Is there such a thing as a perfect bluegrass album? I guess that all depends on where you stand on the eternal “what is bluegrass, anyway” debate, and which vocal or instrumental styles are appropriate, and all that nonsense.
But I still hold that my own standard of perfection works without regard to those arguments. It’s a fairly simple standard: great songs, stellar performances, and transparent audio quality.
By that standard, It’s About Tyme, released today by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out is about as close to perfect as I can imagine. It represents the finest work to date by this iconic band, fronted by one of the most distinctive vocalists our music has ever borne. And I don’t think anyone will argue that these guys aren’t smack dab in the mainstream of contemporary bluegrass.
From his breakout work with Doyle Lawson – and even before with Southern Connection – Moore has done bluegrass proud, as he does here on 13 new tracks (plus a Wayne Benson instrumental). It’s also a great introduction to the new band, being their first album since the departure of longstanding members Steve Dilling and Edgar Loudermilk. Both of them are now working with other touring groups, with Keith McKinnon and Blake Johnson stepping in to IIIrd Tyme Out.
We had a chance earlier this week to talk with Russell about this new album, their first full project of new material since Prime Tyme four years ago.
Things get started with a rare original composition from Moore, with the clever title, I’m Leaving You And Forth Worth Too. It’s a hard-driving number of love gone wrong which Russell says he had to finish to get it on the record.
“I’ve written maybe a half a dozen songs in my life, and I’ve probably been working on this one for 5 or 6 years. I had everything but the last verse for a while – I had one but I didn’t like it.
There’s so many great songwriters out there, and they seem to do it with ease. These days we have so many that it seems like there are more great songs than we can get to.
Wayne suggested we try this one, if I could finish it up. He had heard me messing with it on the bus. I actually sat down and worked on it for about a week until I had it where I liked it.
I imagine Jimmy Martin where that line comes in about how I like the way she talks, the way she wiggles when she walks. It always makes me smile.”
That’s followed by Sweet Mountain Rose from David Norris, which in addition to being a fine traditional-sounding ballad, may be the first bluegrass song to use the word “cannonade.” Well done, David.
Gary Scrugg’s The Lowlands is next, with an eerie Celtic vibe. This is one that Gary recorded with his brother Randy in the early ’70s. Their’s was a more sparse arrangement which gets the full band treatment here, well-served by Moore’s emotional treatment.
Then comes one the album’s highlights, a new version of The Carter Family standard, Are You Tired Of Me My Darling, which is sung as a trio through and through. It brings a new life to this chestnut on which Moore takes the tenor. This is a textbook example of how to present an old time song in a modern bluegrass setting, from the fiddle kickoff to the tag at the end.
“Keith McKinnon is a big fan of the song, and he brought it in suggesting that we do it three part all the way. It took it a little while to find a good 3rd part, since we wanted to keep the lead and tenor line the same as they would normally be done. The 3rd part is jumping above the lead line a lot. Once we figured it out, it was really cool.
I’ve heard this one for years, but never thought about doing it with the band. Thanks to Keith, now we have put a IIIrd Tyme Out stamp on it.”
Had It Not Been For Train is a new song written by Keith’s brother Kevin, and Eli Johnston from Quicksilver, which suggests that a big bunch of the songs we all love would have suffered terribly without all the railroad metaphors that populate them. It’s followed by Spindale, a mandolin tune from Wayne Benson named for the the town where North Carolina radio giant WNCW is located. All the guys get a chance on this key of E romp with a fun extended bridge section.
Some listeners will remember I Think I Want My Rib Back, a song written by Keith Whitley and Fred Knoller, which was included on Keith’s Kentucky Bluebird album just two years after his death. It’s a whimsical song riffing on the Genesis story of Eve being formed from Adam’s rib, and Adam having second thoughts about the whole deal.
“This one is definitely tongue in cheek. The idea came on the heels of the Cracker Barrel CD, where Wayne played some using the four string electric mandolin. Our fans let us know that they really liked that sound, and Wayne suggested this one he used to do live on stage with Livewire as a good one for the four string.
I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t be offensive to women, so I asked my wife and a number of friends what they thought. When they all said they thought it was cute and funny, we went ahead and cut it.”
A breakout hit from It’s About Tyme could be Cottontown, which contains many of the elements that have made John & Mary such an enduring favorite of IIIrd Tyme Out fans over the years. Written by Mark Brinkmann and Becky Buller, it’s a fairly simple song about small town life, but it’s given a catchy feel with lots of banjo and fiddle. You can just see a large crowd clapping along as the arrangement builds, with flatfootin’ aplenty.
