By Art Menius
Wyatt Rice liner notes Rounder Records 1991
JIM & JESSE MUSIC AMONG FRIENDS LINER NOTES (1991) Rounder Records – Grammy nominated album
As the winter of 1963-1964 warmed to an end, Jim & Jesse, the McReynolds Brothers, rode the crest of the musical success that had seemed so elusive just a few years before. For three years Martha White Mills had been sponsoring Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys on television shows syndicated throughout Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The folk boom had created a young, urban audience for their kind of music and the opportunity for Jim & Jesse to perform at the famed Newport Folk Festival.
On 1 December 1960 Don Law had signed them to Columbia Records, returning the pair to major label after having been dropped by Capitol in 1955. The release of their second Columbia single, “Beautiful Moon of Kentucky”/”Diesel Train,” on the first of October 1961 coincided with their first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s clear channel AM 650, WSM. Jim & Jesse had sung “Nobody But You” during Ernest Tubb’s segment.
By the time Jim & Jesse were assigned to Columbia’s Epic division early in 1962, they had assembled one of the strongest bluegrass aggregations of all time with Allen Shelton on banjo, songwriter Don McHan playing lead guitar and singing harmony, Jim Buchanan, barely 21 years old, playing fiddle with a depth beyond his years, and Dave Southerland anchoring the group on bass. Providing the perfect outfit for Jim & Jesse’s smooth vocals and complex instrumental work, over the next three years they would wax a stream of classics including “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes,” “I Wish You Knew,” “Are You Missing Me,” “Why Not Confess,” “Take My Ring From Your Finger,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Cotton Mill Man.” Many of these titles were collected on Jim & Jesse: The Epic Bluegrass Hits (Rounder SS20).
Working with such producers as Law, Frank Jones, and Jerry Kennedy, it marked a period of inspiration and innovation within the format of bluegrass music. With strong recordings for a major label, an exceptional band, TV exposure supported by one of the Opry’s leading advertisers, and a devoted regional following, the call-up from their early ’60s base in Prattville, Alabama to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry seemed logical, if not inevitable.
“A.O. Stinson was in charge of all Martha White’s advertising on TV,” Jim McReynolds recalls. “He’d take us in there [to the Opry] for a guest appearance from time to time. Somewhere in my files we have a copy of a letter that Cohen Williams, who owned Martha White, wrote to [Opry manager] Ott Devine expressing their interest in our group and that they would love to see us on the Opry.
“You get somebody like Martha White that’s spending their money with the Grand Ole Opry and WSM and after he wrote that letter, it wasn’t long until Ott had called us one day and asked us to have lunch with him. He told us that they had decided to make us members of the Opry.”
Around 25 years had passed since the young McReynolds boys, already schooled in mountain music by their family, began listening to the magical sounds coming over WSM. “Our brother-in-law had an old battery-type radio, and he lived down the road from us not too far,” Jim remembers. “We’d go down to the house on Saturday nights, and people would just gather around, in the early days of radio, and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Back then I guess Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe were two of the biggest names there was on the Opry. It was just mountain type music. People were doing a lot of Carter Family songs.”
Jim & Jesse absorbed the sound of the brother duets so popular in the late 1930s, won a talent contest at St. Pauls, VA in 1941, and with then conclusion of the Second World War began their musical careers. A seemingly endless chain of radio stations took them from Georgia to Iowa. When the pair signed with Capitol Records in 1952, they began recording with a full bluegrass unit. Despite the high quality of their Capitol sides, the group lost its momentum when Jesse was drafted for service in Korea. There he met, of all people, Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers, the most successful brother act of the 1950s.
When Jesse returned to the states, they started all over again, briefly joining the World’s Original Jamboree on WWVA in Wheeling, WV, before heading south to north Florida. There Jim & Jesse got into television and began recruiting such future stars as Bobby Thompson and Vassar Clements for the Virginia Boys, while recording for Starday. Then 1960 brought the contracts with Martha White and Columbia that led to the Opry stage.
