Don Rigsby - Facing the music
The first song on Don Rigsby's new solo album, The Midnight Call, describes a man who goes looking for his girlfriend only to find her lying dead on a hospital table. In the second song, a man gets a phone call from his dead mother. The third takes place in a divorce court; the fourth is a dying man's confession to his wife that he long ago murdered her brother and then asked her to wash the bloody clothes. The fifth concerns a man trying to drink himself into oblivion after his woman has gone. The sixth remembers a West Virginia flood that destroyed every town in its path. This is not your typical modern bluegrass album. Like mainstream country, its first cousin, today's bluegrass music often tries to reassure its increasingly suburban audience that everything's going to be OK. Uptempo, upbeat numbers congratulate the audience for both genres on being superior to those sinful urbanites and lazy locals; even the sentimental sad songs promise that good intentions are the solution to every problem. The music describes a morally rational universe where good is always rewarded and evil is always punished. It's a comforting message, but it has the disadvantage of being disconnected from reality. All you have to do is read the newspapers or study your neighbors to find countless examples of good being punished and evil being rewarded -- at least in this world. This is unwelcome news, and it's not easy to get audiences to listen. But if you're skillful enough to grab their attention, you allow them to recognize their own reality in the songs -- and music provides no greater thrill than that. Don Rigsby isn't the only person in bluegrass and country to buck the dominant trend, but few artists deliver realism as thrillingly as Rigsby does on The Midnight Call or on Rock Solid, the new album from his quintet Rock County. For he matches his subject matter with instrumental arrangements that heighten tension rather than subduing it, and with a strong tenor voice that confronts problems without flinching or whining. Rigsby's albums may seem out of step with contemporary bluegrass, but their content would have been normal fare had they been released in 1953. In that classic era, figures such as Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, Jimmy Martin and Lester Flatt wrote and sang about poverty, divorce and death without feeling the need to slap on a happy ending. In the intervening 50 years, expectations changed and something valuable was lost. Rigsby is out to reclaim that. "Life is messy sometimes, and I'm not afraid to sing about that," he says. "I've never shied from singing about that, even in my days with the Bluegrass Cardinals, J.D. Crowe, and the Lonesome River Band. My biggest influence has been Ralph Stanley, and he sings about 'Pretty Polly' and 'Little Maggie'. Those weren't happy people, but that's just the way things are. I sing some happy songs, but I can't sing about happy things all the time. I've always kind of been a realist, and if you look around the world and identify with people, you can't help but feel their troubles. "I grew up in East Kentucky, which is practically next door to the Virginia mountains where the Stanley Brothers grew up. When Carter wrote 'How I Long To See The Old Folks', he talks about a brook running through the old plantation and about graves on the hillside. You can almost see it, because he's describing places from his youth that truly affected him as a boy. I saw similar things as a boy, and they affected me the same way. I came by this music honestly, and I can no more lay it down than I can cut off one of my limbs." Authenticity, though, is not the issue here. Rigsby didn't write any of the material on his new solo album, nor did he share the characters' experiences. He doesn't drink; he's hasn't been divorced; he's never murdered anyone; his parents are both alive. But that doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter that Gillian Welch was never a moonshiner and that Johnny Cash was never an inmate at Folsom Prison. All that matters is the singer's ability to convince us of the story and the feeling behind it. This Rigsby does brilliantly. "These are true-to-life songs," he insists. "Someone has been there; maybe not me, but someone. Look around you, and you'll see what I mean." Listen, for example, to "Carved Our Names In Stone", written by Bobby Cyrus for Rigsby's new solo disc. Over Jim Hurst's pretty guitar arpeggios, Rigsby sings sweetly of being 10 and carving his sweetheart's name in a beech tree. This sounds like a million modern bluegrass songs, but the mood shifts sharply in the second verse. Stuart Duncan's fiddle adds an ominous drone as Rigsby reveals that he's facing the same girl, 20 years later, in a divorce court. As his voice goes from wistful to pinched, you can't help but believe Rigsby is telling his own story -- even if he isn't. No Music Row happy ending will save this couple; they are doomed to go their separate ways. We realize this as the contrast grows between Rigsby's high, hopeful mandolin trills and Duncan's fiddle, which drops out of harmony and sinks vertiginously into a despairing counterpoint. Rigsby's tenor tries to bridge this gap, but as it stretches further and further, it sounds more and more