With his recent CD, The Touch of Time, Bill Emerson and his Sweet Dixie bandmates add to a legacy he began over a half-century ago as a founding member of the Country Gentlemen. This new release from Rural Rhythm Records features an unusally large helping of the instrumental virtuosity Emerson has been known for throughout his career.
Without question, Bill was influenced by his lengthy tenure as one of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain boys in the 1960’s (how could he have survived Jimmy’s demanding nature without absorbing his driving style?), and he became one of the best at combining originality and creativity within a driving, Scruggs-style framework. His time with Martin brought him to the forefront in bluegrass, and his contributions to the classic Good ‘n Country instrumental album, and his original compositions like Theme Time and Sweet Dixie, marked him as a player with unique ideas to express.
During his time with the Country Gentlemen, each new album included at least one (usually two) Bill Emerson compositions — Cowboys and Indians (one of my favorites), Breakin’ It Down, Welcome to New York (recorded by James Bailey shortly after Bill had left the Country Gentlemen to join the U. S. Navy). Emerson had the knack for creating instrumentals that were unique and interesting, yet not so complex that only a professional could play them, which resulted in many of his creations becoming parking-lot and jam session favorites.
While all of the music on The Touch of Time is quite good, Emerson has played to his strength by including four original instrumentals, three written by him and one by Sweet Dixie mandolinist Wayne Lanham. Co-writer credit is also given to Bill Evans on a banjo duet which combines Emerson’s Sweet Dixie with Home Sweet Home. I must say that as a banjo player who has played both songs, I felt a little silly that I’d never recognized that both songs feature exactly the same chord structure, allowing them to be played simultaneously in a very pleasing and complementary duet.
In addition to the abundance of original compositions, the level of musicianship displayed by the entire group, throughout both the instrumental and vocal numbers is very high, but I would expect Bill Emerson to settle for nothing less.
Sweet Dixie features three vocalists who each contribute both lead and harmony. Of the vocal selections, my favorites include the title cut, The Touch of Time, Little Pink, and Last Night I Was There. Little Pink is a bluesy song about a horse, listed as a public domain song (“Traditional”), and is a nice contrast in tempo and mood for the project. Last Night I Was There is a Pete Goble composition about a visit to heaven in a dream. It features a very pretty descending chord section to break up the standard G-C-D structure (I-IV-V for you musicians).
While age is clearly no issue for Emerson, I can’t help noting for my own sake as someone who is coming to the realization that I have more years behind me than in front of me, it is encouraging, and in fact amazing, that at 74, Emerson (like his contemporary J. D. Crowe) is proving that age is just a number. It’s clear that musicians can produce at a high level long after most other professionals have been forced into retirement. My only regret is for the long drought in recording that existed after Emerson left the Country Gentlemen to join the U. S. Navy.
Thankfully we have him back, producing more of the great music we love.