using the same basic core of players. Yet Merriam manages to keep the music rooted in bluegrass while occasionally integrating the influences of gypsy jazz, native American music, and even a touch of polka. Each of the players is given chances to kick off various tunes as well.

Every instrumentalist has a distinctive musical voice. Merriam has a woody tone and a Monroeesque backbone that comes through, allowing the listener to hear every bit of varnish and wood grain in his mandolin. Jerry Oland and his banjo are the relentlessly solid engine that propels each tune. Fiddler Greg Oleyar is more of a chameleon, using overdubbed twin fiddling in some places that hearkens back to the Blue Grass Boys’ sound, while, in other spots, plays with daring imagination. Guitarist Bob Harris is one of those unheralded regional treasures, showing hints of David Grier’s influence, but still manages to create fiery and amazing lead breaks that are uniquely his own. And Ernie Sykes needs no solos on the bass to give a cohesive bottom and drive to the album’s sound.

Greg Cahill’s liner notes are too intriguing to try and summarize, except to say that the story behind Merriam’s musical career and the inspirations behind each tune (further elaborated upon by Merriam in the sleeve notes) are fascinating and memorable. And it says a lot about the quality of this project that the only thing I can find to quibble about is that those same notes are printed quite small for these rapidly aging eyes. But, it’ll be worth your while to dig out your magnifying glass or bifocals, crank up your stereo, computer, iPod, or Victrola, and treat yourself to a tasty collection of original instrumental bluegrass. (Lily Pad Records, P.O. Box 862, Sound Beach, NY 11789, www.backroadsbluegrass.com.) HK

Bill Yates & Friends - Country Gentlemen Tribute Volume II

Bill Yates & Friends - Country Gentlemen Tribute Volume II

BILL YATES AND FRIENDS
COUNTRY GENTLEMEN TRIBUTE VOLUME II

MasterShield Records
No Number

Bill Yates was a long-time member of the Country Gentlemen. This second volume may speak to the popularity of the idea of resurrecting the sound of that mainstay band. Nevermind that there is plethora of material currently available from the band, here is a fine collection of some of the most popular material the band recorded.

The Country Gentlemen were personified by the voice and presence of one man: Charlie Waller. It was often said that he could have been a big name in country music, but chose to remain in bluegrass. His voice and the style of the band did much to define bluegrass for a very long time. Mike Phipps sounds remarkably like Waller. Both have powerful voices and the tones are very similar as well.
The band here is thoroughly professional, keeping the sound as most will remember it with appropriate picking and vocals. The songs, 14 in all, include, “Bringing Mary Home,” “Matterhorn,” “Fox On The Run,” and “The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier.” The balance of material ranges toward the later days of the band’s recordings.

If you cannot get enough of the Country Gentlemen sound, you can add to your collection with this CD. As the music moves forward, it is understandable that there are folks who want to preserve and remember the older sounds. This project does just that, very well. (MasterShield Records, 6683 Vista Heights Rd., Bridgewater, VA 22812, www.mastershield.com.) RCB

Foggy Mountain Hilton - Show Me The Way To Go Home

Foggy Mountain Hilton - Show Me The Way To Go Home

FOGGY MOUNTAIN HILTON
SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME

Patuxent Music
CD199

Foggy Mountain Hilton is an exciting bluegrass band active in the Washington, D.C., area and includes Eddie Goldbetter (mandolin and vocals), Geff King (bass and vocals), Matt Levine (guitar, banjo, resonator guitar, and vocals), and Tom Lyon (fiddle).  Also assisting are banjo pickers Mark Delaney and Kevin Roop and fiddler Sue (Raines) Tice. What is most impressive about this 15-piece collaboration is the variety of material.

While a few old standards (“Living Like A Fool” and “Tiny Broken Heart”) are included, many are unique tunes arranged in a solid bluegrass style. The title song was written by banjo picker Cullen Galyean and recorded by the Border Mountain Boys in 1969, while “Ain’t Gonna Waste My Time” and “Extra” are from country singers Don Gibson and Freddie Hart respectfully. Also included is an obscure Barrier Brothers number, “Please Don’t Leave Me Alone” along with Geff King’s own “Bluegrass Music Has Ruined My Life” which concerns the trials and tribulations of playing in a bluegrass band.