Jim & Jesse officially joined the Grand Ole Opry on 2 March 1964 and made their first appearance as members five days later. The impact on the band proved immediate. “It was a time when you got on the Opry, you’d made the big leagues, moved up from the farm to the majors,” reports their friend Mac Wiseman, who joins Jim & Jesse and Buck White here for a rendition of “Little White Church.”
“There’s a lot of exposure and, of course, prestige there with the Opry,” explains Jim. “It got us on a lot of bookings and some package shows that we never would have accomplished any other way.”
“It meant a lot more airplay on our records,” interjects Jesse. “I’d noticed that before we got on. Those shows we were working down in Georgia and Alabama, we could add ‘Grand Ole Opry’ and that helped the people who were booking us on shows a lot. They could use our name as a Grand Ole Opry act.”
Membership in the Opry provided not only prestige, but entree into a support network. “They had a news release thing that they were always sending out to all the disk jockeys,” Jim notes. Back then on Friday nights WSM had a “Mister DJ USA” thing that Grant Turner was in charge of. Grant would take the DJ and the artist out to dinner after everything. We went on several of those, and we got to know those guys. It’s just personal contact that meant a lot. No other way [than being members of the Opry] could you get involved in stuff like that.”
Recorded for Epic on the very day they signed with the Opry and released 5 weeks later, the Billy Sherrill produced “Cotton Mill Man” gave Jim & Jesse their first chart hit, reaching #43 on the Billboard Country & Western charts. Six further Epic singles would climb the hit parade for Jim & Jesse.
“Back then,” Jim says, “you could talk to a promoter, especially of country package shows, and the first thing they’d hit you with was ‘what have you got in the charts?’ In the middle ’60s or so, when we recorded ‘Diesel on my Tail,’ we were just trying to get sort of into the country vein so we could get some airplay. Without some kind of record getting into the charts, you could just about forget those packages and big country shows.”
Featuring the familiar Jim & Jesse harmony with more uptown instrumentation, “Diesel on my Tail” proved their most successful release, climbing to Billboard’s #18 during a 16 week run in the spring and summer of 1967. The distinctiveness and reliability of their vocal mastery gave Jim & Jesse the freedom to experiment with country, rock, and Latin material without losing their loyal audience.
Another given with Jim & Jesse has proven to be a crackerjack band. From their 1950s Capitol sessions with such artists as Hoke Jenkins, Sonny James, Tommy Jackson, Curly Seckler, and Tommy Vadin to the 1987 Rounder sessions with Shelton, Glen Duncan, Charlie Collins, and Roy Huskey that produced In the Tradition (Rounder 0234), Jim & Jesse have always surrounded themselves with the best. That’s included such luminaries as Thompson, Buchanan, and Clements, Carl Jackson, Joe Meadows, Vic Jordan, Jim Brock, and, today, Jimmy Campbell and Raymond McLain.
“We’ve always felt it was important if you had a banjo player or a fiddler that can really cut it. You’ve got to have everybody that can pick well,” Jim says. “We’ve learned that if you look around a bit, you can find good musicians for the same price as musicians who might not be that good. I listen to a lot of people when I’m on festivals. When I hear someone who’s doing something a little unusual, I check it out. Then you’ve got the personality to check out.”
One of Jim & Jesse’s youngest discoveries, Carl Jackson, repaid his mentors by producing this album. “I guess the first time we met him, we were playing a show pretty near to where he lived [in Mississippi]. His parents brought him out, and I think he had played somewhere down near Jackson in a dressing room with Earl Scruggs. So his dad could see how much energy he was creating. We used him as a guest on some of our stage shows down in that area,” Jim recollects.
“He was fourteen years old when we needed someone to help us through the summer, and his dad said if we wanted to use him we could, that we were the only group he’d trust to let him go out with, a fourteen year old boy.”
That was in 1968. Before he turned twenty-one, Jackson had recorded for Capitol and succeeded John Hartford on Glen Campbell’s TV series. While never forgetting his bluegrass roots, Jackson developed into one of Nashville’s more respected sessionmen, songwriters, and producers.
Besides producing and playing banjo or guitar on every track, Jackson assisted Jim & Jesse in recruiting performers and shaping Jim & Jesse’s 25th anniversary project. At first, Jesse explains, “The idea was we’d go back and get all the Virginia Boys, but Bobby Thompson can’t play anymore, and Shelton didn’t want to.” So they made the decision to “build it around us and the people we’ve worked with and some of our friends,” as Jim describes it.