anguished. That same anguish can be heard in "Dying To Hold Her Again", a Jerry Salley/Joanne Keller honky-tonk ballad refitted for a string band. This time Rigsby tells the story of a recent widower who tries to drown his sorrow in whiskey. The portraits of the man stumbling into work with liquor on his breath and later lying drunk on the kitchen linoleum are not pretty. Nothing in the lyrics or the vocal offers any hope that this man can be consoled, but neither does anything condemn him. Instead, Rigsby seems to stand back in awe of a sorrow so profound that it could cause such destruction. In his effort to understand, his voice squeezes certain syllables, twisting them into blue notes as surely as Randy Kohrs' dobro does. For the blues are the secret ingredient in this album. Rigsby hints at this by beginning the disc with "Those Gambler's Blues", Jimmie Rodgers' variant on the New Orleans standard "St. James Infirmary". Just as Rodgers did, Rigsby belts out this tale of gambling and death with gusto, flatting certain notes to reveal the pain behind the bravado. When Bill Monroe was creating bluegrass in the early '40s, a large part of his inspiration came from an African-American songster named Arnold Schultz, and it was the rhythmic drive and moaning vocals of the blues that separated Monroe's invention from his old-time string-band predecessors. The blues are often submerged in modern bluegrass, but when they resurface -- as they do so effectively in the Del McCoury Band and the Nashville Bluegrass Band -- they reconnect the music to its most powerful currents. "Bluegrass has roots just like anything else," Rigsby says, "and blues are a big part of where bluegrass came from. My next two records will be a gospel record and an acoustic-blues record, and [Bowling Green John] Cephas & [Harmonica Phil] Wiggins will be on the blues record. I brought Cephas & Wiggins out to Morehead State, where I teach, for a workshop on the parallels between the Piedmont blues and Appalachian music. The parallels were so obvious and I got to be such friends with them that I knew I had to make a record with them." Where does that ache in Rigsby's voice come from? Well, in 1971, when Don was only 3, his father Bill was a surveyor on the crew that was building Interstate 64 through the mountains of East Kentucky. A vibratory roller, a piece of heavy equipment with liquid in its wheels, was flattening and packing the road foundation. The driver didn't see Bill; Bill didn't see the driver. The roller knocked him down, crushed his legs and broke his pelvis into seven pieces. "At first they told us that he probably wouldn't live, but he did," Rigsby remembers. "They told us he wouldn't walk, but he does. He lay in the hospital for 14 days, but he came home and 45 days later he was standing up. And the whole time, Dad didn't pray for himself; he prayed for his family. The government tried to deny his Social Security benefits and sent him to a doctor. But the doctor said, 'They're out of their mind; your leg is about to fall off. But I'm going to do my best to restore your leg.' Dad did walk, but he was never able to hold a regular job again. "It was really hard. My poor old mother, bless her heart, couldn't get any help. We had food, because we had a big garden, a milk cow and some hogs. Social Services would give her food stamps, and she'd say, 'We don't need food stamps; we've got food. We need medical help.' She took in laundry; she churned the milk into butter and sold that." At this point, there's a choked-off sob at the other end of the phone line. "I'm sorry," Rigsby eventually says; "it's still hard to talk about this. My mom finally went to work for the Post Office. So in a way, the government did take care of the family. She bought a grocery store, too. She'd be there at 4:30 in the morning to fix lunches for the coal miners. She'd work till 8 in the evening without any rest, and it broke her health, and now she's in as bad shape as my dad. And yet I consider myself lucky to still have my parents." Don has had health problems himself in recent years. The new solo disc comes with a note saying it was delayed a year "due to health and scheduling." He explains: "I was on my way home from a session in Nashville last year when I pulled over to a gas station to get some food. I started feeling some numbness in my right leg, but I laid it off to my chronic back problems. I got back in my vehicle heading east on I-64 and before I reached the next exit, the numbness had spread into my back, my arm, my neck, my head, and then it got into the left side of my body. I thought I was having a stroke. I was terrified, because a 34-year-old man doesn't expect to have a stroke." It wasn't a stroke, but the doctors couldn't figure out what it was. Meanwhile, Rigsby had three more attacks. Finally a neurologist in Lexington diagnosed the condition as complex migraine headaches, so severe that they mimic a stroke. With the right medication, it now seems to be under control, and Rigsby has returned to a regular schedule. But the episode was one more reminder of how little we can take for granted in this life. And it was one more reason to be wary of I-64. Bill Rigsby was a huge Stanley Brothers fan, so on Don's sixth birthday, February 18, 1974, the father took his son