“Show Me The Way To Go Home” is a delightful listening experience that demonstrates that there is no limit to the imagination as to what type of material can be placed into a bluegrass format. Other aspiring bands would do well to follow this example set by Foggy Mountain Hilton. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD  20848, www.pxrec.com.) LM

Jake Dewhirst - Shades Of Grey

Jake Dewhirst - Shades Of Grey

JAKE DEWHIRST
SHADES OF GREY

No Label
No Number

Jake Dewhirst, a young guitarist and mandolinist from Washington state, has released his debut recording of twelve tracks (nine instrumentals and three vocals). Eight of the tracks (including the three vocals) are his original compositions. The four covers include “Amazing Grace,” the traditional tunes “Willow Garden” and “Beaumont Rag,” and Earl Scruggs’s “Nashville Blues.”
The music here leaves no doubt that Dewhirst is a rising guitar talent. He is a confident and a fluid guitarist with quick tempos (as on his tune “Southbound Train”), yet uses a minimalist approach on the slower tunes. His range of styles goes from melody and strum to a shimmering and ornate arpeggio approach (on his “Fly By”) reminiscent of David Grier. The majority of the tracks, however, including “Beaumont Rag” and his own “Dawson County,” find him with his own variant of the intricate contemporary guitar leads developed since the mid’70s. He could stand a bit more rhythmic and melodic accent to his mostly evenlystressed leads. I liked his version of “Nashville Blues,” a tune that’s always struck me as angry or aggressive trying to break free of its slow/medium, grinding tempo. Dewhirst captures that straining-at-the-shackles very well.

As a tunesmith, he does a credible job. His songs are about average, one being a gospel song and the other two are of the rambleronatrain variety, but the syllables and stresses strike well and don’t sound forced. His instrumentals are a mix of styles and qualities: “Dawson County” is straightforward with a melody that hints at “Shady Grove”; the solo “Priceless” is a pleasant, lilting 6/8 tune. I found a couple of the originals, particularly the solo guitar on “Driftwood,” somewhat meandering, but that and the abovementioned need for definition in his solos does not lessen what is a good debut recording. (Jake Dewhirst, 13812 32nd Ave. NW, Gig Harbor, WA 98332, www.myspace.com/jakedewhirst.) BW

Del McCoury - Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury

Del McCoury - Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury

DEL MCCOURY
CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF DEL MCCOURY

McCoury Music
MCM0050

Del McCoury’s greatest success has come in the last two decades of his fifty years in bluegrass music. He has done as much as anyone to innovate within the music’s traditional boundaries and expose new fans to the music with stellar recordings and electrfying live shows driven almost entirely by audience requests.
This fifty-track/five-disc set is a different take on the boxed set, featuring 32 newly recorded versions of songs McCoury has made his own, from the early days of his career up to the time McCoury took ownership of his recordings with 1999’s “The Family.” Cuts like “Don’t Stop The Music,” “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Are You Teasing Me?,” “Big Rock In The Road,” “Rain And Snow,” “High On A Mountain,” “Bluest Man In Town,” “Loneliness & Desperation,” “I Feel The Blues Movin’ In,” and “Queen Anne’s Lace” are all here, showcasing the peerless sound of the Del McCoury Band, which includes sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), fiddler Jason Carter, and bassist Alan Bartram.

Eighteen other songs are taken from “The Family,” “Del And The Boys,” “It’s Just The Night,” and “The Company We Keep,” showing that the band hasn’t lost much and that McCoury’s voice has grown richer along with his ear for great songs. The music here is great, allowing you to create your own private McCoury concerts by shuffling through the tracks in any order whatsoever.

However, to package about 160 minutes of music on five CDs at a $50 price point is not consumer-friendly at all, especially in this era of falling CD sales and all-around recession. A more attractively packaged two- or three-CD set priced at about $30 would be a must-buy, but one might have an even better listening experience by working back through the original recordings, especially McCoury’s efforts on Rounder Records, to more fully experience some of the very best acoustic music of this or any other generation. (McCoury Music, P.O. Box 128437, Nashville, TN 37212, www.mccourymusic.com.) AKH

Barbwire Bluegrass - You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

Barbwire Bluegrass - You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

BARBWIRE BLUEGRASS
YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET

C & L Entertainment
C&LE219

The Barbwire Bluegrass Band works out of Georgia and consists of Ricky and Ben Ponder of Manchester and the father and son team of Gary and Casey Looper of Cummings. This is their debut recording. Stylistically, the music here recalls that mid1980s to mid1990s bluegrass that featured touches of country and a bit of contemporary ideas, but which had not gone so far into either as to lose sight of the tradition.

