dailey and vincent

(Photo by Audrey Harrod)

‘Things Get Complicated When You Get Past 18’
by David McGee

Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers
Dailey & Vincent

Once scorned by hoity-toity pop critics for their patriotic and sentimental fare, the Statler Brothers have long had the last laugh—and a hearty one at that. Now, with bluegrass superstars Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent accompanied by a stellar supporting band in a tour de force exhibition of stunning interpretive singing and emotionally riveting musicianship, the Statlers have found a most formidable ally in song. Dailey & Vincent don’t sing the Statler Brothers, though—the title is misleading. They fully inhabit this material, building on touchstones familiar to Statlers fans then bringing their own passion for this material to bear on what are, arguably, the most intense performances the duo has yet put on record. That’s saying something, given D&V’s unstoppable march to the top of the bluegrass world via a pair of much honored straight bluegrass albums and, more recently, a powerful a cappella gospel outing. It’s a close call, too, but both artist’s deep sense of obligation to the Statlers for the influence the latter’s music had on their own artistic aspirations is carried in every remarkably nuanced note they sing here; in the end they’ve worked their way through this album with a sense of purpose almost beyond the ability of mere words to describe. They are so much a part of these songs you might believe you’re actually hearing the Statlers at points—especially when the robust bass voice of Jeff Pearls rumbles through in a dead-on likeness of Harold Reid, whose basso had personality and charisma to burn, almost unmatched in country or gospel history. (Given that Reid sneaks onto D&V’s Brothers From Different Mothers album, in his comedic guise as Lester “Roadhog” Moran, your faithful friend and narrator checked with reliable sources to make sure he hadn’t done the same thing here. He didn’t. It’s Pearls in a bravura bass performance throughout.)

Dailey & Vincent perform the Statler Brothers’ ‘I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You’ at the 2009 MBOTMA Summer Festival

The Statlers were blessed with not one, not two, but three gifted songwriters: Lew DeWitt, who, after succumbing to complications stemming from Crohn’s disease in 1990, was replaced as a singer and songwriter by the formidable Jimmy Fortune; and brothers Harold and Don Reid, the latter being the most prolific of the bunch. Don was responsible, in whole or in part, for five of the dozen songs here; Harold, three songs, in whole or in part; Fortune, three songs, wholly his; Lew, two, in whole or in part; and Gene Pitney wrote the classic Ricky Nelson hit, “Hello, Mary Lou,” which the Brothers did to a bouncy, countrified turn to the tune of a #3 country single in 1985, and is reprised here in toe-tapping bluegrass rendition featuring tasty fiddle, dobro and banjo solos along the way, plus Pearls’s delightful bass leading the vocal charge. Apart from “Flowers On the Wall,” the slyly sarcastic documenting of a man’s desultory, solitary lifestyle that was a #2 country/#4 pop single in 1966 and has since become the Statlers’ cultural signature, thanks to Quentin Tarantino using it in Pulp Fiction and more recent covers by Vic Chesnutt, Eric Heatherly and Johnny Cash (and not least of all to novelist Kurt Vonnegut analyzing the lyrics in Palm Sunday), Dailey & Vincent draw their repertoire from the Statlers’ near-quarter-century on Mercury but focusing on the years 1970-1985. In addition to their own substantial original tunes, the Statlers on record were backed by Nashville’s cream of the crop studio hands and guided by one of the foremost producers in country annals, Jerry Kennedy, who himself was an ace picker who had played on Elvis Presley sessions, among many others. With Kennedy the Statlers made simply awesome records exploring the spiritual and secular lives of heartland America and honoring their native land as well. They limned the great truths in the powerful parade of humanity they observed—how some lives amounted to more than anyone expected, how some disappointed, how most ran a predictable course of triumphs and trials and wound down to precious memories of varying hues of light and dark. Listening to the songs on this disc, and reflecting on others that didn’t make the cut but could constitute the playlists for several more stirring sequels should D&V be so inclined, what comes to mind in attempting to describe exactly what it was that drove the Statlers’ enduring art are the words of the sage of the dying town of Thalia, TX, the pool hall and movie theater owner Sam the Lion, as realized in fiction by Larry McMurtry in The Last Picture Show and in the film version by the towering Ben Johnson (the town’s name was changed to Anarene in the film). Both the book and movie versions contain a beautifully crafted scene of Sam at the fishing tank with teenage Sonny (played in the movie by Timothy Bottoms), then approaching his high school graduation and uncertain of his future. As they sit together passing the time and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, Sam remembers back to his own youth, when he used to bring a wildcat young gal out to the tank to go swimming “without no bathin’ suits.

“It’s been right at fifty years since the first time I watered a horse at this tank,” Sam continues. “Reason I always drag you all out here probably—I’m just as sentimental as the next feller when it comes to old times.”

Asked why he never married the lady, Sam said she was already married. “She and her husband were young and miserable with one another, but so many young folks are that way that I figured they’d work it out in time. I thought they’d get comfortable when they got a little bit older, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

At the end of the scene, Sam, his voice heavy with an odd mixture of regret and hope, adds in a poignant postscript: “If she was here now I’d probably be crazy agin in about five minutes. Ain’t that ridiculous?

“It ain’t really,” he answered himself. “Being crazy about a woman like her’s always the right thing to do. Being a decrepit old bag of bones is what’s ridiculous.”

