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Saturday, August 8, 2009


Big Country Bluegrass

I have to confess I didn't go to Galax this year. Not only was I locked down and unable, though someone would have stayed with Jr while I went if I wanted to, I didn't even listen to it on the radio. A few times I'd turn the radio on and listen for awhile, then a string of commercials came on and I clicked the off switch. By the time the commercials are over, I'm off in some other direction and never turn it back on. I've heard a little bit of guitar and autoharp, some old-time bands yesterday and bluegrass bands tonight, but I wont' be tuning in.
The old time bands is where I find the energy, the drive. Bluegrass seems like it's become slow-dance music. In the early 1940s Jr, a young banjo picker, discovered bluegass and went all the way with it. He said old-time was "slow and draggy." Now it's like bluegrass is slow and draggy. I remember a few years ago at Galax I'd heard enough bluegrass to make me want to hear bluegrass, but not enough to satisfy. In the truck when I pulled out of the parking lot I played the Ralph Stanley album made in 1956. From the start, it was full satisfaction hearing bluegrass. The drive home was better than the time there.

The big news today is that the Big Country Bluegrass song High Alleghanies is #1 on a bluegrass chart. And the next song on the album, OPEN FOR BUSINESS, All That's Left, debuted on the chart at 18. I've wondered how long it was going to take for Big Country Bluegrass to be noticed by the greater bluegrass world. Bluegrass Unlimited will have an article about them soon. And I suspect strongly that now they've caught the attention of the people who pay attention to charts, and they're on their way. They'll need a big bus. They fill theaters where they play anyway. This "hit" will create more concerts. If you've never been to a Big Country Bluegrass concert, I recommend. Their website:

They were the big seller for their label, Hay Holler, in Roanoke. The label went belly-up and Big Country went to a small label in Bristol, Mountain Roads Recording. Mountain Roads has also released two Whitetop Mountain Band cds last year. Big Country made 10 albums with Hay Holler and every one is a gem. They are the band on Henry Mabe's fiddle album when Larry Pennington was living to play the banjo.

Tommy Sells plays mandolin and while Jeff Michael was out of the band for 5 years he did some singing. He's good. Johnny Williams is new to the band and does good singing. Tommy's wife, Teresa, is a good bluegrass singer. She sings usually 2 songs per album. Tommy makes a good leader of the band. Over the years several musicians came and went. Larry Pennington was their banjo picker until he died less than ten years ago. Jeff Michael came back to the band with his wife Ramona Church Michael. She played banjo in the band and he played lead guitar. Billy Hawks played fiddle. This is the time of the photograph above taken at the Wayne Henderson Festival on Mt Rogers.
First time I saw them when Jeff was back, I wanted to hear Jeff's fiddle, but he came out with a guitar. I was disappointed, but not for long. Ramona went with Dale Ann Bradley to be her banjo and Lynwood Lunsford stepped into Big Country. Lunsford is a good Larry Pennington replacement. Jeff is back to playing fiddle. Johnny Williams is playing lead guitar and doing some vocals. Johnny's wife is Jeanette of Jeanette Williams Band.

They have the drive, the talent and the stick-with-it. 11 Big Country Bluegrass albums and 22 years. Jeff Michael as a singer has his own style and voice that is pure bluegrass. To my ear, his voice comes from the same place Carter Stanley's comes from within. Jeff is a great hillbilly singer and Teresa is too.
Jeff's wife, Ramona, can sing. She used to be with the New Coon Creek Girls, as Dale Ann Bradley did too. Now that Dale Ann is moving up the bluegrass charts, she needs Ramona back. Jeff and Ramona live on little and needed the boost from Dale Ann Bradley's success. Now it's looking like Big Country is coming into its own and Jeff and Ramona won't be poor no more. Tommy and Teresa too. It's not like they live high on the hog.

I've heard Big Country follow Wildwood Valley Boys with Michael Cleveland playing fiddle. Wildwood Valley put on a good show, but it was plumb over when Big Country started. Michael Cleveland is a great fiddler, to be sure. So is Jeff Michael. And so is Billy Hawks. Big Country had Tommy Malbeuf playing fiddle on one of their early albums. Tommy Sells has always drawn excellent musicians to his band. When one goes out for one reason or another, he finds an equal right away. It seems like right now the band has a good, strong working base where everybody playing is together, and each one loaded with experience. They make the real deal bluegrass.

Big Country Bluegrass is the favorite band in our region and has been for some time. Everybody in the band is plain folks. They open for Ralph Stanley when he plays at Fairview. The night I saw Ralph give two concerts, one after the other with a 15 minute break, it was because Big Country couldn't make it for the show. It was a shame to miss them, but I can't complain. Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys playing bluegrass for 3 hours is about as good as it gets. It's not just that they're playing bluegrass, they're playing Ralph Stanley. That's a high grade of bluegrass. Big Country Bluegrass plays at that high grade. They embody these mountains, they are these mountains like Ralph Stanley before them.

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