At the core of the band’s sound is the songwriting of guitarist and principle (I’m guessing, as the notes don’t indicate who sings which songs) lead vocalist Ricky Ponder. There are 12 tracks and Ponder wrote 11 of them. The one exception is a cover of “County Fool,” which attempts to and mostly does recreate Del McCoury’s version from Alan Bibey’s “In A Blue Room” CD. Ponder’s songs vary up and down in the midtempo range, with several slower songs and no real uptempo tunes. Strength in many of its manifestations is a common theme in his writing. He sings of the strength of the farmer and of the railroad worker in the title cut and in “Let My Hammer Ring” respectively. He also touches on the strength of the “Hurricane” coming to Florida and of the “Mighty Misssippi,” and of the strength of the John 3:16 Bible verse and of the strength you’ll need if you want to avoid trouble “If You Play With Fire.” Other songs touch on memory (“Carolina”), desperados (“Mason County”), and the psychological struggles of dealing with winter (“When The Pond Freezes Over”).

While fiddler Gary Looper, banjoist Casey Looper and bassist Ben Ponder each get in their licks and kicks and solos, it is guest mandolinist Nick Powell, taking several long solos and quite a few fills, who dominates the instrumental work of what is a reasonable first band release. (C & L Entertainment, P.O. Box 691505, Charlotte, NC 28227, www.candlentertainment.com.) BW

Dan Menzone - Frostbite

Dan Menzone - Frostbite

DAN MENZONE
FROSTBITE

No Label
No Number

Any one of the songs here, taken alone, would be pleasing. Mixed and matched in the right way in groups of three or four, the same might be said. Taking the album as a whole it falls short. That should indicate to you that it is not the musicianship that’s in question.

Dan Menzone is a banjoist of considerable ability with a nicely struck tone, a clear control of note spacing, and a firm grasp that earcatching solos need not be flashy. You can then go down the list of the supporting musicians. Guitarist Wyatt Rice, bassist Ron Rice, fiddler Rickie Simpkins, mandolinist Adam Steffey, resonator guitarist Rob Ickes, and vocalists Richard Bennett and Don Rigsby. You can’t do any better than that cast and everyone sounds like they’re on their game. Their work on such old favorites as Scruggs’s “Randy Lynn Rag,” Crowe’s “Black Jack,” Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” and McGee’s “Blue Night” is impeccable.

What lowers this recording’s appeal starts with the pace of the songs. Eight of the thirteen tracks clock in at a medium fast to fast gait. Four others are on the faster end of medium tempo. All of them are in the same time signature, all begin and end with Menzone’s banjo, and all use a similar chugging and churning rhythm. It is not until the eleventh tune that we get an actual slow song Menzone’s “Missing You.” The contrast is so welcome that it proves to be one of the album’s best cuts, flirting with passages reminiscent of the slow instrumentals performed by such ’60s San Francisco rock bands as It’s A Beautiful Day.

The result is that, wellplayed as the recording is, there is a certain sameness to it. Varying the song tempos, rhythms, and presentation would have made an album of good parts a good whole. (Dan Menzone, 78 Potter Village Rd., Charlton, MA 01507, www.danmenzone.com.) BW

Detour - The Road That Lies Ahead

Detour - The Road That Lies Ahead

DETOUR
THE ROAD THAT LIES AHEAD

Bluegrass Ahead
0901

You could argue that the second release from the Michigan band, Detour, is mandolinist Jeff Rose’s recording. Afterall, he wrote nine of the tunes, including three instrumentals. Each one of the compositions is on the “good” to “very good” level, and “My Life Just Ain’t A Bluegrass Song” is just the kind of song that finds its way onto the charts with its clever catalogue of all the standard bluegrassisms that are missing from the singer’s life. Rose’s mandolin playing is also of very high standard.

