Larry Sparks: The Last Suit You Wear
The spine tingling performance Larry Sparks delivered on last year’s a cappella gospel collection, Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long, made me an instant fan.
His characteristically blue, mournful delivery and die-hard traditionalist ethic (let alone the lifetime of work he’s done with this music) all but guarantees a fine listening experience, but with a top-notch group of pickers gathered ‘round to accompany his meat and potatoes guitar work, The Last Suit You Wear virtually flies through its 40-minute running time.
The songs are wisely chosen, a few touching some timely themes: you don’t have to be a psychic to figure where the story in “Casualty Of War” will eventually wind up or why the song was picked, and the concept of greed and the inevitable downfall it reaps appears on “Lazarus And The Rich Man,” as well as the title song.
Sparks bends his notes like BB, jostling that minor third into major in the very first line of “The Old Coal Mine,” and when Del McCoury pops in to add some tenor harmony to the chorus, or when you realize it’s J.D. Crowe syncopating his banjo rolls between the guitar and fiddle, you know you’ve no choice but to keep listening and nodding your head in time. Indeed, to quote the CD’s press release, Larry Sparks deserves an award for simply being “the man,” if not for being one of the best.
The Seldom Scene: Different Roads
The Seldom Scene managed to find that tenuous line between traditional and contemporary bluegrass sounds in the early 70s, with much richer production, instrumentation and arrangement than had been heard before.
It’s also likely that the resophonic guitar skills of Mike Auldridge, replete with sparkling harmonic sleight of hand and tasty fills, laid the groundwork for present day Dobro hotshots like Jerry Douglas. Their version of Herb Pederson’s “Wait A Minute” gave many a glimpse of what would a decade or so later probably be considered “crossover,” and they even had the cojones to use drums (gasp!) on their now classic reading of another Pederson tune, “Easy Ride From Good Times To The Blues.” How’s that for forward thinking?
Though it’s another of those dreaded “best of” collections, Different Roads is a good one, and more than that, it’s an important compilation of material from a group that played a significant role in bringing bluegrass to a much wider audience. Though nowhere near as daring as what groups like New Grass Revival would do with the music in the 80’s, if not for Seldom Scene’s earlier chance taking, they might never have even tried it.
J.D. Crowe: Bluegrass Holiday
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is this gussied up re-release of J.D. Crowe’s first recording, Bluegrass Holiday.
Gritty and not the least bit fancy, the album was essentially thrown together over two days to be sold at the Holiday Inn lounge where Crowe’s band held a regular gig in the late 60s. Though not technically a “live” recording (as in, with a live audience) Bluegrass Holiday sizzles with the energy of an impeccably rehearsed and seasoned band. Though many of the tunes were recorded much too hot and utterly drenched in cavernous reverb that tends to obscure the focus of the instrumentation and Red Allen’s voice, there’s no doubting the frenetic power of Crowe and Doyle Lawson’s picking.
The band’s precision despite the often breakneck tempos is awe inspiring, especially considering that the art of the “over dub” wasn’t really an option- though the faults of the master recording are still apparent, you can’t listen to the downright blazing Crowe penned “Black Jack” without almost forgetting to breathe. And just two tracks later they pull out all the stops again with “Pike County Breakdown.”
It should be noted that these tracks didn’t appear on the original version of the album, another plus (besides the original artwork, liner notes and careful restoration and repair of the master recording) to getting your hands on this already stellar reissue.