Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.
The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.
I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.
Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass.
The Josh Williams Band are great on the passionate ‘Across The Great Divide’, an intense ballad about a couple splitting up which Gene Watson recorded in 1989. I note that it has been given the wrong songwriting credits ion the liner notes – according to the Watson album it was written by Randy Travis and John Lindley, but it is credited here to Kate Wolf, a folk singer-songwriter who did indeed write a completely different song of the same title which has been recorded by Nanci Griffith. Josh also sings gospel classic ‘Where the Soul Of Man Never Dies’ with Don Rigsby.
David Parmley & Continental Divide give us the fascinating ‘Forty Years Ago’, written by Elmer Burchett and Marie and Clyde Denney. The protagonist’s father tells his son, shocked by learning the secret of his mother’s past, how he married a young girl driven by poverty to prostitution and urging understanding:
Son, your mother’s life was never easy
At a tender age she was put out on the street
Don’t lay the blame on her for what she has done
A sixteen year old girl has got to eat
The vocals are somewhat generic bluegrass, but the song is interesting enough to compensate.
Another compelling drama is told in Junior Sisk’s version of Jimmy Skinner’s ‘He Died A Rounder At 21’, with Randy Kohrs’ dobro and two acoustic guitars backing him. It’s a salutary warning against drinking, smoking and wild living. Sisk also plaintively and effectively tackles Bill Monroe’s ‘Highway Of Sorrow’, with Larry Stephenson on harmony.
Speaking of Kohrs, it’s been too long since his last solo album, Quicksand, so I was pleased to hear him take center stage on his wailing bluegrass cover of Jerry Reed’s ‘The Likes Of Me’, although the song isn’t really worthy of his talents. The quirky-voiced singer-songwriter Shawn Camp is sincere and touching contemplating potential death in the self-questioning ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.
Doyle Lawson and friends (Jamie Dailey, Russell Moore and Josh Swift) sing a traditionally styled acappella gospel bluegrass quartet written by Doyle, ‘Beyond The Sunset For Me’. Later, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver contribute an ethereal ‘Precious Memories’, courtesy of lead singer Mike Rogers, augmented by a borrowed string section. Doyle and J. D. Crowe then provide superb instrumental backing for the strong tenor of veteran bluegrass gospel vocalist Paul Williams on the more contemporary sound of ‘Paul’s Ministry’; the three all played as youngsters in the legendary Jimmy Martin’s band in the 1950s, and recorded a trio album together in 2010.
Lost & Found try the 50s country classic ‘Fraulein’, which works well with a bluegrass flavour, and NewFound Road and their lead singer Tim Shelton sing a moving and believable version of ‘Please Come To Boston’ which I liked a lot. Larry Stephenson is also good with his high tenor version of Eddy Raven’s hit ‘I Should’ve Called’, while Larry Cordle is perfect for Johnny Paycheck’s ‘Old Violin’, accompanied by his own guitar and Michael Cleveland’s fiddle.
The SteelDrivers perform ‘Blue Side Of the Mountain’, featuring new lead singer Gary Nichols. His strong, raspy voice is almost as strong as that of predecessor Chris Stapleton, and works well on the song. Stapleton himself does a stripped down, soulful cover of ‘Tennessee Whiskey’, with just Chris’s acoustic guitar backing and his wife Morgane Hayes and Bradley Walker on harmony vocals, which is excellent. The Grascals are forcefully bluesy on ‘Hard Times’. Pine Mountain Railroad (a new name to me) give an unexpected (and successful) bluegrass makeover to the Ray Charles classic ‘I Got A Woman’ which is extremely well done, while Dudley Connell sings a very bluesy version of Muddy Waters’ ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’, supported by Randy Kohrs’ dobro. Dudley then backs up wife Sally on Johnny Cash’s ‘Give My Love To Rose’, which is very well sung – Sally has a very strong voice – but doesn’t sound right sung by a woman.
In addition there are energetic pure bluegrass contributions from the Johnson Mountain Boys, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper (on Bill Monroe’s ‘Six Feet Under The Ground), J. D. Crowe & The New South, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, and Blue Highway. The album closes with an all-star performance of the title track, a touching depiction of bereavement with lead vocals shared between Carl Jackson, Ronnie Bowman, Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Rickey Wasson and Randy Kohrs, all fine and emotive vocalists.
The really varied selection of material and excellent performances make this far more than just a way of donating to charity. Indeed, I would call it a good introduction for anyone interested in modern bluegrass and wanting to sample some of the artists included.