BEYOND THE big names in bluegrass -- the Bill Monroes, Seldom Scenes and Alison Krausses -- is a whole world of pickers known only to their fellow musicians and the most devoted of fans. Of the hundreds of albums that emerge from this broad base of the bluegrass pyramid every year, here are five 1993 releases particularly worth noting. To hear a free Sound Bite from these albums, call 202/334-9000 and press the number following each review.
Larry Perkins & Friends "A Touch of the Past" (Pinecastle). Perkins is a banjo and guitar picker who has been around forever without getting the credit he deserves, but other musicians recognize his value, for they lined up around the block to guest on this wonderful album. Alison Krauss and Bobby Osborne sing a lovely duet on the Carter Family's "The Storms Are on the Ocean," Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne and John Hartford pick with relaxed agility on the Carter Family's "Foggy Mountain Top" and Josh Graves, Del McCoury and Glen Duncan play with tender sweetness on Perkins's "Lullaby for Leanne."
With two songs by Mississippi John Hurt, four from Uncle Dave Macon and four by Perkins himself, the whole album is anchored emotionally as well as rhythmically by Perkins's unforced, reassuring picking. For a Sound Bite, press 8113.
David Parmley "Southern Heritage" (Rebel). During his 15 years with the Bluegrass Cardinals, Parmley gained the reputation as one of the best singers in the field. On his second album, he applies that voice to contemporary songs by Nashville songwriters with a taste for mountain traditions -- Carl Jackson, Kevin Welch, Jamie O'Hara, Larry Cordle and Jim Rushing.
The arrangements are bluegrass (acoustic string band with no drums for the most part) and the mix of old and new flavors is similar to the alchemy practiced by Krauss and Ricky Skaggs. Adam Steffey and Dan Tyminski from Krauss's band and fiddler Stuart Duncan from the Nashville Bluegrass Band help out. For a Sound Bite, press 8114.
James King "These Old Pictures" (Rounder). A product of Virginia's bluegrass-drenched Carroll County, King is a powerful singer in the "high and lonesome" style. Despite brief stints with the Lundy Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, King has remained an elusive figure on the margins of the bluegrass scene. His considerable talent is showcased convincingly, however, on this album, which finds him backed by four-fifths of the Johnson Mountain Boys' 1988 lineup.
Maryland's classic pickers are as refined and virtuosic as ever, and they provide the perfect settings for King's meditations on homesickness, lost love and death. When the Mountain Boys' Dudley Connell brings his high tenor to several duets with King, the effect is thrilling. For a Sound Bite, press 8115.
Lou Reid, Terry Baucom & Carolina "Carolina Blue" (Webco). Reid is an alumnus of the Washington area's other premier bluegrass band, the Seldom Scene, and his new band Carolina is very much in the Seldom Scene vein with its mix of mandolin, banjo and electric bass and its blend of traditional bluegrass and contemporary folk material.
Reid pretty much sticks to mandolin on this album, but it's his Skaggs-like tenor voice that shines through, especially on the modern songs, such as his own folkish "Hands of Time," Roger Rasnake's country-flavored "Always Thinkin' of You" or the a cappella hymn "Lord Have Mercy on My Soul" (co-written by Reid and the Seldom Scene's T. Michael Coleman). For a Sound Bite, press 8116.
Barbara Lamb "Fiddle Fatale" (Sugar Hill). Lamb is the fiddler for the all-female country-swing band Ranch Romance, but her debut solo album was produced by Tim O'Brien, who invited his bluegrass pals Sam Bush, Tony Trischka, Scott Nygaard and Jerry Douglas to play along. The music itself is all over the map, from traditional bluegrass items such as "Sally Goodin" and "Katy Hill" to western swing, Celtic music, Cajun and new-acoustic numbers.
The connecting thread is Lamb's assertive fiddle lines, full of feeling and melody. She's not much of a singer, but she only takes one lead vocal and two harmonies behind O'Brien; she wisely lets her violin do the singing on the remaining 10 instrumentals. For a Sound Bite, press 8117.