"Standing Tall and Tough" by Crowe, Lawson & Williams and "Open Carefully, Message Inside" by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Crowe, Lawson & Williams
Standing Tall and Tough
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Open Carefully, Message Inside
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

An 18-year-old Doyle Lawson joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys as the groups banjo player in 1963, not long after JD Crowe made himself a bluegrass legend in that same post. If at that time I would have told you that Lawson would end up (arguably) having a greater influence on the direction of bluegrass music than either the King or the Claw, you wouldn’t have bought it. But here we are 50 years later with two fine albums that help make that argument.

By Lawson’s count in the liner notes, Open Carefully is the 36th Quicksilver album in 35 years—an impressive achievement of excellence (for the most part, see here) and longevity even before you consider the lengthy roster of master musicians in that stretch whom Lawson has trained up and sent forth.

Eli Johnston (bass guitar) and Dustin Pyrtle (guitar) are up to the difficult task of sharing lead, duet, and trio vocal duties with Lawson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their names were one day added to the list of storied Quicksilver vets. (However, I’m not familiar yet with either one, and just from the liner notes, I can’t be sure who’s who from track to track).

Jason Barie (fiddle), Joe Dean (banjo), and Josh Swift (Dobro, guitar, and, yes, percussion) create a hard instrumental bluegrass edge on “Climbing Upward,” “Will You Go?,” and the delightfully McCouryesque “It’s Done” and country-gospel backing on “He Made the Tree,” “O Far Country,” and the album-opening “Coming Soon,” which might be the track you’d pick from this project to demonstrate how Lawson can blend together bluegrass and Southern gospel, old and new.

But what I love most about DLQ are the quartet recordings—whether a cappella or with solo guitar— that owe as much to the likes of black groups like the Golden Gate Quartet as to white groups like the gospel quartets of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. There are four great examples of that here: “Get on Board” (an old spiritual to which Lawson added a new final verse), “Lead Me to that Fountain” (with a perfectly understated bass vocal from Swift), “He’s In Control,” and the stunning nostalgia of “I Sailed Back.” Classic Quicksilver.

Standing Tall and Tough has Lawson back with Crowe and their fellow Martin alumnus Paul Williams for a second trio CD, and it’s as good as 2010’s Old Friends Get Together, with the more famous contributors content with creating a well-blended band sound that allows Williams’ grand voice to steal the show.

That disc was an all-gospel affair; this one isn’t. Lawson’s liner notes indicate that the trio wanted to do “a few songs that we hadn’t recorded during our time working with Jimmy Martin.”

There is a nucleus of Martin songs here: the Martin/Williams co-writes “My Walking Shoes,” “Little Angel in Heaven,” and “Pretending I Don’t Care,” as well as Williams’ peerless version of “Fraulein.”

Three Louvin Brothers songs—”Do You Live What You Preach?,” “Don’t Laugh,” and “Insured Beyond the Grave”—also get a masterful treatment, as do Bill Anderson’s “Once a Day” and the Jimmy Wakely/Johnny Bond “Those Gone and Left Me Blues.”

Williams stops the show with his version of “The Hills of Roane County”, his operatic tenor spinning out one of the strangest story songs in bluegrass prompting the chills up the spine just like Roy Orbison could on songs like “Leah” or “It’s Over.” (Has anyone suggested to Williams that he cut a record of Orbison covers?)

Lawson’s touch as producer is quite evident on Open Carefully, much less so on Standing Tall. But that’s what a great producer like Lawson does.