If you were determined, as mandolinist Ron Thomason was, to name your bluegrass band without resorting to "boys, grass, or the usual stuff," then Dry Branch Fire Squad may not seem such an odd choice. Also, Thomason happened to pass through Dry Branch, Virginia, while thinking it over.

But what's in a name? If you really want to know what the Squad's all about, to get acquainted with their old-time harmonies, somber mountain narratives and deft playing, their latest album, "Fannin' the Flames," is a good place to start. As on previous albums, the Squad has gathered some wonderfully evocative songs. Thomason's lead vocals are especially well- suited to mournful ballads. How many singers could keep the Civil War lament, "Walking Back to Richmond," or the tear-stained "Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake" from sounding either maudlin or hokey? Thomason does with ease.

"Fannin' the Flames," however, isn't the product of a one-man band. Each member of the quartet has his moments, and guest fiddler Eddie Stubbs of the Johnson Mountain Boys provides an additional spark. Contributions by songwriters Si Kahn and Hazel Dickens are made-to-order for a band so committed to the string-band tradition.

All that's missing from the album is the charm of Thomason's droll monologue. For a sampling of that, you'll have to see the Squad perform live.


THE ALBUM -- Fannin' the Flames (Rounder 0163).

THE CONCERT -- Dry Branch Fire Squad, Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere.