Last Friday night (10/26/12), an audience of devoted bluegrass fans was treated to a nearly flawless performance by the Oldtime Bluegrass Singers at Christ Church. This was their second HVBA sponsored show in Poughkeepsie in the past two years and they did not disappoint. The group balanced outstanding individual and ensemble instrumentals with great two and three-part harmonies. Added to this, the acoustics and sound system at the Church were exceptional, and the home-baked desserts at intermission were a delightful treat!
First, the individual members: Lead singer, guitarist and emcee Dick Bowden kept things moving from tune to tune with a hearty sprinkling of old time humor and music history. To quote David Angell (HVBA President), Dick “plays the guitar with finger picks like Lester [Flatt] did, and he steps up tall to the microphone to give that signature G run. His stories were not only humorous but included accurate historical references to the Carter Family, Charlie Monroe, and many others.”
Legendary bluegrass Pioneer Herb Applin took high tenor solo turns on “Jealous Heart” and “Plastic Heart” (from the group’s Open Road Records CD by the same name) and played the mandolin in authentic, early bluegrass style. Terry McGill blazed through a fast banjo solo on the old folk song “Casey Jones” and received several enthusiastic rounds of applause for his banjo licks throughout the evening. Robert Fraker played slap style rhythm guitar through most of the show and then switched to the fiddle for spot-on renditions of two old fiddle tunes, “Old Aunt Jenny” and “Booth Shot Lincoln.” Lillian Fraker tied the sound together with her steady and powerful bass playing. In the words of Lynn Lipton (HVBA’s webmaster), “I, as a wannabe bass player, could barely take my eyes off of Lillian Fraker, who played a solid bass and sang so beautifully that it made me almost weep with envy.”
On to the ensemble: The two-hour show, with one intermission, was an artful blend of instrumentals and tunes with lyrics; fast and slow; close harmonies and shifting leads, solos, and breaks. Mark Hudson noted “if the history and stage humor aren’t enough to draw you in, the great lead vocals (how many of the band sing lead anyway? Seems like most if not all! ) and the harmonies (now there’s a band that could give bluegrass vocal training to anyone) will.” As Charlene Paden put it, “the harmonies were sweet; the instrumentals truly inspiring; and the players’ sheer joy at making their wonderful music really shone through.”
There was an interesting blend of standards (such as Grandpa Jones’ “The Banjo Am the Instrument for Me” sung by Dick Bowden, who really does play the banjo, and the Louvin Brothers duet “From Mother’s Arms to Korea” sung by Herb and Dick) and tunes that are perhaps less well-known to the average listener, such as the Stanley Brothers’ “I’m Only Human.” My personal favorite was “In a Town This Size,” sung by Dick and Lillian. The breadth of Bowden’s and the group’s musical knowledge and repertoire was perhaps best illustrated by their choice of Albert E. Brumley’s “singing school” number “I Know My Lord’s Gonna Lead Me Out.” (This is the Brumley who wrote the oft-recorded standards “I’ll Fly Away” and “Turn Your Radio On.”)
I’ve heard the Oldtime Bluegrass Singers, individually and together, many times at jams and pickin’ sessions over the years. Somehow they managed to recreate the warmth and intimacy of a jam among friends, while adding the polish and flair of seasoned professionals. David Angell says it best: “They know how to sing and they put all they have into it giving the audience an outstanding, entertaining evening of great traditional bluegrass music.”