The first is that the passage of time hasn’t slowed one of bluegrass music’s steadiest banjo pickers. He still covers the fingerboard with as much aplomb and virtuosity as he did on a series of recordings with the Country Gentlemen oh so many decades ago. That much is clear not only on State Line Ride, a tune he wrote, but also throughout this fine speciman of a project.
The second is that Chris Stifel should write more and Sweet Dixie should find room for more of his songs on their records. Once again, Stifel’s pen and mind have produced a winner, and once again, it’s the title cut.
Dancin’ Annie is built on a common theme – country boy falls for someone who loves the bright lights of the city more than she loves him and his humble cabin on the hill. But in Stifel’s telling, the story is fresh and compelling, in the same way that Streets of Baltimore, popularized by Gram Parsons and recently recorded by Del McCoury, never gets old.
The lyrics are straightforward, the arrangement is traditional, with strong pickers trading breaks, and the whole is a radio-friendly package that is already charting. In fact, nearly every song on the disc fits that definition.
In addition to solid writing and easy-on-the-ears vocals, Stifel also contributes a solid guitar rhythm that blends well with Emerson’s five string and the steady beat of Wayne Lanham on mandolin and Teri Chism on upright bass. But on many of the tracks, the instrumentation gets taken to an even higher plain by the fiddling of Pat White, Wally Hughes and Rickie Simpkins.
Lanham and Chism also contribute strong vocals, both on lead and with harmonies that sound like they come from people who have been singing together a long time. No surprise, there, since they’re married!
In addition to the title track and Emerson’s tune, other standout cuts include Lanham’s instrumental, Whistle Stop; the Stifle-sung Days When You Were Mine, one of two songs from Pete Goble and LeRoy Drumm; He Knows My Name, a Rob Mills-penned song lead by Lanham, and two sung by Chism.
The first is The Only Wind That Blows, by the late Liz Meyer. Any song that keeps Meyer’s memory alive is a treasure, at least to these ears.
If IBMA gave out a profile in courage award, Chism would be a sure nominee this year for her cover of Walkin’ After Midnight. It takes guts for anyone to put this Patsy Cline classic on record, but for Chism there’s even more pressure than usual. Like the legendary Country Music Hall of Famer, Chism is from Winchester, VA, where they take their legends seriously. Chism nails it, not only on the recording but in live performances as well. And, let there be no doubt, Bill Emerson can make his banjo swing!
Bluegrass fans everywhere are fortunate that Emerson is still at it and still at the top of his game. For those of us who live in the shadow the nation’s Capitol, there’s the added benefit of seeing him perform regularly. He is, truly, a Washington monument.