Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie – Southern (Rural Rhythm, 2010)
Bill Emerson is a legendary banjo player with roots stretching back to the late ‘50s. He co-founded the Country Gentlemen with guitarist Charlie Waller, held a featured slot with Jimmy Martin, and provided direction to musicians such as Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs. He spent 20 years in the military, most of it in the Navy’s bluegrass band, Country Current, began recording as a leader in the early 90s, and formed Sweet Dixie for their eponymous debut in 2007. Emerson’s always stretched the edges of the bluegrass canon, mixing traditional material with songs drawn from country, folk and rock. Most famously, he’s credited with adapting Manfred Mann’s “Fox on the Run” into a bluegrass staple.
Sweet Dixie’s new album includes a few traditional sources, such as Alton Delmore’s “The Midnight Train,” Hazel Dickins’ “I Can’t Find Your Love Anymore,” and Tompall Glaser’s “I Don’t Care Anymore” the latter drawn from the catalog of Flatt & Scruggs. The nostalgia of Lionel Cartwright’s “Old Coal Town” is also a good fit, and the English folk of “The Black Fox” is augmented with mandolin and banjo spotlights. More inventively, the group reworks Marty Stuart’s rolling country-rock “Sometimes the Pleasure’s Worth the Pain” (originally from 1999’s The Pilgrim) into an up-tempo acoustic arrangement, and Chris Hillman’s “Love Reunited” is shorn of its original ‘80s production sound, trading the Desert Rose Band’s crystalline guitars for a more timeless banjo.
Highlights of the group’s new material include Vince Gill’s grievous “Life in the Old Farm Town,” reflecting the dismantling of American life in the parting out of a foreclosed farm. Sweet Dixie plays with tremendous group chemistry, adding solos that are compelling without giving into the flashiness that plagues many bluegrassers. They can pick up a storm, as heard on “The Midnight Train,” but “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo” and the instrumental “Grandma’s Tattooss” celebrate the musicality of their instruments rather than the breakneck speed at which the players’ fingers can fly. The latter features Emerson doubling the song’s writer, banjo instructor and fellow-picker Janet Davis.
Guitarist Tom Adams handles most of the lead vocals, with bassist Teri Chism and mandolinist Wayne Lanham each taking turns up front; the group’s energetic harmonies seque smoothly with the instruments. Lyrics of lost love, suicide, and a child’s funeral are sung with the tenderness of hope rather than the bleakness of depression. As the group’s visionary, Emerson balances innovation and tradition, pulling new material into the bluegrass orbit without sacrificing the warmth and comfort of tradition. His band has the confidence to let their playing serve the material, and though Emerson’s not written any new songs for this album, his ear for other writers’ works is unerring.