In the liner notes to Standing Tall and Tough, Paul Williams notes “How amazing is it that three guys on Medicare can still be onstage performing this great American music called bluegrass?” It’s a comment, at least on the face of it, on the fact that they’re still standing, or some variant of that, and able to play remarkably well. But while he may not have intended it that way, it’s also a comment on the audience: isn’t it great that there are still so many people who want to see them up there on stage, or to hear them in recording? Williams and Crowe have been playing professionally for more than 60 years, and Lawson isn’t all that far behind them. All three got their start with Jimmy Martin, and that commonality is one of the things that has brought them together over the years.
Michael Barnett is a fiddler who, while young, has done a lot. He’s a prodigy, more or less, becoming a sought after teacher and session musician at a very young age. He was a member of the David Grisman Sextet, and otherwise has turned the ear of a who’s who of acoustic music. The album is packed with some of them, including Aoife O’Donovan, David Grier, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Noam Pikelny, Maeve Gilchrist, Chris Eldridge … anyway, there is enough talent here to make your head spin.
One of the great things about bluegrass is that it has a memory. People who played then are celebrated now, and the music that was made then is still relevant now. And people like Larry Sparks provide some proof of that. His first real gig was playing guitar for Ralph Stanley in 1966 after the passing of Carter. Just think of that. The Stanley Brothers are in the first generation of bluegrass, and to some extent formed what bluegrass is today. And Larry Sparks was there, more or less, and here he is, fifty years later, still doing it, and still turning ears.
Michael Cleveland is an absolute delight, and if you have any cause to doubt it, then have a listen to “Jack O Diamonds” from his latest release, On Down the Line. It’s the standard old-time fiddle tune, though he fills it with nods, winks, chuckles, in-jokes, and punch lines. Yes, he’s a master of the instrument, but that’s not what Cleveland is about. He’s about having a lot of fun, and he does, and he lets us have a lot of fun too.
I am not one of those people who is ultra-nostalgic for the past. The past was hard, and I tend to see progress as time goes by.
However, there are a few things about the early sixties that do make me nostalgic – one is the role of radio and another is old-time harmony. Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys Radio Shows perfectly satisfies both of these nostalgias.