Bluegrass music has come a long way since Bill Monroe and his brothers decided to form a band. Today we’re presented with an abundance of artists who cite Bluegrass and its pioneers as influences without necessarily having much in common with, for example, the early Blue Grass Boys sound. It follows, then, that the bands Bluegrass aficionados often revere the most, are those considered ‘authentic’ and calling a band’s sound ‘traditional’ is high praise indeed. Big Country Bluegrass strive for, and often attain, this sound on their latest album The Boys In Hats And Ties.
While the band has been around for twenty-plus years now, only founder members Tommy (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar) remain from the original line-up. The banjo of Lynwood Lunsford, guitar of Johnny Williams and fiddle of Jeff Michael provide solid and professional accompaniment without stealing the listener’s attention from the songs themselves, which seem to be the focus of this album. Alan Mastin’s bass playing on this disc would sadly prove to be his final contribution to the band as he passed away after this recording was made.
The tracks of The Boys In Hats And Ties (their first album for the Rebel Records label) provide the listener with something of a checklist of what it means to be ‘authentic’ in Bluegrass music. There are train songs, gospel songs, songs celebrating the music itself, a couple of instrumentals and an original or two. There are a variety of tempos and the ubiquitous smokin’ mandolin, fiddle and banjo leads that define the genre. The cuts featuring the excellent vocals of Jeff Michael evoke a sound reminiscent of Ralph Stanley with a voice distinctly southern but old beyond its years: itself a hallmark of authenticity.
“The Boys In Hats and Ties”
The first and title track of the album proves to be its strongest cut. Already making its way up the “Bluegrass Unlimited” chart, this Tom T. and Dixie Hall (with Don Rigsby) number is a spirited celebration of Bluegrass and some of its earliest purveyors. It paints a detailed picture of the performances that inspired so many to devote themselves to this style of music.
Despite carefully crafted songs, tight vocal harmonies and solid musicianship, The Boys In Hats And Ties offers no real surprises. Fans of flat picked lead guitar will be left feeling, well…flat–none of that to be found here. The songs themselves, while paying homage to the themes often found in Bluegrass, sometimes sound like they’re going over old ground. In any style of music it takes a delicate balancing act to honor tradition without appearing to be a paler imitation of the original sound and Big Country Bluegrass fall into this trap at times.
Big Country Bluegrass have come a long way since their days playing the competition circuit around Virginia and North Carolina. They’ve played the Grand Ole Opry, survived a multitude of personnel changes and continue to devote themselves to ‘authentic’ sounding Bluegrass and, with this record, do justice to those original ‘boys in hats and ties.’