“Wonderful World Outside” by the Piedmont Melody Makers

The Piedmont Melody Makers
Wonderful World Outside
Vigortone Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“The Piedmont Melody Makers” may not ring any bells for most people but one member’s name will: Alice Gerrard. She has been performing for a half-century and is often linked with the late Hazel Dickens, though their collaboration was mostly in the ’60s and ’70s. While not a mainstream bluegrass performer, her Appalachian and old-time music is intertwined with bluegrass, and country music shades her affinity circle. She’s joined in this group by Cliff Hale (vocals, guitar), Chris Brashear (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) and Jim Watson (guitar, bass, mandolin). All contribute vocals.

The expectation, noting the members of the group, is old-time or Applachian music and you get that but with a twist: steel guitar on several tracks and Gerrard is shown as playing piano on “I’ll Be There,” a Hank Locklin song made famous by Ray Price – but it’s a faint contribution. Brashear’s fiddle playing on this number can’t be described as dulcet, but coarser, a spirited attack on the strings that conveys the melody of the number.

The title cut is an old Stanley Brothers’ song once recorded by the unlikely duo of Ralph Stanley and George Jones. Appalachian influences were a broad vein in the Stanley Brothers’ music and the harmony on this cut is reminiscent of their sound. It’s not the smooth blend of, say, Flatt Lonesome, with multiple voices becoming one, like a chord played on a piano. This is clearly defined individual voices singing together on the notes required for harmony. Both ways of singing are good, just different.

The band members are joined by a diverse group of other sources. “Some Old Day” is a traditional number that many will recognize and is attributed to Sam “No Legs” Fincher. His version (with “Crip” James Diggs a possible addition) is available thanks to an excellent collection of traditional music at the Digital Library of Appalachia. The Carter Family performed “Poor Little Orphaned Boy.” On this cut a simple approach is used with just vocals and a guitar.

Another familiar Carter Family song (1936) is “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and, yes, this is the same song (more or less) that Elvis Presley made famous. How many people, hearing the Elvis version would dream it’s the same song the Carter Family recorded? “Six More Miles” is a Hank Williams song that a number of bluegrass artists have recorded. On the cuts with steel guitar they use a pedal steel or a “straight” steel (no pedals). The straight steel on “Six More Miles” is an excellent choice, giving the song a Hank Williams flavor.

Brashear composed and sings lead on “Little Boy Loser” which is good bluegrass and “Buehler’s March,” a fiddle tune riding on Brashear’s bow work. It’s a good number that is fiddle from start to finish bringing to mind barn dances by the light of kerosene lanterns (though at 2:19 it’s ten to fifteen minutes too short for a good round of dancing). Gerrard composed “Sweeter Day,” a slow contemplative song that, despite the title, is a sad song of loss with Gerrard playing a melodic banjo to support her singing. She also composed “Kentucky Home,” a song of longing to go back to her home in Kentucky. This is another song that would be welcomed on any bluegrass stage (perhaps without the pedal steel).

If you like traditional bluegrass or old-time music you’ll enjoy this CD even though it doesn’t neatly fit either genre. It’s full of good music. The last two cuts are an apt description for life in 2017: “Troublesome Waters” and “Just Keep Waiting Till the Good Times Come.” Don’t wait to grab this CD.