By Chris Cooper
Ronnie McCoury: Little Mo’ McCoury
You’d be hard pressed to find a family more deserving of the title “bluegrass royalty” than Del McCoury and sons. Over the years, the group has epitomized the idea of keeping it in the family, and not for the sake of novelty. McCoury’s kids literally grew up on the road with their father, surrounded by all things musically high and lonesome, as well as anything that could be picked, strummed, plucked or bowed.
With all this in mind, it’s really no surprise that mandolinist/vocalist Ronnie McCoury would bring the many facets of the family concept together with Little Mo’ McCoury, an all bluegrass, all children’s album that has more than enough appeal to reach those of us that passed “knee high to a grasshopper” status long ago.
Tackling anyone from Dylan to Randy Newman to Woody Guthrie (and that’s just in the first three tunes) the purpose here is clear from the start — make an album that kids will love, without sacrificing musicality or resorting to the “Barney” styled goofiness that tends to plague many such projects.
Each track is introduced with a different tyke reading off the song title, and from there you get the best of all available worlds: the genetically perfect harmonies of the McCoury clan, the occasional giggle inducing (especially for the toddler set) moo or cluck or insert-barn-animal-noise-here sound effect (as on their excellent rendition of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”) and appropriately virtuosic picking from everyone involved.
Maybe it’s kind of a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: the key to making an album like this work is whether you can hear the players having fun in their performances, which obviously wasn’t a problem for these guys. From the call and response banjo conversation on “Mama’s Blues” to McCoury’s bouncing arrangement of “The Fox” to a perfectly lovely little take on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (which I’d imagine will help send many little ones off to dream) Little Mo’ McCoury packs 18 tunes into less than an hour’s time, offers something engaging on each track. It’s easily the most listenable children’s album to come along in a very long time.
Pick and grin? How about pick and giggle?
Merle Haggard: The Bluegrass Sessions
If ever there’s a country music Rushmore carved into an unsuspecting mountain somewhere, Waylon, Willie, Merle and Johnny are the shoe-ins for stone-carved portraiture.
Over the years each artist has managed to dabble in multiple genres while retaining their individual personalities, whether it was Cash taking on Trent Reznor or Willie stepping into the world of reggae, or the various collaborations that brought them together, like the first Highwaymen album (albeit without Haggard) or Haggard's enthusiastic foray into western swing on his hard-to-find tribute album to Bob Wills. And each has been at the forefront of true “country” music from its very beginnings, able to create amazing music and make a difference no matter what the current climate of the genre might be.
Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, and with a stellar cast of players assembled by the inimitable Marty Stuart, The Bluegrass Sessions strikes a fine balance between Haggard’s deep country roots and a respect for bluegrass tradition, right down to having the players cut the songs live in a circle, reacting to Haggard’s every nuance and vocal inflection.
Some of the drive and momentum of traditional bluegrass is sacrificed to better suit his delivery, but in return the listener is rewarded with much more sensitive playing from all involved, especially that of Dobro virtuoso Rob Ickes, who steals the show time and again with gorgeous fills and accompaniment — check out his moody, melodic playing on “Mama’s Prayers” and tasty phrasing during “Wouldn’t That Be Something.”
By surrounding himself with players equally at home in the worlds of bluegrass and country, Haggard makes The Bluegrass Sessions sound like a perfectly logical step. But at the core of it all is his songwriting, be it re-workings of classic tunes like “Big City” or hearing Hag take on Wal-Mart, Bush, crappy karaoke bars and pervasive American complacency on “What Happened?”
Blues, bluegrass, country ... whatever — Merle’s the man, as if we even have to be reminded of that fact. Wonderful stuff.