For a flicker in the early 2000s, there appeared on the national bluegrass scene a band that melded traditional bluegrass and country honky tonk sounds in a manner seldom heard since the heyday of Jim & Jesse and The Osborne Brothers. The Karl Shiflett and Big County Show appeared as a popular draw receiving solid notices, and the group released at least one stellar bluegrass album, 2001's "In Full Color." The follow-up "Worries On My Mind" had its moments.
As happens, things started to come apart. Shiflett chose to take the band in a different direction, emphasizing country sounds more prominently. Percussion was added. The band changed, and in the case of banjoist Jake Jenkins that was an irrevocable loss as he not only had a terrific approach to bluegrass 5-string, but was an emerging songwriting talent as well.
"Sho Nuff Country" is only the group's third album in a dozen-plus years, and follows the pattern of its more recent predecessor. Original material is entirely abandoned for '60s country, most of the Texas variety. So we have overly familiar songs from the portfolios of Don Gibson, Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Hank Thompson, George Jones, and the like - fair to say, nothing that anyone really needs to be interpreted yet again, even with a modicum of bluegrass intensity sprinkled about.
A run through Bill Monroe's "Blue Grass Stomp" is pleasing, as is the interpretation of Monroe Fields' "Only You." That is about as good as it gets, and that is too bad as the music Shiflett's band once brought to the table was interesting and satisfying.
One allows that the album is well-played, and while Shiflett was once a dynamic vocalist, his range appears to have narrowed. Still personable with a warming approach to his songs, we miss the intensity brought to numbers such as "Another Day" and "Cold, Cold Love."
Fiddler Billy Hurt, Jr. is given ample opportunity to enliven these arrangements, and banjoist/guitarist Brennen Ernst is a driving force. Their vocal duets, including "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," are middling. Something is missing, be that creativity in song selection, coherence of vision or the spark that accompanies originality and ingenuity.
One understands Shiflett's affection for the western swing and country and western music of his formative years and appreciates his continuing affinity toward bluegrass. It is extremely difficult to create a modern album that blends bluegrass with approaches that are incongruous to it, and that is in evidence here. "Sho Nuff Country" fails as a result.