Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Kentucky Colonels: “1966” (2023) CD Review

The bluegrass band Kentucky Colonels were around for a relatively brief time in the 1950s and 1960s, releasing only two albums during that period. But the band’s influence and impact have been substantial, particularly in the way the guys pushed the boundaries of traditional bluegrass. The group was led by three brothers: Clarence White, Eric White and Roland White. Guitarist Clarence White would later join The Byrds and then Muleskinner (the latter with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, John Kahn and Richard Greene, all of whom would then form Old & In The Way with Jerry Garcia). Mandolin player Roland White would join Bill Monroe And His Bluegrass Boys, Country Gazette, and later Nashville Bluegrass Band, as well as have a solo career. And though Kentucky Colonels released only two records in the 1960s, several albums were released after the band’s dissolution, including 1978’s 1966, which featured tracks recorded in early 1967, just a couple of months before the group disbanded. Now an expanded edition of that album has been released, featuring nine bonus tracks, all of which were previously unreleased, and which interestingly come from the early part of the band’s career, tracks recorded between 1959 and 1961. This release also includes new liner notes written by Jon Hartley Fox.

The album opens with “Soldiers Joy” a delightful, but short instrumental track. And I mean short. It’s 41 seconds (well, the track is 41 seconds, but the tune is actually only 38 seconds). That’s followed by a cover of “The Fugitive,” also known as “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.”  This one has a sweeter sound, and is one of Merle Haggard’s many songs that deal in one way or another with prison, though he didn’t write this one. It was written by Liz Anderson and Casey Anderson. “Now I’m a hunted fugitive with just two ways/Outrun the law or spend my life in jail.” These guys do a nice job with it. Then “Ruben’s Train” is a fun instrumental number, the band clearly having a good time. “One Tear” is a song by The Osborne Brothers, the first of two Osborne Brothers songs they cover on this album. Their rendition features some good harmonies. “I Might Take You Back Again” is another sweet-sounding number, featuring some wonderful work on guitar. “Loving you is my great sin/And I might take you back again.”

“Take Off Your Cheaters” is one of those glorious, fast-paced instrumental gems. It’s another short one, like fifty seconds long. I guess it couldn’t go on too long, but I’d love another thirty or forty seconds of that fantastic playing. I’m assuming “Cheaters” in the tune’s title refers to capos, and that is only because on a live Grateful Dead recording, Bob Weir mentions that a capo is “known in common circles as a cheater.” Anyway, this track is one of the disc’s highlights. That’s followed by “Old Country Church,” which features some really good vocal work, and some nice stuff by Bob Worford on banjo. “Earl’s Breakdown” is another great instrumental number, this one featuring some good work on fiddle. On the CD case, the fiddle player is listed as “Bobby (or Jimmy) Crane.” On the original release he was listed as Bobby Crane. In this release’s liner notes he is mentioned as Jimmy Crane. But whatever his name might be, he delivers some good stuff.

“Give This Message To Your Heart” is the album’s second Osborne Brothers song. The Kentucky Colonels do a wonderful job with it, this track featuring more beautiful harmonies, as well as some nice stuff on mandolin. “Please don’t read between the lines/Give this message to your heart/I don’t know what made me lie to you/Most of all, I just don’t know why I cheated on you.” Then we get the instrumental “Ruben’s Train” again. On the CD case it is listed as “Ruben’s Train (Encore).” On the original 1978 release, it was listed as “Ruben’s Train (Second Cut).” Things then really take off with their rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe.” This track is fantastic, a whole hell of a lot of fun, another of the disc’s highlights. There is some impressive playing on this one. We then get “Soldiers Joy” again, listed both here and on the original release as “Soldiers Joy (Conclusion).” And indeed that is how the original album concluded.

Bonus Tracks

As I mentioned, the bonus tracks are from earlier in the band’s career, and so the musicians joining them on these tracks are different from those on the main tracks. And in fact, the band was called The Country Boys at that point. The bonus tracks were recorded live for radio and/or television appearances in the Los Angeles area. The first of these tracks is “Head Over Heels In Love With You,” and there is an introduction by the host of whatever program this comes from. The track contains some excellent playing. By the way, an odd mistake on the CD case has this one listed as “Head Over Heals In Love With You.” That’s followed by a great, fast-paced and fun rendition of “Shady Grove.” Another odd error on the CD case has this song listed as “Shady Grave.” This track features some delicious work by Billy Ray Latham on banjo. The banjo playing is also strong on “I’ll Never Love Anybody But You,” though here the mandolin really shines. This track also features good vocal work. “I’ll never love anybody but you, baby, baby/I’ll never love anybody but you, if you’ll be my girl.”

The bonus tracks include a fun rendition of “Polka On The Banjo.” This music just makes me feel so good. There is a sudden ending to this track, like the recording equipment broke down or melted or something. That’s followed by “I’ll Go Steppin’ Too.” Approximately thirty seconds in, there is some applause over part of the song, and I wonder what the crowd was responding to particularly. But there is certainly plenty to applaud here. Then some great stuff on banjo gets “Flint Hill Special” going. This is another wonderfully fast-paced instrumental number. That’s followed by yet another delicious instrumental that flies along like a speeding train, just how we like it. It’s called “Shuckin’ The Corn,” and it is one of my personal favorites from this disc. The crowd responds enthusiastically. And guess what? That in turn is followed by another excellent instrumental tune, “John Hardy,” featuring some great stuff on guitar. This is another of the disc’s highlights. The disc concludes with one last fast-paced instrumental tune, this one titled “Mad Banjo.” With a title like that, it couldn’t be anything but a fast-paced bluegrass gem, and it does not disappoint.

CD Track List

  1. Soldiers Joy
  2. The Fugitive
  3. Ruben’s Train
  4. One Tear
  5. I Might Take You Back Again
  6. Take Off Your Cheaters
  7. Old Country Church
  8. Earl’s Breakdown
  9. Give This Message To Your Heart
  10. Ruben’s Train
  11. Cotton Eyed Joe
  12. Soldiers Joy
  13. Head Over Heels In Love With You
  14. Shady Grove
  15. I’ll Never Love Anybody But You
  16. Polka On The Banjo
  17. I’ll Go Steppin’ Too
  18. Flint Hill Special
  19. Shuckin’ The Corn
  20. John Hardy
  21. Mad Banjo

This special expanded edition of 1966 was released on June 30, 2023. It is available on vinyl too, though I believe the vinyl edition does not include the final two bonus tracks.

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