Yet, to say it’s his recording is to overlook the fine vocals of bassist and lead singer Zak Bunce. He sings lead on each of the nine vocal numbers and does so in a commanding way. He can sing it smooth, as on the title cut or on Rose’s plea for slowing life down, “Goin’ Nowhere Fast.” He can sing it mournful, as on Rose’s graveyard portrait “Cold Stones” or his “Dear Brother.” He can sing it powerful, as on the high speed, rockinfluenced version of “Sixteen Tons” or the cover of “Sitting On Top Of The World” or on “My Life Just…” In short, he can sing. And we mustn’t overlook the collective contributions and arranging by guitarist Scott Zylstra and newcomers, banjoist Kevin Gaugier and fiddler Peter Knupfer. Now, it’s true that no one dominates the recording the way that Rose and Bunce do, but their solos, support, and ideas go a long way toward the success of this album.

This is Detour’s second release and an extremely good contemporary bluegrass recording—one full of attractive arrangements, earcatching touches such as the upward vocal slide into the chorus of the title cut, sharp New Grass Revivallike rhythmic punctuations, fine soloing, and tight harmonies. (Jeff Rose, 3315 Rose Rd., Brethren, MI 49619, www.detourbluegrass.com.) BW

Sawmill Road - Fire On The Kettle

Sawmill Road - Fire On The Kettle

SAWMILL ROAD 2
FIRE ON THE KETTLE

SMR Records
SMR 102

“Fire On The Kettle” is the latest release from Sawmill Road and one of the more imaginative bluegrass bands based in the western United States.  The current group consists of Dick Brown (banjo and vocals), Steve Spurgin (bass and vocals), Charlie Edsall (guitar), Mark Miracle (mandolin and vocals), and Doug Bartlett (fiddle and vocals).

Steve Spurgin is well-known for his numerous compositions and solo projects. Three of the fifteen selections are Steve’s own pieces including the title song “Leave Me The Way I Am” and “The Far Side Of The River.” One highlight is “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a maritime tale penned by the late Stan Rogers concerning the heroic efforts to salvage a sunken ship by the vessel’s former crew members. Other prominent entries include Charlie Monroe’s “Down In Caroline,” “The Leaves Mustn’t Fall,” and the Dick Brown Celtic-tinged instrumental, “Dunluce Castle.” “Fire On The Kettle” is a superb collection that establishes Sawmill Road as a significant voice in the arena of contemporary bluegrass music. (Sawmill Road, P.O. Box 371, Carson City, NV  89702, www.sawmillroad.net.) LM

David Via - All Night Long

David Via - All Night Long

DAVID VIA
ALL NIGHT LONG

DigOMatic Records
No number

David Via has been playing rootsy and progressive bluegrass music in Virginia and North Carolina for years. He’s performed with various incarnations during his career, the best known being his Corn Tornado band that featured musicians Curtis Burch, Danny Knicely, and “Fiddly Dave” VanDeventer. He is also one of the best songwriters in the business and his new album “All Night Long” showcases 11 new originals.

As producer of this CD, Via brought in an Ateam of session musicians to back him up. When I knew I was reviewing this album, I had a chance to talk with Via. I asked him one question: “Was this simply an Ateam of ringers brought in for the project, or are these musicians friends of yours that you enjoy playing with?” He answered, “They are all friends, people I’ve played with through the years who at one time were only ‘Alist’ to me. I tried to keep it to just friends, and true friends they are.”

And, that is the feel of this album with friends including Jim VanCleve, Ronnie Bowman, Garnet Imes Bowman, Sammy Shelor, Alan Bibey, Wyatt Rice, Rob McCoury, Nate Leath, Dan Tyminski, Tommy Morse, Tim O’Brien, John Flower, Paul Leech, Craig Market, Melany Earnhardt, Woody Wood, Vince Herman, and Dennis Crouch supporting, yet not overshadowing, these new and earthy songs. A lover of the resonator guitar, Via uses three squareneck slingers on this project, Randy Kohrs, Billy Cardine, and Curtis Burch. The highlights include a song about a loved one going to heaven (“Louise”), an Old West murder song (“The Wind Will Blow”), a song describing the taking of land by the government (“Eminent Domain”), a fun romp called “Festival,” and the coming-of-age tune “Mama Said.” (Melany Earnhardt, 2307 Madison Ave., Greensboro, NC 27403, www.davidvia.com.) DH

