By Larry Stephens
Kristin Scott Benson is an integral part of the Grascals and is, without debate, one of the great banjo players working today, a part of that select group among whom the question “who is best” is more personal opinion than objective measure. She doesn’t disappoint with this offering, a mix of sterling instrumentals and songs with top bluegrass vocalists.
Cody Kilby kicks off the first track, “Great Waterton,” composed by Benson. I can’t tap my foot this fast. Remember: speed isn’t the same as drive but Tim Surrett on bass makes sure there’s no lack of drive and you can feel the other players pushing the tune at breakneck speed. Kilby is an outstanding guitarist and he’s joined by Benson’s husband, Wayne Benson, aka WBenson, a longtime member of IIIrd Tyme Out, playing mandolin, Jim VanCleve on fiddle and, of course, Kristin Benson tearing it up on banjo. Slowing it down a bit, “Locust Grove” is a Bill Emerson number that he has never recorded. It has a pleasing descending melody line with Grascals bandmate Adam Haynes taking fiddle duty on this cut.
Benson goes back a lot of years for “Foggy Mountain Top.” This a special treat because the mandolin player and tenor to (another Grascals bandmate) Terry Eldredge’s lead is Benson’s grandfather, John Bryan. It kicks off and ends with a few bars from a live, 1940s radio show by Whitey & Hogan, then smoothly segues to the modern recording. Another memory is the familiar “Farewell Blues.” As it passes from KBenson to WBenson, Kilby, and Haynes you’re treated to impeccable musicianship. Other instrumentals include a Benson/Kilby number, “Travelers Rest,” some intersting chord progressions in “Eagle Eye Annie,” and a happy number titled “Fisher.”
“Till the Day Breaks” was composed by Grant Williams and he sings lead on this number that, while not necessarily obvious, is a spiritual note to God. Harmony is handled by Benson’s former Sally Jones and the Sidewinders bandmate, Mickey Harris. When I first read the playlist and saw “When Fall Comes To New England” I made a quirky jump to that old bluegrasser Chet Atkins and “Mountains of Illinois,” but it is a 1993 number by Cheryl Wheeler with Claire Lynch, with Mickey Harris providing delightful vocals. Going back to gospel she gives us “You Gotta Climb Over the Cross,” a Becky Buller song with Shawn Lane singing lead with Whitey and Hogan (Eldredge and Bryan) doing harmony. It’s hard to find better bluegrass gospel than this. Other songs are “Sink or Swim,” a modern–sounding number and she rounds off the CD with a great number from country song writer Lance Guynes, “All I Want Is You.” Sung here by Chris Jones, Benson first heard it years ago at a Flatt & Scruggs show but it’s also been recorded by The Earls of Leicester and The Nashville Bluegrass Band on their 1986 “Idle Time” LP. This version is slower and more heartfelt than NBB’s and Benson plays a beautiful break on banjo. Classic country lives on in bluegrass music!