Album Review

Charles Sawtelle - Music From Rancho deVille

Charles Sawtelle - Music From Rancho deVille

As guitarist for Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize, Charles Sawtelle was known for his subtle, economical style. Taking full advantage of his 1937 Martin D-28, he would play his leads mostly on the low strings, which produce the most resonant tones. His rhythm playing was decidedly unflashy but full of soul. Hot Rize always had newgrass tendencies -- Nick Forster played electric bass, and Pete Wernick sometimes ran his banjo through a phase shifter -- but Sawtelle was steeped in tradition. When he died of leukemia in 1999 at 52, Sawtelle left behind a legion of friends and fans, and an album's worth of songs recorded at his home studio, Rancho deVille. Sawtelle always seemed most comfortable out of the limelight, and Music From Rancho deVille reflects his refreshing lack of ego. The musicians comprise a veritable who's who of bluegrass and American roots music, including Sawtelle's Hot Rize bandmates Forster, Wernick, and Tim O'Brien, along with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Flaco Jimenez, Laurie Lewis (who co-produced), Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Mollie O'Brien, Richard Greene, Michael Doucet, and others. Sawtelle lets them all shine; it's as much their album as it is his. Indeed, Sawtelle sings lead vocals on just three songs: "The Ranger's Command", a Woody Guthrie cowboy ballad done in a Tex-Mex style; "Aragon Mill", a lovely duet with Mollie O'Brien; and "Angel Band", the old Stanley Brothers gospel classic. Blake, in fine world-weary form, offers three Carter Family originals -- "The Storms Are On The Ocean", "Amber Tresses", and "Forsaken Love" -- while Rowan revisits his bluegrass roots on Ralph Stanley's "Gonna Paint The Town". Likewise, Doucet does three Cajun numbers, including the bluesy "Jolie Faye". Even Clements, not known for his vocal prowess, gets in on the action, singing Lefty Frizzell's "Mom And Dad's Waltz". Sawtelle, naturally, plays guitar throughout, sometimes adding a masterful solo, particularly on the album's four original instrumentals, but mostly laying down the kind of rock-solid rhythm for which he was famous. Much of the album was recorded while Sawtelle was battling leukemia, and you can't help but wonder if he knew his days were numbered. (One of the instrumentals is titled "My Life Is In Your Hands".) Fittingly, the last song on the album is "Angel Band". It's painful to hear Sawtelle sing the opening lines: "My latest sun is sinking fast/My race is nearly run/My strongest trials now are past/My triumph has begun." But Music From Rancho deVille is also a triumph, a generous gift from a man whose life and music resonated deeply.