Karl Shiflett's old-time country show
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, March 24, 2003) – In its first set at Club Helsinki on Sunday night, the Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show turned the clock back for a lively audience, at least as far back as before rock music, and perhaps a decade or two further, when country music was still homespun entertainment, and when professional country musicians had one foot on the front porch and the other in vaudeville.

Not that Shiflett and his musicians were any mere front-porch pickers. Shiflett’s six musicians, variously swapping duties on mandolin, fiddle, banjo, Dobro, bass fiddle, guitar and snare drum, were virtuosi, both on their individual instruments and in their seemingly effortless and telepathic ability to swap and answer each other’s licks.

Playing what was for the most part a well-paced first set, the group mixed fast songs, slow waltzes and ballads, and lightning-fast bluegrass breakdowns, instrumental pieces that displayed the musicians’ well-honed chops.

Songs like “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” and “I Know What It Means to Be Lonesome” spoke to a more innocent era, when music was a multigenerational recreational activity, shared within families as in Shiflett’s group, which included the singer-guitarist’s son on bass, and which spanned a good two or three generations.

The Texas-based outfit was a versatile one, equally adept at the soulful bluegrass of Bill Monroe, the flashier bluegrass of his progeny, old-time and swing-based tunes and classic Nashville country by the likes of Porter Wagoner.

The musicians were all given moments in the spotlight to show off their instrumental prowess, and, in several cases, to showcase their vocal abilities. The group’s young Dobro player in particular won over the crowd with his remarkably loyal renditions of Merle Haggard songs, including “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.”

But as much as the individual musicians shone, it was the joyful camaraderie of the byplay among them that made the concert such a success. The fact that all seven players shared one microphone served as the perfect metaphor for the selflessness of the group’s approach – democracy in action. The band was a polished, precision machine, but part of the polish included the illusion of easygoing swing.

The Hunger Mountain Boys, a terrific duo featuring mandolinist/fiddler Kip Beacco and guitarist Ted Weber, warmed up the crowd for the Big Country Show. Beacco and Weber also shared a single, old-style microphone, and they harmonized in the old-country brother style. They also mixed songs, waltzes and instrumentals, and their fleet playing was matched by their plaintive, microtonal singing.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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