Buck & Company’s new CD is a songwriters showcase
By Dan Tackett
August 8, 2008
Buck & Company “This Old Barn” (Emerald Sky Records)
Who says you have to be an A-rated bluegrass band with a big label behind you to put out a top-notch CD package?
Certainly not Buck & Company, a West Virginia band that has just released, “This Old Barn,” a new CD on regional label Emerald Sky Records.
Buck McCumber formed the group in 2002 in Parkersburg, W. Va. Since then, they’ve gone from playing in their home region to a wider circle that seems to be crossing more and more state lines. “This Old Barn” has the potential to take them even farther from home.
First, there’s one very professional packaging effort, much more than you’d expect from Joe, the banjo player across the street, who just cut a CD with his pickin’ buddies. The out-front art work is a polarized photo of a crumbling barn. It’s the cover of an eight-page insert that includes lyrics for the tunes on the CD and color art work. It’s a first-class package.
But a pretty cover does not make a CD a success. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, in this case the songs and the performances. Well, they pretty match the cover — tastefully done with tight vocals and nice instrumental work that seldom dazzles but always satisfies.
The track listing contains an impressive amount of original material. McCumbers, who plays mandolin and fiddle, wrote seven of the 13 songs, while Dobro player Ramie Bennett contributed two of his tunes and guitarist Lance Gainer gets songwriter credits on one track, an instrumental.
Bass player Jeff Somerville does a bulk of the lead vocal work here, while McCumbers handles the lead singing on three songs, including the title cut, “This Old Barn,” which he wrote. In many ways, it’s a familiar tale — about growing up with buddies around Grandpa’s old barn, living through the horror of war claiming the buddies’ lives and longing for those days of youth and the buddies to return to the now-crumbling barn. It’s a touching song.
McCumbers also has another gem on here, “San Antone,” told through the eyes of a wrongly convicted man who’s spent years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Certainly, there’s been too many such cases in the news to provide inspiration for such a song.
Playing to the regional crowd, Buck & Company offer up another McCumbers tune that salutes Ohio’s great bluegrass family. It’s aptly entitled “Buckeye Bluegrass.” And McCumbers shows he can write bluegrass gospel very well, thank you, with his composition, “Heaven’s Holy Chorus,” which features some nice quartet singing.
Truly, the CD is a songwriters showcase for this band. There’s not an original song on here that has anything less than some pretty thoughtful and well-thought-out lyrics.
If there’s an instrumental standout on this project, it would be Bennett’s fine and intricate Dobro picking. Bennett also has one, dead-on bluegrass voice. It would have been nice to have heard him take the lead vocal on a couple more numbers here.
McCumbers is more than adequate on his mandolin work as is banjo picker Danny Murray’s fine solo and backup work. Gainer also gets in some very tasty guitar licks, especially on his instrumental, “Bugtussle.”
This is pretty much traditional-sounding bluegrass with the exceptions of “Bugtussle,” which has plenty of contemporary shading.
“This Old Barn” was produced by the band and recorded in John Titus’s fine West Virginia facility, J&V Audio. Titus also did the final mastering on the project. The sound, it should be said, is as professional as the songwriting, performances and the CD’s packaging.
Information on purchasing the CD is available at www.buckandcompany.com.
W. Virginia’s finest serve up “First Cut”
John Titus surely hears the good, the bad and the mediocre in his small recording studio, J&V Audio, in Camden, W. VA. According to the studio’s Web site, Titus is dedicated to providing acoustic groups a high quality and reasonably priced recording. … I’m not in this to get rich. I know how difficult it can be to find a studio that understands acoustic music.”
Titus has been doing audio engineering work for a decade and playing bluegrass music for two decades. So, it’s reasonable to assume his ears zero in on the finest musicians who come to his studio to record with their bands.
Titus believes the West Virginia region has a wealth of talent sprinkled in the bands he records. So, he got this brainstorm: Why not invite the cream of the crop to come to his studio to record a CD together?
The invitations evidently were accepted with enthusiasm, and the result is the West Virginia Bluegrass Band and its J&V-produced CD, “First Cut.” It could have been named “Prime Cut,” for this is a top-notch product that holds its own with any national touring act on a major label.
