Album of the Week – The Country Gentlemen: Live in Japan

Each week, Daniel Mullins will reach back to the archives to highlight a past recording (at least 5 years old) which might have been missed by newer fans – or overlooked, or even forgotten by long time bluegrass lovers. He will make a point to choose albums that are still commercially available in some form for his Album Of The Week columns.

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate my copy (or any copy for that matter) of The Goins Brothers Sing The Hits Of The British Invasion. Hearing Melvin and Ray backed by The Shedhouse Trio (Bill Hamm, Rick May, and Gerald Evans, Jr) doing Yellow Submarine must have only been in a dream of mine. (sigh) But never fear: there is still a tune from The Beatles on our second Album of the Week: The Country Gentlemen Live In Japan.

In 1970, the award-winning Country Gentlemen traveled across the Pacific to record one of their greatest albums: Live In Japan. This album features one of the most notorious lineups of The Gentlemen: Charlie Waller, Bill Yates, Bill Emerson, and Doyle Lawson. The record kicks off with one of several crossover songs which appear throughout the set. Fox On The Run, now heard in bluegrass jam sessions worldwide, was originally a Top Five hit for Manfred Mann in the United Kingdom before The Country Gentlemen transformed it into a bluegrass standard.

The ability to bring songs from other genres of music and make them bluegrass hits, is one reason The Country Gentlemen are considered as pioneers in progressive bluegrass. The Gentlemen, along with groups such as J.D. Crowe & the New South, The Osborne Brothers, and Seldom Scene, really paved the way for bands like New Grass Revival to stretch the limits of our music even further. This album features some great example of that ability.

In addition to Fox On The Run,Live In Japan features Country Roads, Yesterday, and a medley of Hank Snow songs to showcase their skill at reaching across genre lines to find material which entertains audiences of all ages. Emerson’s instrumental version of The Beatles’ Yesterday is nothing short of inspiring. Bill’s banjo and Lawson’s mandolin really shine on this cut, and show why they are still revered as two of the best on their instruments. The picking throughout the album is great, and is definitely hgivenas room to be showcased, with several instrumentals which highlight Emerson and Lawson’s mastery.

Now, traditionalists need not fear; there is a LOT more on this twenty track album than early progressive tunes. There is literally something for everyone on this album. The Gentlemen did several bluegrass classics on the stage in Japan. Favorites such as Little Bessie, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Train 45, East Virginia Blues, and more are throughout the album. Their tasteful renditions really show why The Country Gentlemen were so popular in their heyday: they made the songs their own! These versions of such classic numbers are distinctive, and there is no mistaking who is doing the song, whether you have heard The Gentlemen’s take on it or not.

The Country Gentlemen’s sound is due in large part to the unique voice of Charlie Waller. There will never be anyone who sings like Charlie Waller. Period. End of story. A true stylist. His voice appealed to a wide audience, and was key to The Gentlemen’s success from their beginnings in the 1960s. Having Doyle Lawson, whose band Quicksilver has won the IBMA Vocal Group of the Year seven times, did nothing but bolster the vocal prowess of this classic band lineup. The blend of these vocal powerhouses is magical. “Big” Bill Emerson and Bill Yates provide great vocal work as well, but it is Waller and Lawson whose voices really shine out on this album.

For serious fans, there is no shortage of Country Gentlemen standards on Live In Japan. Bringing Mary Home and Legend of the Rebel Soldier are both here, as well as one of my favorite bluegrass story songs, Matterhorn. The tune (co-written by Fred Burch and country music star, Mel Tillis) tells the tale of a valiant band attempting to climb the Matterhorn, one of tallest mountains in the world. At 14,690 feet, it is one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps for adventurers and climbers. It was first conquered in 1865, and since then, over five hundred mountain climbers have lost their life on its slopes. Matterhorn is a tragic song that immediately grabs your attention, and is my favorite signature Gentlemen song.

One appeal of live albums is the ability to capture a band’s on-stage energy and chemistry, and Live In Japan does just that. Having never had the opportunity to see these legendary artists, it is a real treat for me to listen to this album. Their on-stage antics rival that of Dailey & Vincent. Extremely fast and humorously slow numbers, Hank Snow impressions, and more show why The Country Gentlemen,this lineup in particular, were in demand all over the world while they were active.

I’m glad the album was recorded in front of a Japanese audience. Their first-time reactions to this legendary group do justice to a truly stellar performance. The only thing this album is missing is an accompanying live DVD! The Country Gentlemen’s Live In Japan is classic, and a must-have for any bluegrass collection.

Live In Japan (REB-CD-1104) is on Rebel Records. It is available for download on iTunes, and is available Music Shed, County Sales, and the Classic Country Connection.

Next week, be looking for one of the coolest acoustic albums you’ve probably never heard! (Hint: Among others, it includes Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash!)


Share this:

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.