By Larry Stephens
LRB has been around the block a time or two and this new CD, Still Learning, demonstrates why they are a perennial favorite of bluegrass fans.
“Goodbye Wheeling” is from the pen of Mel Tillis and he had it out on his Are You Sincere LP back in ’79. This is a turbocharged version of Mel’s release. Sammy Shelor’s banjo is strong as ever and the band lineup for this CD provides strong support for him. Andy Ball on mandolin has played with several top bands and contributes vocals. Mike Hartgrove (fiddle), whose bluegrass experience goes back to the Bluegrass Cardinals, helped start IIIrd Tyme Out and spent time with Doyle Lawson. Brandon Rickman has rejoined LRB after spending a few years pursuing his songwriting career. He’s a featured vocalist on this CD, co-wrote three of the songs and plays guitar. Mike Anglin has been with the band for some time and plays bass.
Another famous name shows up in the list of composers, Merle Haggard. Haggard’s Red Bandana is transitioned to bluegrass in fine style. They easily shift from traditional-based, hard driving songs like “Jack Up The Jail” to the more relective “Record Time Machine” and the title cut with ease, never losing that bluegrass feel.
Following what seems to be bluegrass tradition, they have a gospel number that takes a listen or two before you realize it’s gospel. The band drives “Forty Days In The Desert” with Anglin’s solid bass work. The other part of the tradition is including an instrumental and they close with a traditional fiddle song, “Pretty Little Girl.” (There’s a transcription available at Old Time Fiddle Tunes if you’re interested.)
You have to wonder if a band’s selection of songs ever reflects their own lives. They were kind enough to include the lyrics in the CD insert (their proofreader needs to learn how to spell “Satan”) but there are no personal messages to give you insight into their process for putting together this CD. “As Wild As I Get” is a ballad about a man who still hangs with his buddies and plays music at a honky tonk, but he’s really a stay-at-home family guy. As a contrast, “Don’t Cry Blue” kicks off with Shelor’s banjo and a Lester Flatt G run and tells the story of a man called by the road who manages to get home now and then. This provides a nice contrast of emotion that helps keep things interesting. The emotional shifts of the songs, switching between ballad and hard driving bluegrass, excellent musicians and good harmonies keep this CD interesting from start to finish.
“Any Ole Time” you want to hear good bluegrass you can turn to LRB and this CD ably carries on their tradition.