on 22 January 2004
This album (1989) followed the first by 17 years. Some of the original legends of Bluegrass who played on the first volume had died by then and the album is less a tribute to the legends than to fine bluegrass instrumentation and songs. It cannot surpass the first album in historical impact, but in my opinion it is musically the more interesting album. Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Chet Atkins and Earl Scruggs return, but the album is driven by the excellent studio production of the Dirt Band backing up a diverse group of singers including Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, John Denver, Levon Helm, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Rosanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby and Paulette Carlson. Not all are names that first come to mind when thinking of bluegrass; therein lies the tribute. This album was produced before the nostalgia wave brought on by "O Brother" and is real bluegrass music rather than a historical piece. The instrumentation and vocals are inspired, with some delirious fiddle riffs and chilling vocal parts by - among others- Johnny Cash and John Denver. Yes, John Denver. "And so it goes" is stripped of any sentimentality one associates with him and his vocal work is retrained and somewhat haunting. Nearly every song is a classic in its own right. Moving ballads, "kick-ass" up-tempo anthems, all underlaid by a mild, sweet Christianity. Banjo, fiddle, bass, dobro, mandolin. It's all there.
There are three Circle collections. General opinion is that the first album is the best, the third album is a close second and that this is the weakest of the three. I love all three but this one particularly appeals to me. It has many traditional musicians and singers but also a few less obvious singers like John Denver, Levon Helm (of the Band), John Prine, Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds), Paulette Carlson (of Highway 101) and Bruce Hornsby. Perhaps it is the presence of such guests that some dislike but you can't please everybody.
Whatever you may think of the normal music that some of the guests have recorded, they all justify their place on this excellent album of traditional music, sometimes singing songs they've previously recorded, but adapted to a traditional setting. For some of them, it may have been their chance to record some traditional country without upsetting their fans or their record label. Both would understand that this was (for them) a one-off. They certainly made the most of their opportunity.
So we get Bruce Hornsby singing and playing piano on Valley road, but in a traditional country/bluegrass style. Roger McGuinn and Chrisman Hillman, both ex-members of the Byrds, sing and play guitar on You ain't going nowhere, a Bob Dylan song that was recorded by the Byrds in the sixties. Michael Martin Murphey sings and plays guitar on Lost river, one of his own songs. John Hiatt sings a duet with Roseanne Cash on One step over the line. John Prine sings and plays guitar on his song Grandpa was a carpenter.
Some of the songs are oldies like Life's railway to heaven (featuring Johnny Cash), I'm sitting on top of the world (featuring Jimmy Martin), the title track (featuring everybody but particularly Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff and Ricky Skaggs) and Amazing grace, an instrumental solo by Randy Scruggs. Other songs appear to be originals including And so it goes (featuring John Denver), Mary danced with soldiers (featuring Emmylou) and Lovin' on the side (featuring Paulette Carlson).
If you haven't got any of the Circle albums, this album is a great one to start with, especially if you're relatively new to traditional country music.