Review: The Virginia Ramblers

The Virginia RamblersThe Virginia Ramblers are, without wanting to seem unkind, in three parts the residue from the Alvin Breeden-led Virginia Cutups. Guitarist Charles Frazier, Donnie Shifflett (upright bass) and Jeff Vogelsang (mandolin) are well-steeped in playing bluegrass in the fashion of the pioneers having spent 13 years with Breeden. When Breeden retired from the riguers of the road, the trio were fortunate to find a banjo player, former member of King Wilkie Zack Deming, who was on the same wavelength. For this eponymous release the quartet are supplemented by guest fiddler Jim Skelding.

The band members, chiefly Frazier, brought five good original pieces to the sessions and with the CD beginning with two references to burial places, in Daddy’s Grave and Pleasant Hill (M Riley – J Vogelsang) and closing with a murder ballad, Wind In The Pines, the band is clearly in the groove established in the 1940s and 1950s. They are all fine songs of their type and the vocal blend is varied, but seamless in each case.

The first noticeable feature on this CD is the rock-steady rhythm. It’s there at the beginning, at the end as well as all the way through. Next, Frazier has that lonesomeness to his voice that also helps to define The Virginia Ramblers’ sound as rooted deep in the mountains.

The afore-mentioned Daddy’s Grave and Wind In The Pines are excellent additions to the pitiful cannon of songs and the performances here add to The Virginia Ramblers’ great reputation.

On the slower numbers such as I Can’t Find My Walking Shoes, a great country song, in my view, Pleasant Hill and Rebecca Hall’s O Lord the lead vocals are as assured as they are on the up-tempo songs.

The Virginia Ramblers resurrect Jimmie Osborne’s God, Please Protect America in a timely way, what with the current dispute in Iraq. Frazier sings this solo and does a great job.

Looking at the track listing, I was intrigued by the possibilities surrounding Sabryn Renee. How could you make a bluegrass song from a name that appears as though it came off the side of a Jeep? She’s a girl friend alright, but any fears I had about meter were misconceived. It is good addition to the catalogue of the lovelorn male songs.

Zack Deming sings lead on the only duet, the excellent Carter Stanley composition, Let’s Part The Best Of Friends and Shiflett does likewise on Making Believe, the Jimmy Work classic, and Pete Kuykendall’s pleading I Am Weary, Let Me Rest. It’s no slight to Frazier, but it’s nice to have the variety in that department. Frazier switches to tenor on each occasion. On the other songs Shiflett and Vogelsang share the tenor and baritone parts.

There are two instrumentals in the mix of 14 tracks, Deming’s original Movin’ On and the very much older Spanish Two-Step from the western swing catalogue. Both are excellent vehicles for the band to demonstrate their excellent instrumental chops.

Skelding’s fiddle weaves in and out to good effect and adds to the prevalent mournfulness when out front.

This is neo-traditional bluegrass of the finest order.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.