It’s difficult to believe the group hasn’t performed together for years, especially with its tight vocal harmonies, which are put to use on the majority of the tracks. It’s especially worth noting that most, if not all, the songs on the CD were written by the band members.
The contributions of banjo player and vocalist Ramie Bennett, a member of the band, Buck & Company, really rise to the top of this project. I’m somewhat familiar with Bennett’s work, mainly through his first-class home recordings I’ve heard through a mutual acquaintance. Granted, I may have a prejudice in singling Bennett out, especially since he’s surrounded by so much other fine talent here. On the other hand, Titus, in his liner notes, also singles out Bennett for his dedication to the concept of the West Virginia Bluegrass Band and his devotion to seeing the project completed.
Bennett wrote seven of the CD’s 14 cuts, and, according to Titus, earned the title of “Shadow Engineer” for looking over Titus’s shoulder during the entire recording and production process. Bennett also edited the recorded tracks.
Bennett really stands out on two of his songs where he assumes lead vocal chores. “The Promise,” a touching, emotion-filled memory spurred by his grandmother’s death, is as fine as it gets — great songwriting, heart-felt vocal delivery and wonderful instrumentation and tight harmonies. His other lead vocal just sparkles on “Bluegrass Swing,” which is exactly what the title suggests — a mixture of bluegrass and Bob Wills Western swing sounds rolled into one delightful package.
Another noteworthy tune on the CD is “Ghost Ship,” a haunting ballad about the USS West Virginia, which was heavily damaged during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The ship was miraculously salvaged and returned into service where it played important roles in the U.S. fleet’s Pacific operations during World War II. The tribute song is delivered by Buck McCumbers, leader of “Buck & Company” and the all-star band’s fiddle player.
Other members of the group are David Vaughn on mandolin, Bruce Jones on dobro, Lance Gainer on rhythm and lead guitar and Mackenzie Murphy on bass. Besides holding down the banjo chores, Bennett contributes a dab of cello and a bit of percussion via an egg shaker.
Once again, I’ll single out Bennett among the instrumentalists. He has a unique style that can be lightning fast, ultra clean and always effective. But that’s not to minimalize the work of the rest of the band, which delivers a top-notch, grab-your-ears sound.
I could quibble a bit about what I perceive as a mix-down glitch or two, but it’s nothing to spoil the listening pleasure this CD brings.
I’d like to tell you exactly where you can purchase this gem, but I don’t know for sure. If you’re in the West Virginia area, I’m sure the different bands represented in this project have them for sale. Besides Buck & Company, other groups represented on the CD are the Vaughn Family and Whitaker Station.
Titus at J&V Studio surely would welcome inquiries about the CD. His number, which is posted on the studio’s Web site, is (304)-269-6179. Evenings and weekend calls are encouraged.
And a post script: On the CD’s liner notes, Titus mentions: “If all goes well, we will be recording more albums in the future with the same band.”
My message to John Titus is this: All went well, very well. I’m waiting for Second Cut.
Buck and Company is a family band based in West Virginia. While all the band members have been playing in many regional bands, the band itself was formed in 2002. Buck McCumbers has had over 40 years in music and he is a skilled songwriter, vocalist and fiddle/mandolin player. Dwayne McCumbers plays dobro in the band and their sister, Connie Hardman, also writes songs and sings many of the lead vocals. Rounding out the band are Rick Westerman on vocals and bass, Danny Murray on vocals and banjo and Swanagan Ray on guitar.
There's some powerful ensemble work on "The Battle" CD and "A Light Down by the River", an original by Buck McCumbers features a full four-part gospel harmony and a banjo powered rhythm and some fine guitar licks from Swanagan. Another Buck McCumbers original, "Who Drove the Nails", focuses on the role of the onlooker during the Crucifixion. Swanagan Ray takes the lead vocal on the hard-driving gospel train song, "Train in the Sky". Connie sings a powerful lead vocal on "Outside The Gate: and Dwayne's dobro and Buck's mandolin add instrumental interludes. An inspiring gospel collection with the right mixture of vocals and instrumentals where the medium supports the message.