During February of 1989 work began with Ben Hall engineering at his Home Place Studio in Nashville. Getting people to agree to be part of the project proved a lot easier than co-ordinating schedules.
“To get people in town or when they’re free, it’s not easy,” notes Jesse. “You just have to get people when they have time in Nashville when they’re off the road. We could have gotten a lot more Opry people if we’d had time.”
“Carl helped get a lot of the people. Tony Rice–Carl got him while he was in Nashville,” Jim says. “He’s in the studio with people all the time. Carl got Emmylou Harris to come in and do it. He got Ricky Skaggs to come in and Jerry Douglas and Buck White. We got Buchanan and people like that and Bill Monroe. Jesse got Porter Wagoner to do it. I talked to Mac.”
And so it all came together: Carl Jackson and Vic Jordan, who last worked with Jim & Jesse during the summer of 1989, split the banjo work. Jim Buchanan, recent Virginia Boy alumnus Glen Duncan, and their current fiddler Jimmy Campbell shared the fiddle slots. Veteran session man Roy Husky, Terry Smith of the Osborne Brothers, and Mark Schatz from the Tony Rice Unit provided the bass. Jerry Douglas slid into the Dobro work, while Rice augmented the guitar playing of Jim and Carl on a couple of cuts. And throughout Jesse McReynolds demonstrated his versatile and so distinctive mandolin picking.
Because, as Jesse puts it, “Allen was such a great part of the sound we had in the early years” on the Opry, Jim & Jesse lifted a recording of “Long Journey Home” from a mid-1980s session they cut with Shelton, Jackson, and Huskey.
Rather than put together a greatest hits re-recorded package, Jim & Jesse used their talented friends to cut a number of songs they’d never recorded previously. “Most of the material we picked according to the people we had to help us,” continues Jesse. “Like with Mac, we did ‘Little White Church’ because he was one of the people credited with singing that. With Porter, we did his song, ‘I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name.'”
“We worked a lot with Porter down in Florida before we went on the Opry,” Jim points out. “We’ve done so many of his songs. In fact. we used to do everything Porter Wagoner came out with. We’d start doing it on TV. He always been a good supporter of us and the music.”
For Bill Monroe they picked one of their favorites from his enormous repertoire, “Wicked Path of Sin.” “I’ve always heard him say, I think, that that was the first song he ever wrote,” Jim adds. “The thing we did with Seckler, ‘We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart,’ comes from Flatt & Scruggs. We picked a song that would go with whoever was helping us that particular project.”
“Ricky worked with Ralph Stanley,” Jesse comments. “That’s the reason we did ‘The White Dove.’ I think ‘The White Dove’ came out about as good as anything we have on there.”
In typical Jim & Jesse fashion, they didn’t limit the project just to superstars and superpickers. Ray Kirkland, who paid a visit to the studio, was invited to sing the baritone part on “I Cried Again.” “He worked with us a long time back when Allen and Jim Brock played with us [the mid-1960s]. Ray played bass with us,” Jesse recalls. Kirkland went on to work with the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy C. Newman, and Grandpa Jones.
“We’d like to make a special recognition on the song, ‘Going Back to Virginia,'” Jesse notes. “Ralph Owenby wrote the lyrics and Don McHan put the music to it. Ralph passed away last October . He had the charter bus company in Bristol and did all our bus work.”
“He was a real good friend,” adds Jim, “and he got to hear it before he died. I can get the picture from the song. He grew up in the same place we did.”
Not with all the miles and the shows and the public acclaim have Jim & Jesse forgotten where they grew up in southwestern Virginia near Coeburn. So what does it mean to a couple of Virginia boys to have grown up to spend a quarter century and counting as stars of the Grand Ole Opry?
“A lot of traveling, that’s what it means for one thing,” Jim quips. “I guess it means we may have done a few things right to be able to stay there that long. The people at the Opry are easy to work with. It’s pretty much just a big family of country entertainers.
