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The Complete Vanguard Recordings - The Country Gentlemen
The Complete Vanguard Recordings - The Country Gentlemen
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Reviewed by Kathy Coleman

In 1973 and 1974, The Country Gentlemen, already a venerable group of great pickers and singers, released two albums at Vanguard Records. The Country Gentlemen was released in 1973, and Remembrances & Forecasts came out in 1974. The lineup of the Country Gentlemen at this period included original founder Charlie Waller on lead vocal and guitar, backed by an impressive lineup that included a young Ricky Skaggs on fiddle (!), guitar, and vocals; Doyle Lawson on mandolin, guitar, and vocals; Bill Yates on bass and vocals; Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge on dobro; Bill Emerson and Jim Bailey on banjo; and Al Rogers on drums. Of course most folks know that Ricky Skaggs went on to huge success in mainstream country before returning to his first love, bluegrass; but Doyle Lawson went on to form Quicksilver, the benchmark of gospel bluegrass bands, and Jerry Douglas has since become widely acknowledged as the best resophonic guitar player in the world.

This collection of songs should delight all Country Gentlemen fans and hopefully every country and bluegrass fan, as well. There are 24 tracks, from such luminous and varied writers as Steve Goodman, Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Ricky Skaggs, John Loudermilk, and Bill Monroe. But don't let the variety fool you; this is pure unadulterated old-timey country bluegrass in its most delightful form, with the new young lineup simply bringing a fresh new feel to a grand old sound.

In 1972, The Country Gentlemen won their second consecutive bluegrass "Band of the Year" award, with "Best Bluegrass Singer" going to lead vocalist Charlie Waller, "Best Banjo Player" to Bill Emerson, and "Most Promising Fiddler" to Bill Yates. They also took home "Song of the Year" and "Album of the Year." It's easy to hear why these accolades were poured on this fine-sounding group.

Right from the top, with the sweet traditional sound of "Traveling Kind," it's obvious this is a high-quality group with a fine-honed sound. It's followed by the Gordon Lightfoot story ballad, "Don Quixote," beautifully rearranged with a bluegrass sound, and extremely well-sung.

Kris Kristofferson's beautiful lyrical chops are given beautiful presentation in "Casey's Last Ride," showcasing some fine harmonies and tremendous guitar playing, both acoustic and resonator. Paul Simon turns into some surprisingly excellent old-fashioned bluegrass; still, perhaps not so surprising, as Simon was originally a folk singer/writer, and "The Leaves That Are Green" has the same delicate sound as many of Simon's early works.

Story songs are a staple of old-time true country, and this music is as true as it gets. John Prine's "Paradise" is a reminder of those old stories; it tells how time passes, and, for better or worse, crushes all that stand in its path. The traditional "House of the Rising Sun" has another re-working here, and while you think you know the song already, it's worth listening to again. The Country Gentlemen make it newer than you might expect. It's a surprise, and a very pleasant one, so just forget the Animals' haunting popular cut.

Beautiful songs such as Gordon Lightfoot's "Mother of a Miner's Child" and the lovely old "Bringing Mary Home" continue the disc's lovely flavor of traditional and new. "Bringing Mary Home" will please anyone and everyone who adores the old-time country ghost story. Another John Prine tune, "Souvenirs," and the Steve Goodman classic, "City of New Orleans," close off the first album... but the music doesn't end there (and don't think you've heard this version of "City of New Orleans" before, either!). The second album is just ready to get started in this collected double album disc, which makes full use of a CD's capability to hold over 71 minutes of music.

With the second album, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas join the lineup as regulars. Waller, of course, still provides strong lead vocals. "Willow Creek Dam" is another cry to the pains of progress and the loss of beauty in its name. "Remembrance of You" has a flavor of early 60's true country, the light touch of the banjo accompanying harmonies on what comes close to a country torch tune. But it jumps into high gear with the Ricky Skaggs' penned "Irish Spring," an instrumental which demonstrates that Ricky's abilities on the fiddle are every bit as awesome as his mandolin and guitar chops, and that Ricky always liked to play it a little fast.

It's not for nothing this second album was called "Remembrances & Forecasts." For all that country has been moving uptown in the last decade or so, there are artists who remember where the music came from. "Billy McGhee" is a Civil War ballad that's a powerful reminder of it, the grey-clad boys who played that Appalachian music and passed it down through the hill country straight to Nashville, tucked there right in the middle of it all. Ditto "Home in Louisiana," which, similarly, speaks mournfully of that old southern farm on the Red River. "The King of Spades" pays a musical tribute to a great Virginian racing horse.

The remainder of the tracks continue as strong and as lovely. John Loudermilk's mournful "The Little Grave," the vibrant "Delta Queen," the re-worked country standard "Heartaches," lighthearted "Welcome to New York," Bill Monroe's beautiful "Lord Protect My Soul," and, to close it all, the high-spirited "Circuit Rider."

I found nothing but great music, track after track, on this combined album release. Pick it up, enjoy it. I certainly did.

Song List:

  1. Traveling Kind
  2. Don Quixote
  3. One Morning in May
  4. Casey's Last Ride
  5. The Leaves That Are Green
  6. Paradise
  7. House of the Rising Sun
  8. Catfish John
  9. Mother of a Miner's Son
  10. Bringing Mary Home
  11. Souvenirs
  12. The City of New Orleans
  13. Willow Creek Dam
  14. Remembrance of You
  15. Irish Spring
  16. Billy McGhee
  17. Home in Louisiana
  18. King of Spades
  19. The Little Grave
  20. Delta Queen
  21. Heartaches
  22. Welcome to New York
  23. Lord Protect My Soul
  24. Circuit Rider

Audio clips courtesy of Barnes and Noble.
Album cover, used with permission of Vanguard Records.

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