Album of the Week #29 – The Bluegrass Album Band’s California Connection (Vol. 3)

California Connection - Bluegrass Album Band Vol 3My last Album of the Week was Reno & Smiley’s Wanted. Toward the end of the article, Joe Mullins highlighted the song Unfaithful One, written by Sid Campbell. He also mentioned how the song appeared on The Bluegrass Album Band’s third record, California Connection. (If you didn’t look at the title of this article, try to guess what this week’s Album of the Week is.)

We’ve all heard the story. It’s almost as ingrained in bluegrass folklore as Bill Monroe trying to find a sound all his own. In 1980, Tony Rice decided to record a straight-ahead, down-the-middle traditional bluegrass album, so he called up his old boss, J.D. Crowe. A good banjo man is essential to any traditional bluegrass band, and there is none better than J.D. Crowe. Along with Crowe, Rice recruited the help of Bobby Hicks on the fiddle, Todd Phillips on bass, and Doyle Lawson on mandolin. A true all-star group. Rice’s original intention was for the record to be a Tony Rice bluegrass album featuring an all-star cast, but the band’s synergy was so powerful, they felt a lot more like an actual band than session artists.

What was intended to be a “one-time thing” morphed into one of the most powerful bluegrass bands our music has ever seen, which came to be known as The Bluegrass Album Band.

This bunch recorded two albums so configured, redefining modern bluegrass as they went along. The band had chosen to do material from the past masters for these records, digging deep for songs that had not been covered-to-death. Doing such classics as Molly and Tenbrooks, Your Love Is Like A Flower, I Believe In You Darling, One Tear, and more, The Bluegrass Album Band Volumes I and II are bluegrass gold!

In 1983, as if The Bluegrass Album Band wasn’t already powerful enough, they added Jerry Douglas on dobro. This brought even more depth to their powerful sound, and is a contributing factor to why their next release, Volume III: California Connection, is my favorite of their albums.

Volume III kicks off with the band’s first ever contemporary number, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Devil In Disguise, which had come into the bluegrass repertoire through J.D. Crowe. Although this tune does not share the same origins as the rest of the band’s material, it sounds just as pure. BAB is firing on all cylinders, and you know you are listening to a masterpiece right away.

As I mentioned earlier, The Bluegrass Album Band does a great rendition of Sid Campbell’s Unfaithful One. The tempo of this song is crucial to its delivery. Good mid-tempo numbers are under-appreciated these days, and it’s a real shame. If this song was a little faster or a little slower, it would not have have the same effect. The timing is perfect and is not rushed or “draggy.”

One thing Crowe is known for is his innate sense of timing, and this is a perfect example. He and Phillips are on the same page here, and Phillips’ timing is rock solid. Match that with exquisite vocal harmonies, and this is traditional bluegrass at its finest.

Hey Lonesome is an original from the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin. Originally recorded in 1962 with Paul Williams and Bill Emerson, this wasn’t one of Jimmy’s biggest hits, so it hadn’t been overplayed. I’m glad the guys dug this one up, because it’s a great tune.

Jimmy’s style was so unique, you can tell this is one of his without even looking in the liner notes. Although Doyle and J.D. weren’t playing with Jimmy on the original recording, you can still hear their inner Sunny Mountain Boy coming out on this one! Tony’s guitar work on this song is reminiscent of Jimmy as well. In addition to the rhythm work, his licks in Hey Lonesome are very Martin-esque, paying homage to the King.

A Doyle Lawson original, Please Search Your Heart shows up on The Bluegrass Album Band’s third outing, originally recorded when Doyle was a member of J.D. Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys. Bobby Hicks’ fiddle and Jerry Douglas’ dobro are beautiful additions, filling out the song, echoing its tearful sentiment, and giving this track a different feel than the original.

The blend of Doyle and Tony’s voices is captivating from the first. Pairing two of the most recognizable voices in not only that era, but in bluegrass history, is one reason these records have such an enduring impact. Please Search Your Heart is one of my favorite examples of their vocal synergy.

Letter From My Darlin’ is the album’s lone tune from The Father Of Bluegrass, and Doyle’s mandolin work is textbook Monroe. The tone which Doyle pulls from the instrument is unparalleled; his rhythm is flawless. How he has never been awarded Mandolin Player Of The Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association is inexplicable to me. It is one of our music’s unsolved mysteries.

One of my favorite songs from the illustrious career of The Osborne Brothers is Big Spike Hammer. The uniqueness of this song is instantly recognizable, and is a big reason it has been so popular since the Osbornes recorded it in 1965. This all-star ensemble does not disappoint with their delivery of this classic, written by Bobby Osborne and Pete Goble. Crowe’s banjo drives the song right along, forcing you to nod your head and pat your foot. If you aren’t singing along with “Hey, HEY, Della Mae!” by the end of this one, you aren’t paying attention. Tony Rice plays the role of Big Bill Johnston perfectly, delivering the vocal with conviction. This soulful recording puts the strengths of the whole band on display, and is a great snapshot of what this whole album is about: power.

That power exhibited by Doyle, Jerry, Bobby, Todd, J.D., and Tony is unrivaled. Each is an undisputed master, and the chemistry they have together is a sum greater than its parts. Match that with bluegrass chestnuts from the forefathers (Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Martin, Reno & Smiley, The Osborne Brothers), and the recipe is explosive. The Bluegrass Album Band demands your undivided attention.

Volume III: California Connection is available from Rounder Records (ROU-CD-0180) and can be purchased from County Sales and the Classic Country Connection. It can also be downloaded digitally from iTunes and Amazon MP3.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.