As the final performance of the 41st Festival of the Bluegrass got underway this morning at the Kentucky Horse Park, Ron Thomason – vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and all-around raconteur of the Dry Branch Fire Squad – quoted the late John Duffey of The Seldom Scene and his feelings about performing all-gospel sets: “We’ll do all the gospel shows they want as long as we can play at 11 o’clock at night.”But here, the longstanding Dry Branch was serving up gospel at the more appropriate delivery time of 11 on Sunday morning. It was country gospel, too – the kind of deep rooted yet surprisingly soft sell spiritualism that predates bluegrass. Built on stoic, understated harmonies and brittle instrumentation that was authoritative but devoid of flash, such a sound has long been a specialty of Dry Branch. It was also a platform for playful sermonizing that made Thomason seem less like a rural preacher and more like Will Rogers.
Much of this morning’s set centered on spirituals the quartet recorded for the The Gospel Way, one of the two new albums cut recently over a four day session. The fare included Take Me in Your Lifeboat, which boasted intuitive quartet singing and an amusing tale about “existential angst” from Thomason and how it pertained to fiddle solos in old-time music (Dry Branch currently tours without a fiddler). Other highlights included a gentle reading of Will the Circle Be Unbroken that returned to tune to its unadorned roots and a crisply understated reading of the Carter Family’s 50 Miles of Elbow Room.
Dry Branch also performed a set of more secular-dominate material last night at the Festival that highlighted its other new recording, Don’t Forget This Song. Needless to say, the subject matter of Thomason’s between song banter varied greatly.
This morning he discussed banjo tuning, eulogized bluegrass gospel great George Shuffler and ended with a sobering intro to the war memorial tune He’s Coming To Us Dead (“a lot of them come back that way, you know”). Last night, he joked about knife fights, farmer’s daughters and space aliens driving in the passing lane. There were strong differences musically, as well, including a version of the vintage Tommy Roe pop hit Sweet Little Sheila augmented by Thomason’s variation of the body slapping percussion style known as hamboning.
A nearby patron accurately summed up the performance: “It takes a real hambone to really know how to hambone.”