Like so many other great moments in bluegrass, the new Crowe & Wasson project began with a banjo. J.D. Crowe had recently acquired a new Gibson Granada, in the same sequence as those played by Sonny Osborne and Earl Scruggs, and wanted to hear what it would sound like on a recording. As it should be when such a master requests it, a crack team of pickers (mostly New South alums) was assembled, and the outcome was ten tracks quickly laid down to Crowe’s specifications. The final result? You’ll have to get a copy to make your own judgment, but for me, it’s a complete delight to hear new music from one of my heroes one last time.
Crowe & Wasson consists largely of straightforward standards, mostly from the Flatt and Scruggs catalog, played just the way they should sound. Crowe, as always, is a quintessential master of timing and tone, and the first time I listened to the record, I found myself rewinding intros and breaks more than once just to savor the sound of them. (Okay, I’ll admit – I’ve done that almost every time I’ve listened to it since, as well.) Even the four older tracks plucked from a 1998 session featuring just Crowe, Rickey Wasson, and Curt Chapman have those same crisp notes and that same rich tone.
Truth be told, those older tracks are among the album’s best. There’s more music being played there than I’ve seen on many a show with a six-piece band. The album’s first two tracks particularly stand out. A strong and steady cut of Handsome Molly is followed by a truly excellent rendition of Merle Haggard’s Holding Things Together. Wasson has a particular knack for interpreting Haggard songs, and he fills this one with a resigned weariness that fits the song perfectly. Banjo fans will need at least two or three run-throughs of the album closer, a less than one minute long rendition of Shuckin’ the Corn during which Crowe just steps up to the mic and slams it out of the park. In an age when so many projects are reliant on Pro Tools and multi tracks, this cut (and the album in general) reminds us that the real magic is in the hands of the musicians.
Of course, the main ten tracks are not slouches, either. Featuring Ron Stewart, Michael Cleveland, Don Rigsby, and Harold Nixon in addition to Crowe and Wasson, there’s not a sour note to be heard. Stewart’s zippy fiddle kicks off a fine version of Love & Wealth, which features excellent harmonies between Wasson and Risgby. A swagger-filled I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open is also a great choice, with steady banjo backing from Crowe and a fine rhythm section. It may be one of my favorite cuts of that song ever. Also worth several listens – or more – are tracks like the bouncy Someday We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart and the spot-on Dim Lights, Thick Smoke. Crowe’s banjo is a constant presence throughout each of these numbers, with Stewart’s fiddle providing a perfect complement and Wasson and Risgby making a good case for a duet album of their own. Those who listen closely will appreciate the band’s ability to recreate the sound and feel of the songs’ original recordings.
Listeners may be a bit surprised to find that Crowe actually doesn’t play banjo on two of the tracks, especially since they’re both from the Jimmy Martin catalog. However, Crowe wanted to hear what his banjo sounded like from the other side of the mic, and Stewart was more than willing to step up. Crowe on the Banjo is a fine, speedy romp, with killer fiddle from Michael Cleveland (who plays mandolin on much of the rest of the album), while Honey, You Don’t Know My Mind is just good straightforward traditional bluegrass the way it should be played. Cleveland spices it up a bit with some Benny Martin-inspired fiddle. The music here is perfection – I really don’t think the song could be played any better.
What really sticks out to me about this album is just how full of music it is, without any of the musicians stepping on each other. There’s no empty space anywhere, with Nixon’s bass pushing the rhythm and Crowe’s banjo always filling the background. Fans of traditional bluegrass will certainly find this a treat to listen to. For what was essentially a group of friends getting together to hang out in the studio and hear what a banjo sounded like, this is good, good stuff. Crowe & Wasson is a fitting final work of a man who helped define what bluegrass banjo can – and should – sound like.
For more information, or to purchase the album, visit Wasson’s Truegrass Entertainment website. (Banjo fans, see if you can spot the shout-out to Crowe’s banjo in the album’s catalog number.) Digital copies will be available soon online as well.