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Crowe Lawson Williams

Standing Tall and Tough – 2014 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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The common thread and touchstone of the long friendship of these three bluegrass icons is the years they each (though not concurrently) played in the Sunny Mountain Boys, the band of the legendary Jimmy Martin. Renowned (and sometimes notorious) for his perfectionism, Martin was not always an easy person to work for, but if you paid attention and played the music the way he wanted it to be played, a few years in his band amounted to something like a master's degree in bluegrass. Banjo icon J. D. Crowe went on to found his own band, the New South, and only within the last couple of years has retired from full-time touring. Mandolin player Paul Williams left the business for a while, but returned to a long career in the gospel field as leader of his Victory Trio. Like Crowe, he has recently retired from touring. Doyle Lawson (at 70, the youngest of the 3) left Martin and found himself in the Country Gentlemen for a time before gearing up his own band, Quicksilver. Some 40 years later, he's still among the biggest draws on the bluegrass circuit.

Retirement doesn't mean you can't get together, do a few shows and record an album with old comrades, though, and "Standing Tall and Tough" is a follow-up to "Old Friends Get Together," which featured them revisiting many of the songs they performed night in and night out with Martin.

Though there are still a few Martin favorites this time around ("Walking Shoes," "Little Angel In Heaven" and "Pretending I Don't Care," all co-written by Williams with Martin), they indulge their common love for the Louvins' faith-based material with "Don't Laugh," "Do You Live What You Preach" and "Insured Beyond The Grave." Also worth noting are renditions of country and pop favorites like Bill Anderson's "Once A Day" (a hit for a very young Connie Smith back in the '60s) and Bobby Helms' "Fraulein."

The arrangements and instrumentation are as top-notch as would - and should - be expected of craftsmen of their caliber, and it's hard not to think "this is what bluegrass is supposed to sound like." The vocals, though, are extraordinary. Crowe's banjo excellence has often overshadowed his abilities as a harmony singer, and Lawson in the mind of many has just about written the book on bluegrass harmony. Well into his 70s, though, it's Williams' tenor that really stands out here. It's worth the price of the disc just to hear him on "Fraulein" and "The Hills of Roane County" as well as the title track. At an age when many are losing their voices, he just seems to get better and better. Touring or not, these guys still have a few miles left in the tank.