Big Country Bluegrass’s sheer longevity (two decades, 18 albums and counting) comes as no surprise to anybody. This southern Virginia-based band, fronted by mandolin master Tommy Sells and his wife Teresa (guitar and lead and tenor vocals), is steeped in what the press release accompanying their new release calls: “the musical vision that the first generation of bluegrass artists created seventy years ago.” The band’s musical template is essentially frozen in time. But the band, which also includes Eddie Gill on guitar and lead vocals, Tim Laughlin on fiddle and baritone vocals, Lynwood Lunsford on banjo and baritone vocals, and Tony King on acoustic bass, keeps its sound vital and current with spirited picking and imaginative song choices.
The group has always had a special affinity for the musical legacy of bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin, thus it’s probably no coincidence that banjo player Lunsford is an alumnus of Martin’s band. Nor is it a surprise that two of the 13 songs in this delightfully and refreshingly retro-sounding collection—“My Lonely Heart” (co-written by Martin and his one-time bandmate Bobby Osborne) and the mournful “Snow White Grave” (by Roy Duke and Marian F. Turner)—are both Jimmy Martin oldies. Also included on Country Livin’ are two compositions by the Sells’ long-time friends Tom T. Hall and the late Dixie Hall (to whom the album is dedicated). The Halls wrote the wistful opening track, “The Bluefield West Virginia Blues,” and a deeply moving story-song called “The Hound Dog From Harlan.”
Unlike some stalwart bluegrass fans, I’ve usually applauded musicians who push traditional stylistic envelopes with fusion, innovation, progressiveness, or whatever you choose to call it. And that’s precisely why I consider bands like Big Country Bluegrass so vital and essential. They provide perspective and they keep us on the straight and narrow with constant reminders of the timelessness and abiding strength of those formative cornerstones on which all the music since has been built. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)BA