An all-star group that doesn't tour much, Longview is one of the finest bands in bluegrass. That's because it's built around three superb lead singers--James King, Don Rigsby and Dudley Connell, the last familiar to Washington audiences through the late lamented Johnson Mountain Boys and, currently, the Seldom Scene.
With those three on board, you can count on rich, intertwining harmonies and dollops of classic duet and trio stylings, which is what elevates the title track of the band's sophomore album, "High Lonesome" (Rounder). Longview recasts Randy Travis's 1991 country hit (penned by Gretchen Peters) as classic bluegrass, with driving mountain fiddle by Glen Duncan.
The new album draws from the same deep well of '50s and '60s traditional bluegrass as its critically acclaimed predecessor but works a little harder to avoid that golden era's often overexposed repertoire. Which doesn't mean the new album avoids the music's crucial architects: There's a double dose of the Stanley Brothers, as well as material associated with Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse McReynolds and Larry Sparks.
The Stanley legacy is honored with the spare, stately gospel tune "He'll Save Your Soul Yet" and with "Angels Are Singing (in Heaven Tonight)," a sentimental paean to undying love featuring all three vocalists trading leads on the verses. Also in the gospel vein are Jimmy Martin's "Voice of My Savior" and the Boys From Indiana's somber "Listen to My Hammer Ring."
There's no lack of earthy considerations, either, from the lowlife honky-tonk plaint of Sparks's "Where the Dim Lights Are the Dimmest" and "Does It Have to End This Way?" (with a fine rough-hewn vocal by King) to Connell's insistent declamation on "I'll Love You 'Til the Day I Die" and "I'm Going Home Again." It's not just the vocals that stand out, of course, as Marshall Wilborn's hard-driving bass fuels the fire in Duncan's fiddle, Rigsby's mandolin and Joe Mullins's banjo.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)
Dale Ann Bradley
On her 1997 debut, "East Kentucky Morning," Dale Ann Bradley's angelic mountain soprano drew deserved comparisons to Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton. Bradley has a clear, shimmering voice notable for its supple emotional power and purity of tone. It's well displayed on "Old Southern Porches" (Pinecastle), from a bubbly cover of the Osborne Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine" (Sonny Osborne produced the album) to Tanya Savory's "Reason Enough." On the latter, Bradley sounds particularly Partonesque with her trembling delivery of separation sentiments and the realization that "there's no line that clean and well defined that separates what is and what was."
Bradley and band mate Vicky Simmons co-wrote five tunes here, and Simmons also contributed the breezy swing-style complaint "What Am I Doing Loving You Again?" Matters of the heart--particularly aches--consume Bradley, from the painful realization that "Letting Go of You Is Surely Killing Me" to the joyful homecoming anticipation of "Heading Back to You."
As she did on her debut, Bradley provides a bouncy bluegrass make-over for a '70s rock chestnut--in this case, Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You"--and she captures the double-edged anguish of runaways with the stately sorrow of "A Face on a Poster." But the album's charms are most evident in a pair of bittersweet evocations. "Meghan's Smile" poignantly addresses the emotional reticence of a father who's "always held so much inside"--until he's touched late in life by a grandchild's smile. And the title track is a gently flowing celebration of hometown comfort and familial compassion: "To the one who's been away too long, their steps are open arms/ If you find one, let it rest you, sit back and let it bless you/ I guarantee it's gonna ease your weary mind."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)
Lynn Morris of Winchester, Va., didn't write any of the songs on "You'll Never Be the Sun" (Rounder), but she's made brilliant, sometimes unconventional choices, including a title track she first heard performed in Ireland by Dolores Keane. It's a gracefully sketched devotional ballad that celebrates the quiet strengths and virtues of one's lover.
Morris comfortably straddles the fence between country and bluegrass, spinning a dismissive ballad out of an early George Jones hit, "The Likes of You," and reclaiming the Dolly Parton-Porter Waggoner classic "If Teardrops Were Pennies," which points out that if "heartaches were gold/ I'd have all the riches any pocket could hold/ I'd be wealthy with treasures untold."
Love's alternate routes are traveled via the supple swing of "Destination Love," a Lieber-Stoller R&B hit originally popularized by Wynonie Harris and a showcase here for husband Marshall Wilborn's lead vocal; "Wrong Road Again," an exasperated acknowledgment of unhappy returns; and Hazel Dickens's "Scraps From Your Table," a hard-core rejection of lover's leftovers where nothing is held back emotionally or musically.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)
Laurie Lewis has become a star in contemporary folk-Americana circles as both a singer and instrumentalist, but she got her start winning old-time fiddle contests on the West Coast, and bluegrass has always been part of her musical mix. Now it's the focus of "Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals" (Rounder), an album of hard-driving rhythms featuring mandolin wiz Tom Rozum, banjo player Craig Smith and bassist Todd Phillips; better yet, with rhythm guitarist Mary Gibbons on board, Lewis conjures some wonderful harmony singing, including six sterling vocal trios with Rozum and Gibbons and a pair of duets with Gibbons.
Some of the material is vintage--Bill Monroe's "Tall Pines," Jimmy Martin's "Stepping Stones," the old-timey fiddle-banjo burner "Weeevily Wheat" and the elegiac "Going to the West," a Lewis-Rozum duet suggesting the ache of impending separation. Among the new but idiomatic songs: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings's Spartan, Carter Family-style track "Acony Bell," Lewis's Stanley Brothers evocation "Wind at Play," and her fiddle-driven string band instrumental "Big Eddy."
Lewis also tacks on some social commentary via Jean Ritchie's classic ecological critique, "Black Waters," her own eloquent elegy for the silenced "Wood Thrush's Song," and yet another Hazel Dickens standard, "Beyond the River Bend," which recognizes the sometimes untraversable distance between then and now, between home and heart.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8184.)
Williams, who hails from Danville, Va., is blessed with a sterling voice, which she uses to great emotional effect on "Cherry Blossoms in the Springtime" (Doobie Shea), whether doubling it herself on Rhonda Vincent's plaintive "Break My Heart" or in razor-sharp harmony with mandolinist Dan Tyminski on the rest of the album. It's particularly effective on such heart songs as Dudley Connell's hard-driving rumination "Too Late to Say Goodbye," husband Johnny Williams's apprehensive "What Will Become of Me" and "It's Just a Matter of Time," in which the singer fends off separation anxieties.
Prolific country songwriter Randal Hylton is represented by something old, "Lonely Side of Goodbye," and something new, the taut "Stripped of My Pride," but the most intriguing song comes from Johnny Williams, whose "Your Last Mile" is a stately gospel narrative about Jesus's last journey to crucifixion on Calvary.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8185.)
CAPTION: Dale Ann Bradley, sitting pretty on "Porches."
CAPTION: Longview's lineup: From left, Don Rigsby, Glen Duncan, James King, Dudley Connell, Marshall Wilborn and Joe Mullins.
CAPTION: Laurie Lewis, in tune with "Her Bluegrass Pals."