“The Blues Are Still The Blues” by the Traditional Grass

The Traditional Grass
The Blues Are Still The Blues
Rebel Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Like the Bluegrass Cardinals before them, Ohio’s Traditional Grass were focused around a father-son combination whose influence on bluegrass music would last much longer than the years they performed.

Fiddler Paul ‘Moon’ Mullins formed the Traditional Grass in late 1983, pulling his still teenaged son Joe in on banjo along with Mark Rader, who would play guitar and sing the majority of the leads for the dozen years the group performed. Having recorded eight albums, including four-long out of print independent releases, Rebel Records—in cooperation with Joe Mullins and Rader—have assembled 15 memorable cuts from the archives for this compilation.

Performing within the tradition while keeping an ear open for contemporary advancements, the Traditional Grass remain one of the most listenable groups from a period in bluegrass history that hasn’t proven to be kind to all. History, related here in extensive liner notes from Daniel Mullins (Joe’s son, Moon’s grandson), informs us that the group excelled once they were joined by Gerald Evans, Jr., a mandolin and fiddle player whose impact solidified the group’s burgeoning sound. Mike Clevenger is the featured bass player, excepting one track with Glen Inman from their Rebel debut.

With this set timing out at 40 minutes, the listener is left wanting more. The Traditional Grass’ performance of songs including “Rough Edges” (featuring Joe on lead vocals) and “I Believe In the Old-Time Way” are a measure by which others are judged. The songs they brought to the music, including “The Blues Are Still The Blues,” “A Broken Heart Keeps Beatin’,” and the dynamic “Lazarus,” are among the finest bluegrass songs recorded during their era.

I recall the surprise felt a couple decades ago discovering that songs like “Back to Hancock County,” “The Shuffle of My Feet,” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” included here, didn’t originate with the group. To me, they were definitive performances. Their vocal trios, on songs such as “I’ll Not Be A Stranger,” “A Broken Heart Keeps Beatin’,” and “You Can Keep Your Nine Pound Hammer” should be requisite listening for all making the attempt: there can be no argument—the Traditional Grass made classic bluegrass.

Another track or two from the Evans and Joe Mullins album Just a Five-String and a Fiddle wouldn’t have been out of place, while another bluegrass gospel tune would have made this set just a tad more robust.

A versatile group, within this anthology the many shades of the Traditional Grass are put on fine display.