"Twenty Year Blues"

Sugar Hill

Besides marking a significant anniversary for one of the nation's most soulful bluegrass ensembles, "Twenty Year Blues" offers another reason to celebrate. Mandolinist Mike Compton has returned to the Nashville Bluegrass Band lineup, and along with bassist and new recruit Dennis Crouch, he consistently enhances the ensemble's first studio session in six years.

Fortunately for fans of hard-core bluegrass, the band has a tough time letting old habits die. Unvarnished and untrendy, the 13 tracks on "Blues" hew to a traditional blend of southern string band and gospel music. Compton's reemergence -- he began touring with the band a few years ago -- pays a big dividend, since he not only plays mandolin with spirit and finesse, he sings lead on a few tracks, including a stirring, mostly a cappella arrangement of the gospel tune "Hush (Somebody's Calling My Name)."

As for his old bandmates, banjoist Alan O'Bryant, guitarist Pat Enright and fiddler Stuart Duncan sound equally at home here, whether saluting Bill Monroe with a slow and sparkling version of "Crossing the Cumberlands," recalling Jimmy Rodgers's "Gambling Barroom Blues" with old-timey soulfulness, or charging the Compton-penned "Pretty Red Lips" with enough energy to ignite a barn dance. Monroe and John Hartford also inspire another album highlight, albeit a nostalgic one, when the quintet affectionately recalls their steamboat odyssey "Old Riverman."

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Friday at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, Va. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Nashville Bluegrass Band, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)