By Larry Stephens
Rebel continues to reissue classic LPs as digital-only releases. This gives bluegrass fans old and young, new and veterans alike to hear some great music from the past. Check Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives for images of the original jacket and LP.
This collection dates back to a Rebel LP issued in 1974 (but recorded in 1972). The Smokey Ridge Boys included Wood on banjo and lead vocals. He’s changed a little from 1962 to today but is still active playing bluegrass. Older brother Odell Wood was on bass, Dewey Farmer (Carl Story’s Ramblin’ Muntaineers) on mandolin and Lester Deaton, Dewey’s nephew, (Country Gentlemen, Bluegrass Cardinals) on guitar. Not credited as a band member but shown on the original jacket as a musician was Ronnie Freeland on the drum. While I can’t find anything current on him, an entry at ibluegrass.com dating back to the end of 2001 reported Freeland would be going into surgery in July 2002 for a brain tumor. It goes on to say, “Ronnie has always championed bluegrass music even during the lean years. He is best known for his engineering efforts on those classic Rebel records of the 1970s.”
If you like hard driving, Monroe-style bluegrass then you’ll love this CD. The recording quality is very good, especially considering the technology of the early ’70s. The band members were expert instrumentalists and they had good arrangements. A big plus is you’ll hear songs you’ve not heard dozens of times on various records. With the exception of “Pretty Polly,” a Ralph Stanley number he does in most of his stage shows still today, these are all original numbers. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard Dr. Ralph sing “Polly” (the linked version has Patty Loveless singing with him) and, no matter who is singing it, expect something like mountaingrass style when I hear it. Wood’s version is more of a ballad and, with his banjo fill behind the singing, sounds a lot like a Country Gentlemen recording. This one is going into my favorites playlist.
The Wood brothers penned the rest except “Lonesome Smokey,” a high-speed mandolin number from Farmer. There’s nothing intricate about it and I don’t find it very interesting.
I love their harmony and Al, who does most of the lead singing, has a good tenor voice, although he gets close to the top of his range a time or two (“Mountain Man”). The longer I listen the more I make comparisons to The Boys From Indiana and the Country Gentlemen, in the type of material and their harmony and instrumental work.
“The Hills of Home” is a great song. Today’s bands should listen and pick this one up. Good melody and chord structure, good lyrics, good instrumental breaks. The lead instruments for the band were the banjo and mandolin with Deaton providing solid rhythm and Lester Flatt G-runs. I especially like Wood’s banjo playing, syncopated and driving the music.
During this era truck driving songs were popular and they’ve included a good one, “Lines On The Highway.” I like the chord pattern with that odd change they throw in to keep things interesting. If you have trucks then you need trains, so they wrote a song about the Chesapeake & Ohio’s FFV (Fast Flying Virginian or Fast Flying Vestibule), a train that operated from the east cost to the midwest for seven decades. “Story of the F.F.V.” retells a story earlier told in “Engine One-Forty-Three,” a folk tale with many versions, the most popular one recorded by The Carter Family. It’s the story of engineer George Alley (Georgie in the song) trying to make up time after a delay. The train hit a rock slide near Hinton, West Virginia on October 23, 1890, killing George while the fireman jumped to safety. Most train wreck songs have a lot of similarities, but “F.F.V.” tells a good story and makes a good listening song.
“Do Unto Others” is moralistic (as the title suggest) without being a gospel number. Once again, I love the harmony. I can hear just a little of Charlie Waller as I listen. The end of the song, though, is one of the strangest I’ve heard in a bluegrass song: one second they’re driving along then they hit a cliff and hum a couple of ritard bars to the end. It seems like half of all bluegrass songs have the same tag at the end, but you’ll listen for a long time without duplicating this one. “Sally The Rogue” is another one that reminds me so much of TBFI and the Gents. Wood doesn’t bother with a three-chord song, he makes it interesting and, broken record or not, those harmonies!
The other instrumental is “Hombre” and I’m surprised I’ve never heard it before. This is a good banjo – mandolin piece that’s as good as the instrumentals I hear today (and better than most). The only lyrics I’m ambivalent about (and note I said lyrics – the melody and structure is just fine) is “Sing a Bluegrass Song,” though it would make a great theme song as it tells about what is good about bluegrass and names several popular songs in the lyrics.
No warts here, at worst a chigger-bite bump. It’s a shame they didn’t (and, since he’s still active, they don’t) have more records for us to hear.