to see Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys perform at the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, Kentucky. The lead singer was Keith Whitley, who had grown up in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, just seven miles from the Rigsbys' hometown of Isonville. Keith knew Bill, so he came out to the seats before the show, picked up the birthday boy in his arms, and carried him backstage to meet Ralph. "I was hooked," Don remembers. "I already loved the music; I was already singing 'Little Maggie'. But this made it seem that much more real and exciting. My dad bought me one of Ralph's tapes that day, Something Old, Something New Or Some Of Katie's Mountain Dew on Rebel. Ricky [Skaggs] and Keith were both on it, and I listened to that tape till it wore out. "After Ralph, Ricky became my biggest influence. I wanted to play mandolin and sing just like he did. One time I made it my goal to collect every record he's played on, but I didn't have enough money, so I stopped at 150. I got the last Mandocaster made by the guy who made Ricky's. In high school and college, I made it my goal was to do Lou Reid's job, being the utility guy in Ricky's band. But I could never get the hang of the banjo. At one point I realized I had to let it go if I were ever to have my own musical personality. Imitation is suicide, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said." Before and after Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs became Clinch Mountain Boys, they had a local band called the Lonesome Mountain Boys with Keith's brother Dwight. The group performed on local radio for years, and the Whitley family still has the tapes of those shows. Dwight and Ricky asked Rigsby to restore the tapes and edit them down to a single disc to be released by Sugar Hill next year. "To get that vote of confidence from Ricky and Dwight means the world to me," Rigsby gushes. "They recorded those shows in Sandy Hook, just seven miles from my house." Don's other big influence was his brother Ron, older by nine years. When Don was still in grade school, Ron was a teenage hotshot, already one of the best banjo pickers in the region. But like so many others, Ron put the music aside when he got married and had children. It was only after he had established a successful construction business that he returned to bluegrass, recording the 1999 album Banjo On The Run with help from his baby brother. Ron recently finished a second album, once again with Don's help, that he is shopping to different labels. "As a young boy, my brother played and was good at it," Don says, "and my dad gave him most of the attention, because my dad loved the music. I was jealous, so I decided I had to play catch-up. And I did. The fact that my brother seemed so troubled when he quit stayed with me. I knew if I took up this music seriously, I would never be satisfied if I ever lay it down." By 1987, Rigsby was enrolled at Morehead State University in Kentucky, struggling to pay his tuition and to pass his classes in journalism. To manage the former, he joined Charlie Sizemore's bluegrass band in the fall of '87 and stayed for two years. When he graduated in May 1990, he moved to Nashville and joined Vern Gosdin's road band. But that lasted just six months, and he couldn't land another job, nor could he make friends with his suburban neighbors. So he slunk back home to Isonville, moved in with his parents and got a day job. Just when things seemed bleakest, though, he got a call from David Parmley that the Bluegrass Cardinals were looking for a tenor singer. "I said, 'Oh boy!' and drove straight to Virginia for the audition," Rigsby recounts. "They had some of the best harmony singing in the history of the music. That's where I learned trio part singing, because they're real taskmasters about getting it right. I have to give credit where it's due. Likewise, I learned about timing from J.D. Crowe. I thought I had good timing, but J.D. straightened me out. Jimmy Martin taught him timing, and J.D. taught me." Rigsby spent two years with the Bluegrass Cardinals, 1991-93, and two years with J.D. Crowe & the New South, 1993-95. He appeared on David Parmley's 1993 solo album Southern Heritage, and on Crowe's Grammy-nominated 1994 disc Flashback. Rigsby was making a reputation for himself, but like most bluegrass sidemen, he wasn't making much money. In the meantime, Tim Austin kept asking Rigsby to join the Lonesome River Band. "I turned them down three times before I took that gig," Rigsby confesses, "but I had good reasons each time. The first time I dropped out of college and moved to Roanoke to join the band, but I realized I was too young to leave home yet, so I went back to school. The second two times it was to replace Dan Tyminski, but you can't replace Dan; he's irreplaceable. But the fourth time, Dan had already been replaced by somebody else, so when Tim called and asked, 'Do you know anyone who would do this job?' I said, 'Yes, you're talking to him.'" Tim said, 'Are you sure? You're not going to do me like before, are you?' 