Pickin' on Widespread Panic
The Grass Is Dead
First Appeared at The Music Box, July 2001, Volume 8, #7
Written by John Metzger
With each passing year, bluegrass manages to slip a little further into the mainstream. No longer is it considered to be just the songs of mountain men at which city folk can turn up their noses. Instead it's become a respectable forum, full of instrumental interplay and musical dialogue as much an alternative to the pop music delivered under the guise of country as it is to rock's own generic monotone.
The Coen Brothers made it the foundation for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, their cinematic update of Homer's Odyssey, and in recent years, artists as diverse as Dolly Parton, Bιla Fleck, Leftover Salmon, Steve Earle, and Alison Krauss have released critically-acclaimed albums that drew strong connections between bluegrass, jazz, pop, and rock. There's even been a bluegrass tribute to AC/DC by the Appalachian band Hayseed Dixie.
It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that both the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic are the subjects of two recent bluegrass-oriented tribute albums. The amusing part of it is: both of these discs The Grass is Dead's self-titled debut and the compilation Pickin' on Widespread Panic actually make both bands a bit more accessible than their own jam-oriented excursions. There's no question that bluegrass has come a long way.
Die-hard jam fans intrigued by the electrified, mind-bending journeys or raucous rockin' party scenes of the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic will no doubt be left wanting after experiencing the laid-back mellow grooves of either The Grass is Dead or Pickin' on Widespread Panic. Those who find themselves turning more and more towards acoustic-tinged fare or wishing the jam band scene would focus significantly more effort on quality songwriting, however, will definitely find both of these releases to be rewarding. Given the opportunity, the music is sure to carry one's mind far, far away.
Pickin' on Widespread Panic evenly divides twelve instrumental tracks among three bands The Farm Hand Slam Band, Rollin' in the Hay, and The Usual Suspects and each brings its own unique perspective to the subject's music. The Waker is perhaps the biggest revelation, being translated from a perfectly pleasant pop tune into a peaceful, rural, sunny Sunday morning drive. Surprise Valley, however, easily comes in a close second with its psychedelic swirl captured with pristine accuracy by the opalescent musings of the Farm Hand Slam Band, which features the fiddle of longtime Widespread Panic associate David Blackmon. Even songs like The Take Out and Driving Song which aren't anywhere near the stretch of some of the other tunes contained on the disc show imagination and ingenuity.
The Grass is Dead utilizes a similarly inventive approach, tackling the Grateful Dead's catalog with gleeful, bucolic charm. Instead of instrumental interpretations, however, the band adds passable, if occasionally distracting, vocal arrangements to the songs. Nevertheless, the sense of musicianship is outstanding throughout the endeavor. The steady, prancing bass line of Bubba Newton ties together the intertwining twirl of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. China Doll is given a lush, nearly orchestrated quality that serves its tearfully delicate strains quite nicely, and despite its faster tempo, Row Jimmy's tenderness is painted within the colorful, freely flowing guitar and mandolin of Corey Dwyer and Billy Gilmore.
Though neither The Grass is Dead nor Pickin' on Widespread Panic are essential albums, both contain intriguing interpretations of, and hence insight into, their subjects' songs. More importantly, they are both quite a joy to hear.
Pickin' on Widespread Panic -
The Grass is Dead -
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box