“As we look back over the years, it really doesn’t seem like it’s been that many years. If you stay busy and enjoy something, time seems to fly by. We’ve been around this business forty years, and compared to those who have a hit out and then are gone, we have a lot to be thankful for.”
LIVEWIRE LINER NOTES (1990) Rounder Records
The musical genre that survive, that surpass the limits of a particular time, place, or culture, are those where the traditions evolve, branch out, and grow ever the stronger for it. What better example than bluegrass music in which generations of pickers and singers have kept the sound alive and growing for some 45 years. Each succeeding generation learns from those who have gone before, while bringing in new styles and new songs. Tradition forms not a barrier, but a catalyst which channels creativity.
Livewire, presenting here its first album, captures that very process in action. Unlike most of the bluegrass units of the first and second generation which featured a leader and his band, Livewire forms a team of four individuals similar in experience, age, and talent.
Banjo player Scott Vestal, a Texan now resident in Georgia, captured the respect of the five string world in 1984 and 1985 as part of Southern Connection, one of the few bands from the southwest to command the attention of eastern bluegrass listeners. With Russell Moore and brother Curtis Vestal, both part of Southern Connection, he joined Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, with whom he remained for three and a half years and six albums. By the time he departed in the fall of 1988, more than a few fans agreed with Lawson that the best bluegrass banjo picker in the business.
Guitarist and primary lead vocalist Robert Hale, who calls West Virginia home, grew up loving the progressive country/bluegrass fusion of Rounder artists J.D. Crowe and the New South. “I guess Crowe was always one of my favorite bands and Keith Whitley a big influence of mine, so that was my direction from the beginning,” he recalls. After working a year with the Reno Brothers, Hale received the opportunity to stand in the late Whitley’s shoes as lead vocalist for the New South. He spent two years with Crowe, who then took a hiatus from touring.
While Vestal and Hale served apprenticeships with leaders of bluegrass music’s second generation, only bassist Ernie Sykes had the experience of working for one of the genre’s founding fathers, Don Reno. His thirteen years as a professional have also included stints with the Reno Brothers and the Bluegrass Cardinals. He currently resides on Long Island, New York.
Mandolinist John Wayne Benson of North Carolina makes his major act debut with Livewire, but he has paid his dues with a youth spent playing in a variety of North Carolina bluegrass bands. For the past several years his mandolin could always be found at the heart of the hottest jam session at the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Family Style Bluegrass Festival at Denton, NC.
It was there that Vestal first became aware of Benson. How Livewire came together, Vestal explains, “was really kind of a mutual thing. I had talked to Robert Hale for quite a while before I left Doyle, and we’d planned to put something together. I was out looking for people wanting to do it, and I ran across Wayne Benson. I knew the first time I heard him pick that I wanted to play in a band with him.
“Then later Robert called and said he’d found Ernie Sykes to play bass and sing tenor. We got together for the first time in West Virginia in February of 1989. We knew that we could make it work when we got together and ran over some things, maybe ten songs. A lot of the stuff Ernie and Robert had played together before. We worked up some material and recorded a demo.”
That demo tape led to a showcase slot at the IBMA World of Bluegrass 1989 Trade Show in Owensboro, Kentucky in September. Scarcely two months later Livewire found themselves at Nashville’s Sound Shop with ace engineer Bil Vorn Dick recording this project. In the relatively slow moving world of bluegrass that’s fast action indeed for a new outfit, no matter how experienced its members. Rapidly, too, Livewire booked a number of stellar bluegrass events for band at the outset of its career–Denton, the Tulsa Bluegrass & Chili Festival, a June 1990 tour of England.
No small part of Livewire’s success can be credited to their insistence on developing their own sound featuring the vocal trio of Hale, Sykes, and Vestal supported by solid, versatile rhythm and exquisite fills and runs from the banjo and mandolin. “Our goal has been to be able to please a wide variety of people,” says Vestal. “We wanted to show we could play a different variety of musics, some country, blues, and jazz type stuff. We try to choose material we thought would appeal to people who appreciate other styles of music as well as bluegrass.”
Country, blues, and jazz…the same components that went into the original bluegrass sound. By touching base with the current evolutions of those sounds Livewire creates a music that connects both with the roots of bluegrass and its future.
