Purely Instrumental – Johnny Warren & Charlie Cushman

Purely Instrumental - Johnny Warren & Charlie CushmanSo what appears in my mailbox this week but a pre-release copy of Johnny & Charlie’s latest salute to the great instrumental sound of Flatt & Scruggs! Glory Hallelujah Land!

Same band as their 2011 Tribute to Paul Warren Vol. 2:  Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Brian Sutton and Kent “Superman” Blanton, with Mike Bub playing bass on some numbers. Ah, but the music! This time it’s not all familiar Flatt & Scruggs tunes or Paul Warren fiddle numbers. Seven of the numbers are brand new compositions by Johnny and Charlie, and they’re dandies. There are 3 real old time fiddle pieces — quite obscure. Only Earl’s arrangement of Lonesome Reuben is truly familiar. A very nice surprise is a Scruggs-ified reading of Liza Jane.

It’s more of that great Foggy Mountain locomotive rhythm “band sound,” with the lead instrument gliding over the top like a boat on a fast but smooth river of 10W weight motor oil.

The cover portrait by Aly Callaghan is a nostalgic salute to the Thomas B. Allen paintings that graced the covers of Flatt & Scruggs’ Columbia LPs for 10 years or so. This cover painting, the title Purely Instrumental, and the arrangements, all reference the 1966 Strictly Instrumental Columbia LP that Lester & Earl made with Doc Watson. The only thing missing is harmonica (thank God).

Tempo varies from stately to medium-paced to breakdown. An unexpected treat which aligns with the Doc Watson reference, is that Brian Sutton takes very nice flat pick breaks on some of the fiddle tunes.

Charlie’s banjo playing just screams tone, TONE, TONE all the way through. How long has it been since a banjo player let some ¼ notes or ½ notes ring out and really show the banjo’s voice? A term came to mind, “plain spoken banjo.” And yet, especially up the neck, Charlie does some of the finest syncopated tricky power picking since Earl stopped doing this over 40 years ago. Banjo players will grin. Also Charlie brilliantly supports the fiddle with wonderful runs and chord structures on the “non-banjo” numbers, as nicely as Earl ever did.

And for the fiddlers – a master class in short bow fiddling, also much lost and lamented now for decades.  On a couple of tunes Johnny’s joyous fiddling is so evocative of his dad that I envisioned Paul’s smiling face bobbing and twisting at the mike as he fiddled a solo on the Martha White TV show.

A tip of my hat to Jerry Douglas for once again keeping his dobro playing “close to the ground” and evoking the old Uncle Josh style so beautifully, while adding a few of his own notes and licks without wretched excess. Whether taking a lead break, or in understated back up.

As on their last project, big props to the rhythm section of Del and the bass men, plus the slap rhythm guitar (Sutton and Cushman both do this to a T). On the banjo numbers and breakdowns, Lawd Lawd, they conjure up that old Foggy Mountain rhythm that nearly tumbles over itself in the joy of running free. And how nice to have bass playing that’s loose enough to let things sound and feel like they’re accelerating when the fiddle comes back in during a breakdown – it’s exciting!

Every cut has a highlight for someone whether performing or listening. Too much to describe here.  Something you hear on this CD will leave you all agog, I promise.

So there you have it friends and neighbors. You can still hear fresh terrific top-drawer bluegrass picking as it was 50 years ago. Back when all the bluegrass on your car radio didn’t sound the same. When the cut Way On Down The Road from this CD comes on Sirius/XM Bluegrass Junction you’ll know what I mean. And the pickers among you can fatten up your list of jam tunes with some great new stuff from Purely Instrumental. Order it!

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About the Author

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden is a VERY traditional bluegrass picker and fan from New England, who makes occasional contributions to Bluegrass Today representing the old timers' viewpoints.