Old soldiers never die--at least not the ones Jimmy Arnold sings of on "Southern Soul" (Rebel REB-1621), a strongly evocative homage to the Civil War South, its brave troops and hallowed ground.
Long regarded as a superb guitarist, fiddler and banjo player, Arnold, a local legend, has a number of fine albums to his credit, but perhaps nothing prepared listeners for a recording as ambitious, imaginative and cohesive as "Southern Soul."
In his liner notes to the album, John Hartford writes that Arnold "takes us back to a time just after the War Between the States when those few boys who earlier had saddled their horses just to save Old Dixieland and who hadn't already returned home in a pine box, walked back through the mountains . . . plenty of time to pick long breaks between verses of the songs they sang from the ridge tops." While Arnold's instrumental breaks, which ring with an authentic old-timey flavor, in part create this illusion of a different time and place, it's the songs--some original, some not--and the singer's obvious devotion to his subject that give this album its unusual depth and beauty.
It helps that Arnold's grainy, decidedly southern voice is particularly effective on ballads. Certainly a less convincing and sincere tone could turn a traditional song like "The Rebel Soldier" into pure corn (imprisoned in the North, a dying soldier asks: "Will my soul pass through the southland?"), or turn Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" into a quaint recital rather than the poignant chronicle that Arnold ultimately makes of it. In the past, singing probably has been regarded as the least of Arnold's talents, but when these songs, and others like the title track and "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains," call for him to express emotion--be it a faint homesickness, a profound sense of loss and displacement, or a flag-waving the South-will-rise-again kind of optimism--Arnold delivers with surprising frequency.
As with virtually all of Arnold's recordings, the instrumentals are crisply and colorfully arranged. These include a spirited medley of "Bonaparte's Retreat" and "Arkansas Soldier," as well as a moving tribute to the legendary North Carolinian fiddler Tommy Jarrell. The Seldom Scene's Mike Auldridge on dobro and Terry Scantlin on "old-time" banjo give the album an understated charm that is fully in keeping with the unassuming nature of this thoroughly diverting Civil War odyssey.
Mike Auldridge can also be heard in two other current settings: in his natural element, as a member of The Seldom Scene on its new album "At The Scene" (Sugar Hill SH-3736), and as a guest on Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver's latest gospel collection "Heavenly Treasures" (Sugar Hill SH-3735).
"At the Scene" isn't as conspicuously "progressive" as The Seldom Scene's last album, if only because it doesn't contain anything quite so unexpected as bluegrass treatments of "Lay Down Sally" and "After Midnight" and because Auldridge leaves his pedal steel guitar at home.
Still, the album will only enhance the band's already sterling reputation for instrumental drive and vocal finesse. A superbly crafted collection of ballads, blues gospel tunes and one fiery instrumental, the album includes several original pieces written by guitarist Phil Rosenthal, who has grown considerably as a singer and a songwriter since joining the band several years ago. (The band plays every Thursday at the Birchmere.)
Ironically, Jackson Browne's "Jamaica Say You Will" best displays Rosenthal's gifts a singer. He gives it a faithful and sensitive reading, mirrored by a lovely arrangement that features both Auldridge and mandolinist John Duffey.
Rosenthal's own songs tend to exploit the band's instrumental prowess more effectively. His gospel songs capitalize on flawlessly executed breaks as well as the band's trademark harmonies, distinguished by Duffey's soaring tenor. That's true also of Rosenthal's more tradition "A Girl I Know" and the engaging tune "Winter Wind," with its high harmonies and Ben Eldridge's rolling banjo melody. With instrumentalists as talented as these, less worthy songs simply won't do.
Mike Auldridge does manage to return to the pedal steel guitar on Lawson & Quicksilver's "Heavenly Treasurers," the band's second gospel album. Like the first, this one features rich gospel harmonies that make up in control and precision what they occasionally lack in fire and passion. The quartet's vocal blend is most striking on the a cappella versions of "I Dreamed of a Great Judgment Morning" and "Jezebel," where its buoyant sound is capped at one end by Randy Graham's piercing tenor and at the other by Terry Bausom's resonant bass.
Because bluegrass gospel harmonies can become tiresome quickly, the band, quite wisely changes its pace throughout the album. The result is a bright and appealing record, with Auldridge's tasteful pedal steel accompaniment on "God Sent an Angel" and "Too Much to Gain to Lose" clearly ranking among the highlights.