december 2011

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie (from left: Wayne Lanham, Bill Emerson, Chris Stifel, Teri Chism): Savoring 'the here and the now'

A Sense Of Time

By David McGee

emersonThe Touch of Time
Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie
Rural Rhythm

In The Touch of Time Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie have done nothing less than craft a traditional bluegrass album as beautiful as it is meaningful. In a career dating back to his founding of the Country Gentlemen in 1957 and subsequently playing with and/or mentoring some of the most important names in 20th Century bluegrass (Ricky Skaggs, for one, credits Emerson with helping further his career after Skaggs left the Ralph Stanley fold), Emerson has been part of a heap of outstanding music. Even so, the title track here, band member Chris Stifel’s driving “The Touch of Time,” must surely rank with the most powerful tunes in Emerson’s recorded legacy. His banjo’s quiet urgency, Wayne Lanham’s emotive mandolin, Jenny Leigh Obert’s expressive fiddle, buttressed by the steady thump of Teri Chism’s bass, produce striking intensity behind a fierce but controlled lead vocal counseling us to make the most of each moment because “time disappears in the here and the now.”

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie, ‘My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,’ from the new album The Touch of Time. Teri Chism, lead vocal/bass; Chris Stifel, guitar; Wayne Lanham, mandolin; Bill Emerson, banjo, with Jenny Leigh Obert, fiddle.

Though this isn’t a concept album, the notion of time being a fleeting thing and of savoring “the here and the now” informs many of the tunes. This sounds heavier in theory than it is practice--the album opens with a hard charging rendition of Leroy Preston’s classic rumbler, “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” a song Rosanne Cash knocked out of the park on her debut album in 1981 (it was a #1 single for her, in fact). Ms. Chism attacks the song with a disposition lighter than Ms. Cash's, which gives the story of a gent with an incurable case of wanderlust a humorous slant, a notion reflected in the rambunctious arrangement. (Later she adds a heartfelt vocal on an easygoing bluegrass treatment of Dolly Parton’s upbeat love song, “You’re The Highlight Of My Life.”) By contrast, Pete Goble’s melancholy “Today I Turned Your Picture To the Wall,” concerning the after-effects of a paramour’s wanderlust, takes a moment in time--when her old flame consigns her memory to history--and shows the wreckage left behind when hearts are treated so carelessly. From another perspective, the sprightly take on Johnny Bond’s “Love Gone Cold” chronicles the instant when the singer realizes he’s lost his woman’s affection even as he tries one last time to hang on to her. The music seems to mock him, though--it’s surging relentlessly ahead, as unstoppable as his gal in flight, with frisky solos (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo) fueling it, and a neat stop-time ending to put a musical exclamation mark on the whole exercise.

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie perform Emerson’s classic ‘Fox On the Run’ at the 2010 Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival.

Though a constant presence, Emerson plays with his usual restraint and authority, serving the song more so than his considerable instrumental gifts. He does, however, give himself some spotlight time on his three original instruments: the joyous toe-tapper “Home Sweet Dixie Home”; “These Ones” and “Electric Avenue,” both uptempo, bright and exhilarating demonstrations of the band members’ technical prowess and soulful playing in which each player is given ample room to make their case (Ms. Obert is especially impressive with her dynamic fiddling on “Electric Avenue”), with Emerson saving some space to make his own variegated statements with rolling-and-tumbling banjo reports.

Seven of the 12 songs were written by Emerson and current band members Lanham and Stifel, with the redoubtable Pete Goble contributing a pair of gems, including “Last Night I Was There,” a stirring bluegrass gospel vision of Heaven with a stately lead vocal, transportive harmonizing in the choruses and reverent solo turns by Lanham doubling on mandolin and fiddle. Previous Emerson & Sweet Dixie albums have featured a host of guest artists comprising the band, but the basic trio here (quartet if you count unofficial member Obert, an in-demand session fiddler who also has her own solo career) has made a memorable statement with The Touch of Time. Here’s hoping for a few more chapters from this aggregation, because beauty of this magnitude is rare indeed.

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie’s The Touch of Time is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024