I’m not a big Keller Williams fan. With his reliance on electronic looping and hokey humor, he’s an acquired taste that I haven’t quite acquired.
On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Del McCoury’s band, both when they play behind the best hair in bluegrass and when they’re out on their own as The Travelin’ McCourys.
So I had mixed feelings before listening to Pick, the new release by Keller Williams and The Traveling McCourys on SCI Fidelity.
But after numerous listens, I can tell you this: It works. And the reason it works is the masterful picking of Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass.
These guys are solidly grounded in bluegrass but not afraid to jump into the deep end and try something risky.
Williams’ songs are paired here with some tunes the McCourys have been playing for a long time and one new one penned by Bartram. The result is an exercise in fun and proof that bluegrass instruments played masterfully can bring a jolt of energy and excitement.
Highpoints on Pick are The Graveyard Shift, What a Waste and Bumper Sticker. Fans of the McCourys will recognize The Graveyard Shift because Ronnie McCoury has been singing it for years and the band first did it with Steve Earle. And Bumper Sticker, written by Williams, pays homage to bluegrassers who weren’t afraid to test the boundaries of the genre at times, including John Duffey and Del McCoury, who makes a guest vocal appearance to wind up the song and the CD.
But one of the best marriages since peanut butter and chocolate is on What a Waste. The song has everything: a lover pining for his girl who died too soon, moonshine, a bit of religion and humor. It’s a song the boys had performed with Del before they met up with Williams, and is a perfect fit here. It sounds like something Williams would write. Here’s a taste:
Oh what a waste of good corn liquor
From the still they pulled the plug
Now the revenuers snicker
‘cause she melted in the liquor
and they had to bury poor Lily by the jug.
The musical pairing came about when the band met up with Williams at a mutual friend’s Nashville studio. “We played a few songs and decided let’s try to make a record,” Ronnie McCoury recalled in a phone conversation while he was, well, traveling. “I can’t say enough good things about playing with him. Keller’s pretty prepared. He’s got a pulse on today’s music.”
The McCourys add what Ronnie called “a little boost. We give a bluegrass spin to his songs. From the start, he’s been very grateful. He just says all the time, ‘Thank you for letting me into your world.’ ”
Ronnie and the others are eager, even a bit anxious, to see how Pick goes over. But they’ve already passed on key test.
“My dad and mother absolutely love this record,” Ronnie said. “My mom texted us and said ‘we’re listening to it again.’”