Karl Shiflett has always been a throwback specialist, and his many recordings over the years have reflected his respect and admiration for the music of bygone eras. Bluegrass and traditional country are his areas of expertise, and the current edition of his band, Big Country Show, share his fascination with the early days of these musical forms.
Like Ralph Stanley always did, Shiflett avoids the label “bluegrass,” calling his music “ole-tyme acoustic country music,” but there’s no denying what it is. If categories are important to you, you could describe it as “retro country grass” or “old bluegrass country.”
For his latest Patuxent album, Karl just calls it Sho Nuff Country, with 15 arrangements of popular songs from bluegrass, country, and tin pan alley mostly taken from the 1920s through the ’60s. If you think that sounds corny, you’d be right. It’s brilliantly corny, kitschy, campy, and jaunty… in a highly reverential and appreciative manner.
From Shiflett’s trademark high leg kick on stage, to their authentic period dress, these boys mean to bring forward a time in music that has passed us by. If you don’t get it, the joke’s on you.
Some of the material here is drawn into the honky tonk, bar room country repertoire, with songs like Six Pack To Go, which was a big hit for Hank Thompson, and Pick Me Up On Your Way Down, previously cut by multiple country stars like Charley Walker, Webb Pierce and Wanda Jackson, get a swingy acoustic treatment – complete with twin fiddles.
Others are old time favorites, like My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It, or Sally Was A Good Old Girl, instantly recognizable for most of us from childhood, are converted into Shiflett’s brand of country grass. Bluegrass classics also get their due, with a nice take on Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Stomp, and Monroe Fields’ Only You with its call-and-response lyrics. Karl sings them all in his distinctive Texas drawl, with just a touch of Lester Flatt’s habit of coming in below pitch and slowly sliding into the note.
Some of the record’s finest moments come from the instrumental virtuosity of the Big Country Show. Young Brennen Ernst on banjo is a marvel, switching from a chordal swing feel, to an Earl Scruggs-style roll, to an epic Don Reno recreation with ease. For a man his age to know so much about the music of the 1950s is hard on the brain, but very easy on the ears. Billy Hurt on fiddle is note-perfect without fail, finding a way to get his patented outlining-the-chord triplet lick into almost every track. And Justin Harrison’s mandolin is appropriate to each and every song.
Karl gives them room to shine on superb instrumentals Snow Deer, sung as an Indian love song by Bob Wills back in the day, and Yes Sir That’s My Baby which Eddie Cantor would sing in vaudeville days. Ernst plays the latter a la Don Reno with some real flair, and the former is done with dynamite twin fiddle from Hurt and Casey Driscoll. Brennen adds a fine banjo break to Yes Sir as well.
Other notable tracks include The Waltz You Saved For Me which Shiflett does as a duet, I’m Troubled which gets a bluesy grass construction, and a ’30s swing version of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, highlighting Billy Hurt as he echoes Joe Venuti. Brennen showcases his guitar playing as well on I Got Rhythm.
There’s not a weak track here, and this album strikes me as Shiflett’s best to date. Engineer Tom Mindte captured the sound of the band transparently, and it all sounds big and live.
If more bluegrass records could convey the joy and passion for the music that I hear on Sho Nuff Country, our genre could gain many more adherents with alacrity.
Don’t miss this one!