Live From The Don Owens Show, Washington, D.C., 1958-1959

Bluegrass Champs

Yep Roc Records YEP-2555

I woke up this morning with the chorus of “Rock-a-Bye Boogie” going through my head. Just the words “rock-a-bye boogie” sung over and over, in a syncopated style, to a boogie-woogie beat. I’m obsessed with it. To me, this is the standout number in this collection of live performances from one of the more under-appreciated early bluegrass bands.  

The Bluegrass Champs were an offshoot of the Stoneman Family and usually consisted of Scotty (fiddle), Van (guitar), Jimmy (bass), and Donna (mandolin). The Don Owens Jamboree was televised in the D.C. area from 1957-1960, and the Champs often served as the house band. Joining them here are the great Porter Church on banjo, Lew Houston Childre on electrified Dobro™ and lap steel, Pop Stoneman himself, Jack Cooke, and Dobro™ player Peggy Brain Stoneman who was married briefly to Jimmy. The group backs up guests Luke Gordon on “Goin’ Crazy” and Jimmy Haney on “Are You Teasing Me.”

Among the many noteworthy numbers on this project are the instrumentals, some from what would become the bluegrass canon and some from outside the box. “Dear Old Dixie” spotlights Scotty and Porter showing respect for the original Flatt and Scruggs cut while adding their own wild touches. Donna, a serious student of Bill Monroe’s style, fearlessly tackles Monroe’s tune “Scotland,” which was brand new in 1958. The blistering “Steel Guitar Chimes” made me wonder how anyone could play chimes that fast and that clean. And “Tequila,” a number-one hit in 1958 (with a sax solo), works surprising well on the Dobro™. Jimmy’s walking bass and his exquisitely executed slap bass anchor the band. 

The Stoneman Family never achieved the rarified status of many other bluegrass pioneers. One reason is undoubtedly their eclectic choice of material, but another is that their commercial recordings don’t capture the raw power and energy of their live shows. This album gives us a taste of what those might have been like.

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