On their third album, the Johnson Mountain Boys have once more gone to the deep well of bluegrass tradition. Like its predecessors, "Working Close" (Rounder 0185) is so bursting with close harmony singing and percolating picking that it sounds like a sterling reissue of long-lost tapes by the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs.
But where many bands draw from a surface of overly familiar material and drown in slavish imitation, the Johnson Mountain Boys plunge into the waters of tradition and baptize themselves in the spirited tension and excitement of earlier days. The grace for this Montgomery County quintet is less its obviously fierce commitment to the roots of country music than its ability to take classic material and make it sound new . . . and to take new material and make it sound classic.
The heart of the group is 26-year-old guitarist Dudley Connell. As a singer, his strength is old-fashioned emotional intensity; as a songwriter, his gift is directness. It's a scintillating combination, and one suspects Connell's originals will stay in circulation as long as any Stanley Brothers offering.
Just listen to the exuberant gospel praise of "Call His Name" and its circumspect harmonies and timeless images hung on the straight and narrow ladder to heaven. Or the mournful sentimentality of "The Day Has Passed," in which a faded picture becomes the eloquent symbol of an undying love: "Don't you know the day has passed and now it's time for sleep/ Or won't your weary heart let you rest?/ Do you know the day has passed into a darkness deep/ Why do you clutch that picture to your breast?"
In these songs and two others, Connell explores the traditional concerns of bluegrass music--family, bedrock faith, love and heartbreak, death and redemption--with the proper balance of revival and invention.
But Connell is far from being the dominant figure in the Johnson Mountain Boys. Fiery fiddler Eddie Stubbs is constantly driving the uptempo numbers and providing supple embellishments to the quieter tunes. Banjo player Richard Underwood and mandolin player David McLaughlin avoid overplaying--they are fleet where they need to be, rhythmically supportive elsewhere. Bassist Larry Robbins pumps it all up from the bottom, and the overall picking, particularly on the two hot instrumentals ("Five Speed" and "Granite Hill"), is as tight and propulsive as anything this side of a '50s Starday album.
Among the album's highlights are the rich familial harmonies on the Louvin Brothers' "Are You Afraid to Die?," a clever transposition of country singer Jerry Reed's hit "Misery Loves Company" that sounds like it originated in the hills, and the fervent reading of Wilma Lee Cooper"s "Tomorrow I'll Be Gone," an "I've hit the road, Jack, and I won't be back no more" song.
Also well done are Webb Pierce's mountain waltz, "Don't Throw Your Life Away," and Ralph Stanley's poignant "Take Me Back," two sides of the coin of separation. Like Marshall Crenshaw in rock, Luther Vandross in soul and Wynton Marsalis in jazz, the Johnson Mountain Boys prove that in looking back, you can be looking forward as well. The Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene have albums coming out in the near future, and they'll be hard-put to match the vibrancy of "Working Close."
Phil Rosenthal, guitarist and lead singer for the Seldom Scene, has released his second solo album, "A Matter of Time" (Sierra GA 1/2). It's a quiet and surprisingly introspective affair, considering the presence of the Scene on three cuts and such superpicker/plucker/fiddlers as Byron Berline, Bryan Bowers and Jerry Douglas elsewhere. All 12 songs are Rosenthal originals, and they celebrate his rural New England roots and his sincere appreciation of such stabilizing influences as nature, family and friends.
"Our New England Home" has a bit of "Country Roads" boosterism to it, including a chorus that ends "A little bit of heaven, our New England home." It's still a fine showcase for Rosenthal's warm voice, which is used to advantage on the soft-spun ballad "Wild Flowers" and the sweetly melancholy title tune, which straightforwardly explores the inexorable pull of memory.
Rosenthal's sure and strong baritenor singing is closer to the folk tradition than to bluegrass (excepting the John Duffey-dominated high tenor harmonies on "Wild Flowers" and "What the Old Folks Know"). He's also a fine guitarist who knows how to push a song and provoke fine picking from his stellar guests.
His lyrics are uncluttered, but a minor drawback to much of Rosenthal's material is its aural equivalent to de'ja vu. The melodies are unintentionally but subtly familiar and that's distracting: "Hurricane" suggests "Ghost Riders in the Sky"; the lilting "Lonely Tonight" echoes "Goodnight Irene"; the title song seems cut from Tom Paxton cloth; while "New England Home" is kin to Dolly Parton's "Tennessee Mountain Home." Because the album is so cleanly produced and because the playing on it is so sharp, this drawback gets more attention than it deserves. Overall, "A Matter of Time" is a charming collection of original songs honestly played in good company.