The compelling mix of old-fashioned country and bluegrass so evident in the Whites' "Old Familiar Feeling" is an extension of the musical communion established several years ago among Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and the Whites.
It was Harris who paved the way for a resurgence of acoustic country on her "Blue Kentucky Girl" and "Roses in the Snow" albums, with Skaggs helping by picking and the White sisters, Sharon and Cheryl, buttressing the melodies with supple, swirling and ridiculously pure harmonies. Skaggs, of course, has since gone on to become the brightest new star in country music with his celebration of tradition; the Whites may not be too far behind.
Previously known on the bluegrass circuit as Buck White and the Down Home Folks, the family has slightly altered its name and its approach. The focus is no longer on father Buck, a fine mandolin and piano player whose voice is firmly rooted in the mountains, but on daughters Sharon and Cheryl, whose voices are much closer to heaven. Buck White sings lead on only three of the album's 10 songs, with Sharon (who also happens to be married to Skaggs, who produced the album) carrying most of the leads. Come to think of it, this is just an old- fashioned family project.
There have already been a couple of country hits pulled from the album, "You Put the Blue in Me" and "Hangin' Around," with "I Wonder Who's Holding My Baby Tonight" currently sliding up the charts. The first song is distaff Don Williams, a gently paced ballad marked by sublime harmonies. "Hangin' Around" pays tribute to Hank Williams' honky-tonkin' spirit, with exuberant vocal lines reminiscent of the McGuire Sisters. "I Wonder" and "I'll Be Lovin' You" are both country waltz-time with a gritty edge, with the ensemble choruses crystallizing the purity of the vocal lines.
Although it's the singing that's up-front, Skaggs has fashioned tight arrangements that encourage simple, graceful instrumental ornamentation, particularly from Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas. Douglas shines on elegant fills and telling bridges, and his startlingly clean and clear lead voicings are featured throughout. The material, mostly heart-oriented, is familiar, but the good company surrounding the Whites makes even that old ground seem freshly turned. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM THE WHITES -- Old Familiar Feeling (Warner Bros./Curb 23872). THE SHOW THE WHITES, with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and Doc Watson, Sunday at 8 at Wolf Trap.