february 2009

Emphasis On The Harmony

By David McGee

Crowe Brothers
Rural Rhythm

Sometimes a record sneaks up on you, arriving so modestly it barely calls attention to itself. No bio or fancy press kit accompanies it to sing of the disc's virtues. The packaging is in somber, autumnal colors, the two artists depicted on the cover photo aren't even shot in close up, and in fact are dressed in dark colors as if they're part of the ramshackle house they're pictured in. Finally you get around to listening to it, literally months later, because so many other releases had ways of commanding your attention before this one.

And then you are blown away by what you hear and kick yourself for letting it lay in waiting for so long, because the word should have gone out so much sooner: released this past September, the Crowe Brothers' Brothers -N- Harmony is a bluegrass masterpiece, easily as good as or better than anything the genre produced in 2008. Really. North Carolinians Josh and Wayne Crowe, with production handled by Josh and the brothers' multi-instrumentalist bandmate Steve Thomas, seem to have been teleported to some musical Twilight Zone where it found its songs, energy and ambiance. It should be 1955 now, and this record should have a big, striking cover, the kind of insightful liner notes an uncredited Chick Crumpacker wrote for Elvis's second RCA album, and been issued on a heavy 12-inch vinyl disc reeking of its petroleum base. How do they manage to sound so old and yet so new and fresh at the same time?

The Crowe Brothers, Josh (left) and Wayne, kickin' back: progenitors of a bluegrass masterpiece

Thematically the material is standard bluegrass fare: songs of love (right off the bat, with the album opening beauty, "Cindy Mae," from the pen of the Pine Mountain Band's Cody Shuler), songs of heartbreak (the country flavored, twin-fiddle-fired "Holdin' On When You've Let Go," by Dixie Hall and Eric Gibson), songs of adultery (the western swing gem, "Which One Is To Blame"), songs of faith (the briskly paced jubilation that is "I Know I'm Saved"), and some rambunctious, genre-skirting bluegrass (Don Reno's barnburning "Country Boy Rock & Roll," which kicks hard like the best vintage rock & roll, with Josh sounding remarkably like Ronnie Dunn on his frenzied vocal and Darren Nicholson cutting out on a white-hot mandolin assault that threatens to short out the CD player).

In addition to handling rhythm and lead guitar, lead and tenor vocals, Josh Crowe contributes two fine original songs to the mix: the happy-go-lucky "Million For a Broken Heart," sung from the unusual vantagepoint of a marriage's collapse, leaving behind not bitterness but gratitude for enduring good memories—feelings tempered by the catchy chorus, "I wouldn't take a million for a broken heart/I just wouldn't want another." Buck White's honky tonk piano and Randy Kohrs's personable dobro lines, plus a nifty fiddle outro by Steve Thomas, enhance the old-timey atmosphere of this oddly upbeat reflection. Even better is his bluegrass gospel number, "Take Me By The Hand," a man's plea for providential guidance on earth in advance of his arriving in the promised land. Josh takes a tasty lead guitar solo and Darren Nicholson has a striking turn on mandolin but the song gets its power from the cascading, piercing, Louvins-like harmonies of Josh on high tenor and brother Wayne right under him.

In the end, it's Josh and Wayne's voices—together and apart—that sear the memory. No wonder Charlie Louvin contributes liner notes—the Crowes channel Charlie and Ira (and the Wilburns, but to a lesser degree) as if they've got Louvin blood running in their veins. It's positively eerie. The vocal blend on Charlie and Ira's classic of suspicion and insecurity, "Are You Teasin' Me," is a wonder in its own right, with Josh crying a high tenor harmony that lacerates like Ira's when it blends with Wayne's low tenor. Which should not be taken to mean that the Crowes merely imitate their principal influences. Both men are strong, distinctive lead singers with their own styles, and their harmonizing is nothing short of exquisite. When you hear the blends and the interplay of voices on the driving gospel tune referenced above, "I Know I'm Saved," and the keening, heartrending harmonies animating the importunate sentiments of the melancholy waltz, "Go Away With Me," you're listening to something divinely inspired and utterly timeless. That's Brothers -N- Harmony. As W.C. Fields would say, don't be a luddyduddy, a mooncalf or a jabbernow. Check this out. Now. There's no time to waste.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024