“The forerunner of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver” is how bluegrass giant Lawson once described this album, released in 1977 while he was still a member of the Country Gentlemen. From the influential mandolinist’s own career perspective, that’s true enough — it was his first solo effort — but where Quicksilver’s emphasis has been almost exclusively on singing, Tennessee Dream is an all-instrumental collection. Filled with Lawson’s characteristic elegance and creativity, it’s been out of print way too long.
Aside from a Bill Monroe medley and a couple of surprises (“Lover’s Concerto” and Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny”), the tunes are all Lawson’s, and they’re an engaging bunch. The waltzes are stately, the breakdowns sprightly, and the picking clever and articulate, while the melodies themselves are sturdy and simple, yet distinctive. On compositional grounds alone, it’s an impressive collection that can now furnish a new generation of players with plenty of material for adoption. Beyond that, though, it’s also a dandy display of a technically rigorous yet limpid approach that’s been as influential as any.
Lawson is backed on the set by a thoughtful selection of former bandmates — J.D. Crowe (banjo) and the supremely steady Bobby Slone (bass) from the Kentucky Mountain Boys, and ex-Gent Jerry Douglas (dobro) — and the sweet yet bluesy fiddle of long time Blue Grass Boy Kenny Baker, with then-Gent James Bailey and songwriter Pete Goble filling in on a couple of tracks. Yet as deft and soulful as they all are — Crowe, who had been heading in a country direction with his own band, sounds like he was having an especially good time on this more traditional-leaning fare — it’s Lawson who shines the brightest, as he lays out a modern mandolin primer that’s as good today as it was a quarter of a century ago.