Emmylou Harris' successful forays into bluegrass and old-time country music ("Roses in the Snow," the recently released Christmas album Light of the Stable" and the upcoming "Evangeline") have focused attention on friends who have helped shape her sound for the past several years: Buck White and the Down Home Folks, Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, and John Starling.
Skaggs, who recently left The Hot Band after several years as Harris' main foil, probably deserves the most credit for her authentic sound. His fiddle, guitar, mandolin and harmony vocal work have previously graced the Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe's New South. On "Skaggs & Rice" (Sugar Hill 3711), he joins another New South alumnus, guitarist Tony Rice, in a beautifully rendered tribute to old-time country music. This album is all bones - the only instruments are mandolin and guitar; the singing is in the "brother duet" style with lead and tenor vocal harmony. The tradition is well-established in the work of the Louvin Brothers (a well Harris has drawn from on four of her albums), the Blue Sky Boys and the Monroe Brothers.
The voices of Rice and Skaggs blend and curl around the lyrics as if they were family. The songs, primarily in the gospel vein, are old and not heard that frequently: "Memories of Mother and Dad," an a cappela "Talk About Suffering" and "Have You Someone in Heaven Waiting." But the album is far from somber. Although the picking is supportive, it's done by two of the best in the business. The singing is gorgeous, and it's easy to understand why this style of music was so popular in its heyday. The youngsters have paid homage to old-time country by breathing new life into it.
Skaggs and Rice also appear on Buck White's "More Pretty Girls Than One" (Sugar Hill 3710). White is known primarily for his mandolin work and for being the father of Sharon and Cheryl - the White Girls who have shared many outstanding harmonies with Harris on record and in concert. This album is a slight departure from White's work under the Down Home Folk's name. He's featured as a pianist on several numbers -- "San Antonio Rose" and "Alabama Jubilee," -- and he strays farther than one might expect from his bluegrass base. Since he's recently been signed to a major label (Capitol), it may be a hint of future directions.
"Kentucky Waltz" is the most traditional song in the bluegrass vein, a gentle and straightforward reading of the Bill Monroe classic. White's originals -- the starkly beautiful "Winter Winds" and sprightly "Abilene Gal" and "Sassy Fras" -- show him to be a competent if not particularly challenging songwriter. The White Girls, as usual, provide crystal-clear harmonies; and stellar playing runs throughout the albums from Skaggs, Rice dobroist Jerry Douglas and mandolin player David Grisman. The swing of "San Antonio Rose" is certainly familiar territory for White; one of his early jobs was as pianist for ex-Texas Playboy Tommy Duncan. The title cut is a traditional tune (it also appears in a simpler form on the "Skaggs & Rice" album). There's even a jolly reading of Irving Berlin's "Marie." The only drawback to the album is its lack of focus. White touches too many bases. That only counts in baseball.
Skaggs, Rice and Emmylou Harris all appear on John Starling's "Long Time Gone" (sugar Hill 3714). Bluegrass fans will remember Starling as one of the founding members of the Seldom Scene, perhaps the premier new-blue grass band. This album was recorded before Starling left the band in l977 to devote himself to a medical practice in Tennessee. It was produced by the late Lowell George of Little Feat and is more in the progressive, country bluegrass genre.
Though Starling wrote some of the Scene's best material, he has only one original here, "He Rode All the Way to Taxas." Appropriately, it was recorded with his old band, with the addition of some fine piano from Scott Johnson. Along with unadorned readings of two traditional gospel tunes, "Jordan" and "Drifting Too Far From the Shore," "Texas" is the bluegrassiest cut on this beautifully recorded album.
Starling has turned to such diverse writers as Allman Brother Dickie Betts (the title cut), Paul Craft ("Brother Jukebox") and Jim Rushing ("Turned You To Stone" and "Carolyn at the Broken Wheel") to produce an album of smooth, but almost atavistic country -- without the excess but with the conviction. His earthly tenor is still startlingly rich and evocative; harmony vocals with Harris, Skaggs, Herb Pederson and Mike Auldridge, weave around Stargling's leads. The picking is of matching quality.
It took many years for this album to find a home. It was turned down by many companies who fill the airwaves with bland, dispirited and superficial music. Starling's triumph is in evolving from bluegrass roots to a new country comfort that's challenging, vibrant and alive.