It’s a credit to the genre and its ability to evolve and find a fit with contemporary audiences that bluegrass — or grassicana as its current incarnation is often referred to — is open to so many methods of interpretation. The ability to stay true to tradition while also bending the boundaries isn’t something that it claims exclusively, but it is one of the defining traits which contributes to its populist allure.
No one’s ever accused David Davis & The Warrior River Boys of toying with technique, but in the 35 years since Davis took the helm of the Warrior River Boys, they have not only stayed true to those initial precepts, but attempted to further a following as well. That makes this latest effort all the more significant in that they travel back several generations — before Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers — to revisit the music of one the original founding fathers of bluegrass, Charlie Poole. Poole helped set the precedent by formulating the archetypical style in the 1920s and subsequently became a prime mover in an evolution towards its eventual acceptance.
While Davis and company claim that this is not a tribute per se and that their goal was to add contemporary credence, in truth, they adhere to the original arrangements and make little attempt to alter the music in either style or substance. While the music sounds fresher and considerably clearer than it did on those old archival 78s, the reverence for, and spirit of, the originals stays true to the sound rendered at its inception. As a result, the intent and emotion manifest in narratives like May I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight, Mister, The Highwayman, Old and Only in the Way, and Milwaukee Blues remains true to form, with emphasis on the ache and hardship of the fanciful characters involved. The songs are lively and energized in ways that provide credence for contemporary consumption.
Ultimately, there’s no greater proof of Poole’s relevance to modern music than the fact that Bob Dylan cited him in his acceptance speech when awarded his Nobel Prize for Literature. Loudon Wainwright famously covered Poole on his own album High, Wide and Handsome. Yet there’s little doubt that Didn’t He Ramble provides the most significant homage to him yet.
As Davis himself remarks in the liner notes, there’s nothing that says one can’t stay true to the original incarnation and not keep current at the same time. With this particularly inspired effort, he’s managed to do both.