Big Country Bluegrass
5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
When it comes to truth-in-labeling, it doesn’t get more on-the-nose than Country Livin’ from Big Country Bluegrass. This is the 18th release from the Independence, Virgina-based band founded by the husband-and-wife team of Tommy Sells (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar) in the late 1980s. And not only is it one of the group’s best, it’s one of the very best bluegrass albums of the last couple of years.
The six-member lineup—joining the Sellses are Eddie Gill (guitar), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo), Tim Laughlin (fiddle) and Tony King (bass)—picks in a solid, propulsive style pure enough that it sounds like none of them have paid any mind to any record released since Carter Stanley died.
“The Bluefield West Virginia Blues,” with Lunsford’s hound dogging, five-string, Laughlin’s fluid fiddle, and Gill’s paint-stripping vocals, takes less than a minute to let us know what we’re in for in the rest of this 13-track, 41-minute album—throwback lyrics, cutting harmonies (usually provided by Tammy Sells (tenor) and Laughlin (baritone)), and crisply expert instrumental breaks.
Tammy Sells changes things up—with no dip in quality—by singing lead on “The Cotton Mill Song” and “Hold Me Closer, Jesus,” a driving gospel song that does not eschew the banjo.
“Easy Memories” is one of the best new bluegrass songs I’ve heard in a while, distilling the music’s main theme of connection to a more primitive, and probably less-comfortable, past by recalling it in song—
Hard times brings [sic] easy memories
Workin’ in the cotton fields
Restin’ beneath the trees
I can still hear Mama singing “Bringing in the Sheaves”
Hard times brings easy memories
But “Easy Memories” is not new after all. Recorded by Dave Leatherman, it’s the best example of this band’s uncanny knack for picking great songs—often from lesser-known artists—that fit together perfectly.
You may be acquainted with the original cuts of great songs like “Country Livin’,” “Blue River,” “The Boy From the Country,” and “Just an Old Friend,” but I wasn’t. Jimmy Martin’s “Snow White Grave” and Bobby Osborne’s “My Lonely Heart” weren’t top of mind either, but BGB makes them all their own, as they do with the aforementioned “The Bluefield West Virginia Blues” and “The Hound Dog from Harlan,” both penned by Tom T. & Dixie Hall.
With Country Livin’, Big Country Bluegrass shows—when you apply its timeless style to songs that haven’t been dulled by overuse—old-school bluegrass can be as fresh and exciting as its creators first made it sound.