The McPeak Brothers
Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Rebel Records continues to enrich their catalogue with the recent issuance of this well-collated disc of music culled from the McPeak Brothers’ three County and Rebel albums from 1977-1983. As have several recent Rebel releases, Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers provides insight into a period of bluegrass history too frequently overlooked.
Tim White’s expansive liner notes provide the biographical background and recording and performance insight one expects and appreciates from a retrospective package.
Coming out of Wythe County, Virginia, the McPeak Brothers emphasized three-part harmony in their arrangements, a feature White documents considerably. Further, by establishing positive relationships in Nashville, especially with Mel Tillis, the brothers recorded for RCA (as well as regional labels) before finding a long-term home within the Rebel family.
It appears the brothers’ bluegrass career was handicapped by the reluctance of Dewey and Mike to fully commit to the uncertainty of the music business. Unfortunate that decision may have been as the 14 tracks reissued here demonstrate that the group had all the elements necessary for considerable success within the industry: great voices, close ‘brother’ harmonies, powerful instrumentation, strong material, and an acute sense of what made a superior bluegrass performance, elements featured on almost every song contained herein including “Back to Dixie,” “Kentucky Road,” and Larry McPeak’s impressive title track.
I don’t like reviewing albums without a solid background of knowledge, but I truly don’t know the McPeaks from Adam. I do know this: I want to hear more of their music, especially more sung by whichever brother absolutely destroys “Bend in the River.” Another stellar performance is the Civil War ballad “The Last Time.”
The band obviously had great ears for material as several of the tracks on this compilation have become jam and stage standards including “Livin’ With the Shades Pulled Down,” “Shelly’s Winter Love,” “Lost River,” and “Shoulder to Shoulder.”
The McPeaks may not have been first to record some of those songs, but their renditions are exceptional examples of mid-period bluegrass. Those who come to bluegrass a little later than some others (and this includes me) may be surprised to hear the group’s rendition of “Steel Rails,” the Louisa Branscomb song that Alison Krauss made so popular in the early 90s; while Branscomb’s band Boot Hill recorded the song the previous year, it was the McPeak Brothers’ 1978 rendition that brought the song initial success. Who knew?
Jerry Douglas and Jim Buchanan are featured on Dobro and fiddle on several cuts while Ricky Skaggs and Rickie Simpkins appear on both mandolin and fiddle in select places.
Those who already own the McPeak Brother’s Classic Bluegrass (1992) collection already have all these songs; Yesteryears has almost the same running order as that set with the significant difference being the exclusion of two additional songs (“Ring of Fire” and “Don’t Laugh”) included on the original package.
With classy cover art and packaging (kudos to Sue Meyer), informative liner notes, and an outstanding selection of songs, Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers will ably fill a gap in many bluegrass collections.
I look forward to full-album McPeak Brothers reissues from Rebel.