Essential Listening, Chapter Five
Compiled by Richard Burkett
featuring Chris Jones of the Night Drivers
and Sirius Radio
Here is Chapter Five of our "Essential Listening." series. Chris Jones and the Night Drivers are well known in the bluegrass world, and played at the SDBS featured band night a few years back. Chris is an excellent vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter who co-wrote the band’s latest release Riding the Chief on Mountain Home Records. His song Fork in the Road was the 2007 IBMA Song of the Year award winner. His current band is one of the best, but he’s played with a lot of great musicians over the years. One of his early bands that might be familiar to those of us in the Southwest was the Weary Hearts.
All of the Night Drivers, Mark Stoffel - mandolin, Grace van't Hof - banjo, and Marshall Wilborn - bass, chimed in on their essential listening, too.
First influences: I was originally captivated by the 1950s recordings of Bill Monroe (“Uncle Pen,” “Footprints in the Snow,” etc.), the Osborne Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs, plus the guitar playing of Doc Watson.
It was really the music of Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers and Larry Sparks that led me to become a singer, especially the early 70s recordings of Ralph Stanley, and the lead singing of Roy Lee Centers and then Keith Whitley. I learned to sing the baritone harmony part, thanks to Jack Cooke, who sang on those recordings.
Essential Listening: I highly recommend the mid-1940s Columbia recordings of Bill Monroe and what many consider “the first bluegrass band.” On streaming services you can find these under an album called The Essential Bill Monroe. If you listen past the1940s sound quality, you’ll hear a very hot string band with a way of playing together that was new and unparalleled and is often not matched today. Songs like “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel” and “Will You Be Loving Another Man” are great examples of the drive and dynamics of a bluegrass band. Lester Flatt was the guitar player and lead singer on these recordings. Earl Scruggs was on the banjo. The jazzy fiddle work was done by Chubby Wise.
I also highly recommend the early 1950s recordings of Flatt & Scruggs. Look for the 1948-1959 collection, especially songs like “Somehow Tonight,” “I’ll Stay Around,” and “Don’t Get Above Your Raising” (for the bluesy sound similar to the Monroe recordings mentioned above). Also the early 1970s Rebel recordings of Ralph Stanley mentioned above, for great insight into the “Stanley Sound.” Look for an album called “Something Old Something New” and the gospel album “Cry From the Cross.” Both are available digitally.
For more modern essential listening, it’s hard to beat the self-titled J.D. Crowe & The New South album (sometimes called Rounder 0044) from 1975. It’s the one with “Old Home Place,” “Summer Wages,” etc. It’s a great example of a more contemporary approach to traditional bluegrass, and real bluegrass band approach to more contemporary material. Plus the players and singers, J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Slone, are all masters of what they do.
Current listening: I’m a big fan of the singing of Tony Holt, and the harmony singing of his band The Wildwood Valley Boys. I don’t think they’ve gotten enough recognition. I listen to a range of music outside of bluegrass, too, including pre-bluegrass music like Jimmie Rodgers and various early blues singers. I’m also listening a lot to jazz singers Billy Eckstine and Ivie Anderson. I’m inspired as a songwriter by a variety of artists from Bruce Cockburn to Bruce Hornsby (and other people not named Bruce).
First Influences: My introduction to, and first influence, where bluegrass music is concerned, was Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. They were the first ones I heard playing the music, seeing and hearing them on the Beverly Hillbillies TV show in 1963 or '64. Their singing reminded me of my grandparents, and my other west Texas relatives. Although first released years earlier, I never heard Foggy Mountain Breakdown until '67, in the Bonnie & Clyde movie. Foggy Mountain Breakdown struck me as otherworldly, powerful, and beautiful, and was the one single recording that drew me into the music, past the point of no return.
Grace van't Hof:
Recent influences: Titanic String Band. I want to steal all of the accompanist’s tricks!
Essential recordings: New fans to bluegrass should take an aural glance at some of the music that bluegrass stemmed from, historically. I recommend Jimmie Rodgers entire catalog, Charlie Poole, Al Miller, the Georgia Yellowhammers, and the Mississippi Sheiks…just for a start
Good start for listening and learning: For a beginning bluegrass musician, whose music would be a good start for listening and learning? That would depend on your instrument of focus, but I recommend the Bluegrass Album Band for listenability, great instrumentals, and a repertoire of tunes you’d be wise to learn for jamming. The Earls of Leicester are also great in this regard.
For some of the best banjo playing: Jim Mills. He plays banjo like Scruggs and brings some of the very best bluegrass musicians in for his sessions. Instrumentals and vocals are varied but always top-notch.
Music you’re currently listening to: I generally listen to pre-bluegrass music, many of the artists that I mentioned above in addition to klezmer, jazz, ragtime, country and blues recordings from the turn of the 20th century through the 30s. Contemporary bluegrass-wise, I spend a lot of time listening to SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction to see who and what is getting airplay at the moment!
First influences: When I first heard Foggy Mountain Breakdown by Flatt & Scruggs on AFN (Armed Forces Network) in Germany, I must have been around ten years old, I was blown away. And it doesn’t even have a mandolin!
Essential Listening: The David Grisman Rounder Record .. it combined some of the best players & singers at the time, and even by today’s standards, and it is an album that must have been fun to record. You can feel it when you listen to it. It’s got great vibes!
For a beginning bluegrass musician: Flatt & Scruggs …. it is honest, heartfelt, and the soloists stick to the melody.
This chapter of Essential Listening was originally published by SDBS on July 18, 2021. All rights reserved by SDBS and Richard Burkett.