The first song on Don Rigsby’s new solo album, The Midnight Call, describes a man who goes looking for his girlfriend only to find her lying dead on a hospital table. In the second song, a man gets a phone call from his dead mother. The third takes place in a divorce court; the fourth is a dying man’s confession to his wife that he long ago murdered her brother and then asked her to wash the bloody clothes. The fifth concerns a man trying to drink himself into oblivion after his woman has gone. The sixth remembers a West Virginia flood that destroyed every town in its path.
This is not your typical modern bluegrass album.
Like mainstream country, its first cousin, today’s bluegrass music often tries to reassure its increasingly suburban audience that everything’s going to be OK. Uptempo, upbeat numbers congratulate the audience for both genres on being superior to those sinful urbanites and lazy locals; even the sentimental sad songs promise that good intentions are the solution to every problem. The music describes a morally rational universe where good is always rewarded and evil is always punished.
It’s a comforting message, but it has the disadvantage of being disconnected from reality. All you have to do is read the newspapers or study your neighbors to find countless examples of good being punished and evil being rewarded — at least in this world. This is unwelcome news, and it’s not easy to get audiences to listen. But if you’re skillful enough to grab their attention, you allow them to recognize their own reality in the songs — and music provides no greater thrill than that.
Don Rigsby isn’t the only person in bluegrass and country to buck the dominant trend, but few artists deliver realism as thrillingly as Rigsby does on The Midnight Call or on Rock Solid, the new album from his quintet Rock County. For he matches his subject matter with instrumental arrangements that heighten tension rather than subduing it, and with a strong tenor voice that confronts problems without flinching or whining.
Rigsby’s albums may seem out of step with contemporary bluegrass, but their content would have been normal fare had they been released in 1953. In that classic era, figures such as Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, Jimmy Martin and Lester Flatt wrote and sang about poverty, divorce and death without feeling the need to slap on a happy ending. In the intervening 50 years, expectations changed and something valuable was lost. Rigsby is out to reclaim that.
“Life is messy sometimes, and I’m not afraid to sing about that,” he says. “I’ve never shied from singing about that, even in my days with the Bluegrass Cardinals, J.D. Crowe, and the Lonesome River Band. My biggest influence has been Ralph Stanley, and he sings about ‘Pretty Polly’ and ‘Little Maggie’. Those weren’t happy people, but that’s just the way things are. I sing some happy songs, but I can’t sing about happy things all the time. I’ve always kind of been a realist, and if you look around the world and identify with people, you can’t help but feel their troubles.
“I grew up in East Kentucky, which is practically next door to the Virginia mountains where the Stanley Brothers grew up. When Carter wrote ‘How I Long To See The Old Folks’, he talks about a brook running through the old plantation and about graves on the hillside. You can almost see it, because he’s describing places from his youth that truly affected him as a boy. I saw similar things as a boy, and they affected me the same way. I came by this music honestly, and I can no more lay it down than I can cut off one of my limbs.”
Authenticity, though, is not the issue here. Rigsby didn’t write any of the material on his new solo album, nor did he share the characters’ experiences. He doesn’t drink; he’s hasn’t been divorced; he’s never murdered anyone; his parents are both alive. But that doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter that Gillian Welch was never a moonshiner and that Johnny Cash was never an inmate at Folsom Prison. All that matters is the singer’s ability to convince us of the story and the feeling behind it. This Rigsby does brilliantly.
“These are true-to-life songs,” he insists. “Someone has been there; maybe not me, but someone. Look around you, and you’ll see what I mean.”
Listen, for example, to “Carved Our Names In Stone”, written by Bobby Cyrus for Rigsby’s new solo disc. Over Jim Hurst’s pretty guitar arpeggios, Rigsby sings sweetly of being 10 and carving his sweetheart’s name in a beech tree. This sounds like a million modern bluegrass songs, but the mood shifts sharply in the second verse. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle adds an ominous drone as Rigsby reveals that he’s facing the same girl, 20 years later, in a divorce court. As his voice goes from wistful to pinched, you can’t help but believe Rigsby is telling his own story — even if he isn’t.
No Music Row happy ending will save this couple; they are doomed to go their separate ways. We realize this as the contrast grows between Rigsby’s high, hopeful mandolin trills and Duncan’s fiddle, which drops out of harmony and sinks vertiginously into a despairing counterpoint. Rigsby’s tenor tries to bridge this gap, but as it stretches further and further, it sounds more and more anguished.
That same anguish can be heard in “Dying To Hold Her Again”, a Jerry Salley/Joanne Keller honky-tonk ballad refitted for a string band. This time Rigsby tells the story of a recent widower who tries to drown his sorrow in whiskey. The portraits of the man stumbling into work with liquor on his breath and later lying drunk on the kitchen linoleum are not pretty.
Nothing in the lyrics or the vocal offers any hope that this man can be consoled, but neither does anything condemn him. Instead, Rigsby seems to stand back in awe of a sorrow so profound that it could cause such destruction. In his effort to understand, his voice squeezes certain syllables, twisting them into blue notes as surely as Randy Kohrs’ dobro does.
For the blues are the secret ingredient in this album. Rigsby hints at this by beginning the disc with “Those Gambler’s Blues”, Jimmie Rodgers’ variant on the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary”. Just as Rodgers did, Rigsby belts out this tale of gambling and death with gusto, flatting certain notes to reveal the pain behind the bravado.