teresa sells, johnny williams, tony king
It's been awhile since I went to a Big Country Bluegrass show. Actually, I would have missed it if Jeff hadn't nudged me toward it on facebook. He knows I'm a BCBG fan and was giving me a heads up in case I didn't. He was right, I didn't. Like with most music, when I'm not seeing them in concert or hearing them on my sound system at home or driving, I forget how good they are. The first notes of the concert reminded me, this really is Big Country Bluegrass. They play bluegrass the mountain way, or the original way, as bluegrass took in the mountains on contact. It swept the mountains like fire and outside the mountains there were only small pockets of interest. The early bluegrass bands, Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse, and others played in movie theaters, school auditoriums, courtrooms and tents in small towns up and down the Southern mountains to enthusiastic crowds.
Big Country Bluegrass carries the tradition and and it sounds right in this time in bluegrass. They've been touching in at #1 on the bluegrass charts over the last few years. On their website home page they note their song, The Boys in Hats and Ties, from the recent album of the same title on the Rebel label, is #1 Bluegrass Unlimited national bluegrass survey for Feb 2011. It is also #1 on Bluegrass Music Profiles January top 30 singles. Twenty years of ups and downs and an awful lot of good music. They have at least a dozen albums, every one of them excellent music, and they backed Henry Mabe on his fiddle album. Mabe is one of the great fiddlers of NW North Carolina. Past fiddlers with the band besides Jeff Micheal, who plays fiddle now, have been Wade Petty, Tommy Malboeuf, Ronnie Hawk. Jeff and Johnny Williams (guitar) made a couple of albums together in the not too distant past, calling themselves Grass Tank.
The band's banjo picker from the start was Larry Pennington. Then he died in 2003, a serious blow to the band. Larry Pennington was a very well respected picker. Jr Maxwell, Whitehead bluegrass banjo picker of Pennington's time, told me that when Larry Pennington came into a fiddler's convention carrying his banjo case, all the banjo pickers put their banjers up and went home. Of course, that's exaggeration as metaphor, speaking his meaning better than telling it straight. Country humor. Tim Lewis played the banjo with the band the next couple of albums, a couple years, until running the roads wore him out. Jeff had been away from the band about 5 years and Ronnie Hawk took his place. When Jeff came back, he brought his wife, Ramona Church, who had once been banjo picker with the New Coon Creek Girls of West Virginia, Ramona from Kentucky. A couple years later Dale Ann Bradley was finding her new band's success and she hired Ramona with an offer she couldn't refuse. Dale Ann Bradley had been a New Coon Creek Girl too. Big Country needed a banjo again. Lynwood Lunsford turned up, who had been with Lost & Found and Jimmy Martin's band.
Jeff returned to the band as lead guitar picker and vocal. Tommy Sells had been handling the vocals in Jeff's absence, and evidently had enough of it. I think he was better at bluegrass singing than he believed he was. Jeff and Ronnie would play twin fiddles on a tune or two in a show. First time I saw the band after Jeff returned, it was a disappointment to see him come out carrying a guitar. But when the music started, disappointment vanished like a sprayed mist. Jeff is a master of all the instruments. Last night Jeff brought out a banjo and played clawhammer the old-time fiddle tune Cindy. I'd taken my friend Cynthia for her first mountain music experience. Cindy is her familiar name. It tickled her like Jeff made that banjo roar just for her and it was New Year's Eve.
Teresa Sells, who plays guitar and sings harmony vocals, usually sings 2 songs per album and 2 per concert. I'd be happy to hear her sing more. She and Jeff sing well together, too. And Johnny Williams is recently in the band, though a friend of the band a lot of years. He plays guitar and sings. He has a fairly recent album of his own, Last Days Of Galax, that is quite good. Bluegrass singer / bass player Jeanette Williams is his wife. The two of them came and played at the Front Porch one night and they laid down some solid bluegrass from the get-go. Everybody in Big Country has talent that sets them apart. Jeff Michael's bluegrass singing seems to me to come from the same place within that Carter Stanley's singing came from. He doesn't sing like he's imitating Carter, but he has that special something Carter had that can't be named.
At the show last night we heard Big Country Bluegrass playing at home for it's fans from home. An awful lot of people in this area love to hear the band. For the music of it, I'd just as soon hear Big Country Bluegrass as about anybody else playing bluegrass now. There are an awful lot of really good bands, good singers and good musicians, but for my own personal ear that loves mountain music, Big Country Bluegrass does it for me. Must do it for a lot of other folks, too, with their #1 hits. The band has drive in abundance and talent in abundance. It must feel good for the band to be getting to the place they might be able to make a living playing music all the time. Cynthia became the band's newest convert last night. She exclaimed her joy as soon as it was over, and in the car on the way back. I felt happy I'd heard some really good music, and happy Cindy had such a magnificent introduction to mountain music. Big Country Bluegrass is truly mountain bluegrass.
The band's website: http://www.bigcountrybluegrass.com/