Anniversaries are a time to reckon with numbers. For Washington's Country Gentlemen, they amount to 25 years, 300 songs, a score of band members come and gone, and who knows how many recordings, miles or concerts.
The job of transfering this extraordinary chapter in bluegrass onto an album -- even a two-record set -- seems hopeless, but the Gents' new release, "Twenty Fifth Anniversary," is an impressive retrospective (not to be confused with the live album recorded last summer at the reunion concert at Wolf Trap; that will be out later in the year).
In a sense, this is guitarist Charlie Waller's story: He alone has been with the band from the beginning, and his distinctive tenor vocals leave an indelible stamp on this collection.
Not all of the songs are memorable (classic Vanguard and Folkways material is not included), but there's a remarkable consistency running through these 26 tracks, a tribute to Waller's ability to maintain a high level of musicianship despite frequent personnel changes. The album's pleasures are many, beginning with the group's rising, then tapered harmonies. Waller's voice, taut and convinving on the early "I Am Weary, Let Me Rest," has mellowed nicely. It grows deeper and somewhat softer with time and the introduction of more contemporary songs like "Teach Your Children."
John Duffey's whispery tenor graces both "500 Miles" and "Come All Ye Tenderhearted," and his mandolin's a delight. Eddie Adcock, Tom Gray, Bill Emerson, Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and a dozen other Gents (both official and unofficial members of the band) also place their familiar signatures on the music. These are the often-imitated sounds of contemporary bluegrass, played by some of its inventors.
Anyone wanting to delve even deeper into the Gents' and Washington's bluegrass past should also welcome mandolinist Buzz Busby's album, "Yesterday and Today." Had Busby not been seriously hurt in a 1957 car crash, there might not have been a group called the Country Gentlemen; they formed around the remnants of Busby's band to keep a suburban Virginia gig while he recuperated. Half of this personable recording is devoted to excerpts from local radio broadcasts made in the mid-'50s, featuring Busby, Waller, Morgan, banjo-player Don Stover and other string vets. The flipside finds Busby in the company of younger musicians, including fiddler Eddie Stubbs of the Johnson Mountain Boys. All told, this album offers a pleasantly informal look at one of the area's bluegrass pioneers. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (Rebel REB-2201). BUZZ BUSBY Yesterday and Today (Webco WLPS- 0103). THE SHOW THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN, the Seldom Scene, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Friday at the Birchmere.