(for HVBA) In the liner notes to Standing Tall and Tough, Paul Williams notes “How amazing is it that three guys on Medicare can still be onstage performing this great American music called bluegrass?” It’s a comment, at least on the face of it, on the fact that they’re still standing, or some variant of that, and able to play remarkably well. But while he may not have intended it that way, it’s also a comment on the audience: isn’t it great that there are still so many people who want to see them up there on stage, or to hear them in recording? Williams and Crowe have been playing professionally for more than 60 years, and Lawson isn’t all that far behind them. All three got their start with Jimmy Martin, and that commonality is one of the things that has brought them together over the years.
Indeed, what Williams’ comment underscores is one of the great things about bluegrass music, namely that it has a memory. Pop musicians from the 1950s, even those with long careers, aren’t revered in the same way, and certainly it’s hard to think of any who remain relevant to the music being made today. The same is true of actors, or even artists. Mickey Roonie was little more than a footnote or a curiosity at the end of his life, and younger audiences, despite Roonie’s footprint in film, had no idea who he was. The woman who cuts my hair has no idea who James Taylor is. We may go to a retrospective of pop artists—the ones who really commanded fine art in the 50s and 60s—and it is viewed only retrospectively, not as something that remains vital today.
In bluegrass, it’s nice that that kind of thing doesn’t really happen, or doesn’t have to happen. We want to hear these guys precisely because they are relevant, just as they have remained so throughout their career. What is particularly true of these three, as this recording shows in spades, is that they have retained their skills to command their instruments, to interpret a song, and to speak directly through the music to their audiences. They are revered not only for the things that they’ve done, but also for the things that they continue to do. Not all performers are as lucky to remain so close to the top of their games, but these guys are still there. And that, more than anything else, is why they still attract audiences today. These guys are masters, are recognized as such, and that’s what draws us. They aren’t being wheeled out to accept the applause, rather this album finds them doing all the things they’ve built their careers on: writing, arranging, playing, and interpreting. Yes, they began with some of the first generation of bluegrass players, and that’s kind of neat to think about, but their playing, their voices, and their ability to tell stories is why we continue to lend an ear.
Should you doubt it, this new recording will dispel that doubt. They are, all three, front and centre throughout. The material isn’t as blistering, perhaps, as some of the recordings they’ve made, but in a sense, that’s kind of nice. They include three songs that, while co-written with Paul Williams, Jimmy Martin made memorable. Also here are two Louvin Brothers’ songs, “Do You Live What You Preach” and Insured Beyond the Grave,” which are great songs but also great choices for these three, as they are so delightfully able to present, and play with, the Louvin’s harmonies. They don’t just do it, they do it effortlessly and masterfully.
“Blue Memories” is a song that Paul Williams started in 1959, but never completed. For this recording, Lawson wrote a second verse, and it’s kind of neat to think that the song took 55 years to complete, and that we hear it on this recording for the first time, inclusive of two verses that were written more than half a century apart.
But, again, none of that kind of thing really matters. This album finds them, per the title, standing tall and tough, still doing it, and still showing us why they’ve been so important to the music throughout their long career