In the best and oldest country tradition, the Birchmere presented an evening of country songs and musicianship last night that had the relaxed feel of an impromptu family gathering. Jimmy Arnold, backed by a three-piece band, kicked the show off with a set of material stretching from Jimmie Rodgers to Kris Kristofferson.

The focus was Arnold's musicianship. An excellent guitarist and banjo player and one of America's best fiddlers, Arnold showed how fast and precisely he could play all three instruments in a lightning rendition of Hank Garland's instrumental workout, "Sugarfoot Rag." Kate Toomey then joined the band for a few songs, turning in a dramatic, torchy rendition of "Tennessee Waltz."

When Tex Logan got on stage, things got looser and wilder, with the interplay of Logan's fiddle and whatever Arnold chose to play providing some scintillating instrumental theatrics. Especially impressive was their twin fiddle work on "East Texas Blues," with their soaring choruses giving way to Rick Watson's fine honky-tonk piano solos. It was the double-time bluegrass material, though, "Tall Timber" and "Black Mountain Blues," that had the crowd cheering and stomping as Arnold plucked his banjo with uncommon humor and imagination.