The Grascals and Friends – Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin

Even if you’re not a fan of big breakfasts with all the coffee you can drink, do yourself a favor and stop by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and pick up a copy of the latest CD from the Grascals: The Grascals and Friends – Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin. It features several country songs that are familiar to many of us with guest performances from some of country music’s biggest names. Proceeds from the sales of the record (available exclusively at Cracker Barrel) benefit the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital: one of several good reasons to own this disc.

Die-hard bluegrass fans should heed the title’s disclaimer: these are country songs performed with the bluegrass instrumentation of the Grascals and augmented by the more ‘country’ sounds of the drums, electric and steel guitars and piano. That said, these are songs that have stood the test of time, and, for the most part, benefit from the ‘bluegrassification’ they receive here.

Of course, the quality of this record is enhanced by the ‘friends’ appearing with the Grascals. If I was friends with Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Tom T. Hall, Joe Nichols and Charlie Daniels, I might be able to put a decent jam together too. There are few, if any, weak tracks included in the 13 that make up the album. Among the most notable is “Folsom Prison Blues” with Dierks Bentley; an over-covered song if ever there was one but one that, here, keeps the bouncing bass-line and overall feel of the original recording. Bentley’s baritone vocal does justice to Johnny Cash’s in a way that few other singers could pull off.

“The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”

In one of the most instrumentally stripped-down songs on this record, Tom T. Hall sings his own “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died.” The great song-writing shines through on this one and the track is certainly the beneficiary here of a ‘less is more’ approach. It isn’t often that a re-recording or cover of a song surpasses the original in terms of quality, but “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with Charlie Daniels himself comes pretty close. Now, with it being his biggest hit and all, Charlie has had a few nights to practice this one on the road over the years, the result of which is a gritty vocal performance that brims with even more attitude and authority than it had the first time around.

Joe Nichols does a great job with Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”; again, staying true to the original and letting the song speak for itself. And Dolly Parton (no stranger to bluegrass music) sings beautifully on “Pain of Lovin’ You”; a song she wrote with Porter Wagoner. The fabulous guitar picking of Brad Paisley lights up “Tiger By the Tail” and Darryl Worley obviously had fun recording this high-octane version of “White Lightning.”

“Cracker Barrel Swing” is the only instrumental number and feels like it might have been an afterthought. A bit of promotional filler perhaps? The album’s only original song is featured twice. Once with Dolly Parton sharing the vocal and again at the end as a bonus track with all the friends taking a line or two. It’s called “I Am Strong”, and it speaks to the entire purpose of this recording, which is to raise awareness and money for children’s cancer research. It’s a touching tune with admirable sentiment, though the ensemble version has a bit of a bluegrass “We Are The World’ feel to it.

All in all, this a record worth having. The performances are as solid as one would expect from the seasoned pros who lend their talents here and the first-rate musicianship of the Grascals themselves underscores every track with just enough ‘spin’ to keep bluegrass lovers happy.

Iain Birchwood

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