IT WAS the summer of 1994, and Dudley Connell, James King and Don Rigsby were standing backstage at the Denton Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina. The three of them had never sung together, but all three recorded for Rounder Records and the label was celebrating its 25th anniversary this particular evening. And Rounder's co-founder, Ken Irwin, wanted them to sing something together.
Maybe they didn't know each other that well, but they all knew the Stanley Brothers inside out, and when they started singing Carter and Ralph Stanley's "Angels Are Singing (In Heaven Tonight)," something magical happened. King sang the lead, Connell sang the tenor part and Rigsby sang high baritone. The stacked harmonies locked in place like poker chips, and the all-star bluegrass group Longview was born. The group appears at Rockville's Parilla Performance Center Friday night.
"Ken heard us backstage," King remembers, "and he immediately said, `You've got to record that.' It took Ken back to the '50s, because the trio with the lead, the high baritone and the tenor was the way the Stanleys did it with Pee Wee Lambert. Pee Wee was a great high-baritone singer, but Don Rigsby is just as good."
"A lot of folks haven't heard that mountain-wailing kind of singing and those stacked harmonies with the high baritone on top," Connell says, "and I think it touches people in some way. That was a style the Stanley Brothers explored when they were with Columbia Records in the late '40s and early '50s. Carter sang the lead, Ralph sang a high-tenor harmony on top of that, and Pee Wee Lambert sang the high baritone above Ralph. The way they did it had a very spooky sound."
The vocal trio was formed that night, but to be a real bluegrass group the singers needed a complete instrumental lineup. King, who leads his own band, and Connell, who now leads the Seldom Scene, both play guitar and Rigsby plays mandolin for the Lonesome River Band, but the trio needed soloists and a bassist.
As it happened, Connell played another bluegrass festival in Ohio a few weekends after the Denton festival and wound up on stage with banjoist Joe Mullins of the Traditional Grass and fiddler Glen Duncan of Lonesome Standard Time. Once again, everything clicked, and Connell realized he had found the soloists he was looking for. To fill out the lineup, Connell called his old partner in the Johnson Mountain Boys, bassist Marshall Wilborn, who's now part of the Lynn Morris Band.
"Marshall is one of my best friends in the music business," Connell says. "He's Mr. Timing and Mr. Taste. We've played together so long that we hear timing the same; we can anticipate where the other one is going to go.
"Joe Mullins turned out to be a great source of material. Because he worked in a band with his dad and because he owns a bluegrass radio station, he knows a million tunes; he always comes bearing an armful of tapes. But the real glue in this band is Glen Duncan. Because he's the No. 1 fiddle guy in the Nashville studios, he comes to the table with a great feel for arrangements. He can pull a song together just like that."
The new group still didn't have a name yet, but in December 1995 they found enough space in their complicated schedules to gather at the Long View Studios in Central Massachusetts. The studio is located on a working farm outside of Worcester, and the isolation of the site appealed to the musicians.
"When you record in a studio close to home," Connell points out, "you end up going home every night to walk the dog and to help the kids with the homework. That's totally different than being immersed in the music 24 hours a day. The first night we got to Long View it snowed, and we drove up that long dirt road through the fields to the farmhouse. We walked through a kitchen with a big roaring fire to get to the studio.
"It was pretty isolated, and that was good because we had a lot of work to do. We picked the songs on Sunday and started recording on Monday. While some guys were cutting overdubs on the last song, the other guys were rehearsing the next song. We didn't know each other that well when we arrived, but we sure knew each other when we left. If we hadn't gotten along, it could have been a disaster, but we got along great."
The cocoon-like studio became such a crucial contributor to the music that the six musicians decided to call themselves Longview. When the debut album "Longview" (Rounder) was released in 1997, it leaned heavily on songs either associated with or indebted to the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley and Bill Monroe.
"Unlike a lot of people who made the switch from rock 'n' roll to bluegrass," Connell says, "I didn't go via the Country Gentlemen or other new-grass groups; I went directly to the hardcore, wailing mountain sound of the Stanleys and Monroe. As a teenager, I was only interested in the hardest of the hardcore bluegrass. And Longview gives me a chance to flex that muscle. Ken had the foresight to pick the right guys, because they're all students of that sound.
"James and I are both members of the Carter Stanley Admiration Society, and that makes it easy for us to sing together. The thing that distinguishes James is that country soul -- the passion he has for the music he plays. He gets deep down in the songs he sings. I've been at recording sessions and seen him with tears streaming down his eyes. On the second Longview record, I thought he'd never get through `I Listen to My Hammer Ring,' he was so emotional about it."
The second Longview album, "High Lonesome" (Rounder), was released in 1999 and featured the song, "Angels Are Singing (In Heaven Tonight)," that launched the band. During the sessions for that disc, Connell and Rigsby devoted their hanging-around time to singing duets.
"We'd hang out in the living room at Long View and sing these old Stanley Brothers tunes, which are ingrained in our heads like old Beatles songs," Connell says. "Eventually Don said, `Let's try recording some of these.' It was a throwback to the brother style of singing in country music in the '20s and '30s when the Blue Sky Boys and the Monroe Brothers were the happening acts. Many of those bands drew on old, old sources for material, old English ballads, so we used some of those."
The resulting Dudley Connell & Don Rigsby album, "Meet Me by the Moonlight" (Sugar Hill), has just been released, and without any banjo it has a much sparser sound than the albums by their other groups, Longview, the Seldom Scene and the Lonesome River Band. When Longview comes to Rockville Friday, Connell and Rigsby will do one or two songs from the duo album.
"Don and I are in similar situations," Connell says, "because we're both in contemporary bluegrass bands and we both love those bands, but Longview gives us an opportunity to go back to the traditional sound that we loved first. He's the best tenor singer in bluegrass. Not only does he have a very high voice naturally, but also it has punch and grit; it's very Ralph Stanleyesque."
LONGVIEW -- Appearing Friday at Parilla Performance Center. To hear a free Soundbite from Longview, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8132. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)