BLUEGRASS fans who bemoan their music's accent on pop-oriented "newgrass" have reason to rejoice with the release of "The Johnson Mountain Boys" (Rounder 0135). This Montgomery County quintet plays bluegrass the old-fashioned way without staying mired in the past. Coming out of the Monroe Brothers/Ralph Stanley tradition of tight harmony vocals, propelling rhythms and restrained colorings, the Johnson Mountain Boys' emphasis on vocals provides some surprisingly familiar echoes.
There's no lack of fine picking, as Richard Underwood's driving banjo, Ed D'Zmura's punchy mandolin and Eddie Stubbs' tasty fiddle show. But it's the vocals that stand out, whether they're the three- or four-part harmonies so valued in the bluegrass tradition, or the classic "brother-style" duets between Underwood and guitarist/songwriter Dudley Connell that show how deeply the Boys have absorbed the lessons of the past. Further proof comes in Connell's original material, which tills old ground so familiarly that one looks for the cobwebs on songs of faith and family like "Dreaming of Mother and Dad," "When Can I Forget" and "Lord Show Me the Way."
Connell and Underwood are both strong lead singers, but the crisply subdued, controlled blend of the harmonies is what sets the Boys apart. Though they've only been together since 1979, their music has the flawless timing and rhythmic punch of the older "high lonesome" sound, especially on "Lonesome Days, Lonesome Nights" and "Darling Do You Know Who Loves You." Even an old country tearjerker, "Iron Curtain," gets transformed with a similar integrity. The Johnson Mountain Boys' debut album stands with similar debuts from the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene and New South as a landmark in bluegrass recording.
Bill Harrell has been plying his trade since the '50s, first with the Virginians and for 11 years with Don Reno and the Tennessee Cutups. In 1977, he reformed the Virginians and has since released four fine albums, the latest of which is "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore" (Leather LBJ8101). Harrell is blessed with a smooth, warm, personal delivery, which suits his intelligent and straight-forward blend of traditional and contemporary material. There's less of the hard-driving bluegrass from the Reno period, though fiddler Carl Nelson and mandolinist Larry Stephenson keep things moving along. But it's Harrell's impressive voice which makes songs like the lovely "All About Me" and "Misty Mountain" and the western swing-like "Dream Train Engineer" stand out.
There's also a relaxed confidence about the Virginians' version of the Osborne Brothers' "Kentucky," Flatt and Scruggs' "Little Cabin Home on the Hill" and Jim and Jesse's "I Don't Believe You Met My Baby." Contrast them with the songs covered on Spectrum's "Opening Roll" (Rounder 0136), including "Red Rubber Ball." Despite outstanding mandolin from Jimmy Goudreau and banjo from Bela Fleck, Spectrum's indifferent harmonies and uninspired material showcase the major drawbacks of progressive bluegrass.
Buzz Busby came to the front in the '50s in Washington; in fact, he helped popularize bluegrass in the Washington area through many club engagements and his "Hayloft Hoedown" on WRC-TV. Busby, who has not been very active in recent years, was not only a distinctive mandolin player, but also a major influence on scores of young players. "Buzz Busby: A Pioneer of Tradition" (Webco WLPS0100) is more an appreciation than a document of Busby's past. It features new recordings of some older tunes, mostly up-tempo, with backing from some of the area's finest players. Although Busby's voice is not in the best shape, his picking is still quite good, and he's in good company on most of the cuts with folks like banjoist Lamar Grier and Connell and Stubbs of the Johnson Mountain Boys.
And finally, the Dry Branch Fire Squad brings the reverence for tradition full circle. Under the leadership of Ron Thomason, Dry Branch has uncovered some wonderful material on "Antiques and Inventions" (Rounder 0139), including "Bachelor's Hall," a Civil War-era song as poignant as it is whimsical. As with the Johnsons, the Monroe/Stanley influences abound, but Thomason and company go back (to banjo tunes and gospel basics), forth (to George Jones and Tammy Wynette's venerable hit, "Golden Ring") and sideways on three Thomason originals. It's all done with some wonderful singing and passionate picking. From the Johnsons to Dry Branch, the respect for and return to tradition is a relief to the minds of bluegrass purists and a treat for the ears of whoever will take the time to listen.