To country music's outlaw souls -- derided for their dedication to self-destruction, their disruptive musical tendencies, their inability to kowtow to the hit-makers ranks -- it means the same thing Washington, D.C., means to a Southwestern politician. To Japanese tourists, flocking to the Station Inn and Ernest Tubb's record shop, it's the cradle of American musical populism. To the five members of the Bluegrass Band that bears its name, it's a wellspring of freelance work and couched inspiration: Nashville may not always be purty, but it's home.
So, if you haven't heard 'em before, you'll likely be refreshingly surprised when you hear the Nashville Bluegrass Band's bourbon-and-branch-water singing and playing -- pure as heaven, stout and rough as hell. On Twenty Year Blues, a return to the band's classic line-up and classy form, the NBB doesn't ignore the slick production possibilities at hand in the country capital: Each note on each song rings out and resonates in a way that some neo-down-home bluegrassers would eschew in favor of anachronistic "traditionalism." (As if theirs weren't a music spawned from one of American music's greatest-ever rebel souls, Bill Monroe.) For that matter, the NBB's musical canon barely qualifies as bluegrass in the hardliner's sense: the a capella traditional black gospel of "Hush (Somebody's Callin' My Name)"; the pre-war blues standard "Sitting on Top of the World"; the Hot Club-jazz approach to Jimmie Rodgers' "Gambling Barroom Blues" -- it's all in the family, so to speak, of emotionally powerful, tradition-minded acoustic music. But is it strictly "bluegrass"?
Perhaps as much as any other band in America, the NBB can do this, and just about anything else its wants, with little fear of reproach. Because each member of the quintet has an impeccable knowledge of and taste for American music history, each member has a diversity of stylistic talents, and each member is so goddamn good at what he does. Take that "Gambling Barroom Blues," with Stuart Duncan's pure and fluent jazzy fiddle and Alan O'Bryant's subtle, jaunty banjo -- are they the same players as on the rough-and-tumble bluegrass stomp of "Garfield's Blackberry Blossom"? And is Mike Compton's explosive Monroe-style mandolin solo on that track, and his own anarchic composition "Pretty Red Lips," related to the touching work on "Old Riverman," one of two songs by the late John Hartford the band does? And what other bluegrass band could do such justice to Bill Carlisle's proto-rockabilly "Rockin' Chair Money" -- string-band 'billy with no cheesy hiccups, nor loss of fire and pace, from either style?
Especially with Compton's return to the NBB fold, Nashville Bluegrass Band is more than a two-decade-old, once-in-a-while collaboration by Nashville bluegrassers and session men. It's an American acoustic music think tank, a focus group in virulent talent and almost violent musical temperament that makes that music so constantly current and exciting. Twenty Year Blues showcases all of that beautifully -- may Thirty and Forty come with as much so-called grace.