PBS' Great Performances series will showcase three bluegrass giants - Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ricky Skaggs - next Monday, July 28, in a program called The Three Pickers. (San Antonio's KLRN, for some reason, doesn't appear to have this episode on the schedule.) Rounder records just released that show's soundtrack, and it's a doozy.
All-star jam sessions are more appealing in bluegrass music than in a lot of other genres; a tight three-minute rock song doesn't usually benefit from four guest guitarists hopping onstage to get their two cents in, but the gospel tunes and mountain ballads that are bluegrass' stock in trade are enriched by the kind of lick-swapping that reminds listeners of the music's front-porch origins. The casual storytelling and easy virtuosity on this record, where "youngster" Ricky Skaggs leads his elders through such classics as "The Banks of the Ohio" and O Brother-discovered favorites like "Down in the Valley to Pray," add up to one of those rare "event" concert recordings that's as fun to hear at home as to watch live.
A different kind of communal roots music (and admittedly one that's only a cousin to "hillbilly" repertoire) is being made on Angola Prison: Spirituals (Arhoolie), a self-explanatory compilation of '50s field recordings. Compiler Harry Oster notes that many of these traditional songs are sung in a style that was already antique, made obsolete by the commercially-written gospel music on popular records. That lends some documentary appeal to some tracks, but others are more captivating for the way individual performers (Robert Pete Williams, for example) put a bluesy individualistic spin on familiar material, and the way others color their religious songs with a taste of pop stylistics ("Brother Mosely Crossed the Water" is a buoyant example).
As longtime followers will expect, Danny Barnes also pulls in a few non-backwoods elements on his upcoming disc, Dirt on the Angel (Terminus). The closing track is Beck's "Loser," and earlier he covers Faces' "Ooh La La" ("I wish that I knew what I know now / when I was younger..."). Barnes makes both of these fit into his banjoriffic set list better, though, than one or two of his originals; "Water Wagon" is a lame bit of country-rock that doesn't deserve to sit beside rowdy gems like "Life in the Country" and "Get it While You Can," but there's so much good stuff here it's silly to complain.
Two other hard-to-categorize neo-primitive fellas have strong new discs out, Tom House (Long Time Home From Here, Catamount) and Fred Eaglesmith (Balin, AML Records). House is a quaky-voiced poet who favors droning or gently churning rhythms beneath his creaking vocal exercises, which carry a lot more musical weight than it seems they should be able to do. Eaglesmith has a haggard farmer's grunt that is perfectly suited for his tear-jerking stories about auctioned-off John Deere tractors and rolling freight trains. It's not much like the hick noir of his Lipstick Lies and Gasoline, and its affectations aren't 100 percent convincing, but it's hard to deny lonesome yelps like "No Sorrow No More."
Questions about authenticity have always dogged Gillian Welch, the L.A.- and Boston-educated songwriter whose gorgeous Appalachia-leaning debut launched her into the orbit of established old-timers like Ralph Stanley. Well, after co-writing (with partner David Rawlings) four albums full of original songs that feel every bit as convincingly country as anything coming out of Nashville, it's past time to stop worrying about where Welch was born. Soul Journey (Acony) is more uniformly pensive than its predecessors, with the creepily enigmatic "One Monkey" and the achingly nostalgic "Wayside / Back in Time" and "I Had A Real Good Mother and Father" setting the tone. What the record lacks in cheer, though, it makes up for in devoted empathy for lost sons and wayward daughters, hard-luck good timers and still-hopeful lovers scattered in cities and small towns alike.
It won't be out for a couple of weeks, but Del McCoury's upcoming It's Just the Night (McCoury Music / Sugar Hill) is too wonderful not to include here. The silver-haired 64-year-old is sprightlier than anyone on this list, a bad-assed should-be-geezer whose crackerjack band does a great job of turning even Richard Thompson songs ("Dry My Tears & Move On," "Two-Faced Love") into pure bluegrass. McCoury and crew have earned the admiration of jam-banders Phish, but don't let that confuse you; wherever they get their songs, however nicely they dress, and whoever digs 'em, they're the real McCoy. Um, McCoury. Whatever - it's hillbilly music, thank God! •