'No,' I said, 'this time I'm sure.' "Still it was a tough thing to leave J.D.," Rigsby admits, "because I love him to this day. It's like leaving your daddy. Yet I had less trouble quitting that band than I've had with any other band I've left, because he was so professional about it. I even rode to a Lonesome River Band gig on his bus. He knows that sidemen come and go. If they do a good job and give two weeks notice, what more can you ask of them? "J.D. was at a point where he didn't want to work that much. With a wife at home, I needed to work more. The Lonesome River Band was all younger guys who were all serious about making some money as far as getting out there and hustling." Rigsby spent six years with the LRB and appeared on three of their best-selling albums: 1996's One Step Forward, 1998's Finding The Way, and 2000's Talkin' To Myself. The basic quartet of Rigsby, bassist Bowman, banjoist Sammy Shelor and guitarist Kenny Smith remained intact during those six years, honing a sound that was marked by Smith's single-note leads and the tension between Rigsby's high, lonesome voice and Bowman's smoother tenor. "My contribution to the sound was I took it back to more of a traditional, mountainy sound," Rigsby says. "Ronnie and I were a unique blend, because he's more newgrass and country, while I'm more mountainy. But chefs do it all the time, putting two unlikely ingredients together to make a new dish. Once again sodium and chloride make salt." If one was singing lead, the other was singing close harmony, and the push-and-pull between past and present, between gritty realism and romantic hope, gave the music much of its drama. The voices work so well together that they have continued to sing on each other's solo records since leaving the LRB. Rigsby left in the fall of 2001; his departure set off a chain reaction that saw Bowman, Smith and fiddler Rickie Simpkins all depart in the next few months. This put the group firmly in the hands of Sammy Shelor. "My vision was to get back to the sound that got the Lonesome River Band into the bluegrass mainstream in the first place," Shelor told me last year. "That was the Carrying The Tradition album. That album had an energy that appealed to younger people and traditional songs that appealed to older people. As the years went on, we got away from that style, [that] traditional bluegrass sound delivered with rock 'n' roll power, with the instruments locked in so tight they create a wall of sound. I knew I could recapture that sound if I found people who have the same feel for the music." With an infant daughter, Rigsby wanted to cut back on his touring after he left the Lonesome River Band. He landed a job that same fall as the first-ever full-time director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, just 15 months after the program began at Morehead State University. As an alumnus with a long list of bluegrass recording credits, he was a natural choice. This semester he teaches a Tuesday-night course on Traditional Vocal Harmony, but he spends most of his time organizing special events for both high school and college students, using his connections to bring in guests such as J.D. Crowe and James King. "Now I feel I have another mission in life," he says, "and that's to help people learn more about this music. When I went to school there, bluegrass was frowned on by the academics. We'd go to the music department to use a practice room, and they'd run us off. It's heartening to see that people are now willing to accept these Appalachian traditions that I grew up with. Maybe there's some substance there after all. Instead of people trying to break us and rid us of these awful things, they're embracing them." Even with a new academic job and a flourishing solo career, Rigsby is still a member of four other acts, signed to three different labels: Longview, the Stanley Tradition, Rock County, and a duo with Dudley Connell. Longview got its start at the 1994 Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Family Style Bluegrass Festival in Denton, North Carolina, when Rounder Records' Ken Irwin suggested that Rigsby and Connell sing Stanleys-style high-baritone harmonies behind James King. "The high baritone was a style the Stanley Brothers explored when they were with Columbia Records in the late '40s and early '50s," Connell told me in 1999. "Pee Wee Lambert sang the high baritone above Ralph, who was above Carter who was singing lead. The way they did it had a very spooky sound. Many of their most famous songs were done in that style. In Longview, Don sings Pee Wee's part, I sing Ralph's part, and James sings Carter's part. A lot of folks haven't heard that kind of soulful, mountain wailing kind of singing, and when they do it touches them in some way." Rigsby remembers their initial performance. "When we sang 'The Angels Are Singing In Heaven Tonight' that way with James, the place went wild. I said, 'Ken, we need to make a record of that.' He gave me the OK, and I pretty much handpicked everyone after that. I wanted Joe Mullins to play banjo, and Joe recommended Glen Duncan on fiddle. I had to have Marshall Wilborn on bass, because he sounded so great with Dudley in the Johnson Mountain Boys. Ken wanted to record the first album at the Longview Farms Studio, a big Massachusetts farmhouse converted to a studio. So we named the group after that." Longview has released three impressive albums: 1997's Longview, 1999's High Lonesome and 2002's Lessons In Stone. They rarely play