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Published: 2005/06/02
by Randy Ray

self-titled – Larry Keel and Natural Bridge


There's a scene in the film A River Runs Through It that has a father showing his son how to write. The son starts off with about two pages and each time he comes back from his room to show his father his work, the family patriarch slashes several sentences. Dad cuts paragraphs as his son returns again and again. Finally, he reduces his son’s thoughts to a single paragraph, crumbles the paper up, throws it in a waste bin, instructs his son that his work is finished and he can now go outside.

Bluegrass music is a lot like that. The tunes appear so basic, so easy to master, but, alas, many musicians begin with scales, float towards chords, attempt leads, warp towards solos and, eventually, try to return to that single basic tune that got them initially hooked. Of course, bluegrass has had quite a Renaissance in the last fifteen odd years. That deserves a comment. The resurrection of live acoustic music can be indirectly linked to many, many different moments, not the least being the odd appearance of Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora on MTV's Video Music Awards playing an acoustic version of "Dead or Alive." This led to MTV's Unplugged program which flourished throughout the 1990s with everyone from Nirvana to Bob Dylan to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant turning in minimalist interpretations of familiar tunes. But the real monolith that shot the acoustic movement forward was the Coen Brothers' brilliant film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This film featured many old standards interpreted by new artists helping repopularize a genre that had lost touch with its audience during the growing pains of the ’70s and ’80s. With this resurgence came concert and festival spots for veteran country, folk and bluegrass musicians who had learned the simple art form of trimming two pages into a single transcendent paragraph.

Larry Keel and Natural Bridge offers 14 standards that inhale rich, deep traditions from various American locales. The CD, however, in turn exhales humility that is both pleasantly appealing and highly addictive. Beginning with a pile-driving instrumental, "Border Ride" — the Jim and Jesse McReynolds number with the Virginia Boys — and it ends with another, "Durham’s Bull" — an old fiddlin’ tune instrumental whose author has been lost to the sands of time. These grains add texture when coupled with such a fine ensemble. Keel leads the way on fast-paced flat pickin’ guitar. His wife, Jenny, adds upright bass while Andy Thorn handles banjo with Mark Schimick on mandolin. All members contribute vocals.

The music is a mixture of old Appalachian instrumentals and ancient bluegrass from the '20s through the '70s. "Weary Heart" by the Stanley Brothers is a group vocal effort with instrumentation creating a sun-drenched, lazy afternoon mood. "I Know You're Married (But I Love You Still)" — you've got to love that mysteriously scandalous title! — has wonderful harmony vocals between The Keels as they sing to each other of their wanton adulterous intent with a loping, subtly complex arrangement. A great tune written by Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups (who went onto further fame in the '70s when they co-wrote "Dueling Banjos" from the film Deliverance with Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith).

"Gatherin Flowers" is an absolute gem grabbed from the colorful rainfall known as The Carter Family. Jenny Keel handles the vocals with sublime grace as she intones the tragic tale of shootin' one's darling down to the ground. Depths of experience land with brutal honesty and chilling regret, each drop of water different, each accumulating downpour promising doom as the narrator gathers flowers to place on the grave of the murdered loved one. "Next Sunday Darlin' (Is My Birthday)" by Hank Williams is another lament about how one should be enjoying a birthday but, instead, only sorrow and heartbreak fill the soul of the singer. Each member solos with gentle spirit as the tune walks down its dark path. "Groundhog" by the Doc Watson Family is, to put it bluntly, a fucking hoot — the kind of tune you sing when everyone in the bar is liquored up and wants to shout at the top of their lungs the one word chorus:. Old, Weird American lyrics are twisted into shape to form a little ditty that is both odd and timeless evocative of that place where cell phone reception will never occur, the part of our country that escapes progress, eludes man's touch, and still encompasses our collective mythology.

"Durham's Bull" — the instrumental closer — just rips as each musician plays as fast as possible, no longer trying to write perfect little one-paragraph novels. Instead, the CD ends on a jovial note reminding the listener that bad times never last, there's always something else waiting around the bend to ease that stone out of the shoe.

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