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Published: 2006/03/15
by Andy Tennille

Well Oiled Machine – Hot Buttered Rum String Band

Harmonized Records 025

Does all great bluegrass music need to have a lil’ bit a grit to it?

Essentially, whether it’s pre- or post-New Grass Revival, all bluegrass music comes from the high-lonesome sound of the Appalachian Mountains, where dirt-poor Irish and Scottish settler-hillbillies gathered on Saturday nights after a week toiling in the local coal mine or cotton field to pick a tune or two, drink some White Lightning and smoke some of that shit the Indian guy in the corner brought.

These cats were gritty. Some were missing teeth and most were pretty hairy. As the tradition evolved from the first generation to the next, a new bluegrassman arose. Bill Monroe, Carter & Ralph Stanley, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs arrived clean-cut and dressed in the suits of the early country music stars, like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams Sr., and were legendary for their toughness having grown up during the Great Depression. Their innovative interpretation of early mountain pickin' circles was what launched the music to the airways. As the '50s gave way to the '60s and '70s, the new age of pickers — David Grisman, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan among them — rebelled against their seemingly straighter-laced forefathers and developed a sound that was more experimental and borrowed heavily from the improvisational bent of the rock and jazz music of that era.

Upon listening to Hot Buttered Rum’s new album, Well-Oiled Machine, on Harmonized Records, it’s obvious these guys are talented musicians. Under the watchful eye of producer Mike Marshall, the band has crafted a nice, laid-back album of bluegrass music that spotlights each one of the band member’s unique talents and is reminiscent of the crisp sound of New Grass Revival, minus the range less pipes of a young John Cowan. The album-opening “Firefly” gets things off to a nice, bouncing start, featuring Aaron Redner on vocals and Darol Anger sitting in on fiddle, and both Rowan and Marshall guest on the “Wedding Day,” which closes the album with a nice bluegrass romp. No doubt these guys know how to handle their respective instruments and are proficient at writing feel-good string music.

But the biggest criticism of New Grass Revival during its 18-year run is the same thing that haunts Well-Oiled Machine. The sound is too tight, almost too clean. What made Old & In the Way the definitive bluegrass band of the past 50 years, despite only playing a handful gigs and releasing one album during its tenure, was its ability to channel the energy of those old-timey bluegrass circles and get at the heart of old traditional songs like “Hobo Song” and Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues.” Sure, this was a group of Marin County hippies, augmented with the late fiddle master Vassar Clements to give the group a bit of authenticity, but they captured the grittiness and darkness of early Appalachian music better than anyone that has attempted to follow in their footsteps.

Hot Buttered Rum calls Marin home too and makes a valiant effort to tap into that same spirit, namely on the political “Guns or Butter,” mandolinist Zachary Matthews’ “Idaho Pines” or the ominous “Waiting For A Squall” written by banjoist Erik Yates. but the result comes off as the print rather than the Picasso. While they say imitation is the finest form of flattery, it ain’t ever the real McCoy.

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