A Picture of Hank: The New Bluegrass Way
Mercury 314-528 333-2
review by Art Menius
The singular artistic vision of Hank Williams, Sr. and the exciting new bluegrass sound popularized by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt dominated southeastern country music of the late 1940s. Their success symbolized the ascendancy of country music for listening over country music for dancing. Williams, who collaborated on a song or two with Monroe, contributed a number of titles to the bluegrass repertoire. Second generation giant Larry Sparks a number of years ago devoted his considerable talents to an entire album of Hank, Sr. songs done bluegrass style. So a big question is why no one previously thought of doing what Mercury Records has achieved with A Picture of Hank: The New Bluegrass Way, a collection of younger bluegrass talents recording Williams’ songs their way.
None of the folks heard on A Picture of Hank have achieved the platinum stardom of Alison Krauss, but their skills have fueled some of the strongest bluegrass releases of recent years. Best is known is Rounder artist Claire Lynch, who possesses the voice and Nashville studio experience to duplicate the achievements of her younger labelmate. She gets the disc off to a promising start with a killer interpretation of “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind.” Ronnie McCoury, also on Rounder as part of both his dad’s Del McCoury Band and the McCoury Brothers, has earned the mandolin award from the International Bluegrass Music Association three years running. Besides providing exquisite mandolin work throughout, he demonstrates his rapidly maturing vocal skills on a soul-drenched “(I Heard That) Lonesome Fiddle.” Ed Dye, eccentric enough to have once recorded Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a reggae arrangement and a former road manager for Woody Herman, makes “Jambalaya (On The Bayou” utterly his own. Harley Allen, son of the late bluegrass legend Red Allen, serves up simply revelatory vocals on “Cold, Cold Heart.” The gifted Kathy Chiavola wraps her big, expressive voice around “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Other featured vocalists include Gene Wooten and Terry Eldredge of the Osborne Brothers’ band, Don Rigsby from the Lonesome River Band, Andrea Zonn, veteran Ernie Sykes currently of the Eddie Adcock band, and Ralph Stanley alumnus Ernie Thacker.
The musicianship, unsurprisingly, proves exceptional throughout. Besides the featured artists, A Picture of Hank utilizes such monster players as Dobroist Rob Ickes (Blue Highway), banjo visionary Larry Perkins, guitarist Jeff White (Krauss and Vince Gill), fiddlers Jimmy Campbell and Randy Howard, and bassists Mike Bub (Del McCoury Band) and Gene Libbea (Nashville Bluegrass Band). Bil Vorn Dick delivers his usual fine production job.
Every single cut on A Picture of Hank: The New Bluegrass Way stands up well. The only less successful moments happen when the artists cannot shake themselves free of Williams’ enormous shadow, serving up cuts that resemble the original tracks more than bluegrass. Wooten renders “Why Don’t You Love Me” and Andrea Zonn, despite the gender switch, “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)” so close to Hank that it seems pointless. Nonetheless, this is fine music from first note to the last. Great ideas don’t have to be unusual.