Most clearly jazz-inflected is Vestal’s original tune, “Wired.” No matter how much banjo pickers concentrate on the musicality of five string back-up work, it’s through original instrumental breakdowns that banjo players make their mark with fans.
Hale has been composing country influenced bluegrass songs for a few years. The evocative “Home Again” previously appeared on an album by Sykes and his wife Karen Spence Sykes. His other songs, “Can’t Put Your Memory Away” and “Don’t You Ever Go Away,” make their recorded debut. Just like the tunes selected by Livewire from outside bluegrass, Hale’s songs have a country feel, but deal with the classic bluegrass themes of lost love and missing the old home.
“Everything I Used to Do,” which Hale picked from the repertoire of country star Gene Watson, fits in well with both the Livewire arrangement and through its word portrait of a man at loose ends. Sykes and Hale did the late Mel Street’s “Virginia Song” while with the Reno Brothers, while “The Longer You Wait” is a Merle Haggard piece which Hale sang while working with Crowe. Kenny Rogers and Bobby Goldsboro, as well as Bill Harrell, previously recorded “Goodbye Marie,” which Hale picked because “it lent itself really well to our type arrangement,” especially Vestal’s banjo style.
Livewire also directs its approach to several songs from bluegrass. Leon Jackson’s oft recorded “Love Please Come Home” demonstrates the Livewire approach to straight bluegrass. “Living Like A Fool,” learned from Jimmy Martin, takes on a whole new life through the band’s country vision of the song. “Deep River” pays a tip of the hat to Cliff Waldron, one of the pioneers in adapting outside material to the bluegrass treatment. Pre-eminent bluegrass composer Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne of the Osborne Brothers wrote “Gonna Be Raining When I Die.” Livewire presents an entirely new arrangement of the song, which Vestal and Hale learned in a California jam session with Russell Moore.
Borrowed or new, bluegrass, jazz, or country, Livewire shapes it into their distinctive style. Like bluegrass music, Livewire is still evolving and here for the long run.
WARRIOR RIVER BOYS LINER NOTES (1990) Rounder Records
It’s a new beginning some 30 years into the Warrior River Boys story. A fresh start a decade since the band regrouped. A debut project some four albums into the game. A young traditional bluegrass band featuring one of the great veterans, a founding father, on fiddle. It’s about goals, reaching a higher plateau, and starting anew from that point.
Bluegrass time has meant more than the rhythm bass, guitar, and mandolin make ever since Bill Monroe first revised southern string band music to fit his own musical vision. Bluegrass time exists when old and new come together, when the forces of change and tradition exist in a balance that permits the old to channel the creativity of the new. It establishes the window through which a forty year veteran can see that a bunch of kids share the same musical beliefs.
Back about 1960 another kid, head, heart, and fingers full of hard bluegrass music, named Garry Thurmond joined a band in Alabama called the Warrior River Boys. Although they never achieved national notice, the group spent ten years performing weekly on WBSA radio in Boaz, Alabama in addition to appearances on TV in Birmingham and on several other radio stations. As the 1960s came to an end, however, so did the original Warrior River Boys.
After surviving serious illness in 1980, Thurmond decided to reform the Warrior River Boys, not as a regional bluegrass outfit, but with the goal of becoming one of the top acts in the music. Then Thurmond established a second goal for the Warrior River Boys: to prove that a new band could master the classic bluegrass sounds of the 1950s. Sorting through musicians with the assistance of Bill Monroe, who had befriended Thurmond twenty years earlier, he created a band that could play the triple fiddle material of the mid-1950s Blue Grass Boys. Along with the fiddles of Red Taylor, Al Lester, and Wayne Jerrolds, Thurmond recruited a young mandolinist named David Davis.
Davis, who has sung all his life but only recently begun picking seriously, had deep bluegrass roots since his uncle, the late Cleo Davis, had been the fiddler in the very first version of the Blue Grass Boys in 1939. During 1982 and 1983 the Warrior River Boys seemed ready to achieve their goals with appearances on the Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain series and Fan Fair’s Early Bird Bluegrass Show. The Warrior River Boys cut a strong album which has never been released, since the health of both Taylor and Thurmond broke down. Taylor, one of the truly greatest bluegrass and country fiddlers, passed away. Thurmond again pulled through, but his doctor banned him from the life of a road musician.
