february 2011

Various Artists
Rural Rhythm

Live albums have been hit and miss affairs, often plagued by dubious sonic quality or bad editing or flagging energy on the artists’ part (some live albums have been mere contract fillers, allowing an artist to fulfill an obligation to one label before bolting to another, and sound like it). No such problems obtain in the case of The All Star Jam, Rural Rhythm’s 55th anniversary celebration recorded live at the Graves Mountain Festival of Music, held in Syria, Virginia, this past June. To get the technical matters out of the way first, co-producers Mark Newton and Carl Jackson have done a superb job of capturing the immediacy of the performances. The sound is so robust even the artists shouting encouragement to others are right there in your ear, as if you were standing on stage yourself. That being the case, you can imagine the front-and-center presence of the featured instrumentalists and vocalists.

Live at the Graves Mountain All Star Jam. Among the performances: Lonesome River Ban with the Crowe Brothers, Josh and Wayne, 'Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms'; Carrie Hassler with Brand New Strings and special guest Brandon Rickman; Lonesome River Band with Audie Blaylock, 'Hold Watcha Got'; Sammy Shelor and Carl Jackson, ‘Ground Speed’; Crowe Brothers with Russell Moore, Sammy Shelor and Mike Hartgrove, 'More Pretty Girls Than One.’

But few if any fans buy live albums because they sound great. It’s always about the music, and in this case the music is, top to bottom, superb. The artist lineup has earned its all-star billing: Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band, Lou Reid & Carolina, Carrie Hassler, Audie Blaylock and Redline, and The Crowe Brothers, with Brand New Strings joining the fray to back the rather awesome Ms. Hassler (even co-producer Jackson makes an appearance, playing a feisty banjo counterpart to Sammy Shelor’s picking on the hard charging Earl Scruggs-penned instrumental, “Ground Speed”; specifically for this event, Jackson also wrote a wonderful historical song about the Graves Mountain area, “Graves Mountain Memories,” and is joined vocally by his producing partner Mark Newton, as well as Blaylock, Reid, Moore and Hassler—a true bluegrass supergroup). These artists move around in various combinations, sitting in with each other and adding some new textures to some familiar fare. One of the humorous moments on the disc comes when Audie Blaylock is joined in a powerhouse trio performance of “Once More” by Russell Moore and Lou Reid, and one of the principals begs the audience’s indulgence beforehand, saying, “We’ve never done this before.” Upon which commences an astonishing, heartfelt trio performance of the Dusty Owens song, as seamless and soulful as if these three had been singing together their entire careers.

The All Star Jam (Live at Graves Mountain), official Rural Rhythm video, part 1

The All Star Jam (Live at Graves Mountain), official Rural Rhythm video, part 2

It’s unfair to pick out highlights because there are simply no half-hearted performances here. Given the recent passing of Charlie Louvin, Josh Crowe and Russell Moore’s plaintive rendition of the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” featuring a tender mandolin solo by Darren Nicholson, is especially moving. Rickman and Hassler engage in some heated harmonizing on a lively treatment of Lester Flatt’s “Head Over Heels,” a performance further energized by Stuart Wyrick’s steady rolling banjo solos. The Lonesome River Band, with Audie Blaylock and Andy Ball trading lead vocals, romps through Jimmy Martin’s “Hold Watcha Got,” and Russell Moore joins Lou Reid & Carolina to take a soulful lead and join in on keening harmonies in taking Carter Stanley’s “Lonesome River” heartbreaker to a higher plane of anguish. After all this, the Lonesome River Band returns with the Crowe Brothers and Sammy Shelor, announcing “We’re gonna burn it down!” Whereupon the assembled multitude cuts loose on a scorched earth workout on the beloved “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” notable as much for the power and efficiency of the fleet solos courtesy Shelor’s banjo, Andy Ball’s mandolin, and Mike Hartgrove’s fiddle as for the Crowe’s high-spirited vocals—how anyone kept up with anyone else here is one of the wonders of the natural world. What better way to close out the festivities than by truly burning it down? An amazing day of music captured in all its vibrancy and collegiality. It never gets old. But then, Rural Rhythm figured that out about 55 years ago.—David McGee

The All Star Jam: Live at Graves Mountain is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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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