The Country Gentlemen, born in Washington on July 4, 1957, has been a leading force in modern bluegrass for almost a quarter of a century. It has spawned other influential groups and sparked imitations across the country, making bluegrass converts in much the same way that one offshoot, the Seldom Scene, did with its bold "newgrass" in the '70s. In Washington, the two bands vie good-naturedly for local honors, realizing that they are among the best half-dozen bands in the nation. Doyle Lawson, who played mandolin with the Gents for eight years, has been out on his own with Quicksilver for two years. All three groups have new albums out.
The Country Gentlemen's "River Bottom" (Sugar Hill SH3723) is the group's best effort in years, though last original Gent Charlie Waller has provided a career-long consistency with his unmistakable tenor and flashy flat-picking. The newest recruits, mandolin-dobroist Rick Allred and banjo-guitarist Kent Dowell, are now fully assimilated, to the point of exerting their own influence. Still built around Waller's precise yet warm vocals, "River Bottom" continues the mix of secular and sacred songs; there are even updated versions of ancient Gent tunes, Jimmy Murphy's "Electricity" and the wonderful gospel song, "Drifting Too Far From the Shore."
Country music, a longtime source for bluegrass adaptation, provides several strong numbers -- Dolly Parton's charming "God's Coloring Book" and Billy Ed Wheeler's bitter title tune, a bluegrass variant on "Down by the River"; Kris Kristofferson's "Loving Her Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again" is not only a mouthful but too dirge-like for the normally upbeat Gent sound. Ralph Stanley's "I'm Lonesome Without You" features active dobro from Allred; that instrument is more prevalent on "River Bottom" than any other Gent albums.
Highlights include the stark mining song "Coal, Black Gold" and "The In Crowd," a country tear-jerker transported to the hills via Kent Dowell's high tenor lead and muted banjo and the group's trademark harmonies on the song's resolution. There's usually little shocking, new or out of the ordinary on a Country Gentlemen album, but Waller pumps out a grassy version of Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" as if he'd been singing rockabilly all his life. The quaver in Waller's voice and the reverb in the mix show that, despite their preeminent position in the bluegrass world, the Gents can have a little fun with a rock 'n' roll tune.
A wag might be tempted to retitle the Seldom Scene's "After Midnight" (Sugar Hill SH3721) "Playing the Eric Clapton Songbook." Each side kicks off with grassy versions of Clapton hits: "Lay Down Sally" and the title tune. Surprisingly, the first choice works quite well, sounding positively vibrant compared to the original; the Scene always was ultra-progressive in its choice of material. "After Midnight" might have worked had tenor singer and mandolin wizard John Duffey not played it out in such manic style. Still, the picking on these cuts is hot as can be.
The Scene's ninth album is as eclectic as ever: Mike Brewer's lovely "Hearts Overflowing," Lester Flatt's classic "The Old Hometown," Merle Haggard's weepy "If I Left It Up to You," a fine Phil Rosenthal original titled "Stolen Love" and "The Border Incident," a Country Gentlemen folk chestnut revived from Duffey's long years as a founding member of that group. There's also some super picking on Jim and Jesse's tear-'em-up "Heartsville Pike" and the Benny Goodman swing warhorse, "Stompin' at the Savoy." This "bluejazz" cut should come as no surprise to fans of the band's superb dobro player, Mike Auldridge, since he's recorded similar tunes on his solo albums. It's a showcase for his new eight-string dobro and shows just why Auldridge is considered the best on his instrument -- his playing throughout the album (including some pedal steel work) is clean and complex, fluid yet precise.
Duffey, sometimes called the Father of Modern Bluegrass, still sets off tremors with his rich tenor leads, a marked contrast to Phil Rosenthal's bland baritone. The group's harmonies remain untouched in bluegrass, and "After Midnight" more than makes up for the Seldom Scene's weak last effort.
At some point in their careers, most bluegrass groups cut a pure gospel album (both the Gents and Scene have already done theirs). Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver offer "Rock My Soul" (Sugar Hill SH3717), an album chock full of wonderful and upbeat gospel tunes ranging from Bill Monroe's beautiful "River of Death" to "Angel Band." The mood of the music is resurrection and salvation, not damnation, and the optimism is catching. As expected, the emphasis is on the vocals, with some terrific gospel quartet singing coursing through the album. "On the Sea of Life" is particularly outstanding, with a Christopher Cross-like vocal line flying gracefully above the chorus.
A final note on shared energies and credits: The Seldom Scene plays every Thursday at the Birchmere in Alexandria, while Quicksilver appears this Friday and Saturday (the Gentlemen players are also frequent visitors). And all three albums were recorded at the new Bias studio in Springfield and were engineered by Bill McElroy, who has given them a wonderfully crisp, clear presence while capturing the intricacies of the picking and the richness of the singing.