Thurmond then turned over the Warrior River Boys to his young friend Davis, knowing his devotion to traditional bluegrass music. Gary Waldrep had just then joined the group on banjo, and he and Davis recruited their friend Mitch Scott for the guitar slot, while retaining Lester on fiddle. That gave the Warrior River Boys a solid core of three musicians in their early 20s who loved bluegrass music and got along well together.
The trio also shared the dedication to doing whatever was required to put together the pieces of the puzzle to make it in bluegrass music. They established another goal: “Rounder Records– that’s the label we always wanted to be on.” When Lester left, they discovered that Charlie Cline, of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers Clines, brother of Curly Ray, a man who had worked with seemingly everyone from Monroe to the Stanleys to Jimmy Martin, was willing to join the band and share their goals and struggles. In 1986 the next piece in the puzzle came their way when they met fifteen year old Jarrod Rains at WBSA. The youngster had already cultivated a powerful bass voice by teaching singing schools and singing gospel music.
Those five gave the Warrior River Boys a group who possessed the skills to express the “high lonesome sound” of classic bluegrass. Once they had the sound right, the Warrior River Boys began taking their music to the people on an endless series of grueling road trips, just as the founders of our music did. The band traveled and played, wherever they could find people willing to listen. They developed a fast moving show, exploding with the energy and intensity of traditional bluegrass music, while working their way up to some 150 show dates per year and recording three well received records for the Old Homestead label.
“Everyone in the band,” Davis recalls, “grew up in the music and business together, even Charlie Cline. We’ve learned it together and improved together. What we are now, we’ve learned together….We’ve worked hard, and we’ve been paid back for it. We’ve had a lot of breaks in the last five years.”
After signing with Rounder Records, the Warrior River Boys didn’t rush into the studio armed only with enthusiasm. Touring almost non-stop, they took their time assembling material and making sure everything was right before entering a Nashville studio with ace engineer Bil VornDick in September 1989.
“If you can call bluegrass music commercial,” Davis continues, “then the kind we play is the most commercial–that high, lonesome sound, music with an edge to it.” Music that merges the tradition of bluegrass music with the intensity of youth and the wisdom of experience to generate a soulful sound for today.
The Warrior River Boys, moreover, know that the hardest tasks lie ahead for them, for their initial Rounder release is a new beginning. “We’re starting to build our own career with our own songs, our own music. There was no reason to do that until we had a label like Rounder behind us,” Davis allows. “The songs on this album, if they’re not original, they’re forgotten or our own arrangements.” For their first Rounder release the Warrior River Boys have also placed an even greater emphasis on their excellent duet singing as part of a most well rendered broadening of their musical approach.
Nor are the Warrior River Boys willing to settle for being a hard working band on one of bluegrass music’s major labels. Instead, they’ve set their sights, according to Davis, on goals of musical and entertainment excellence inspired by the standards of the first generation of bluegrass artists. If the Warrior River Boys keep working toward those ambitions, the winners will be every fan of traditional bluegrass music.
Not only do the style and composition of the Warrior River Boys reflect the give and take of new and old that keeps bluegrass music fresh and exciting, the songs selected for this project balance roots and branches in the best possible way.
“I Don’t Know What to Do” comes from the prolific Charlie Cline. The Warrior River Boys give it a strong Monroe-sounding treatment.
Alabama neighbor Bill Prickett wrote “You’re That Certain Someone” for his wife some thirty years ago, but it has never been recorded previously, making it literally both old and new.
The Bailey Brothers cut “I Told the Stars About You” in 1952, shortly after joining the Wheeling Jamboree on WWVA, with Tater Tate on fiddle and Jake Tullock on bass. The original, which features steel guitar instead of banjo, appears on Rounder 1018. By reinterpreting the song as bluegrass, they achieve a version simultaneously more traditional and more contemporary than the Baileys.
