Album Review

John Reischman & The Jaybirds--- Vintage & Unique

John Reischman & The Jaybirds - Vintage & Unique

Bluegrass is not always blue, my friends. Indeed, it comes in a variety of colors and shapes and sizes, all dependent on combinations of instruments, voices, and even individuals' preferences. There is straight-on jig-and-reel, vocal bluegrass, newgrass and numerous other ways to get your fix and if you are going to get the music you want, unless you are open to wide varieties of the genre, you'd better know what you want.

Myself, I want vocals. I want those bluegrass harmonies reminiscent of the old steam whistle on the distant horizon—I want Bill Monroe (though I could do well without his voice), Jimmy Martin (we can thank Monroe for giving Martin an early leg up) and Doyle Lawson. I want the Seldom Scene. But I want the picking, too. I want the Dillards and J.D. Crowe and occasionally Flatt & Scruggs. Not many of those cover the range I prefer, though Jimmy Martin comes close. John Reischman & The Jaybirds come close as well.

Reischman is one of those guys you may not have heard of but probably have heard if you have followed bluegrass at all. He was a member of the original Tony Rice Unit and was at one time all over Nashville and surrounding mountain areas. His mandolin and voice has graced many an album and he has paid his dues. But he is only one cog in the Jaybird wheel. John Reischman and The Jaybirds, you see, are not just Reischman and backup. They are a group. A five man (er, person) group and one at the top of the bluegrass game. There is something about the combination of the five, in fact, that places them among the best.

That something, I think, is balance. These guys can pluck a la Flatt & Scruggs, sing a la Seldom Scene and wail a la Jimmy Martin and do it in enough combinations to make the music fresh at every turn. They feature the classic bluegrass lineup—bass, banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin—a big plus considering many bluegrass bands these days exclude fiddle. Instrumentally, fiddle gives any band a wider range. Four of the five sing (Greg Spatz either sings like a bullfrog or is indispensable as fiddle player—I can accept either) and can emulate chord organ to lonesome whistle, depending on song. And they can sing and play anything bluegrass or country. And do. They may make it sound easy (the really good ones do), but it isn't. Credit the combination of individuals for all of this, for it is obvious that they share more than just the music. You hear it in the music, but it is something much deeper. I think of them as the epitome of the word, group. All for one and one for all. Like Momma's kiss on a boo-boo, these guys just make it all better.

 

One thing I've noticed over the years is that when people pick and sing as well as The Jaybirds, the only thing left is the material. More than one album has been submarined by what I would consider poor choice of songs. Well, you can rest your head on that issue because they chose an exceptional group of traditional and early bluegrass classics and added outstanding original songs to complement. Songs like Bill Monroe's “The First Whippoorwill,” still a vocal bluegrass standard after all these years, and Hazel Dickens' (with Foster and Marash) “Gabriel's Call” which The Jaybirds give a super Chuckwagon Gang bent. Throw in the traditional “Goin' Across the Sea” with its solid mountain/folk mix along with a Jaybird arrangement of “Last Chance” and you've covered the old. The new? It's loaded—from Trisha Gagnon's old-timey original “Hurry Up and Harvest” and emotionally gut-wrenching take on the personal side of the Chinese railroad workers and their sacrifices to make The Canadian Railway happen {“Gold Mountain(Gam Saan)”} to Greg Spatz's Irish/Scottish-sounding fiddle-based “Lancaster Sound” to Nick Hornbuckle's “The Black Road” to Reischman's beautiful ballad “The Cypress Hills.” These songs were chosen for a reason, my friends, and are worthy of works done by my favorite bands of the genre—The Seldom Scene, Hot Rize and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.

 

That covers the music part, though hearing the music is so much better than my war with words. But get this. Trisha Gagnon, that wonderful female voice which helps separate The Jaybirds from the pack, makes jam. That's right. Jam! Raspberry, I think, and if she is as good at the preparation and canning as she is at playing bass and singing, it has to be some of the best you'll ever have. And she sells it at gigs! You know what? If I am ever lucky enough to see The Jaybirds live, I'm heading to the merchandise table to pick up a jar or two. If it is as good as I think it will be, I'll be ordering more. In the meantime, I have some older Jaybirds albums to peruse and a Tony Rice Unit album stashed somewhere to find and hear again. This is what is called a full circle. From the Unit to the Unit, with a hell of a lot of great music in between.