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Charles Sawtelle

Music from Rancho deVille – 2001 (Acoustic Disc)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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CDs by Charles Sawtelle

In the stoic, placid world of bluegrass performers, Charles Sawtelle's infectious charisma made him an instant standout. As the guitarist with the popular group Hot Rize, Sawtelle didn't exactly revolutionize the role of his instrument. But what his playing did project - and what an army of Bryan Suttons could never produce - is an utter joy, an unfettered ebullience that few musicians ever transmitted.

This record was to be his calling card, his resume as a musician and producer. Alas, leukemia cut Sawtelle's life short just as the project was getting off the ground. With a handful of tracks in various states of completion, producer Laurie Lewis set about completing Sawtelle's vision. Lewis has done an exemplary job, shying from any sort of tacky super-session tribute and bringing Sawtelle's friends (some famous, some not) in to fill in the gaps that Charles left for them.

Unfortunately, Charles left a few holes for himself that he never got to fill. Originally the project was to feature no lead singer but him. His singing - raspy, soulful, and full of wit and charm - was never justly acclaimed in his lifetime. Illness rendered him too weak to sing on most of the vocal tracks here, and Norman Blake, Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements deliver beautiful performances on Sawtelle's behalf. But when Sawtelle himself steps up to the mic on 3 of 16 tracks, his warm, giving soul shines right through the speakers.

Meticulously completed and packaged, this release makes for a tearful listen. But it is a testament to a talent and personality that will be sorely missed but the entire bluegrass community.