[8 February 2004]
Driving through the country half-listening to bluegrass radio, it would be easy to mistake a Country Gentlemen recording for the bucolic, barn dance sounds of Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers. One would have to pull over to the side of the road and listen intently to realize the extreme subtleties that separate the former from the latter. It might even come as jolt to realize that the music of the Country Gentlemen was not originally performed in a musty grade school auditorium in some forlorn coalfield; this stuff was being played unabashed in collegiate concert halls and coffeehouses around the nation’s capitol. Only the most discriminating and demagogic bluegrass purists branded this music “progressive”. Now, a generation removed and in the wake of the Alison Krauss/Nickel Creek revolution, it’s hard to see what the hubbub was about.
Rebel Records, the label with whom the Gents have been long associated, has released a short but compelling retrospective of their highlights from ‘60s, a period during which bluegrass music would have all but died under the glare of the Beatles had it not been for Earl Scruggs’s opening riff to “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Traditional bluegrass music during the ‘60s was largely a novelty, the stuff of CBS sitcoms before All in the Family. The Gents weren’t interested in being a museum piece. They were striving for a distinct sound that would maintain the vitality and relevance one of the most uniquely American art forms. Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ is a testament to how thoroughly they succeeded.
These songs demonstrate the Country Gentlemen as the first “contemporary” bluegrass band. The “progressive” label goes too far; sure, bassist Tom Gray employed some jazz licks here and there, but essentially this was still crouch-around-the-single-microphone, high lonesome bluegrass as Monroe had invented it two decades earlier. Monroe prided himself in playing hard and fast and dared his bandsmen to keep up. The Gents take the title track (written by Monroe) and blow the doors off it. Immediately obvious is the intensity of the band’s vocal delivery, with guitarist Charlie Waller (still performing with the latest version of the Gents today) leading the way and John Duffey (mandolin) casting his banshee tenor into the stratosphere. Throw in Eddie Adcock’s use of Dobro licks on the banjo and you have something both innovative and frightfully visceral at the same time. Other traditional sounding tracks include “You Left Me Alone” (where Duffey defines “thrashing” the mandolin), the standard “Knoxville Girl”, a cover of the Stanley Brothers’ “Girl Behind the Bar” (which, like the title track performance, surpasses the original) and “Katy Dear”, an ancient piece from the public domain that is given a stately, old-time treatment with ornamented vocals. So, in what sense were the Gents “contemporary”?
It is crucial to bear in mind that bluegrass music is modern, and therefore distinct from old-time music. The latter, both in style and subject matter, is the music of the eighteenth and very early twentieth centuries. Old-time songs involve predominately rural concerns: bootlegging, crop failures and fratricide. Bluegrass, on the other hand, was an amalgamation of some of Bill Monroe’s favorite sounds. He drew from the old-time fiddle playing of his uncle Pen Vandiver, but he also incorporated elements of the blues and swing. Bluegrass music—Monroe’s music—was for and about rural people entering the atomic age. The social disorientation of watching the arrival of railroads, then subdivisions, and the relocation from the farm to the factory (particularly the textile mill in the South) created a desire for a nostalgic remembrance of simpler times. This was Monroe’s primary contribution. His new music served as collective memory, albeit at a pace that mirrored the rapidly automating times into which he and his rural peers were thrust. It is no small accident that bluegrass and bebop developed at roughly the same time, though for different cultures.
What the Country Gentlemen (in their classic period, anyway) brought to the table was not so much a memory of good ol’ days as a stark reaction to the world as it was. “Bringing Mary Home” has, on the surface, all the conventions of a moderately paced bluegrass ballad. But the lyrics involve an utterly modern occasion: not a train wreck or a muleskinner, but a man in his car, picking up the ghost of a young girl killed in an auto accident. At a distance the vocal harmonies of Waller, Duffey, and Adcock could even be mistaken for Peter, Paul, and Mary. “Matterhorn” written by country & western crooner Mel Tillis and one of the Gents’ signature selections, involves an ill-fated European mountain-climbing expedition—hardly a topic for traditional bluegrass, but something the college-aged folk revivalists of the ‘60s could readily connect with. And for the feminists in the crowd, the Gents offer up “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight”. Here the protagonist is not some poor damsel murdered with an axe, but the plucky tomboy crashing into the sea, brave to the end. Yet this unorthodox subject matter is cleverly welded to lyrical imagery borrowing from the southern Appalachian gospel tradition:
“There’s a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart
Farewell, first lady of the air”
All of this should have made the Gents equally palatable to strict traditionalists as well as the urban folk crowd. It’s been the passage of time, coupled with the liberties taken by later artists such as New Grass Revival that helped the strict camp come to embrace the Gents for their contribution to the movement. Though limited to12 tracks, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ contains the essential highlights of Country Gentlemen’s brilliant effort to straddle the line between the past and present.