july 2008

Been There, Done That?

Sometimes you have to go a ways to find out where you've been

By David McGee


The Grascals

Those who couldn’t get enough of the Grascals’ first two albums are hereby advised that they ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Keep On Walkin’ is the work of master musicians whose communication skills—vocally and instrumentally, that is—are second to none in or out of the bluegrass world. New member Aaron McDaris makes his recorded debut with the group and very nearly steals the show with a bravura demonstration of traditional picking, showing an unerring touch when breathtaking speed is the order of the day (“Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arm,” and the near-song-length breakneck soloing exploding from his fingertips throughout the Aubrey Holt-penned barnburner celebrating the wild side of life, “Happy Go Lucky”), but the larger point to be made about his performance is its seamless integration into the Grascals’ ensemble sound. He belongs, plain and simple, and he’s so comfortable when he shows up it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been in the group since day one.

McDaris’s good fit is but one of several important story lines in Keep On Walkin’. Another would be the continued development of Terry Eldredge into a major vocalist who can deliver a ballad or a hard driving tune with equal aplomb and conviction. His elongated, Del McCoury-style phrasing on another Aubrey Holt gem, the strutting album opener “Feeling Blue,” offers a double-edged perspective, both anguished and sarcastic, in response to a feckless woman’s duplicity, whereas the clear, ringing timbre and piercing high notes his tenor delivers on that masterpiece of self-recrimination, “Choices,” cuts as deep into the soul as did George Jones’s classic reading. But when Eldredge isn’t dominating with a powerful lead, he’s part of some exquisite, equally affecting multi-part harmony work. Another great country heartbreaker, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” will tear you up with its sublime harmonizing, and if that weren’t enough, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, a giant of the 88s, is on board to add a bit of honky tonk wistfulness on the piano, as McDaris, fiddler Jimmy Mattingly and mandolinist Danny Roberts do their level best to enhance the magnitude of the singers’ folly with succinct, pointed solos.

In addition to the ruminations on love gone wrong and the haunting consequences of irresponsible behavior, the Grascals probe another side of life here, namely what lives on in memory of people and places long gone, but lovingly recalled. From the rich Harley Allen songbook the Grascals offer two choice selections: “Indiana,” a vivid recollection of youthful insouciance and the sheltering comforts of home done at a sprightly gait that magnifies the richness of its sepia-toned ambiance, with Eldredge beautifully shading the heartwarming lyrics to avoid cloying sentimentality while leaving no doubt about the hold the past exerts on his affections and his values; the song is introduced with an expressive scene setter courtesy the swoops from the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall on dobro, leaving McDaris’s cascading banjo lines and Mattingly’s long, moaning fiddle solos to augment the aching mood; later, the band plays it close to the vest while Eldredge explores the nuances of Allen’s balladic story song, “Remembering,” which concerns the changes WWII wrought in his grandfather, who returned with a “heart of gold that had hardened into stone,” and knew no more peace until, with his life ebbing away, he was cheered by thoughts of seeing his old shipmates again in the next life. Although mandolin, fiddle, piano and dobro are swirling around the soundscape, it’s Eldredge’s plaintive vocal, his stark acoustic guitar strumming and the group’s pristine, soaring harmonies that deepen the emotions in play throughout.

It’s entirely fitting that a journey so abundant in reflection as this should end in glorious four-part gospel harmony on the beloved hymn, “Farther Along,” its keening testimony keyed by the unadorned sound of Mattingly’s evocative backwoods fiddling. The song’s last line, harmonized with the conviction that informs and affirms faith, is, “We’ll understand it all by and by.” Looking back, those words might well explain everything about the journey we’ve taken with the Grascals on Keep On Walkin’. Sometimes you have to go a ways to find out where you’ve been.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024