Album Review of
On Fire

Written by Joe Ross
September 30, 2014 - 12:00am EDT
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I must admit to being very pleased with this release from Big Country Bluegrass (their ninth I believe) entitled "On Fire" that features a number of new personnel in their lineup. Originally formed in the late - 1980s, the band is still anchored by Tommy Sells (mandolin), Teresa Sells (guitar, vocals), Billy Hawks (fiddle, vocals), and Alan Mastin (bass). The six - piece Big Country Bluegrass now also includes Jeff Michael (guitar, fiddle, vocals) and Ramona Michael (banjo, vocals). Back in the 1990s, Jeff had played fiddle for nearly five years with the band. Jeff and Ramona impart lively spirit and vigor to the music that has always been formidable.

Creating a traditional Virginia and North Carolina mountain sound that is honest and direct, Big Country Bluegrass stresses good rhythm, tone and timing. While their instrumental work is tasty, it is really their heartfelt vocals that stand out to put them a notch above the rest. When Jeff's strong lead vocals are paired with Ramona's and Teresa's harmonies we are given a sparkling trio that is brilliantly expressive. I like the sound of a stellar male lead vocalist with two female harmonies above. Thus, songs like Cold Rain, Down in Caroline, Memories, Bringing in the Georgia Mail, and Let Her Go God Bless Her are the defining moments on this project. We're also treated to the band's quartet when Billy Hawks' bass is heard on Jeff's two original gospel numbers, "I Am Ready" and "When I Receive My Crown." There are other fine arrangements too. Jeff's solo renditions of "Old Old House" and "Mother's Prayers Were Not in Vain" are very alluring, as is Jeff and Ramona's duet in "Plant Some Flowers By My Grave." The band's two instrumentals in the set (On Fire, Tallahassee) shake things up even more with their veritable bluegrass sound.

All songs on the 38-minute CD include:  Cold Rain, Down In Caroline, Hicker Nut Ridge, Memories, I Am Ready, On Fire, Mother's Prayers Were Not In Vain, Bringing In The Georgia Mail, The Rose Will Bloom Again, When I Receive My Crown, Let Her Go, God Bless Her, Old Old House, Tallahassee, Plant Some Flowers By My Grave

While the band primarily plays in the southeastern U.S., Big Country Bluegrass is deserving of a much wider hearing. Besides powerful original material, they tap into the songs of Charlie Monroe, Aubrey Holt, Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, George Jones, William York, Ron Sweet and others. The song, "Mother's Prayers Were Not in Vain," is pure music from the true vine and homeplace. The song's composer, Estil Ball, lived only about 30 miles from Galax, and the wonderful fingerpicking guitarist and his wife Orna were recorded by Alan Lomax as early as 1941. Estil passed away in 1978, but bands like Big Country Bluegrass know about their music's roots. As I've said before, Big Country Bluegrass is as big as life itself. Their music is straight-up-and-down, and that's a very good thing for our considerable listening pleasure. (Joe Ross)