If you have ever driven through the old downtown area of Mt. Airy, NC, whether to go to the Mt. Airy Bluegrass & Old-time Fiddler’s Convention or to visit the Andy Griffith Museum and Theatre, you will have probably noticed the Mayberry’s Music Center. The business has been run by James Easter of the legendary Easter Brothers since 2000.
James, Edd and Russell Easter began playing their unique version of bluegrass gospel music in the early 1950s and would go on to write over 300 songs, many found on their numerous albums and singles recorded throughout the years. In September of 2020, however, Russell Easter passed away at 90 years of age, following the death of his brother Edd Easter in January of 2019.
Just across the North Carolina, Virginia border, less than 20 miles from Mt. Airy, is Patrick County, Virginia, the home of 5-time IBMA “Banjo Player of the Year” Sammy Shelor. Long before he took on the leadership of the Lonesome River Band, Shelor was exposed to the rich vein of bluegrass and old-time music found in that border region while a youngster. Part of that legacy was hearing and seeing perennial favorites the Easter Brothers. With two out of the three Easter Brothers now gone, Shelor felt it was time to shed some new light on their legacy.
Every cut on this new album Singing Up There was written by all three Easter Brothers except for two songs written just by Russell. The recording features Shelor on banjo, Brandon Rickman on vocals and guitar—who has since left the group—Mike Hartgrove on fiddle, Barry Reed on bass and harmony vocals and Jesse Smathers on mandolin, lead and harmony vocals.
Bluegrass gospel is, after all, bluegrass music and Shelor and crew keep these wonderful compositions upbeat and rollicking for the most part. The highlights include the rockin’ “Almost Home,” the fiddle-led “He’s Coming Back Someday,” the infectious “I’ll Be Singing Up There,” and “I’ll Be Gone, Gone, Gone.” They do slow it down for the old school country-tinged “Lord I’m Just A Branch,” and the waltz groove of “I’m On The Last Mile.” It all adds up to the joyous noise that was the hallmark of the Easter Brothers.