Sam’s monologue from The Last Picture Show: Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) at the fishing tank

In a real sense the animating impulse of the Statlers’ music was contained in a single telling lyric Don and Harold Reid penned in their bittersweet retrospective of a generation’s strivings, “Class of ’57,” namely, “Things get complicated when you get past 18.” That’s about the dividing line, too—the Statlers spent little time on teen follies (a notable exception being the case of a homeless young man who is ignored by the churchgoing townsfolk but taken in and taught the facts of life, in and out of bed, by a prostitute in Harold’s elegantly subtle and heart-tugging torching of small-town hypocrisy in “Bed of Roses”), preferring instead to devote a good deal of reflective, adult thought on memories both sweet and regretful relating to friends, family and the vanishing America of their days: a yearning for the larger-than-life heroes of yore, in the absence of any in the present, was acutely expressed in the irresistibly brisk “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?,” and that was in 1973! “Randolph Scott” is not on this album, but it fits our time and our flawed icons as well as it did in its own day. And like so many Statlers’ songs, it had a sly dichotomy, being both a lament for vanished heroes and a thinly disguised critique of a fetid moral climate arising in those heroes’ absence. When it came to love, they knew that being crazy about a certain kind of woman was always the right thing to do; when it came to time, they understood that being a decrepit old bag of bones is what’s ridiculous. So they savored the good in their journey, pretty much like most people do, and left others to worry about sentimentality.

None of this is news to Dailey and Vincent. The warm harmonies of “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine”; the delightful Bob Wills-style fiddles decorating “Class of ’57”; the impeccable four-part gospel harmonizing on the only non-hit on the disc, Don’s “The Brave Apostles Twelve”; the plaintive harmonizing and Dailey’s heartfelt, keening lead in the beautiful love song, “My Only Love”—all bespeak the work of artists completely in tune with the texts, the subtexts and the embedded moral code of the material at hand.

Dailey & Vincent perform the Statler Brothers’ ‘Elizabeth’ at the California Bluegrass Assocation’s Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, CA, June 21, 2009

There’s a reason the Statlers were Country Music Association’s “Vocal Group of the Year” an unequaled nine times, had some 33 Top 10 chart hits (including four Number Ones), earned induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and cut more than 40 albums before retiring following a farewell tour in 2002. Listen to tracks 4 through 6, sequenced in such a way as to comprise a devastating triptych illustrating a love story of epic dimension: it begins with one of the Number Ones, 1985’s plaintive “Too Much On My Heart,” a wrenching breakup ballad in which Dailey’s astringent lead vocal alternates with the duo’s smoothly harmonized voices on the verses, their emotions shadowed hauntingly by mandolin and lonesome fiddle lines; it ends with a certified Statlers classic, 1975’s resolute “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You,” which is about exactly what the title says, except that the singers are hoping for a chance to replace the man the girl of their dreams has fallen for and are promising love and commitment extending into and beyond eternity. These—a song anticipating the end of love, another seeking a chance at it and promising the endless variety—bookend the brilliant “Susan When She Tried” (one of the truly evocative titles in Statlers lore) in which the male narrator offers the false bravado of the permanently damaged (“I got over Charlotte Thompson, Goldie Johnson, Lord, they done me wrong/And I took it hard with Peggy Harper/She hurt me bad, but not for long”) only to reveal his being bedeviled by the memory of one he can’t shake off, leaving him clinging to a last, desperate hope for “one hour of Susan when she tried.” With Jerry Kennedy producing, the Statlers took their version at a moderate tempo, all emotions on an even keel until the chorus, when the track explodes with cascading voices singing, “No, there’s never been a woman/who could make me weak inside/and give me what I needed/like Susan when she tried.” The next verse describes the tortures besetting the man as each season rolls by (“…and it’s bad in December, when they play those Christmas songs/So if you ask me and I don’t tell you/bet your sweet bottom dollar I lied…”). D&V take the song at a more accelerated pace than did the Statlers, but their determined gait, instead of undermining the song’s simmering drama, actually heightens the main character’s desperation, with no small measure of thanks to the ceaseless, rolling mandolin and banjo lines from beginning to end, and the swooping, swerving fiddle solos; the fellows hew to the original blueprint, though, where it counts—in those choruses, underpinned by Pearls’s rich, magnificent bass, which come crashing down like a tidal wave of all-consuming anguish wrecking everything in its path. If you’re walking somewhere and listening to this on headphones, you’ll need to sit down; if you’re driving and crank it up, you’ll need to pull over and gather yourself so as not to endanger others on the road with your recklessness when you lose control—not of the wheel, but of your emotions.

And did I mention the final, Homeric gathering of voices, a monumental outpouring of four-part gospel harmony constituting the final, devastating grace note in a song of lost love, “Elizabeth,” which follows “I’ll Go To My Grave…” like a last will and testament? Did I mention this? It lasts for eighteen seconds—“Oh, Eeeelizabeeeeeeeetthh!”—and hits with the force of a sledgehammer. Get ready. It will lay you flat out, leaving you limp and dizzy with awe at both the depth of its humanity and the forthright vulnerability suffusing the Olympian supplication of one who’s been driven from another’s embrace by sheer thoughtlessness. When you're talking Elizabeth, being crazy about a woman like her’s always the right thing to do.

The Statlers are said to be retired, but in Dailey & Vincent their legacy has been entrusted to worthy stewards. What they do with it here is nothing short of monumental. Treasure this moment.

Dailey & Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers is available only at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store http://www.crackerbarrel.com/browse-specialproducts.cfm?doc_id=1110

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, 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