Bristol Mountain Bluegrass - Honest music about real life.
It's sometimes hard for people outside the region to accept the fact that Upstate New York—from Buffalo to Albany, Potsdam to Binghamton—has always been home to a vibrant, deeply-rooted country music and bluegrass "scene." There have been fine musicians and bands all over the area, and some legendary sites where the music has been played. In 1973 Bill Knowlton started his Bluegrass Ramble radio show on WCNY in Syracuse, a show that became, in many ways, the central focus for bluegrass from the entire region. People like Dave Cleaveland, Bud Artlip, Pete Carr...the list could go on and on...promoted bluegrass, collected tapes, helped run festivals, attended shows.
There has been no band more significant in this regional community than Bristol Mountain Bluegrass, and few musicians from this area more important than those who have passed through this band—or those on this, the band's new CD. I have been privileged to work for many years as a member of the band, and to have worked with the likes of Butch Hurrin, Bruce King, Dean Roets, Doug Bartlett, Rick Boring, John Rossbach, John Raincheck, Tiny Martin, and the musicians you hear on this CD, and I'm pleased to have been asked to write the notes for this new collection. I wish I could say that I'm playing on this CD, but my work as co-director of the bluegrass program at Denison University got me tied up in the Midwest, and so Mike Cloonan has been banjo player for the band for the past year or so.
Don Springer (guitar) is the moving force behind Bristol Mountain Bluegrass. He's played every gig since he founded the band in 1978. That group—Dean, Butch, Bruce, and Don—hired me to play banjo in 1980 and I worked with these guys.
Doug Bartlett replaced Dean in 1982) on three albums, and we traveled all over the place, playing major festivals, colleges, clubs...on-the-road in our 1953 6MC diesel bus, with Bruce Gordner at the wheel. In 1984, we were the featured bluegrass band on the legendary "Fire on the Mountain" television show on the Nashville Network (John Rossbach, Don, Johnny Raincheck, and I were in the band by then).
Meanwhile, we became friends with other fine musicians in the central New York area. Norm Darling (bass player on this CD) was well-known as a great country singer and player with the fabulous Seymore "Wee Willie" Wildofsky. Perry Cleaveland (mandolin), son of the tireless bluegrass promoter, Dave Cleaveland, was a hot young mandolin player from the Syracuse area. I remember seeking him out for jam sessions at festivals all through the 1980s. Mike Cloonan (banjo) was playing with bands in the Rochester area. Norm went on to establish himself as one of the finest country and bluegrass singers and players in the area. He plays bass with the band, here, but he's also a skilled guitar player and mandolinist. Perry is among the most respected musicians in the East. His musicianship is impeccable; he has a mandolin style all his own; he's a great singer; and he has had success with his own recordings and personal appearances for decades. Mike became the standard fill-in on banjo when I couldn't drive east to play a job, and has earned himself a spot on this CD, not only as banjo player, but as a fine singer. Throughout my many years with Bristol Mountain Bluegrass, I've known all these guys very well: they've all been important parts of the bluegrass and country music community, and it just makes sense that we would get to know each other, spend time picking together, and, eventually work with one another.
What you have here, is the first album recorded by Bristol Mountain Bluegrass since the 1980s. (In the 1990s, as The Bristol Brothers, Don and I recorded two CDs of old-style mountain music.) This album carries on the great tradition of a great band as well as the cumulative contributions of four major figures in the Central New York musical community.
Too often, in today's bluegrass scene, we listen to bands which use the music as a thin wire along which they string a bunch of hot licks and chord patterns. Too often the singing has lost its purpose and become flaccid folk-style mush. But this CD will give you something older and truer: this is an album of bluegrass music the way Bristol Mountain Bluegrass has always played it: where the songs still matter, where hot licks don't try to substitute for heart; where what they play and how they play is inextricably bound together and has a meaning based in the music, the land, and the people these guys have spent their lives with.
I remember once, back on the road in the 1980s, I was sitting on the bus with Bruce King and Butch Hurrin and we were trying to decide how best to get "a quality sound" out of your instrument (Butch played bass, Bruce played fiddle, and I played banjo, so this was a meta-philosophical conversation in the extreme). We decided you had to "know" what it was you were playing. Sure, you had to know the tune. But what we were trying to figure was some sense of knowing the music, knowing the reason you were playing the tune in the first place. You got quality out of an instrument by paying attention to how that tune was supposed to sound. It didn't have a thing to do with being slick.
There is no better example than the album's title song, "Another Walk with Brother." Written this year by Norm Darling, in tribute to his late brother, Butch (another fine Central New York musician), the song earns its place among the classic tunes heard here, like Ernest Tubbs’ "I Dreamed Of An Old Love Affair" and Gene Autry's "Ages And Ages Ago." Like these great songs that set the standard, Norm's tune is grounded in real life, real caring, loss, and love. The quality and honesty of this kind of music will outlast all of the flashy chord structures and meaningless riffs of much of today's "pop" bluegrass and country music.
This is what Bristol Mountain Bluegrass has always stood for. It's what the best of Central New York's bluegrass community has always stood for. It's what you'll find in this CD: honest music about real life. Great playing. Great singing. With a meaning.