january 2011

big country
Big Country Bluegrass: (back row, from left: Tommy Sells, Tammy Sells, Jeff Michael; (front row, from left) the late Alan Mastin, Lynwood Lunsford, Johnny Williams.

Big Country Bluegrass
Rebel Records

This delightful traditional bluegrass romp is the first Rebel release for Big Country Bluegrass, but it’s not the Virginia quintet’s debut by any means. The husband-and-wife musical tandem of Tommy and Teresa Sells formed the band more than 20 years ago near Galax, Virginia, a traditional bluegrass hotbed if ever there was one. With Tommy on mandolin and Teresa on guitar and vocals, the lineup is rounded out by Johnny Williams on guitar, Lynwood Lunsford on banjo, Alan Mastin (who has passed away since this recording was completed) on bass and, on fiddle and powerhouse vocals, Jeff Michael, who immediately steps up as one of the finest traditional bluegrass singers around.

BCB makes a stand for the rank-and-file of the bluegrass world in the Tom T. and Dixie Hall title track, a salute to those groups who travel the small town circuit, depend on the kindness of strangers for a good fried chicken meal while mobile and “keep the sound alive.” The Hall twist in the song is that the last verse reveals it to be in the words of a musician in the midst of the very life he’s been singing of. Interestingly, this track is followed by James Gaskin’s propulsive “All The Way To Nothing,” which is a bit of a kin to the Halls’ song, in that its protagonist is a scuffling fellow doing what he can where he can to make ends meet, including playing fiddle “in a traveling bluegrass show”—he of course marries and is soon divorced from a woman who could not abide “a man who couldn’t stay in just one place.” Following the breathtaking, high-speed workout that is “Black Mountain Special” (a train is central to the story, but if it’s going as fast as the BCB is cutting out on fiddle, banjo and mandolin solos, it’s a Bullet Train), Teresa Sells continues the championing of bluegrass music in song with “Music For the Soul,” a bouncy, midtempo, harmony-rich love letter to mountain sounds that Sells sells with her clear, ringing, unaffected voice, while both Michael (fiddle) and Lunsford (banjo) make their presence felt instrumentally.

BCB pretty much covers all the bluegrass bases in its choice of material, from pondering the mystery of love enduring through the years and beyond the grave in the lovely “The First Rose,” another tale from Tom T. and Dixie Hall, and from there assaying classic themes: the haunting memory of lost love in the bustling “Pages of Time,” featuring Tommy Sells on a fiery mandolin solo and soaring, high lonesome harmony vocals; marital discord in the bouncy, banjo-fired “You Don’t Have Far To Go,” with Johnny Williams taking a lead vocal that may or may not be heard as humorous (“each day you find a new way of drivin’ me insane/I can’t enjoy the pleasures from worryin’ about the pain…”), depending on the listener’s perspective; painful uncouplings in a hard charging breakup song from Donald and Barbara Scott, “Yesterday I Didn’t Know,” that is also an occasion for spitfire fiddle, banjo and mandolin solos (I swear I hear Lunsford on banjo quoting the melody from Flatt & Scruggs’s “Ballad of Jed Clampett”); spiritual and existential crises intermingling in the “whiskey and blood” of “Wreck On the Highway,” with Michael’s vocal articulating the sorrow and indelible memory of encountering lost souls whose lives are ebbing with no redemption sought or delivered; and the promise of an afterlife reward in the tight gospel harmonies of Michael’s soaring “I’m Gonna Walk The Streets of Gold,” fueled by Williams’s assertive lead vocal, Michael’s swooping bass vocal and soaring fiddle work, with Tommy Sells’s lively mandolin commentary adding an extra bit of spice to the recipe. Fans of Big Country Bluegrass will hardly be surprised by the authority the band displays on The Boys In Hats And Ties, but for those new to this veteran group’s work, a better calling card than this is hard to imagine.—David McGee

Big Country Bluegrass’s The Boys In Hats And Ties 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)
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