The Hard Game of Love
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
(Sugar Hill 3949)
Sugar Hill Records
by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
The best traditional bluegrass continues to speak to listeners today, some 30 years after the newgrass revival (pun intended) inspired young people to dance in the aisles and old fans to run for the door. Doyle Lawson, whose career dates back to 1963, has played progressive, traditional, and almost any style in-between. The picture that dons the back of The Hard Game of Love, however, shouts "tradition" loud and clear. It only takes a song or two before Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver reassure skeptics that there's nothing old and crusty about traditional music. In fact, bluegrass, be it traditional, contemporary, or progressive, doesn't get any better.
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have a reputation as one of the best bluegrass units on today's circuit. The band's no-nonsense, high-energy approach harks back to the 1940s and 1950s, when men like Jimmie Martin, Mack Wiseman, and the Osborne Brothers dominated venues. The Hard Game of Love reminds me of what I liked about bluegrass when I first started listening to it: this band always plays and sings as though their lives depended on it.
Although the band's line-up has changed a number of times, Lawson, like a bluegrass version of Miles Davis, has maintained the highest standards. Each of his current members-banjoist Dale Perry, guitarist/bassist Barry Scott, guitarist Jamie Dailey, and fiddler Hunter Berry-are excellent musicians. The Quicksilver sound, however, manifests itself most distinctly in the band's harmony. During the last six years, the band has brought their well-honed harmony to bear on gospel quartet singing. While this genre proved a rich area for exploration, many (like myself) avoided the band, despite it's reputation, because of its concentration of songs originating from a conservative Christian tradition. This time, however, Lawson and friends delve into the timeless subject of love gone wrong, making The Hard Game of Love a temperamental companion for an album like the Cold Hard Facts by the Del McCoury Band.
Blue Train (of the Heartbreak Line) hits the ground at a sprint with banjoist Perry picking as fast as his fingers can move. A lonesome fiddle adds another layer before the band's wonderful harmony kicks in. Lawson's mandolin opens the title track with a few bluesy licks, while the singer mournfully recalls, "I didn't know that she played a game with no rules/So I climbed aboard the old ship of fools." Like the McCourys, Lawson always remembers to inject a bit of the blues into his bluegrass, giving the music an emotional impact. While each of the musicians offer brief solos on pieces like Nightingale and "Standing Room Only," none of these songs are over four minutes, and many are barely over three. Only on Oak Ridge Rendezvous, an instrumental, do Lawson and the boys stretch out their solos a bit. There's also a nice country duet, In My Dreams, and one religious number, The Hand Made Cross.
Any complaints? None about the music or singing. It would be nice if the album credits offered a breakdown of the individual players and lead singer on each track. Those familiar with the band may know, but no one else will. Still, a stranger will know that whoever plays and sings on whatever track does so wonderfully. The Hard Game of Love will convince any cynic that bluegrass, a rural style born nearly sixty years ago, remains a vital and essential music. Lawson and Quicksilver make bluegrass that is a pure joy to listen to and will send the listener scurrying to the local record outlet for similar titles.