Old & In the Way – That High Lonesome Sound

Old & In the Way CD
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INSTANT REPLAY: overlooked moments in music history — by Ryan Kailath

Old & In the Way
That High Lonesome Sound
Acoustic Disc | 1973/1996

“That High Lonesome Sound” was the first bluegrass album I ever heard. My sister turned me on to it in high school and I taped it for all my friends, telling them, “If you don’t like this music, you’re just lying to yourself.” Within weeks I’d bought a mandolin, my best friend had a banjo, and we could perform the album start to finish, including the banter in-between songs.

It wasn’t just the music that inspired us, it was the culture and way of life captured on wax. We recruited friends and hauled our instruments downtown, playing on the sidewalk for awestruck children and an empty hat. We dreamed of escaping adolescence on a freight train and finding love in the arms of an upright bass. The bluegrass formula of heartbreaking lyrics set to upbeat music (also known as the reggae formula) is a pop tradition, as ingrained in American hearts as a Norman Rockwell painting.

Old & In the Way was together for only nine months in 1973, yet released the fastest selling bluegrass record in history, their self-titled 1975 LP. The bulk of their success lies in the eclectic mix of master musicians: Jerry Garcia plays his first love, the banjo, leaving the guitar duties to a competent Peter Rowan. David “Dawg” Grisman, not yet a roots-music icon, picks the mandolin, and old-time legend Vassar Clements bows the fiddle. They take turns on solos and sing four-part harmony. Even James Kahn, nicknamed “Mule” for his slow and bulky instrument, shines when driving his bass to a gallop on songs like “Lost” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

The 1975 release was immensely influential for it’s new-grass sensibility, where the band covered hippie anthems like “Wild Horses” and “Panama Red.” This melding of genres has become a tradition echoed ad nauseum with the increasingly ridiculous Pickin’ On series of bluegrass tributes. The tapes from the San Francisco Boarding House shows in 1973 (recorded by the infamous Owsley “Bear” Stanley) were mined again in 1996 to produce the criminally lesser-known That High Lonesome Sound. This release features more bluegrass traditionals than covers, including two foot-stomping fiddle instrumentals.

I recently found my copy of That High Lonesome Sound, after years of thinking it lost. I brought it immediately in to work, and was pleasantly unsurprised when a customer pointed upwards and asked, “What is this music?” I couldn’t help but smile as I wrote down the name of the album. “This is Old & In the Way,” I told her. “If you don’t like this music, you’re just lying to yourself.”