Back in 1995, an unexpected event triggered one of the most successful instrumental bluegrass series in history. Guitarist Clay Jones recorded an album of scorching fiddle tunes with a group of his friends for Pinecastle Records. But after it was completed, he slipped into one of his periodic episodes of inactivity, leaving the label with a strong record, from an artist they couldn’t raise.
Pinecastle contacted Scott Vestal, who had and played banjo and tracked the project in his studio, asked what they should do, and he threw off the suggestion that they should put it out as a generic CD and call it Bluegrass ’95. So they did, and it went on to win the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year in 1996. Wanting to capitalize on its popularity, the label quickly arranged with Vestal to produce another, which was soon released as Bluegrass ’96.
The pattern was continued each year through 2001 with an only slightly rotating cast: Vestal on banjo, Jeff Autry on guitar, Wayne Benson on mandolin, and a number of different fiddlers (Jim VanCleve, Ron Stewart, Rickie Simpkins, Aubrey Haynie), bass players (Mark Schatz, Mike Anglin, John Cowan), and either Randy Kohrs or Rob Ickes on reso-guitar.
Initially, these CDs tended to focus on quick-and-easy standards, which in the hands of these super-pickers, ended up as definitive statements on these classic tunes, reinterpreted by young bluegrass of the day. Towards the end, they began to focus on original music from within the group until they had produced seven stellar examples of instrumental bluegrass.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen an effort on this scale, at least until this new Mountain Fever release from Section House, called A Collection Of Instrumentals. Here we have a quintet consisting of some the brightest stars among young bluegrass pickers, pulled together to record a mix of old time favorites and new tunes of their own composition. Given the advance of time and tastes, the music has a different feel than those Pinecastle projects, as you might expect from completely different artists.
Section House features the skills of Aaron Ramsey on mandolin, Bryan McDowell on fiddle, Cory Walker on banjo, Jake Stargel on guitar, and Jeff Partin on bass and reso-guitar. Each has several years of professional experience in bluegrass while still residing in that 30-and-younger range.
Both Partin and Ramsey are part of Mountain Heart, an aggressively modern string band noted for its instrumental virtuosity. Stargel did some time there as well, plus stints with Sierra Hull, The Lovell Sisters, and guest spots on albums from a dozen or more bluegrass acts. McDowell works currently with The Claire Lynch Band and has likewise been featured on multiple projects from other artists. And Walker also worked with Sierra, and with Chris Henry & the Hardcore Grass.
The material ranges from grassy versions of venerable old timers like Shakin’ Down The Acorns, Dance All Night, and Snowflake Reel to bluegrass standards Paddy On The Turnpike and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. That last is almost unrecognizably transformed into the key of Gm, with an Eb chord replacing the expected Em. Clever boys.
On this run through more familiar numbers, these Section Housers demonstrate a remarkable facility for contemporary bluegrass with the prominent rhythm guitar and loads of instrumental interaction you expect in this genre. All of their solos are expertly played with a clear tone that has been transparently recorded.
When they switch to their original pieces, the music moves into new acoustic territory of the sort recorded by Tony Rice in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The tunes have distinct melodies stated by the various instruments followed by jazzy improvisational solos. Ramsey contributes Veil Of Questions, a dreamy waltz, A Lost Partner’s Promenade in the modern fiddle tune style, and King & Water, a loose, wandery meditation.
Pouches comes from Stargell, an elegant chamber-jazz-meets-grass ballad and Rat King from Walker is a present day banjo tune that lets everyone work out over its minor key changes.
Koopa’s Road is one that could only come from such a band of youngsters. It’s their grassified arrangement of a piece of background music from Nintendo’s Super Mario video game. They turn it into a very listenable track which should be extra fun for fans and players of the game.
Hats off to Section House for turning out such a stellar recording in this somewhat forgotten format. They didn’t feel the need to add a token vocal in search of radio play, or to hide the banjo on the non-bluegrass tracks. Just solid, unpretentious music from the sort of pickers who could finish a project like this in short order.
A Collection Of Instrumentals is thoroughly satisfying in every way.