John Lawless’ Five & Dime

cover artI was shocked when, after listening to Five & Dime a couple of times, I discovered that it’s banjo player John Lawless’ first recording. It’s that good.

Lawless, an editor at Bluegrass Today, has been playing regionally out of Roanoak, Virginia, for many years, teaching banjo, and transcribing bluegrass music for an outfit called AcuTab. But it’s clear he’s been working toward this moment for some time. All but three of the 13 tracks are his own compositions, and they display solid artistry in both traditional and contemporary bluegrass idioms. This is an album mostly of contemporary bluegrass music then, played in a fairly traditional style, on all acoustic instruments.

The tunes are generally uptempo (but not ultra-fast), jaunty bluegrass music, with a couple of exceptions. “How R Ya Waltz” is done Hawaiian style, with lots of dobro; “The Guilty Pig” is a lovely banjo-fiddle duet; and “None Finer,” dedicated to Lawless’ girlfriend, is a sweet dobro-banjo duet. All the playing is top-notch, but Rob Ickes’ dobro work stands out. The three covers are all songs: the Stanley Brothers number “Baby Girl,” plus a couple of rearranged rock songs, The Band’s “Twilight” and the Doobie Bros.’ “Listen to the Music.” On “Baby Girl” and “Listen to the Music” he’s backed by members of Acoustic Endeavors, a Roanoke group of which Lawless is a member.

Much of the album’s success can be laid to the superb musicians with whom Lawless has surrounded himself. On most tracks, he plays with a core group of Alan Bibey on mandolin, Ickes on dobro, Ron Stewart on fiddle and Greg Honeycutt on bass, and some top-notch guitarists — Kenny Smith, Tim Stafford, Dewey Peters and Tony Collins. Lawless is a truly generous frontman, giving all of his musicians many moments to shine — and shine they do — and heaping credit on them in the liner notes. But when it needs to be, Lawless’ banjo is front and center, where it deserves to be.

Bluegrass fans who missed Five & Dime when it first came out should definitely pick this one up. The CD includes a CD-ROM section with extras, including banjo tabs for all the tunes. Another quality release from Copper Creek, which appears at this date to have gone belly-up, unfortunately.

(Copper Creek, 2004)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.