I usually really dislike greatest hits albums, I don’t know why, maybe I don’t like somebody deciding for me what a band’s best work is, maybe my taste runs counter to the general public, maybe I’m just disagreeable, who knows… Anyway, a few years ago when I heard the New Grass Revival had a greatest hits album coming out I wasn’t overly excited, after all, I had made my own “Greatest Hits” mix for the New Grass Revival on my IPOD and I listened to it frequently already, I certainly didn’t need some record company making me another one. Not to mention the fact that there were already two greatest hits albums released for them by Liberty records. Did the world actually need another one?NGR sometime around 1974 (Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch, Sam Bush, John Cowan- photo taken from an interview with Sam Bush at Mandolin Cafe http://www.mandolincafe.com/news/publish/mandolins_001202.shtml)
I first heard of New Grass Revival sometime around 1980, by then they had already recorded 5 albums, had at least two band member changes, and were either loved or hated by bluegrass festival goers at the time. Why were they hated? At that time bluegrass festivals mostly had bands that came onto the stage wearing matching outfits- mostly suits, matching cowboy hats, short and well kept hair and a generally “squeaky clean” demeanor. New Grass Revival….. well they didn’t exactly look the part of a bluegrass band, and they didn’t exactly sound like a bluegrass band, and they certainly didn’t act like one either. Sporting long hair, wearing shorts, sandals, and tee shirts and plugging in their instruments to amplifiers, electric tuners and electric guitar effects didn’t endear them to most festival goers of the 1970s and early 1980s. At times when they would take the stage, more traditional minded attendees would get up and leave the stage area to go find someone in the parking lots to pick a few songs with- that was fine with the other festival goers who chose that time to come in from the parking lot where they’d gone when the traditional bands were playing. Once the band started playing though, those brave enough to stick around were treated to some of the best, most spirited and technically exciting music of the day. These guys had deep traditional roots, they knew the music and had lived their lives immersed in it, they had just decided to spread their musical wings a bit and see where the winds would take them. Those who gave them a chance were very often won over and became fans- it is rumored that even Bill Monroe himself was a fan!
I saw them live for the first time at what amounted to a private concert in 1981- it wasn’t actually a private concert, it was just in such a small club that it seemed that way. My chair was literally about three feet from the band and when they decided to take a break, they had to wait for people to get out of the way so they could leave the stage area. Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn had just joined the band and they were still working out what they wanted to play on some of the songs and it was a fantastic glimpse into the way they were thinking and working things out together. The venue was a small restaurant/bar in Roanoke called Howard’s Soup Kitchen, I wouldn’t go looking for it the next time your’re there, it’s most likely long gone by now because it was barely there to start with. I saw them a few other times over the years but none of those times were as great as that first one. There’s something about sitting within an arms length of musical genius’ that is really powerful.
Some years later the band broke up, as many great bands eventually do, and the players have gone their separate ways to make new and different music and to pursue other interests. They had recorded nine albums under their own name, recorded two as Leon Russel’s backup band, one as Peter Rowan’s backup band and two of them had released solo albums during their time together. So when Capitol Records decided to release a Greatest Hits collection in 2005, there was a lot of material to consider and judging by what they included, I think they actually did consider it. Remember back at the beginning of this where I said “I usually really dislike greatest hits albums”? THIS one is the exception. Capitol did a fantastic job not only selecting 35 great songs (on two CDs) but they also included live versions, demo tape versions and things that have probably not seen the light of day since they were recorded.
I was delighted to see that Pulaski County’s own Butch Robins was included on three songs in this compilation. Butch was in the band for a short time playing bass and also did some banjo work along with Courtney Johnson, the regular banjo player. (Butch and Courtney are two of my favorite banjo players!) Also on the album are the constants- Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals, John Cowan on bass and vocals; as well as Curtis Burch on guitar, dobro and vocals, Ebo Walker on bass, Pat Flynn on guitar and vocals and Bela Fleck on banjo, guitar and vocals.
Some highlights of the collection are:
Vamp in the Middle– a song by the great John Hartford. I don’t know if I like this version of the song or John’s the best, it’s a tossup. The combination of the percussion and banjo tracks on this version always makes me think of those little wooden limberjack dolls that were a big part of Appalachian childhood. I like to think of it as the percussion track being the board and the banjo track is the little man (really, I do!).
Sapporo– I love a long song and this one is certainly that. Weighing in at 8 minutes 10 seconds, this song gives the guys plenty of time to explore whatever musical ideas come into their heads. They keep it interesting and know just when to stop.
Doin’ My Time– this is the only recording where you can hear Butch and Courtney both playing banjo together- Butch came up with the arrangement of the song and wrote the harmony banjo part you hear on the cut. Butch is also playing bass on this one. It’s great to hear two banjo visionaries playing together on a song that is loose enough to let them experiment and arranged interestingly enough to keep it fresh.
When the Storm is Over– this is a live version of one of my favorite NGR songs, this was taken from 1983 a show they did for Austin City Limits. I always love to hear this song and hearing it live makes it all the better for me.
White Freightliner Blues– Taken from a 1984 concert in Toulouse France, it features a smoking guitar solo by Pat Flynn and a great banjo solo by Bela Fleck.
So give this collection a listen, it’s a great snapshot of their 1971-1989 musical adventure. I don’t think you will be disappointed!
Grass Roots: the best of New Grass Revival
Recordings-CDs – Level 4 – M1630.18.N49 N49 2005