Of all of today’s popular musical genres, no single style remains more enduring than bluegrass. Granted, blues and Gospel also take their place among the more archival sounds of America’s heartland, but given its roots in Ireland, England, and Scotland, and its subsequent reinvention in early 20th century Appalachia, bluegrass possesses a rich history that’s always worthy of revisiting.
Bear Family, a label that’s well known for resurrecting music bearing a traditional tapestry, affirms the sanctity of that sound with Tell It To Me, an album that captures the seminal recordings captured in Johnson City, Tennessee during the late 1920s, just prior to the advent of the Great Depression. Though often overshadowed by similar sessions that were taking place in nearby Bristol during the same era, the songs spotlighted here by more than two dozen groups and artists still resonate with a spunk and finesse undiminished by the hardship and hard times that were affecting practically everyone involved. Although the music clearly reflects a sound and style of a decidedly vintage variety, the instrumental interplay and expressive vocal harmonies allow practically every song to entertain in a contemporary context. Relevance-wise, there’s no better example than opening track, Tell It To Me, which finds the Grant Brothers intoning, “Cocaine gonna kill my honey.” The opioid crisis has taken its toll of late, but the Grants remind us that addiction is an age-old problem.
In a similar vein, Richard Harold’s read of The Battleship Maine, a downcast narrative about the sinking of the namesake ship that was blown up in Havana harbor sparking the Spanish American War, remains both poignant and powerful today, given a current climate where war and conflict remain unabated.
Clarence Greene’s mournful Johnson City Blues and the charming When the Roses Bloom Again for the Bootlegger, a moonshiner’s ballad performed by Earl Shirkey & Roy Harper, also share sounds that resonate well, despite the fact that these recordings are now over 90 years removed. The material boasts a charm and delivery that’s so overtly infectious, and flush with faith and fortitude that often one simply wants to sing along, particularly on such jolly songs as Roll On Buddy, from Charlie Bowman & His Brothers, the unabashedly bold I Ain’t a Bit Drunk, by George Rourk, and McVay & Johnson’s lively I’ll Be Ready When the Bridegroom Comes. Likewise, the swaying serenade for the McCartt Brothers & Patterson is a delight in itself.
The profuse booklet that accompanies the disc adds to the depth of understanding and appreciation, making Tell It To Me as revelatory and enlightening as it is engaging. Consider it an essential addition to every bluegrass enthusiast’s collection.