Kentucky Thunder banjo player Russ Carson might not yet be recognized among the giants of the five string community, but it seems likely from his latest Patuxent CD, Avenue of the Giants, that he’ll soon be counted in their number.
This talented young picker excels at both 3-finger and clawhammer banjo, something that is demonstrated across the various tracks of this, his second solo project. He also demonstrates his respect for a couple of current banjo legends a generation his senior, and a few lesser known icons of the more distant past, in addition to some strong new original material.
Though he’s working now with Ricky Skaggs, the new CD was tracked with members of his former outfit, Audie Blaylock and Redline. Jesse Brock handles mandolin, Patrick McAvinue is on fiddle, Jason Moore on bass, and Blaylock on guitar and vocals. Kenny Smith provides lead guitar, and Darrell Webb, also a former Blaylock bandmate, shares his vocals on two cuts.
Things start off with a rip-roarin’ version of New York Chimes, perhaps the grassiest Tony Trischka banjo tune ever. Russ may even play this number faster than Tony did on his Hill Country album back in 1985. That is followed by Things In Life, sung by Eddie Rose, an absolutely beautiful Don Stover song from the ’70s. It’s almost the perfect old time ballad, with Russ alternating between bluegrass and old time banjo in C.
>Carson shows his affinity for old time fiddle tunes with a pair of classics. Charlie’s Neat starts as a banjo/fiddle duet with mandolin, guitar and bass joining in as the mournful old tune progresses. The banjo and fiddle lines are played in precise unison, old time style. For New River Train, he plays a copy of the 1863 Joel Sweeney banjo which gives his clawhammer arrangement an even more distinctive and lonesome sound. McAvinue’s fiddle shines on both of these tracks.
Another standout is Daddy’s Dream, a banjo tune written by Dave Denman and previously recorded by Sammy Shelor. It takes confidence to cut a Shelor piece, and Russ nails this one to the wall. Kenny Smith turns in a fine guitar solo on this tune he performed many times when he worked with Lonesome River Band.
Contemporary traditional bluegrass is also well represented, particularly on Heartbreak Hall Of Fame and Stone Cold with Darrell Webb singing lead and Audie Blaylock tenor. The banjo is prominent, but the singing takes center stage, as it does on Montana Cowboy, one of the more memorable songs from Vern & Ray. Audie sings this one solo and delivers a mighty fine performance.
More modern 3-finger playing is showcased in Russ’s original tunes. Pat Made Me Do It shows the influence of the great Ron Stewart and his mastery of the key of D in G tuning, something that Carson has in his arsenal as well. The title track is the most harmonically adventurous piece on the album, utilizing an odd altered tuning Russ invented himself (gCFBbC). It starts sparse before jumping to a more rapid pace through multiple key changes, and serves as an appropriate close.
There’s not a weak track on this fine album, and with such a wide range of styles, all performed brilliantly, it’s hard to imagine any fan of traditional string music not enjoying it.