Album Review

Bluegrass Cardinals - Essential

Bluegrass Cardinals - Essential

A great bluegrass trio is a powerful thing, and the Bluegrass Cardinals had one -- in fact, they had several in the course of the band's recording career, much of the best part of which was spent on Los Angeles label CMH Records. The Cardinals had a lot more going for them than that, shown by a list of alumni that includes Bill Bryson, Randy Graham, Ernie Sykes, Mike Hartgrove, Norman Wright, Bobby Clark, Ronnie Simpkins, Dale Perry, Larry Stephenson and Greg Luck; but the trio was always central to their appeal. Their greatest popularity came between the mid-1970s and late 1980s, generally a down time for bluegrass. Artistically brilliant, highly influential but constrained from reaching a broad audience, the Cardinals have been among the music's most underappreciated contributors. Led by the banjo-picking, baritone-singing Don Parmley, already an adult when he moved from Kentucky to California in the late 1950s, the Cardinals exploded out of Los Angeles in the mid-'70s after coalescing around a trio of Don, mandolinist Randy Graham and Don's teenage son, David. Moving east in 1976, they cut an album for Rounder and followed it in 1978 with their CMH debut, after which Graham departed. Over their next four albums, personnel shifted regularly, but as this set drawn from all five CMH albums shows, the quality of their work remained consistently high, full of pep, polish and some of the best singing you'll ever hear. There were four key elements to the Cardinals' sound. First was the voice of David Parmley; especially at this remove, it's difficult to believe he was only 19 when this anthology begins, for his voice was already deep and Haggardesque, and he was an accomplished, almost overpowering part singer, too. On the other end of the trio was the second element, a tenor capable of both harmonizing and carrying a strong high lead trio -- variously Graham (the strongest), David Ratcliff, Norman Wright and Ernie Sykes. Third was Don Parmley's own harmonizing skills and focused leadership, which respectively blended and tightened the trio. Finally, there was material. Though Don didn't care for what he called "draggy" ballads, the Cardinals did plenty, and they're a stunning bunch, including the Parmleys' own "Blue Is The Color Of Lonesome" (sung by Ratcliff), David's desolate version of Haggard's "Don't Give Up On Me", and Graham's wrenching high lead "Sweet Hour Of Prayer". Yet there are also solid uptempo and mid-tempo grass numbers, such as Sonny Throckmorton's "Knee Deep In Lovin' You" and the boldly rearranged "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight", or "I've Had A Time", an ode to heartbreak-induced carelessness complete with a Clarence White-inspired guitar solo by David (who had his own "California connection") and a hard-bitten chorus: I've had a time I'm proud to say I ain't saved a dime for a rainy day When they lay me down to rest at the end of this rat race I'll have to get a loan to pay for my own Six feet of sod that they throw in my face Other cuts come from ace bluegrass writers such as Pete Goble and Randall Hylton, from the bluegrass canon and the country world, and from gospel songbooks. Not all of the Cardinals' hits are here, nor even all they made for CMH, but what is here is virtually all choice. Simply put, this is world-class stuff, bedrock bluegrass that has been largely forgotten -- or, rather, unheard by a whole generation of new fans. CMH has done a good job in getting it out, with the selection of 24 cuts done by David Parmley (whose own band, Continental Divide, is headed for its tenth anniversary) and with liner notes by the band's longtime manager and IBMA Hall of Honor member Lance LeRoy. But what you really need to know is this: On each and every one of these cuts, the Cardinals sang their asses off.