Del McCoury Band
5 stars (out of 5)
It’s nicely fitting that Family Circle is the title of the Del McCoury Band’s best, most passionate effort since 1999’s The Family. The same year that classic was released, the band also collaborated with Steve Earle on the classic The Mountain, and was poised to lead the bluegrass popular renaissance spurred by the film and soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both before and since then, the DMB has represented themselves and their genre with class, especially on their legendary live shows, but their recorded output has occasionally suffered slightly from a lack of focus.
That’s certainly not a problem here, with Del’s peerless tenor lead showcased on each of 14 tracks over 45 exhilarating minutes of music, a bounty that makes up for the band’s enjoyable but ill-packaged boxed set release earlier this year.
The groove of “Sweet Appalachia” sets the tone with Rob McCoury’s banjo underpinning perfect harmonies on lyrics that remind everyone just where the spirit behind the DMB’s music comes from. A cover of the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Barbaric Splendor” comes next. It’s an effort that, among bluegrassers, only Del could pull off. References to “angel of the alleyways” and “leather and lace” from a tough and tender narrator would sound awkward or contrived from most, but the straight-laced Del somehow pulls it off.
“Revenuer’s Blues,” co-written by Ronnie Bowman and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin, harmony vocals), simmers throughout, with Del’s voice as smoky and smooth as the product he’s singing about. “Hello Lonely” is a new song that sounds like a classic bluegrass number, featuring precise interplay between Rob’s banjo and Jason Carter’s electrifying fiddle. It gives way to “Delma Blue,” a lonely waltz that’s right in Del’s wheelhouse.
“I’m Justified” is a joyous four-part harmony gospel celebration of salvation that ranks with anything done by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver or Dailey & Vincent in recent years, proving that the DMB is as versatile as they are virtuosic. “Bad Day for Love” is back in more familiar DMB territory, a bluesy barnburner that’s sure to find wings on the live stage.
The Johnny Mercer-penned “I Remember You” is another curveball, one that has Del’s semi-yodel neatly matched to the sentimentality of a 1940s movie song. As gentle as Del is on that track, he’s positively menacing on Buddy & Julie MIller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” complete with wicked laugh.
The Alaska ballad “White Pass Railroad” and Mark Knopfler’s “Prairie Wedding,” which is markedly better than the original, make for a nice Western interlude and make one wish that Del’s voice could have found its way onto the soundtrack for Deadwood.
“Honey Hurry Home,” “Mexico’s Daughter” and a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Break Up” are three tasty lagniappes that leave you wanting more.
Repeated listenings of this disc, especially in the car, reveal new vocal and instrumental intricacies each time through and make one thankful to be around to hear such a band make such great music, both live and in the studio.
by Aaron Keith Harris