Eighteen Years Ago
Kentucky Blue

By Jean Metcalfe

Banjoist Dave Cottrell kicks off Eighteen Years Ago with the title track, and you can name that genre in two or fewer notes. The song selection on this bluegrass compilation is certainly interesting, and the picking and singing are excellent.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Wesley and Pam Maynard, "Eighteen Years Ago" could easily pass for a bluegrass standard. A reading of the liner notes, however, reveals that it's baby bluegrass, a song the Maynards wrote in 1995 about their courtship and marriage.

Never mind that it was The Animals who made "The House of the Rising Sun" popular in the '60s, it has been around for more than a century. A variety of artists have recorded it, including the late Roy Acuff. Kentucky Blue's version seems right at home on this eclectic compilation.

It was a real treat to discover "Talk Back Trembling Lips" in the lineup. Replay buttons were made for this John D. Loudermilk jewel, and singing along is absolutely empowering. But hush up and listen to the marvelous instrumental break.

"God Sent An Angel." That's the name of the fourth cut -- and a critique of it as well. Frank Kemper's very listenable, polished lead vocal is featured on this inspirational number, with violinist Martin Harley providing fine tenor harmony and mandolin player Ron Mobley singing a wonderful bass. Nice tag!

Dave Cottrell arranged "Shuckin' the Corn" with a nod to Earl Scruggs, a Kentucky Blue hero whose recording of it was an influence. That each member of the group is an accomplished player is evident on this instrumental. Laurie Cottrell, the pretty, likeable wife of Dave (and the only non-singing member of the group), does a righteous job on upright bass. Who can blame Dave for taking a nice banjo tag for himself -- and proving it was a good idea.

"I'm My Own Grandpa" was a big hit for Grand Ole Opry stars Lonzo & Oscar in the late '40s, and it's a real crowd-pleaser for Kentucky Blue. Dave Cottrell interprets the complicated plot so well that it actually makes sense.

Dolly Parton has recorded it, and any woman would love it (especially as sung by Kemper). "Old Flames" features Martin Harley's impressive talent on twin fiddles. A great big ol' bear with a great big ol' smile, Harley's onstage antics made a giant impression on Kentucky Blue's audiences when they performed in Japan in 1993.

"Joshua" first came to the band's attention courtesy of one of LMN bluegrass columnist Berk Bryant's favorite bluegrass groups, the Lewis Family. Kentucky Blue's reading of this popular up-tempo gospel number does the Lewises proud.

"Hard-Hearted," cut number nine on Eighteen Years Ago, was penned by Kentucky natives Jim and Jesse McReynolds. If there's any justice, this album will add to the gold those famous bluegrass brothers helped stash away in the publishing company, Ft. Knox Music.

"He Was a Friend of Mine" is a collaboration by some giants in the songwriting arena. The late John Duffy (colorful member of Seldom Scene) shares the credits with Bobby Bare and Harlan Howard, and Kentucky Blue dedicates their fine rendition to Duffy.

"Big Spike Hammer" tells the story of a woman who mistreats the big lug who wields that hammer for $1.50 a day, trying to satisfy her, to no avail. But hey, hey, Della May, you ingrate, there are a lot of places Big Bill Johnson would like to see before you put him in his grave, and he's gonna get even some day. Kentucky Blue does a commendable job of spinning this yarn.

"Learning to Lean" is another inspiring gospel number that showcases the excellent vocal harmonies of the members of Kentucky Blue and makes us proud to have them carry our commonwealth's name.

The fast-paced instrumental "Dixie Breakdown" features Cottrell's banjo wizardry, and is truly a toe-tapper. The arrangement is a collaboration by Cottrell and Dave Cosson.

Take a song written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, record it by Patsy Cline, watch as it becomes a cross-over hit, sadly see the incomparable artist perish in an airplane crash at the age of 30, then record the classic tune on an album by this talented bluegrass band, and you can't miss. "I Fall to Pieces (plink, plink, plink) each time I see you again . . . ."

"Cuckoo Bird," now that's a strange animal, uh, fowl. Is there some analogy here? Some deeper meaning? I briefly pondered this curious closing number, then shut off the CD player to tend to other matters. Seconds later I heard a voice singing "Oh, the cuckooooo." And that voice was mine.

Everyone on this excellent album merits a standing ovation. And that includes the folks on the other side of the window.

For information and booking: Kentucky Blue, Dave Cottrell, P.O. Box 251, Simpsonville, KY 40067, 502-722-5633.