LINER NOTES, Springtime by the Dixieland Express (Express 1030)
By Art Menius (August 1990)
Sometimes you spin recording after recording looking for music that’s both bluegrass and innovative. Other times, it just walks in the door. A few years back, for example, I was being interviewed on air at bluegrass format radio station WFIC in Collinsville, Virginia when a talented young songwriter named David Whittaker entered the studio and handed me a copy of an album entitled Out of the Rain by a group called the Dixieland Express. I noticed three things immediately: the Dixieland Express had spent the money to have an attractive cover; they’d waxed five of Whittaker’s original songs plus one by their banjo picker, Sandra Jones, and noted instrument case builder Ray Jones played mandolin and sang baritone.
Besides lots of listening to the album, I got to see them perform several times in the next few months at concerts and festivals in North Carolina and Virginia. They knocked me out with the kind of high energy, enthusiastic, we-wouldn’t-want-to-be-anyplace-else-but- here stage show that all too few bluegrass bands today project. I loved their effective use of trio vocals and that they emphasized new material, but never got too far away from genuine bluegrass music. I learned that the Dixieland Express had been together since 1978 and had recorded one album prior to Out of the Rain.
Springtime records the continuing evolution of the Danville, Virginia-based Dixieland Express. Everything strong about the group just improves. As a demo tape it won them a coveted spot as a showcase band at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass in Owensboro, Kentucky. Although Glen Waller had replaced Whittaker in 1989, he sings lead on six Whittaker originals with the same feeling as if he wrote them himself. Dobroist Ernie Power has grown more tasteful than ever and contributes his own composition with the classic bluegrass name, “Powerful.” Sandra Jones Boling blends her tenor well with the male voices, picks strong banjo, and demonstrates her ability on rhythm and fingerpicked guitar as well. On bass Robbie Wiles handles a variety of tempos and material with ease and, although he only began concentrating on his singing since joining the Express in 1988, skillfully switches to the lead on the choruses of “Springtime,” “Long, Long Time,” “Mother’s Tender Love,” and “Already Gone.” Ray Jones provides solid mandolin and the ability to sing every harmony part with equal authority. And if all that’s not enough, they borrow the Osborne Brothers’ fiddler Steve Thomas for three selections!
The three cover songs the Dixieland Express chose for Springtime shows exactly what third generation bluegrass is all about. From pioneers Flatt & Scruggs they pick “Down the Road,” following it with “Tennessee Blues” from the second generation’s J.D. Crowe & the New South. They close the album with a rousing bluegrass treatment of “Already Gone,” cut by the Eagles when the country rock supergroup was most under the influence of the Osborne Brothers.
All said, Springtime by the Dixieland Express proves as fresh and exciting as its title. It’s groups such as they that will carry bluegrass music forward into the 21st Century.