The Warrior River Boys learned “Right Before My Eyes” from a tape of an early 1960s Flatt & Scruggs show, featuring Josh Graves and Tullock. Jake and Josh waxed the tune for their 1962 Cotton Town Jubilee album, Just Joshing. Eschewing the prominent Dobro of the original, this 1989 version, featuring banjo and fiddle, comes off sounding more like 1950s bluegrass than the 1962 track.
Reno & Smiley recorded “Mother’s Bible” for King Records on 15 May 1953, only two days after Reno composed it. The Warrior River Boys arrangement remains true to the feeling of Don & Red’s version, while giving it their own original twist.
The Stanley Brothers recorded “Old Love Letters,” a Stanley- Bence composition, for King on 11 July 1960 as a duet backed mostly by the guitar of George Shuffler. The Warrior River Boys reconstruct it using the full band with a solo lead vocal and a trio on the chorus.
The Warrior River Boys again exhibit their ability to arrange material to suit their own sound on Roy Acuff’s “Midnight Train.” Their refreshing bluegrass treatment asks the question why more bluegrass bands don’t resurrect Acuff’s outstanding pre-war material.
Change and continuity meet on the Mitch Scott song “Lay My Burdens Down,” which the band renders in the Carter Family style of lead, tenor, and bass, an approach with which the Blue Sky Boys and Stanley Brothers also experimented. The treatment allows the Warrior River Boys to showcase the outstanding bass voice of Jarrod Rains.
The Warrior River Boys totally rebuild “That’s What I Like About You” by Charlie Monroe, whose 3 August 1956 version appears on MCA’s Bill Monroe and Charlie Monroe platter. Whereas the elder Monroe treated it as a basic country song with Tommy Jackson’s fiddle and the guitars of Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, and Don Helms, the Alabama quintet gives it a bluegrass workout melded with Waldrep’s high stepping old-time banjo frailing.
“Farewell to Long Hollow” is unmistakably a Bill Monroe tune, but one which he has never recorded. The Warrior River Boys, who work it up in their own full blown bluegrass style, learned it from the stately version by James Bryan on his Lookout Blues album (Rounder 0175).
Charlie Cline also composed “I Can’t Get Over You.”
Mitch Scott wrote “Throne of Grace,” which the Warrior River Boys arrange in a classic bluegrass quartet style.
The songs all add up to the next leap forward for a band that possesses the vision to carry traditional, soulful bluegrass music into the 21st Century, a group that knows that reaching one plateau means there’s another mountain to be climbed ahead.
LINER NOTES FOR WEARY HEARTS (Flying Fish FF513)
When you get down to basics, bluegrass music has traditionally been a young person’s game. Bill Monroe had just celebrated his 28th birthday when he joined the Grand Ole Opry. A 19 year old Earl Scruggs startled listeners when he added his fancy banjo to the Blue Grass Boys’ sound. What rock band has ever exceeded the drive, fire, and intensity of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys during the early 1950s? That period included a summer with a 13 year old named Sonny Osborne as the banjoman. Did not the Johnson Mountain Boys electrify audiences of the 1980s because they combined youthful enthusiasm with an encyclopedic mastery of first generation bluegrass?
So I was more than a bit intrigued at the 1986 Nacogdoches (TX) Summer Music Festival when a young man, who looked as if he should be surfing at Malibu, picked up a banjo at the booth beside mine and laid his thumb not into the latest Bela Fleck masterpiece, but into Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” I learned his name was Ron Block and that he and his partner Mike Bub had been taking top banjo prizes everywhere from Wickenburg to Winfield. Bub and Block, moreover, had a band based in the Phoenix area called Weary Hearts, which had just produced an album length cassette with the help of Country Gazette’s Joe Carr and Stuart Duncan from the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
The recording turned out to be solid traditional bluegrass drawn mostly from the Stanleys and Lester & Earl. I marked Weary Hearts as a group to watch. When their second project, a gospel platter entitled Faith is the Answer”, arrived in 1987 the band had added a versatile mandolinist from Vegas named Butch Baldassari. The record showed a tremendous amount of progress, and the Hearts’ booking in the western states and British Columbia dramatically increased. The Weary Hearts demonstrated another key to success; they were willing to hit the road and work, even at a loss, earning fans and building positive relationships with presenters.