Without a doubt, one that will receive lots of attention is Russell’s reworking of Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye. This cry-in-your-beer, country two-step was a hit for Johnny Rodriguez in 1976, and those who pine for “real country music” will have this one on repeat for days. Moore delivers the sincerity that these songs need in spades, with luscious harmony vocals and multiple fiddles. Textbook, again.
Russell said that this choice was also inspired by their Cracker Barrel project, Timeless Hits From The Past, Bluegrassed.
“My next door neighbor, who I’ve known for years and years, came outside while I was messing around with the bus one day, and said he had a song he wanted me to hear. He had loved the the Cracker Barrel album, and thought this one would be a good follow up to Farewell Party.
It was the Johnny Rodriguez recording, and I loved it right away. When I found out it was written by Mickey Newbury, I was all over it. He writes such great hooks.
Justen had the idea of using trio fiddles in the studio for the kickoff.”
Milan Miller has written a number of songs for IIIrd Tyme Out, including Pretty Little Girl From Galax. For this new record he’s provided Poison Cove, which details the childhood reminiscences of a bootleggers son. It’s a fun, mid-tempo song with an unexpected flat 7 chord in the chorus that will have jammers scratching their heads at first.
Perhaps the standout track is River Bottom, a Billy Edd Wheeler song that The Country Gentlemen had recorded for a 1980 LP with that title. Here, the guys have revised the melody and chord structure a bit, and sped it up some too. It’s an ugly story of a truly devilish woman who meets a tragic, but perhaps fully justified end. Count on this one being a real showstopper.
“Three year ago I first mentioned this to one Wayne. Charlie Waller did it in a major key, but I was hearing something darker to go with the lyrics. We wanted to create a darker environment for the lyrics to sit in.
I don’t know if the character in the song wasn’t a little bit crazy, but he really wanted to rid the world of this awful woman.”
Enough For You is one that might not grab everyone on first hearing, but it’s one of my favorites on the CD. If you listen carefully and consider the lyrics, it really is one of the saddest love songs I can imagine. Josh Miller, former banjo player with NewFound Road wrote the song, though I hope he didn’t have to live it to capture the sentiment.
Perhaps the best example of why I consider this IIIrd Tyme lineup the best in their 24 year history is their challenging vocal arrangement of You Send Me, the Sam Cooke R&B mega-hit from 1958. Russell and the guys came up with a 5-part doo-wop vocal arrangement that rivals their classic rendition of Only You from The Platters. Blake Johnson’s moving bass vocal is simply splendid.
You really have to hear it to appreciate the blend they get, and how Russell channels the late Cooke in his vocal.
“These were just ideas I had, to follow up on Only You, which people have asked us to do for years. We thought about doing this a few years ago, but the Chapmans had a version of it at that time.
To pull it off a cappella, it really needed a different kind of arrangement. I wanted to use all the voices – with the lead vocal laying on top of a quartet. Blake does that cool percussive click with his bass note.”
The album concludes with Brown County Red, which should be familiar to most readers as it was released several months ago as a debut single. It’s an up-tempo 3/4 time song written by Kyle Burnett that dominated our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay chart for much of the Spring and Summer.
It’s important to add a note about the high level of instrumental work on this project. The singing may be out front, but the playing of fiddler Justen Haynes, banjo picker Keith McKinnon, and mandolinist Wayne Benson are pitch-perfect throughout. Haynes especially shines in his between-the-words fills, and on the minor key River Bottom and Lowlands. Russell mentioned that Justen has a special fondness for minor keys, and he opens it up on these two.
McKinnon, more so than any previous IIIrd Tyme banjo man – and they have had some good’ns – keeps his roll just on the front edge of the beat consistently, creating a drive and excitement that is inescapable. His solos also manage to find creative ways to state the melody without over reliance on cliches. And what can you say about Wayne Benson? He has been regarded as one of the most tasteful bluegrass mandolinists for so long that you almost don’t see him coming. But he restakes his claim to top billing on this record.
Moore also gets his licks in on guitar, and the bass tone from Blake Johnson is fat and thick.
As if it needed saying, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out are among the premier bluegrass groups on the professional circuit. If they keep on getting better as they go – and that is hard to imagine – who knows what they will achieve before it’s over.
It’s About Tyme is a masterpiece.