Album Review: Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie – Southern

Juli Thanki | January 27th, 2010

bill-emerson-sweet-dixie-southernWhen it comes to banjo players, Bill Emerson is one of bluegrass music’s finest. In his fifty-some year career, the former Country Gentleman (he was a founding member) has played with Jimmy Martin, spent two decades with the U.S. Navy’s country/bluegrass band Country Current, and influenced scores of musicians. And when it comes to Washington, D.C.’s storied bluegrass scene, he’s kind of a big deal.

On Southern, his first album since 2007’s Bill Emerson and the Sweet Dixie Band, Emerson starts out with excellent material from songwriters such as Tompall Glaser, Alton Delmore and Hazel Dickens, to name just a few. Combine these songs with the picking prowess of Sweet Dixie (joined by fiddler Rickie Simpkins) and Emerson’s own none-too-shabby banjo skill, and you’ve got the ingredients for a kickass album.

Actually, “kickass” might be too crude a word for a record like Southern; there’s nothing ostentatious about it. It’s an album that covers most of the standard bluegrass song topics—there’s a gospel tune, a song about dead kids, some reminiscing about the good old days, and a whole lot of heartbreak—and its all performed with consummate, understated skill. The ink is barely dry on the liner notes, so it’s a little too soon to peg Southern as “timeless,” but it is timeless-sounding and a mighty fine traditional bluegrass album.

From the opening track, a rousing version of “I Don’t Care Anymore,” it’s clear that this record is bursting at the seams with catchy tunes that’ll firmly wedge their way into any listener’s brain. This is in no small part due to Sweet Dixie, all of whom sing lead at for at least one song. Though guitarist Tom Adams is responsible for the lead vocals on most of the album, mandolin player Wayne Lanham takes over for a faithful cover of the Delmore Brothers’ “Midnight Train,” and Sweet Dixie’s bassist, Teri Chism, tackles a trio of tracks. “Sometimes the Pleasure’s Worth the Pain,” penned by Marty Stuart, stands out as one of the album’s best, as Chism sells the story of tempestuous love, singing “You cut me deep with that first kiss/Your sweet lips I could not resist/You were too wild to tame/I loved you just the same/Sometimes the pleasure’s worth the pain” While it’s Emerson and his banjo that drive the album, they never once overshadow the other musicians, and the result is polished music that’s truly a pleasure to hear.

Emerson and the gang also bring in a few guests, all of whom are worth their weight in prewar Gibsons. Frank Solivan lends some fiddle to “I Don’t Care Anymore,” and Janet Davis, a woman who has quite literally written the book (several, actually, but who’s counting?) on bluegrass banjo shows up with her five string for “Grandma’s Tattoos.” Composed by Davis, “Grandma’s Tattoos” is an instrumental as lively as you’d imagine an inked geriatric woman to be, with the two banjos playfully engaging one another.

If there is a flaw on Southern, its the lack of Emerson originals. After all, this is the man who’s known for, among others, “Sweet Dixie” and “Theme Time,” two of bluegrass music’s most memorable instrumentals. Though there are no Emerson original compositions here, listening to his masterful interpretations of others’ songs is more than enough.

At 34 minutes long, Southern is over far too soon. But if it’s in any way representative of the bluegrass albums we’ll be getting this year, 2010 is looking good.

4.5 Stars

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  1. [...] (Bill Emerson and the Sweet Dixie Band) may just be the perfect bluegrass album. Writes Juli Thanki, "it's an album that covers most of the standard bluegrass song topics—there’s [...]
  1. Jon G.
    January 27, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Sounds awesome…I might have to check this out.

  2. Jon
    January 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Well…it’s good, all right, but I’m not sure it’s that good. I think Juli might have contracted a mild case of the dreaded DC-area-bluegrass-centrism.

  3. Juli
    January 27, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    dreaded DC-area-bluegrass-centrism

    Ah, yes, the unfortunate and incurable Seldom Scene-itis. Well, it’s really the only thing this town has going for it. ;-)

  4. Jon
    January 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Unfortunate, yes; incurable, no. Remedy: a few nights at the Station Inn –).

  5. Rick
    January 27, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Well Jon, if you can convince the Station Inn folks to open a D.C. area branch, Juli’s rehabilitation could begin in earnest! Its a good thing the Birchmere is close enough for a temporary “D.C.centic bluegrass” musical detox program now and then! (lol)

    Lets’ face it, all these regional bluegrass cliques and biases are part of what make the contemporary bluegrass scene so interesting and inscrutable…

  6. Juli
    January 28, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Sorry, Rick, I haven’t been in town (or alive) long enough to remember the Birchmere’s early days, but back then it was a big part of the DC-area bluegrass scene. It still is, but they get some other genres in there too.

    Coincidentally, this morning the Bluegrass Blog posted an article about the Birchmere and DC bluegrass–and the upcoming DC Bluegrass Festival–should anyone be interested: http://www.thebluegrassblog.com/making-bluegrass-history-in-dc/

  7. Rick
    January 30, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Juli, thanks for pointing out that link! Is there any chance John Lawless reads the 9513 and was motivated to write that article by Jon W.’s comments in this thread? It just seems like such an unusual coincidence timing wise. Hmm, it seems the 9513’s impact is more far reaching than we thought! (lol)

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