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Dry Branch Fire Squad - 30th Anniversary (CD, 2007)
by Joe Ross, 02/03/2012
Playing Time – 63:24 -- In the course of a lifetime, turning thirty may bring a few aches and pains. A band achieving that milestone may also experience similar ailments that also come with musical maturity. Back in 1971, mandolinist Ron Thomason was picking with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were also his bandmates. From Springfield, Ohio, The Dry Branch Fire Squad formed in 1976 and took its name from a small town in Virginia (where Ron was born). The band’s successful longevity has been attributed to their raw, mountain-style vocals and Thomason’s wry humor as an emcee and storyteller. Until retiring in 1999, Ron was an English and math teacher and junior high assistant principal.
Their ninth album on Rounder Records, this heartfelt 30th anniversary collection only draws material from the label’s releases since 1989. The reason is that there was a previous band anthology, “Tried and True,” (Rounder 11519) released in 1987. Would it have been better for a 30-year album to also draw material from all three decades, and from as far back as their three pre-Rounder LPs from the 1977-78 timeframe? While their Rounder material has been superior to their earliest recordings, it would’ve been exciting to document all 30 years with a couple songs like Out on the Blue Ridge Mountain from their earliest 1977 “Live at the Crying Cowboy Concert Saloon” LP (RT-513). Also, the early days of the band emphasized basic, mournful, sensitive vocal duet arrangements with Ron Thomason and tenor John Baker (fiddler Kenny Baker’s son). You’ll need to get DBFS’s 1979, 1981 or 1982 Rounder albums (“Born to be Lonesome,” “Antiques and Inventions,” or “Fannin’ the Flames”) to experience them together. Or to hear some of Thomason’s originals like “Dak’s Song” or “Oh! What a Storm.” So, to truly celebrate all 30 years with this band, I recommend also picking up a copy of the 1987 “Tried and True” anthology mentioned earlier.
Among the 21 tracks on “30th Anniversary,” there are four previously unreleased songs (He’s Coming To Us Dead, Over in the Glory Land, Golden Ring, How Great Thou Art). Although liner notes don’t indicate when they were recorded, they’re quite recent, and three feature the band’s newest lineup of Ron Thomason, Brian Aldridge, Dan Russell and Tommy Boyd. A hit for George Jones and Tammy Wynette, “Golden Ring” is still arranged with Ron’s crosspicked guitar, and the song does appear on the band’s 1981 album “Antiques and Inventions” with a different group except for common denominator Thomason. The binding thread or glue in all of the band configurations, Ron primarily plays guitar or mandolin. His clawhammer banjo picking appears in two songs – his solo rendition of Grayson & Whitter’s “He’s Coming To Us Dead” and the band’s quartet offering of “The Honest Farmer,” accompanied only by fiddle and banjo.
Vocal arrangements capture the emotional essence of their largely traditional bluegrass and gospel canon. On all vocal cuts, Thomason sings lead. In the last two decades, the band’s mournful signature sound has also regularly been built around Ron’s lead with female tenor or high baritone parts (courtesy of Suzanne Thomas and Mary Jo Leet). All three of them are showcased together in “Dip Your Fingers in Some Water,” and the quartet (with Charles Leet singing bass) entitled “When I Went Down in the Valley to Pray.” Hazel Dickens, who recalls a time when it was “downright subversive practically to be a woman in bluegrass,” sings tenor on “Hide You in the Blood.” These songcarriers have kept nuggets like Carter Stanley’s “Rollin’ on Rubber Wheels” in their repertoire for years. Ron once said that he viewed the band as “spokesmen for a way of life” among the people who originally propagated the music. It’s their revitalization of dusty old classic treasures (like A. P. Carter’s “A Distant Land To Roam”) that has also built their fanbase. Doc Watson simply called it “the old music,” folk ballads and the kinds of songs sung by the Carter Family and Grayson & Whitter. Interestingly, their vocal stacking for that A.P. Carter cover includes four vocal parts, but no tenor according to the liner notes.
Instrumentally, the band’s unpretentious picking is sufficient for their authentic kind of repertoire. With some electric bass and steel guitar, “Carolyn at the Broken Wheel Inn” is a unique selection. Besides those mentioned above, others in the band have included Dave Edmundson (fiddle, vocals), John Hisey (banjo, vocals), Dick Irwin (bass), Bobby Maynard (fiddle) and Adam McIntosh (banjo, mandolin, vocals). The band’s widespread appeal in live performance is also due to their showmanship and stage presence that enhance their purest form bluegrass. The charismatic band opens up, sings and plays with sincerity, and builds rapport. All in all, this is a charming hour that treats us to DBFS’s sound since 1989. (Joe Ross, Oregon)