Album Review

Various Artists - A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, "The King of Bluegrass"

Various Artists - A Tribute To Jimmy Martin, "The King Of Bluegrass"

There are quite a few former members of Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys around, and while many of them would politely decline the opportunity to rejoin the band, even more are willing to defend the cantankerous but prodigiously gifted singer-guitarist's claim to his "King of Bluegrass" title. But only erstwhile Martin mandolinist Audie Blaylock has actually taken the bull by the horns to make the case musically, and he's done a sterling job. The nature of the recording process might have given the project a slightly schizophrenic flavor: One day's session had Martin alumnus Kenny Ingram (banjo) and top-notch mandolin player Jesse Brock on tap, whereas late '50s bandmates J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams handled those instruments the rest of the time, as well as harmony vocals for both sets of tracks. But thanks to the devotion of the musicians to the Martin sound, only the credits betray the difference. Blaylock plays guitar throughout and sings most of the leads (Williams tackles the remainder). Together with producer Ben Isaacs of bluegrass gospel sensations the Isaacs, he recruited award-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland, bassist Jason Moore (Mountain Heart) and, fittingly, snare drummer Harry Stinson (though purists may be aghast, drums were regularly present on Martin's classic recordings) to play throughout. He then sprinkled in a couple of harmony vocals by the incomparable Sonya Isaacs, and wisely cut off the guest list after that. The result is a coherent, loving, yet energetic salute that manages to stick close to the original recordings while infusing them with the participants' own distinctive energy. Of special note is the reunion of Crowe and Williams -- the first time they've sung and played together in the studio in more than 30 years -- and the two sound as good together as ever, or maybe even better. It's no substitute for a good dose of Jimmy Martin himself (as these pickers would be the first to tell you), but this tribute has a considerable power all its own.