A classic idiom we have all heard and probably used. By definition, the phrase means “being proud of yourself and confident in your abilities.” Different from boasting, standing tall exudes self-assurance, often in the face of adversity. When discussing the music of three members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, one can definitely see how J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams have become confident in their abilities.
They have done and seen more within the world of bluegrass than most of today’s artists ever well. All have enjoyed extremely successful solo careers, but their place in bluegrass history was cemented long ago as members of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys. Not only did this solidify their status as bluegrass icons, but it forged a lifelong friendship amongst these three living legends.
“Strong enough to stand adverse conditions.” Over more than one hundred and fifty combined years of experience within bluegrass music (Let that sink in for a bit — 150 years!) have definitely led to Crowe, Lawson, & Williams being considered tough. As Paul Williams said, “How amazing is it that three guys on Medicare can still be onstage performing this great American music called bluegrass!” Having faced many adversities over the past five decades, they have persevered and have come through with their dignity and integrity. They are three of the most respected men in the bluegrass community.
Standing Tall and Tough is the perfect title for the newest album from Crowe, Lawson, & Williams. “That may appear to some as boisterous or even belligerent, but it’s not!” says Doyle Lawson. “To J.D., Paul, and me, it means that after all the years of being involved in music, the love we have for it hasn’t diminished at all.” That is clearly evident on their latest album for Mountain Home Records. The trio’s first collaborative effort, was an award-winning Gospel album saluting the sacred songs of the “King of Bluegrass” and their old boss, Jimmy Martin. Their sophomore album features much more variety than Old Friends Get Together, and showcases the hunger and passion these legends have for bluegrass music.
Standing Tall and Tough features only three Jimmy Martin songs (My Walking Shoes, Little Angel In Heaven, and Pretending I Don’t Care), all co-written by Paul Williams. Walking Shoes gets the album off to a powerful start. As far as bluegrass classics are concerned, this one is in the upper echelon of the bluegrass canon. The song leaves little doubt that Standing Tall and Tough will be strong bluegrass that reaches out and grabs you by the shirt collar; you can’t help but sing along!
Little Angel In Heaven provides one of Doyle Lawson’s best lead vocal performances. His singing is soulful, without sacrificing quality. Pretending I Don’t Care proves that it is one of the most underrated Williams/Martin compositions. Having been recorded by not only the King, but by Rhonda Vincent and The Traditional Grass as well, this new version of an old classic is as relevant as ever. J.D.’s bluesy banjo on Pretending I Don’t Care, whether up front or playing backup, should be required listening for aspiring pickers – so tasteful.
Crowe, Lawson, & Williams also include a trio of Louvin Brothers songs on Standing Tall and Tough. Do You Live What You Preach, Don’t Laugh, and Insured Beyond The Grave all make an appearance. As Doyle says in the liner notes, “The truth is that I have never heard a Louvin Brothers song that I didn’t like.” I have to agree.
Do You Live What You Preach and Insured Beyond The Grave are the album’s Gospel standouts, while Don’t Laugh is a toe-tapping love song. Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams sound great on the brother style duets, as they are so close, they may as well be kin! Don’t Laugh also highlights Paul’s oft-underappreciated mandolin playing.
These icons’ love and knowledge for classic country is evident on Standing Tall & Tough. Aside from the three Louvin Brothers selections, they also include old country songs from Bill Anderson and Johnny Bond. Bill Anderson’s Once A Day became a signature song for “Miss Cute ‘N Country,” Connie Smith. In what may be the only bluegrass rendition of the song, Paul Williams beautiful lead vocal should be endearing to bluegrass fans who grew up with the country classics (such as yours truly).
Johnny Bond was an old country artist who had hits such as Hot Rod Lincoln, Divorce Me C.O.D., Sick, Sober, and Sorry, and So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed. Crowe, Lawson, and Williams dug out one of his deep catalog tunes called Those Gone and Left Me Blues for Standing Tall & Tough. This song is a whole lot of fun and moves right along with J.D.’s right hand and an ace rhythm section.
What makes this album unique is the number of old songs reinvented as fresh bluegrass by these seasoned veterans. For a short time in 1959, Paul Williams worked with an aspiring country singer named James O’Gwynn. Paul and James wrote a song called Blue Memories, revisited here.
Blue memories of you and yesterday;
That’s all that I have left now, since you went away.
It’s hard to face tomorrow and start my life anew,
When all I can think of are blue memories of you.
That is just beautiful writing. Blue Memories drips of heartbreak, and the powerful vocal delivery, earmarked by tight harmony, makes the song come alive. Blue Memories is a true standout.
While all three legends shine on Standing Tall & Tough, Paul Williams is truly the star of the album. While Paul has sung primarily bluegrass Gospel over the past two decades with his band, The Victory Trio, it is a shame that so many of today’s current bluegrassers all but write off the powerful impact he has had on secular bluegrass music. That ends with this record as Paul reminds everyone that he is one of the strongest voices in the history of bluegrass. That is clear on two tracks which made me jump up and down to see them included on: Fraulein and Hills of Roane County. As Doyle says in the liner notes, those two “absolutely had to be on this recording.” I have seen Paul completely stop bluegrass festivals with these two classics, and (finally) he has recorded them here for the first time.
Fraulein was a signature country song for Bobby Helms, and it has been “bluegrassed” by Lost & Found, Bill Monroe, and even Jimmy Martin. However, none of those recordings are quite like Paul’s. Closing in on eighty years old, it is unnatural that Paul should be able to sing as powerful as he does. I honestly don’t see how he does it. When Paul Williams sings a song, consider it sung!
He is equally at home on Hills of Roane County, a bluegrass classic recorded by The Stanley Brothers, Tony Rice, Mac Wiseman, The Osborne Brothers, Charlie Moore, and others. A tragic, old song about a mountain feud, Paul Williams’ effortless delivery is captivating. Time has only made his voice richer, and we are all the better for it.
The album’s title track is liable to be a big hit for Crowe, Lawson, & Williams. A brand new song written by Paul, Standing Tall & Tough is a comeback anthem. Everyone has had to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and move on from their mistakes, and that’s exactly what this song is about. Never has bouncing back been so much fun! J.D. digs his famous “claw” into this one while Paul Williams sings like the master he is!
Crowe, Lawson, and Williams were joined in the studio by an A-list group of pickers for their sophomore album. In addition to J.D. Crowe on banjo, Doyle Lawson on guitar, and Paul Williams on mandolin, the record features Jason Barie on fiddle, Tim Surrett on bass, and Josh Swift on resophonic guitar and percussion. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Jason Barie’s fiddle playing is some of the most underrated in bluegrass. His bow arm is particularly strong on Blue Memories, Hills of Roane County, Pretending I Don’t Care, and Those Gone and Left Me Blues. Another member of Quicksilver, Josh Swift’s reso-guitar playing has really come on strong the past few years, and he really shines on Standing Tall and Tough, Hills of Roane County, Insured Beyond The Grave, and Once A Day. Josh is also a formidable percussionist, and the combination of Josh’s drums, Paul’s mandolin, Doyle’s guitar, and Tim Surrett’s bass provides one of the tightest rhythm sections you’ll hear.
Although two of these three “Old Friends” are retired from full-time touring, don’t for one minute think that they have lost a step – they’re are at the top of their game. With this album, Crowe, Lawson, and Williams solidify that they are, indeed, Standing Tall & Tough.
photo by LuAnn Adams
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Category: Music Reviews
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