Old Friends Get Together
Crossroads/Mountain Home Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
Bean Blossom on a hot, muggy night. Storms threaten back to the west while smoke from the campfires hangs in the air like fog, sometimes choking the singers. Hundreds of people sit in the darkness in chairs of all descriptions, watching as three legends take their places on the stage.
They are joined by Dale Perry playing the upright bass and Dwight McCall subbing for Paul Williams on mandolin. (Williams fell earlier that day and fractured his wrist. Refusing to take pain medication so he could perform, he was intent on singing even if he couldn’t play.)
And then they’re ready. Doyle Lawson, usually sporting a mandolin, played guitar (and quite well). J. D. Crowe had his banjo slung on his shoulder like a gunfighter, ready to go. Paul Williams, sporting a cast and no doubt in pain, was all smiles. Three old friends with hundreds of thousands of miles on the bluegrass road between them, united on the stage at Bean Blossom.
It was a great show. They shared stories of their days with Jimmy Martin, of being young and unworldly and out on the road, of their first taste of “fillet mig-non.” Their singing was as great as everyone expected it would be, with a mixture of gospel and secular bluegrass, most all of it hailing back to Jimmy Martin days. This was bluegrass—worth the wait, the weather, the late hour.
Crowe and Lawson have been on the road for decades. They worked together several years (but not together with Jimmy Martin) and have fronted their own bands for so long that a lot of fans don’t remember them any other way.
Williams is their common link with Jimmy Martin. It was Martin, Crowe and Williams then, after J. D. left, Lawson stepped in to play banjo for a short stint. Williams is the one of this trio with the most winding road in the business.
Starting with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Williams moved on to Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In mid-1963 Williams retired from bluegrass after—in his words—finding salvation. He was off the road for thirty-two years, though he continued to write and appeared from time-to-time in churches and on the radio. In 1995 he came back to bluegrass with his gospel band, the Victory Trio.
Their CD, “Old Friends Get Together,” is sure to bring joy to any bluegrass fan no matter how many years they have followed the music. It’s an all-gospel CD. Produced by Tim Dillman (brother to Dwight Dillman, owner of the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park), it’s billed as a tribute to Jimmy Martin’s gospel music. There’s no new ground covered with the song selection but it’s doubtful anyone will complain. The songs cover some of the best-loved gospel numbers in bluegrass: “Prayer Bells of Heaven,” “Shake Hands With Mother Again,” “When the Savior Reached Down For Me.” For those who have listened to bluegrass for a long time, it’s a window into the very soul of bluegrass music, evoking memories of so many performances through the years. For the newer fans these songs are examples of what is so good about the music. On one hand it’s simple and heartfelt:
Twill be a wonderful happy day
Up there on the golden strand
When I can hear Jesus, my Savior say
Shake hands with mother again
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how that touches the lives of those who enjoy (and enjoyed) a simpler way of life than most live these days. On the other hand it’s music that is exquisite with its hardriving instrumentals and beautiful harmonies. The leads are sung by either Williams or Lawson with harmony by them plus Crowe, Ben Isaacs (bass vocals and upright bass) with Cia Cherryholmes and Sonja Isaacs on high harmony—and the harmonies are exquisite on this CD. Additional instrumentalists are Ron Stewart (who can play anything with strings) on fiddle and Harry Stinson on snare drum. (Inclusion of a snare will raise the eyebrows of hardcore fans but it is scarcely heard.)
As a CD to just enjoy it is excellent. As a tribute to Jimmy Martin it is right on the mark insofar as Martin’s gospel heritage, but a lot of people don’t remember Jimmy for his gospel music. It is interesting to note that Doyle Lawson’s liner notes remark that Jimmy came to the studio and listened to the recordings while they were doing the mixings. It’s evident this was in late 2004 or early 2005 so it’s curious why this project stayed on the shelf for so long. But Jimmy did like and approve of the project. As a suggestion, it would be worthwhile to get the group back together for a companion CD of his secular music.
Jimmy Martin was one of bluegrass music’s great stars. He often polarized people, some loved him and others couldn’t stand him because of his antics, but there is no denying his contributions. Whether you recognize this CD as a tribute to him or just love it for what you hear, every bluegrass fan should have a copy.