You have to be one seriously confident bluegrass commando to open a Kentucky performance with The Old Home Place, a tune that has essentially served as a theme for J.D. Crowe and the New South for close to four decades. Up the ante if you discover the recently-defunct New South’s final vocalist, Ricky Wasson, sitting in the audience. That was the scenario as Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out got the first of two Saturday evening sets underway at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall in Clay City.
But then again, the veteran bluegrass troupe proved resourceful enough to take full possession of a stylistically-far reaching repertoire during the set. Take Pretty Little Girl from Galax by Kentucky songsmith Bill Castle (who, curiously enough, was also in attendence). The increasingly rustic tenor of Moore’s vocals, the old-timey tone of Justen Haynes’ fiddle colors and the almost Celtic inclinations of a melody line that recalled the folk staple Shady Groves provided the tune (penned for IIIrd Tyme Out’s 2009 Prime Tyme album) with a vividly traditional feel.
Then there was the cherished Bill Monroe instrumental Bluegrass Special, which strayed from familiar arrangements as a fiddle tune into a wild exercise in string band democracy. Shuffling elements of jazz and swing, IIIrd Tyme Out’s version actually placed most of the heavy lifting on longtime mandolinist Wayne Benson, whose animated playing fueled much of the arrangement’s rhythmic drive and swagger.
Straying perhaps the furthest from bluegrass convention was a cover of John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, an early ‘70s country-folk radio hit served here as an unassuming vehicle for the conversational ease of Moore’s singing. Working cleaning off supporting vocals from banjoist Steve Dilling and under-the-weather bassist Edgar Loudermilk, Moore placed the tune’s rural imagery and light country lyricism at the forefront without letting the song disintegrate into heavy sentimentalism.
For a band that has continually juggled traditional and contemporary inspirations, IIIrd Tyme Out opted for more of the former in this neatly executed performance. Perhaps that’s because the set bypassed the more extreme country and pop tunes from the band’s recordings. But mostly, the band has simply has developed a spacious, inviting ensemble voice of its own for songs that crossed as many generational divides as it did stylistic ones.