This is overdue, and maybe he’ll never see it, but I owe a lot to a long-retired Seattle DJ and (I think, still) Pioneer Square bouncer named Tiny Freeman. He had a Sunday night bluegrass show on KRAB-FM, a community radio station (pre-college radio) that later sold its frequency to a commercial station and segued into a nonprofit foundation that, for some reason, owns a recording studio.
Anyway, when I was a little boy, Tiny Freeman played downstairs on my dad’s radio just at bedtime Sunday night, and I would go say goodnight just in time to hear whatever new version of “Orange Blossom Special” he’d dug up to begin the show (I don’t think he ever played the same opener twice), and hang out with dad until mom noticed and yelled loud enough to drown out the music. Bluegrass and its rough-hewn mountain harmonies (and, yes, I know Bill Monroe was a flatlander, but still), was never her idea of folk music (she runs more to Oscar Brand and Jean Ritchie), but if there’s a reason I understood punk rock when first I heard it, that’s it.
Somehow, amidst all the rock that has crawled through my ears these last three decades, the Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival (despite their opposite polarities) have also been irregular companions. See, bluegrass always smells like home: old books and spent pipe tobacco, and dad’s creaking chair (it doesn’t hurt that “Dueling Banjos” was a hit around then, either). And I have to guess, though there’s no knowing, that Tiny Freeman played the Seldom Scene’s first record when Act 1 came out in 1972. A Washington, D.C.-area gentleman’s band (that is, they meant to quit touring and play for fun, though they were too good to make that stick), most of them had been Country Gentlemen or New Shades of Grass. Then as now, the Seldom Scene were anchored by mandolinist John Duffy’s beautiful high tenor.
Dream Scene, more than most of their output, is centered around the Seldom Scene’s gorgeous, soaring harmonies. Ben Eldridge’s banjo takes the lead now and again, but for a dozen songs this disc eschews bluegrass’s penchant for virtuosic instrumental flourishes. Mind you, this quintet have nothing of the mountain rawness to them; their sound is as smooth as good whiskey, and no less passionate for that. Witness, say, the keening refrain to the opening “Dry Run Creek”.
Indeed, that’s one of the Seldom Scene’s many virtues. Though they began as a more or less traditional bluegrass ensemble, they’ve never been a revival act. Dream Scene’s reminder is a cover of “Bad Moon Rising” that, while not spectacular, is still good fun. And front to back, it’s a beautiful, glorious record.
Along about the same time Seldom Scene started, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck & Co. launched New Grass Revival, but since theirs was a far more adventuresome version of bluegrass, I’m not sure Tiny Freeman would have played it. New Grass were much more about instrumental virtuosity, and sought actively to push the music toward jazz and beyond.
Glamour & Grits is all but a New Grass reunion, as Fleck and bassist John Cowan show up early and often, but because they are here as supporting players and not equal partners, the results are…well, there’s nothing for it but the truth, is there? Truth is, and despite the presence of Al Kooper on keyboards and Jerry Douglas on dobro, Glamour & Grits has no heart.
Everybody here can flat-out play, but they’ve put aside the impulse to push musical boundaries and settled for a conservatory approach that is as deeply unsatisfying as anything Wynton Marsalis has ever released. Nothing here hurts, and nothing on this disc cost the players more than the time to record it. Pity.