onstage, because assembling all six at once is a scheduling nightmare. When I saw them in Maryland in 2000, they lived up to the legend. Rigsby, smiling broadly behind a red goatee, kicked off the show with a bluesy reading of "Hemlocks And Primroses". He turned over the lead to Connell for the trad-grass numbers and to King for the honky-tonk-flavored songs. But it was when the three of them stacked their trio harmonies on songs such as "The Touch Of God's Hand" or "Lonesome Old Hand" that the effect was dizzying. Connell and Mullins recently left the group, but Longview continues with Lou Reid in Connell's slot while they search for a permanent banjoist. The new lineup plans to go into the studio this winter for a fourth album, to be released next spring. During their downtime on the original Longview sessions, Rigsby and Connell would sit around the old farmhouse singing Appalachian brother duets. They enjoyed it so much that they have released two duo albums in that vein -- 1999's Meet Me By The Moonlight and 2001's Another Saturday Night. They have done some limited touring and plan to record a third duo album in 2004. "That was pretty scary for me, because I've never been onstage with so few pieces," Connell confessed in 1999. "I'm used to a full band where there are a lot of places to hide, and with just two pieces behind you, there's no place to hide. But what scared me at first was what I got to like the most. If you do something wrong, there's no place to hide, but if you do something right, it's right there and it comes through real clear." The duo with Connell wasn't the only new partnership Rigsby formed through Longview. "Rock County grew out of my need to make more music together with Glen Duncan," Rigsby explains. "He's been with Jim & Jesse, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Larry Sparks, and if you asked people to name their top five fiddlers, he'd come up on everybody's list. I wanted a group that was more traditional than the Lonesome River Band, one with an upright bass. Plus I was only a sideman in the LRB; I wanted a band where I had more say-so." Joining Rigsby and Duncan in Rock County was bassist Robin Smith. Dale Vanderpool, who played banjo on the band's self-titled debut last year, is replaced by Scott Vestal on this year's Rock Solid. Ray Craft, who sang and played guitar on both albums, has recently been replaced by Keith Tew, a guitarist who has performed with Vassar Clements and Rhonda Vincent. The new disc mixes older material recorded by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley with newer songs by such alt-country writers as Kieran Kane, Harley Allen and Stacey Earle. "I always want to be part of a traditional bluegrass band that can go out and play," Rigsby says. "Rock County may not be quite as traditional as Longview, but it's close. We're not going to use a dobro or percussion on a Rock County record, because if we can't cover it onstage, it's not going to get done. By contrast, if I want to use a piano or a cello on a solo record, I will. If I hear a song that I might like to record, I ask myself, 'Is this a song that would sound good with a traditional bluegrass band or does it need something else? Should the emphasis be on the ensemble or the lead vocal?' That's how I decide if it's a Rock County song or a Don Rigsby song." In addition to his teaching and all these projects, Rigsby is also producing Larry Sparks' 40th anniversary album and a new record for Josh Williams. Rigsby's finest work, however, is on his solo albums. The first was 1998's all-gospel effort, A Vision, but it was his second solo disc, 2000's Empty Old Mailbox, that let listeners know Rigsby was much more than just another Stanley revivalist. Here was an album where the emphasis was not on flashy picking or mountain harmonies, but on a featured singer interpreting strong contemporary songs by such Nashville writers as Tom T. Hall, Carl Jackson, John Hartford, Monty Powell and Paul Craft, all of whom had ties to both bluegrass and mainstream country. Though Rigsby has a very different voice, the approach is not unlike that of Alison Krauss on her solo albums. And that methodology pays off on this year's The Midnight Call, which features even better singing on even better material by Hall, Jackson, Larry Shell, Larry Cordle and others. "The one thing that holds all these projects together," Rigsby asserts, "is I'm a mountain singer. Everything I sing is going to sound like the mountains. Right now, I'm sitting here at my house in Isonville, and when I look out my window I see a mountain. "In 35 years, I've seen a lot of rough things in a lot of rough places. When I was 16, my dad and I went to Pikeville, Kentucky, to see Ralph Stanley and Dave Evans, and I saw a bootlegger get shot to death in the nightclub. This man was foolish enough to bring a knife to a gunfight. This is rough country, people carry guns and aren't afraid to use them. You don't have to be afraid of being shot in the back, though, because most people will face you. That's how I am with my music. I'm not going to sneak around the world's troubles; I'm going to face them." Contributing editor Geoffrey Himes wrote a cover story on the Lonesome River Band for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine last year.