In 1988 Chris Jones, formerly of Chicago’s Special Consensus, joined the Weary Hearts providing the two things they needed most–a powerful lead vocalist and a second good songwriter. Everything began to click for the band. They gave an exceptional showcase at the IBMA World of Bluegrass 1988 and then won the hotly contested SPBGMA International Bluegrass Band Contest in Nashville at the beginning of 1989. The next week they ventured to Jack Clements’ legendary studio to record this, their first album for Flying Fish.
Recording in Music City, the Weary Hearts managed to convince a few friends to help with the album. Tim O’Brien of Hot Rize produced the sessions and added his fiddle and rhythm guitar to a few tracks. Four cuts feature the incomparable Dobro of Jerry Douglas, while veteran Shawn Camp fiddles on two numbers.
But the all-stars fail to upstage the real stars of this recording, Weary Hearts Mike Bub, Ron Block, Butch Baldassari, and Chris Jones. For the first time the recorded Weary Hearts project their own identity, an original, fresh sound based in traditional bluegrass. Jones and Block each contribute a pair of original songs, while Baldassari adds one of his many mandolin tunes. The other six tracks suggest a vast knowledge of the wealth of bluegrass material and a heck of a lot of taste besides. After listening just one time to a tape of this project my head was already filled with its music, especially Block’s outstanding song, “Waiting for the King” and their version of “Poor Old Cora.” Three year’s of hard work have given the Weary Hearts the maturity to match their musical vision. I can hear the realization of what three years ago was promise and potential with each listening.
The Weary Hearts have fused technical mastery and extraordinary knowledge with the rare ability to at such young ages to encompass the emotional depth and power of bluegrass music. When youth meets traditional excitement always happens. When youth, tradition, excitement, and good taste come together, you have Weary Hearts. There’s no need to weep or wail about tomorrow, the future of bluegrass music is in good hands. In fact, the future is now.
20 April 1989
LINER NOTES, Bluegrass Gospel and Country by Charlie Cline (October 1990)
Where do you start to talk about someone like Charlie Cline who has spent a lifetime in bluegrass and country music? People have waxed eloquent about stars such as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse, and the Stanley Brothers, but how many words have been devoted to the sidemen who made their accomplishments possible? Artists such as Charlie Cline, Joe Stuart, Buck Ryan, Bobby Thompson, Allen Shelton, Josh Graves, Tom Morgan, Ray & Melvin Goins, Paul Williams, Curley Lambert, Marion Sumner, Jody Rainwater, Edd Mayfield, and hundreds more made bluegrass music. They rode in the crammed cars, shared hot dogs and hard cots, put up posters, and missed all too much of the public acclaim. Will their home be in the Hall of Fame?
Just look at Charlie Cline, whose latest solo album, Bluegrass Gospel and Country, you hold in your hands. Tutored on the fiddle by the legendary Opry star Arthur Smith, he began professionally during the early 1950s on banjo in his family band, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, an extraordinary first generation bluegrass band that was sadly underrecorded and underappreciated despite a thirty year career that launched such talents as Larry Richardson and Bobby Osborne. He alternated stints with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers with work for Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Between 1952 and 1955 he played fiddle or guitar on no less than eleven Monroe sessions, while often picking banjo on the live shows. On 29 August 1954 Charlie played lead guitar, several years before George Shuffler, on the Stanley session that produced their version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Hard Times.” Just six days later Charlie played one of the triple fiddles on Monroe’s second recording of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” He spent many years playing fiddle and banjo and driving the bus for Jimmy Martin & Sunny Mountain Boys. Ever youthful, the West Virginia native currently resides in Alabama and fiddles for exciting young Rounder artists the Warrior River Boys.
Bluegrass Country and Gospel delivers just what the title promises with many of the selections coming from the more than 300 songs Charlie and his wife have composed. Whether presenting bluegrass, country, or gospel, Charlie holds here to the old time way, putting soul, guts, and feeling ahead of the polish and precision favored by some many younger artists. It’s all straight from the heart of an honest, genuine man whose been the heart of several outstanding bands through three generations of bluegrass musicians.