Don Rigsby has been around a while, and as such always seems to be there, not too far away. Many probably came across him for the first time in the movie Bluegrass Journey where he’s onstage with the Lonesome River band (in what some consider their best line up) at the IBMA’s and then later, in the hallway of the hotel at the conference, playing his heart out with Don Rigsby and Friends. Maybe we’d seen him in Lonesome River, but with the movie and the subtitles, he finally had a name.
There are some very memorable scenes in that movie, but the ones with Rigsby aren’t among them. He doesn’t have Rhonda Vincent’s teeth, or Chris Thile’s looks. He doesn’t have Tim O’Brien’s quick sense of humor, or Tony Rice’s cool, or Dolly Parton’s dress. He’s just Don Rigsby. His default expression seems to be worry. He’s playing and singing beautifully, though perhaps not transmitting across the footlights the way some of the others do. Even when he’s with his own outfit, he’s still playing the sideman.
“Brand New Tennessee Waltz”
That’s the Don Rigsby we find on this new album, too. He is self-effacing to a fault in the liner notes, which is dedicated to childhood memories of his hero, Ralph Stanley, to whom this release is a tribute. Stanley is on the cover, and he’s collaborated on a song, “The Daughter of Geronimo.” That song is a highlight, to be sure, but it’s just one song, so the gush of the liner notes seems, initially, a bit over the top.
When you listen closely though, even if Stanley doesn’t have such a personal presence here, the fact is that his music, and his influence, is everywhere. Where Jim Lauderdale pushed Stanley out front like a stage prop on his collaboration Lost in the Lonesome Pines, this album from Rigsby is much subtler, and is far and away the finer tribute. “Little Maggie” is a song that he requested at a Ralph Stanley concert on his sixth birthday, and it’s covered beautifully here; the reference to the banjo ring is as much an homage to Stanley as you can get.
There are some high-powered guests here in addition to Stanley, including a vocal turn from Ricky Skaggs on “Home in the Mountains” and “Tennessee Truck Driving Man.” Barry Bales is on bass throughout, and James Shelton and Larry Sparks are pretty equally represented on guitar. The song selection is strong, and the production serves the material as much as the stilted album cover photo (get it, “Doctor’s Orders”?) and liner notes undercut it.
This is a lovely album, and bluegrass fans will enjoy its calm confidence. “Sinner Man” is a gorgeous a cappella piece, and “Walking up the Hill on Decoration Day” is a highlight as well. Still, Rigsby is good enough to set himself clearly out in front, and if I were his manager, that’s what I’d be begging him to do. Rigsby has been a sideman for the vast bulk of his career, and it seems that he’s trying to be a sideman on this recording as well, which becomes the one fault of the project. Yes, he’s got lots of musical heroes, but there are musicians out there for whom he could be a hero if he let them perceive him in that way.