Now that angel-voiced, fiddle-playing Alison Krauss is a country star, bluegrass—a clear, cool spring that normally flows outside Nashville’s mainstream—is reaching its high-water mark. Two of its leading practitioners, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Brother Boys (both on Sugar Hill) have just made first-rate albums.
The Nashville Bluegrass Band, five kinda cornfed-lookin’ guys who have been together since the 1980s, sports tight harmonies, the blazing bow of Krauss’s fiddling idol Stuart Duncan (listen as Duncan summons the flames of hell on “Boll Weevil”) and the burnished mandolin of Roland White, whose storied career in blue-grass winds back to the 1950s. The NBB balances a repertoire of old chestnuts and fresh pop tunes by Nashville’s glut of talented young songwriters. The band has a subspecialty too: gospel singing, a bluegrass tradition the NBB nobly extends here, harmonizing with the great gospel group the Fairfield Four on “Last Month of the Year.”
The six-member, Johnson City, Tenn.-based Brother Boys love tradition too but bend it to fit their own neo-countercultural vision. They sound like hillbillies whose moonshine got spiked with acid. “This is the ’90s, not ’35,” they sing—regretfully, perhaps, but hanging tough, one eye nostalgically on the past, the other quizzically taking stock of the present. We get an up-tempo remake of Bill Monroe’s doleful “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and a smooth cover of Patsy Cline’s “Strange,” but best is an original, “What’s the Calling For,” which uncannily evokes the messianic fervor of the early Grateful Dead. The Boys won’t make it on looks—frontmen Ed Snodderly and Eugene Wolf are two of the scraggliest-looking middle-aged hombres ever to pose for an album cover (the back cover, mercifully)—but their music’s as pretty as can be. Like the NBB, the Brother Boys are a home-cooked alternative to the TV dinners of Top 40 country.