With re-packages of past-its-expiration date fare from the likes of Rodney Atkins, Craig Morgan and Wynonna among its stable of offerings, you can be forgiven for not anxiously awaiting each new release from Cracker Barrel Records. That “record label,” however, took a big step in a unique direction last year by releasing an exclusive album that featured Dailey & Vincent (one of the most prominent acts in modern bluegrass) performing new versions of old Statler Brothers songs.
With Songs of the Statler Brothers, Cracker Barrel demonstrated that it was not only capable of landing a marquee act, but also that it was interested in producing valuable original content for its customers. Following that initial release comes The Grascals & Friends: Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin, a robust release that could have found a worthy home with any label that deals in bluegrass or roots music.
The disc features the renowned sextet—perhaps one of the greatest bluegrass outfits ever assembled—performing hits from country music’s past, accompanied by some of modern country music’s biggest stars.
On the surface, it all seems like a recipe for disaster: Take a bunch of old hits, enlist some A-list friends for name credibility and throw it all together on a made-for-retail album that’ll be sold alongside pecan logs and pancake mix.
But there’s something truly fresh about much of the material here, and to an extent that’s because of the songs not included. “Folsom Prison Blues” (with Dierks Bentley) is among the offerings, as is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (with Charlie Daniels), and these two huge hits are ubiquitous songs that are instantly recognizable even to people who never listen to country music.
The rest of the album, however, contains a more nuanced selection of material. That’s not to say that songs like Buck Owens’ signature hit “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” (performed here with Brad Paisley) and Mel McDaniel’s “Louisiana Saturday Night” weren’t big hits that still resonate today—indeed they are. But these songs aren’t among country music’s most covered or most identifying songs. They aren’t, that is, the kinds of songs that are so ubiquitous that deviating too drastically from their traditional arrangements and approaches could sound jarring or disorienting.
Choosing songs such as these afforded The Grascals a great deal of flexibility, and the band used that to infuse the material with a truly fresh, updated and innovative sound. Paisley’s lucid guest vocals and stellar lead guitar work bring color to “Tiger by the Tail,” a take that sounds so current that it could very well have been culled from one of Paisley’s own records.
Likewise, the group breathes new life into George Jones’ 1959 hit “White Lightning,” through a driving rhythm track and spectacular lead guitar work by Kent Wells that brings the cut back to its rockabilly roots. (“White Lightning” was written by J. P. Richardson.)
“White Lightning” is a classic, but it’s never sounded better than it does here.
Elsewhere, the group employs yet more inspired selections, such as Tom T. Hall’s “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” (a #1 hit from 1971) and The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” (a #1 hit from 1979). Both artists join The Grascals here, and both sound more energized and full of vigor than they have in quite some time.
The album falters a bit with one of its two originals, the immensely heavy-handed “I Am Strong.” The song was inspired by a trip the band made to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and though it’s certainly a well intentioned number, it’s far too topical to offer any real musical or literary value.
Performed with Dolly Parton (who The Grascals once served as the backing band for, and later as an opening act for), “I Am Strong” would fit wonderfully in project specifically designed to raise money for the hospital. As part of a broader album, however, it sounds out of place—especially when it appears alongside the spectacular songwriting on Country Classics….
As a spotlight track, it misrepresents the kind of music contained on this album.
Aside from “I Am Strong,” however (which actually appears twice on the album, once with Parton and once with a cast of singers), this is a hugely lovable and entertaining record that’s certainly worthy of more attention than it will receive.
Many of these songs haven’t received such thoughtful treatments in ages, and it’s The Grascals vision—not just their application of bluegrass twists—that ultimately makes this record sound current and compelling. If you’re a mainstream country fan who doesn’t typically buy bluegrass albums, buy this one. And if you’re a lover of both, this is essential.