The Little Grasscals: The Little Grasscals: Nashville's Superpickers
When I first became interested in bluegrass, I asked a guitar picking champion friend to give me the name of a good introductory album to the music. He suggested I pick up Old & in the Way, a legendary live album made by a legendary cast of musicians: Vassar Clements, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, and Peter Rowan. Since that time I've come across numerous albums that might have served me just as well if not better as a sort of primer for this wonderfully vibrant and inspiring form of American music. If I were asked a similar question today, I might be apt to suggest the inquirer purchase a copy of The Little Grasscals: Nashville's Superpickers.
Gathered here are 18 bluegrass standards and traditional tunes recorded by some of the leading denizens of Nashville's hot new generation of acoustic players. The repertoire, the licks and runs, the vocal stylings and inflections, are textbook bluegrass. And none of it comes off sounding stiff or academic. They even went as far as recording a handful of the songs in authentic bluegrass style, by standing around three microphones and "mixing" themselves by stepping up to the microphone when it was each musician's turn to solo.
The standouts among these live recordings are the instrumental, "Cumberland Gap", and the fun and goofy "Whoa Mule Whoa". The banjo playing of Dave Talbot and the fiddle playing of Shad Cobb are highlighted on "Cumberland Gap". The tune begins with the fiddle playing the melody and the banjo accompanying. Midway through, the roles change and the fiddle accompanies the banjo. The interplay between these two virtuosic musicians is amazingly dynamic, intimate and awe-inspiring. "Whoa Mule Whoa" begins with enthusiastic fiddle and is sung, hysterically and in harmony, by Mike Armistead and Lester Armistead. There is a curious percussive clicking on the track that turns out to be bones, played quite expertly, it should be noted, by Mike Armistead. "Ass noises" are executed with verve by Terry Eldredge.
Other instrumental pieces worth mentioning are "Lee Highway Blues", "John Henry", and "Soldier's Joy". "Lee Highway Blues" is a one chord tune performed at a breakneck tempo and dominated by the resonator guitar playing of Rob Ickes, a musician who could give the inimitable Jerry Douglas a run for his money. His playing is mercurial and flawless and, disappointingly, disappears about halfway through the album. On the traditional "John Henry", Booie Beach refreshingly steps out and takes over on lead acoustic guitar. And the rendition of "Soldier's Joy", a fiddle tune ever popular among acoustic pickers, is as good as any ever recorded.
The most memorable vocal recordings -- all of which are accompanied by fabulous instrumental breaks -- are "Gospel Plow", the heart wrenching "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies", and the darkly intense, blues-tinged "I am the Man, Thomas". Mike Compton's lead vocal on "Gospel Plow" sounds wonderfully seasoned and authentic. There is no doubt he has grown up listening and studying this music. Sung in three-part harmony by Dave Talbot, Terry Eldredge and Jamie Johnson, "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies" tugs at the heartstrings like no other song on the album. Rob Ickes, on resonator guitar, sticks close to the melody on his solo, showing the restraint and musicality of a quintessential bluegrass musician. However, it is "I am the Man, Thomas" that stands out as the most inspired and unique performance on this album. It opens with the bluesy guitar runs of Booie Beach, and is sung passionately by Jamie Johnson whose voice sounds like a perfect blend of Vince Gill's and Ralph Stanley's.
The only disappointing track on the album is "Tennessee Wagoner", which is probably more a matter of personal preference rather than any failure on the part of the musicians. The tune and chord progression are corny and seem out of place amidst this wonderful collection of songs and performances.
One can only hope that The Little Grasscals: Nashville's Superpickers was not a one-time deal and that this same group of musicians plans on making more music together in the near future.