Jerry Butler and John Wade - Haulin' Grass

Jerry Butler and John Wade - Haulin' Grass

JERRY BUTLER AND JOHN WADE
HAULIN’ GRASS

Blue Circle Records
BCR019

Concept albums are rare in bluegrass, but here the theme is trucks, truckers, and trucking; 13 tracks of trucks. Butler and Wade, both former members of Carolina Road and now members of Jerry Butler and the BluJ’s, cover four classics of the trucking song genre; they are Merle Haggard’s “Movin’ On,” two versions of Lester Flatt’s “Backin’ To Birmingham,” John Denver’s “Back Home Again,” and a tune made famous by Del Reeves, “Looking At The World Through A Windshield.” To go with those are several covers and several new songs. Tom T. and Dixie Hall contribute three tunes, the best of which is the portrait of an aging waitress, “Shorty Is Forty.” There is also a vibrant cover of Justin Tubb’s “Be Glad,” arguably the best track here, though not truly a trucking song.
Not much about trucking itself is missing: Will and Sonny heroically keeping the goods in “Movin’ On”; the faithful trucker who’s “Forty Years Of Lonesome” on the road ends sadly; the philosophic resignation that a strong attitude keeps the trucker on “The Road I’m On” and makes him a “Legend Of The Highway”; and the long hauls, the stresses on marriages, and the pleasures of being “Back Home Again” and seeing “Daddy’s Girl.”

Butler and Wade and the supporting musicians—banjoists Kenny Ingram and Troy Engle, fiddler Ron Stewart, mandolinist Chris Harris, resonator guitarist Matt Leadbetter, and vocalists Steve Gulley and Melissa Lawrence—turn in fine performances throughout. It is Butler who dominates. His voice is perfect for the material. Trucker songs are not high lonesome songs; they lean toward the country side of the ledger, and that requires a warm, resonant, midrange voice. Butler brings just that kind of vocalizing to the project, singing it weary where needed, crowing with bravado when called for, and using pathos, sentimentalism, or humor. All that makes for a very good recording. (Blue Circle Records, P.O. Box 681286, Franklin, TN 37068, www.bluecirclerecords.com.) BW

ON THE EDGE

Piedmont Textile Workers On Record, Gaston Co., North Carolina, 1927-1931 - Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues

Piedmont Textile Workers On Record, Gaston Co., North Carolina, 1927-1931 - Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues

PIEDMONT TEXTILE WORKERS ON RECORD: GASTON COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA, 1927-1931
GASTONIA GALLOP: COTTON MILL SONGS & HILLBILLY BLUES

Old Hat
CD-1007

Old Hat specializes in recycling regional music from 1920s North Carolina. This set’s focus is even narrower: all but one performance were recorded by workers in Gaston County cotton mills during and immediately after Gastonia’s historic bloody and unsuccessful National Textile Workers’ strike in 1929. Several songs address working conditions and the low economic status of mill hands, though none allude to the strike itself.

David McCarn and Wilmer Watts account for 14 of the CD’s 24 tracks, and they’re both musically and topically a cut above the others. The former’s “Cotton Mill Colic” was a local hit, inspiring two answer songs from McCarn himself (both included here) and more mill songs by Dorsey Dixon (of the Dixon Brothers) a few years later. Years later, even Jim & Jesse’s hit “Cotton Mill Man” (1965) echoed McCarn’s sentiments. None of these songs deal directly with the strike (a topic that was too hot to handle), but they do ennumerate the discontents that prompted mill hands to walk out.

McCarn’s fingerpicked guitar is a treat to hear, as is the banjo of Wilmer Watts who could pick or frail as needed and do both with skill. “Walk Right In Belmont” (1927) is a localized version of “Midnight Special,” with slide guitarist Frank Wilson joining Watts in a spiffy duet backing. Other Watts titles were made in 1929 and include several that feature strong banjo leads. “Been On The Job Too Long” is a great performance that inspired the Johnson Mountain Boys’ “Duncan And Brady,” and “Working For My Sally” is a comedy narrative that survives from the days of the 1849 Gold Rush. “Cotton Mill Blues,” taken from a 1900 poem, pulls no punches: Uptown people call us trash/Say we never have no cash/That is why the people fret/Call us the ignorant factory set. (Old Hat Records, P.O. Box 10309, Raleigh, NC 27605, www.oldhatrecords.com.) RKS

BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND

Claire Lynch - Whatcha Gonna Do

Claire Lynch - Whatcha Gonna Do

CLAIRE LYNCH
WHATCHA GONNA DO

Rounder Records
11661-0606-2

Claire Lynch certainly gets plenty of praise from her peers. “I’ve always thought Claire Lynch has the voice of an angel,” said Emmylou Harris, a self-described fan of Claire’s work. Mary Chapin Carpenter says Lynch is “one of my very favorite singers in all of acoustic, country, and bluegrass music.” With those rave reviews, whatcha gonna do to add to those remarks.

Claire has a crystalline voice that beautifully interprets her latest selection of others’ songs and her own compositions. Surprisingly, she says after she’d finished picking the final songs for the 12-cut disc, a theme of choice and consequence seemed to weave its way  throughout. Lynch recorded her first cheating song, “The Mockingbird’s Voice” and invited special guest Jesse Winchester to sing one of his songs “That’s What Makes You Strong.” There are fun songs like “Great Day In The Mornin’,” “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and “Crazy Train.” Garth Brooks co-wrote with Buddy Moondock “A Canary’s Song” which Claire describes as a “miner’s mindset of hope and destiny.”

Produced by Lynch, this CD features the stellar musicianship of her band: Jim Hurst on guitar, mandolin, banjo, and vocals; Jason Thomas on fiddle, mandolin, and vocals; and bassist Mark Schatz who also picks up the clawhammer banjo. There’s some additional percussive help from Kenny Malone and Erick Jaskowiak (“Great Day In The Mornin’”). “Whatcha Gonna Do” is another remarkable display of Lynch’s abilities as a singer and songwriter. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BC

FILM

The New Lost City Ramblers - Always Been A Rambler (DVD)

The New Lost City Ramblers - Always Been A Rambler (HDVD)

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS
ALWAYS BEEN A RAMBLER

Arhoolie Foundation AF DVD 20

By coincidence, in the wake of the recent passing of Mike Seeger comes director/editor/writer Yasha Aginsky’s marvelous new documentary Always Been A Rambler about the seminal old-time music revival band, the New Lost City Ramblers, co-founded by Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen, and later featuring Paley’s successor Tracy Schwarz.
This is a film of important American cultural history, rousing music, and just plain good fun—exactly like the New Lost City Ramblers themselves. The Ramblers’ influence can’t be overestimated. Entranced by old records of traditional Southern rural music, they sought out surviving giants of the genre (notably Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb, and Maybelle and Sara Carter) and championed their sounds in the 1960s to an eager new audience—the national folk music revival. The Ramblers were stirring singers and formidable multi-instrumentalists. And, as one interviewee notes, they were musical Johnny Appleseeds; six months after their appearance at a folk festival, college campus, or coffee house, a local old-time or bluegrass band invariably sprouted up.

The San Francisco-based Aginsky, whose documentaries have twice been nominated for Academy Awards, has assembled a fabulous blend of archival photographs, modern interviews, classic performance films, and concert selections from the Ramblers’ final tours. Numerous acoustic music greats—Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, David Grisman, and Doc Watson are only a few—share their genuine admiration. As McCoury points out, the Ramblers weren’t just great musicians, they were strong musicians. It’s wondrous to find them putting out an amazingly big sound down through the years, even though they were only a trio without a bass. Some rousing black and white footage underscores that the Ramblers had both pleasing polish and glorious grit, a rare combination indeed.

In the course of the film, the Ramblers get their chance to poke fun at critics who had dismissed them as mere slavish imitators of old 78 rpm recordings of mountain music. As folk music great Bob Dylan rightly notes, “They breathed new life into those songs, and their records stand the test of time, just like the originals.”

Always Been A Rambler joins a select pantheon of essential films of old-time and bluegrass music, including Albert Ihde’s Bluegrass Country Soul, Rachael Liebling’s High Lonesome: The Story Of Bluegrass Music, the Best Of The Flatt & Scruggs TV Show collections, and John Cohen’s own The High Lonesome Sound. Highly recommended. (Arhoolie Foundation, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 04530, www.arhoolie.com.) RDS