I’m not sure if a bluegrass album has ever been more appropriately titled than Hard Core Bluegrass, the latest project from Al Jones & The Spruce Mountain Boys on the Patuxent Music label.
Jones is the remaining portion of the famed duo, Al Jones and Frank Necessary who, performing with the DC-based Spruce Mountain Boys, were popular in the 1970s and beyond. Frank, who passed away in 2011, played guitar and sang lead, with Al on guitar and tenor vocals. Their sound was strictly traditional bluegrass, and it’s great to see Al continuing in the same vein.
Or as he is quoted in the liner notes…
“I ain’t playin’ no modern music.”
Al even strikingly favors Bill Monroe in the CD jacket photos, with the same trademark mutton chop sideburns Monroe sported late in his life.
The album exemplifies the unapologetic simplicity that typified ’60s and ’70s grass, or as some like to call it, the Baltimore bluegrass sound. Fittingly, the album kicks off with an Earl Taylor song, Calling Your Name, another artist who embodied this sort of unabashed, unadorned traditional music. It’s performed here as a duet between Jones and Tom Mindte, who provides mandolin throughout.
>Three Jones originals are included: Nancy, a forlorn love ballad, I Can Never Shed Another Tear My Darling, with its familiar lyrics and structure, and My Friend Frank, a tribute to his long time partner.
Along the way we get renditions of music from Roy Acuff (As Long As I Live), Charlie Louvin (Love And Wealth), and Jim Reeves (This World Is Not My Home).
You can hear each of Al’s 82 years in his voice, but the sincerity and passion is every bit as clear as the rough edges. And if Jones has followed contemporary bluegrass since his hey day, you’d never know it from his singing, which betrays not a clue. Even his pronunciation has an old time sound.
The same is true of his rhythm guitar playing – stuck in the ’70s, where one could argue it belongs. It’s a treat to hear someone in today’s world who retains the style of a bygone era, and carries it off with such grace and precision.
Perhaps only someone like Al Jones could pull off a chestnut like Harlan Howard’s Iron Curtain, recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in 1959. The dated reference in the song’s primary metaphor still rings true in this 2014 version.
All the arrangements are straightforward, with era-appropriate accompaniment from Patrick McAvinue on fiddle, Tom Neal on banjo, Russ Hooper on reso-guitar (who worked with Al and Frank in the Spruce Mountain Boys), and Jerry Steinberger on bass.
Hats off to Patuxent Music for chronicling this throwback to a critical time in bluegrass music. You can find Hard Core Bluegrass wherever you shop for CDs and downloads, including the Patuxent web site.