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As a guitar player, I have a fondness for, well, guitar players, and for that matter musicians who pick, strum, or bow all manner of stringed instruments. There are so many of these guys and gals we could talk about, so here are just a few. My purpose is not to start an argument over who’s the best. I just want you to enjoy some of the best at the top of their game while listening to some damn fine tunes all the while.
Having said that, we will, indeed, start at the very top.
Flatt and Scruggs with Doc Watson – Strictly Instrumental
This album from 1967 is certainly a showcase for the man who practically invented the three finger-roll style picking on the five string banjo, Earl Scruggs, and the most influential innovator ever on the folk and bluegrass acoustic guitar whose lightning fast runs set the instrument free. I speak, of course, of Doc Watson. Earl and Doc lead the way on this instrumental journey through eleven standards of the mountain folk and bluegrass tradition. The best part is, that’s only the beginning, because the rest of Lester and Earl’s band, The Foggy Mountain Boys, are no slouches either. There’s Uncle Josh Graves, one of the pioneers of the dobro, the very fine fiddle player Paul Buskirk and Lester Flatt’s steady rhythm guitar. They are joined by a great harmonica player, who I believe in this case is Charlie McCoy. Still, it’s Earl and Doc who are in the spotlight the most. They lead a dialog of bell clear notes that I can only describe as thrilling. The breakneck pace, the dexterity of the playing, and the interplay among the instruments set an extraordinarily high bar for any acoustic string musician to reach.
Here is a terrific example on a tune ironically titled, “Nothing To It.”
Jorma Kaukonen – Blue Country Heart
Most of the time, when I mention Jorma Kaukonen I get a puzzled “who’s that” kind of look in return. When I reply that he was the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and later Hot Tuna, I may get a glimmer of recognition. It doesn’t bother me, however, because I would have had the same reaction up until the time I first heard this album released in 2002. Turns out Kaukonen is a master of country and country blues style finger picking. Once again, though, the headliner is just the beginning. On this collection he is surrounded by arguably the best musicians in the world today on each of their respective instruments: Bela Fleck – banjo, Jerry Douglas – dobro, Sam Bush – mandolin and fiddle and Byron House – bass. Kaukonen has brought this supergroup together to breath life into classic country tunes from the 1930’s and 40’s. Tunes made famous by folks like Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Jimmy Davis, and the Delmore Brothers, provide a perfect, almost jazzy vehicle for these virtuoso performers. The structure and tempo of tunes like “Blue Railroad Train,” “Big River Blues,” “Just Because” and “Waiting For A Train” paired with Kaukonen’s warm, slightly gruff vocals give the whole album the feel of a warm fall afternoon with a bunch of old friends making music on the back porch. Go ahead, pull up a chair and crack a cold one, but listen closely – you won’t want to miss a note…”Just Because.”
Ry Cooder – Borderline
Ry Cooder has been making magic with his guitar since the late 1960’s. In the process he’s released many albums plus scored several motion pictures. He’s also found and boosted the careers of many fine musicians, a notable example being the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba. His precise, eloquent approach to the electric and slide guitar sizzles but doesn’t overpower the song, his fellow musicians nor most importantly the listener. In this regard, his playing is kind of an electric guitar cousin of Doc Watson’s acoustic style. I chose to highlight this particular album, originally released in 1980, because frankly the songs are as much fun as the musicianship is dazzling. There is a latin flavor throughout especially on the pleading “Why Don’t You Try Me Tonight,” “The Girls From Texas,” John Hiatt’s “The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” and of course the title track, which is the album’s only instrumental. There are also three very nicely done covers of hits from the fifties and sixties. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite track with so many great tunes, but a top candidate would have to be “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile,” which Cooder had performed in his live shows for several years before this release. Cooder plays guitar, slide guitar and vibes on the album and is joined by a stellar supporting cast. I’d be remiss not to name Jim Keltner on drums and George “Baboo” Pierre on percussion. Those guys in particular give the recordings their bounce and groove. Put this one on your stereo, give the volume a tad extra juice, and get ready to smile.
Here is a video of Ry Cooder performing “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile” live in Santa Cruz in 1987 with several of the same performers as on Borderline.
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Live At The Ryman
With this album, we’ve come almost full circle from our opener with Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson. For starters, it’s bluegrass. Second, Marty Stuart actually played in Lester Flatt’s band as a teenager in the 1970’s. Third, among the guest stars on the album is non other than Flatt & Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys’ legendary dobro player Uncle Josh Graves.
Just before the circle closes, however, this album roars off on its own track. It’s bluegrass all right, but with more than a touch of rockabilly attitude. Marty on mandolin and his band regulars, Kenny Vaughan on guitar, “Handsome” Harry Stinson on snare drum and Brian Glenn on bass, play and harmonize with abandon. They’re joined by Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Charlie Cushman – now part of the award winning Earls of Leicester – on banjo, and of course the aforementioned Uncle Josh. When these boys take off on “The Orange Blossom Special,” they leave nothing but smoke on the tracks. The crowd at the Ryman is clearly loving the ride.
Back and forth they go, each musician getting multiple moments in the spotlight. There’s blues, traditional country harmony, honky tonk and tom foolery. Toward the end of the show, they slow it down just a tad to showcase Uncle Josh on “The Great Speckeld Bird.” Then they kick back into overdrive for “Sure Wanna Keep My Wine” leading straight into two barn burners, “Walk Like That” and “Hillbilly Rock,” that close the show and leave you limp, with just enough left in your tank to reach for the replay button.
Until next time, let’s boogie on out of here with Marty and the boys.