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Bluegrass at the Philharmonic by John Gabree

Outside, kids were offering to buy tickets at twice their official price. Inside, Philharmonic Hall was packed to the rafters for the first major bluegrass concert in New York in more than a decade.

The SRO house must have surprised everybody except the promoters. They were the folks, after all, who had been shrewd enough to book the two best contemporary bands in bluegrass, the Country Gentlemen and the Osborne Brothers, with Don Reno's outfit thrown in for authenticity.

The Philarmonic Hall concert was one of the most recent reminders of the great upsurge in interest in country music. New York City, for instance, has its own country radio station -- WHN -- and has hosted concerts by Ferlin Husky, Tammy Wynette, and Tom T. Hall. It is doubtful whether there is a major city from Boston to Los Angeles that does not have a busy bluegrass scene.

Bobby and Sonny Osborne have combined the basic bluegrass sound -- mandolin, banjo, and high, piercing harmonies -- with unique additions like drums and electric bass. Their material runs from such traditional tunes as "Rocky Top" (they made the original version a decade ago) to contemporary songs like John Denver's "Country Road."

The Osbornes' best album is Bobby & Sonny (Decca). Bobby's soaring tenor was never better. His work on mandolin and Sonny's on six-string banjo are excellent. The tunes include such standard bluegrass numbers as "Fireball Mail," "Knoxville Girl," and Grandpa Jones' "Eight More Miles to Louisville." Bluegrass readings are given to Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again," two songs by Tom T. Hall, Ernest Tubb's "I Wonder Why You Say Goodbye," and Buck Owens' "Love's Gonna Live Here." Interestingly, the best tune on the album is Bobby's own "Windy City," a superb ballad about the corruption of urban living. The music on Bobby & Sonny is exciting and powerful. I should think it would make a good introduction for anyone trying to get into bluegrass music.

There are similarities between the Osbornes and the Gentleman. Both groups have been together since the Fifties, though not necessarily with the same personnel. Both groups have managed to maintain their popularity during so many years by remaining eclectic and open to what is happening in contemporary music. Unlike the Osbornes, the Gentleman have not tampered very much with their sound, although they have recently added a dobro, not a traditional bluegrass instrument, to their already full complement of guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and standup base.

At Philharmonic Hall, everyone was bothered by the lousy the sound system. The sound got louder and more distorted as the evening progressed. Only Bobby's unbelievable voice was untroubled by the technical problems.

The Gentlemen, who were named Band of the Year in the last two polls by Muleskinner News, a bluegrass magazine, are especially versatile . Last year the same poll named them best vocal group, best lead singer (Charlie Waller), best fiddler (Rick Skaggs), best bass player (Bill Yates), and best song ("Legend of the Rebel Soldier" on Rebel Records).

The Gentlemen's success with urban audiences, unlike most other country and bluegrass bands, is due partially to their appearance. Waller looks like an Irish revolutionary. Doyle Lawson, who sings tenor and plays mandolin, has the face of a broken down English prizefighter. Yates looks like an insurance broker or a literary agent, and Skaggs is a baby faced "good old boy." The newest addition, Mike Lilly, looks like one of those long-haired hippie freaks who have been turning up in recent movie westerns. Surprisingly, he is not having any trouble filling the place of Bill Emerson -- considered by many the best banjo picker in bluegrass.

The Country Gentlemen (Vanguard) is their latest release, their first since leaving Rebel Records last year (their earliest material is being rereleased on Folkways). The new album has a few traditional numbers like "One Morning in May" and "House of the Rising Sun," but most of the songs flow from the pens of such writers as Steve Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Paul Simon, and Steve Goodman. Emerson was still with the band, and he and Lawson weave incredible improvisatory patterns behind Waller's baritone, truly the most beautiful voice in bluegrass.

Nobody has to wait for bluegrass to "catch on" to get into it. Country, rock, even jazz fans will find that bluegrass strikes responsive chords. If you want to find out what bluegrass is all about, these two albums are a nice place to start. (Penthouse, 1970).


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