Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie
Rural Rhythm

If you don’t know it’s Bill Emerson on banjo you will about a minute into the first song, Tompall Glaser’s effusive kissoff, “Don’t Care Anymore,” when he steps out from behind Tom Adams’s spiteful vocal with a rolling, tumbling solo that can’t help but cause jaws to drop. Wayne Lanham on mandolin and Frank Solivan on fiddle get their turns to ante up the hostilities, too, and they don’t disappoint. This new long player from Emerson and Sweet Dixie begins on that high note and never lets up—in terms of songwriting, the exceedingly high caliber of instrumental work by Sweet Dixie and remarkable vocal investment in the moment by Adams and Chisolm, it’s as good as bluegrass gets. The represented songwriters are an impressive lot, ranging from Glaser, to Chris Hillman, Marty Stuart, Carl Jackson, Hazel Dickens, Alton Delmore, Vince Gill, and to Tom Adams himself, whose powerful, rustic bluegrass gospel tune, “The Lord Will Light the Way,” closes the album on a stirring note, with a strong, heartfelt vocal by Teri Chisolm and tight, spare instrumental support from Adams on guitar and Lanham on mandolin that serves to elevate the simple beauty of the lyrics’ message of hope and redemption. Burnished family memories and aspects of love aredominate themes, and this band is well equipped to get the most emotional bang for its musical buck in bringing life to this fare. In Chris Hillman’s cautionary philosophical tract, “Love Reunited,” the tight, bright harmonizing brings to mind one of the many outstanding bands Hillman has been part of, the Desert Rose Band; Hazel Dickens’ “I Can’t Find Love Anymore,” as terse an account of love’s unfathomable ways (“love comes early or loves come too/or love don’t come at all”) as it is a direct and severe remonstration to a wishy-washy suitor, is appropriately stark and high lonesome in execution, with Chisolm’s impressive vocal both tear-stained and flinty. Marty Stuart has a more generous view of the heart’s greatest longing in “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth the Pain,” an all-out sprint celebrating love ventured, lost and sought anew, with Emerson’s indefatigable banjo the most prominent of the instruments driving the song to its rousing finish.

On the home front, Vince Gill contributes a gritty, traditional country meditation, “Life In the Old Farm Town,” in which a farmer is swept asunder by hard times, losing his home, his farm, and, finally, by his own hand, his life; Adams’s straightforward telling of the story makes it all the more chilling. In contrast, Lionel Cartwright’s “Old Coal Town” is a sweet, midtempo reminiscence of good times in a small town (“memories like a clear blue mountain stream/are running through my mind and filling up my dreams”) by one who’s left for greener pastures but is always rooted to the values he grew up with back home. You can pretty much tell by the titles of Pete Goble’s “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo” and Janet Davis’s “Grandma’s Tattoos” that both are on the positive side of the memory bank: in Goble’s song, a banjo pickin’ gramp gets his due in brisk, strutting style, with Emerson cutting out on a couple of eager, cheerful solos when he’s not interjecting some spikey punctuation into the mix; Davis’s song is an instrumental, and let it be said music gets no more high-spirited than it is here, as led by Emerson and Davis both working the banjo neck for all it’s worth on multiple occasions, John Miller doing the same in exploring the high and low ends of the guitar neck, and Lanham ceding nothing to no one when he steps into the fray with a sprightly mandolin flurry. Southern is the kind of record of which critics are wont to observe, “You will hear albums by bigger artists this year, but you will not hear better records than this.” Well, so be it. —David McGee

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024