O Sister! The Women's Bluegrass Collection -
3 1/2 Stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: January 25, 2002
By Tony BonyataWith Dolly Parton making a strong return to her bluegrass roots on her last two albums and the resounding success of the raw soundtrack from the Coen brother's film "O Brother Where Art Thou?," not to mention the increasing interest in alt-country with today's youth, it seems that bluegrass and American roots music is bigger than ever right now. And while Rounder Records, a label that excels in preserving and cultivating American roots music, latest release O Sister! The Women's Bluegrass Collection may seem like a scheme to turn a quick buck on the heels of O Brother's success, it's actually a strong introduction for the uninitiated to the talents of these female bluegrass artists.
Ever since Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys started this spirited offshoot of country music in early '40s, it has been dominated by men. One of the reasons for this may have been that the mountain men felt their women belonged in the kitchen and not on the road. Eventually, however, a handful of these talented women laid down their iron skillets and picked up their fiddles. And as O Sister! proves, it should have happened a lot earlier.
Where the O Brother soundtrack held court under bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, O Sister! is dominated by the likes of Delia Bell, West Virginian Hazel Dickens and Wilma Lee Cooper (who has the longest standing recording history of any artist on this collection, although her work with the Clinch Mountain Clan in the '40s was characterized more by country music than pure bluegrass).
The finger-pickin' mandolins and guitars along with raucous fiddles on this album make songs such as Dickens & Alice Gerrard's "True Life Blues," The Cox Family's "Pardon Me" and Kathy Kallick & Laurie Lewis' "Just Like Rain" stand up just as tall as the men who founded this genre, while the gritty earthiness of Wilma Lee Cooper's vocals on "You Tried to Ruin My Name" fills the air with the scent of coffee grinds and sizzling back-bacon on the griddle.
While their male counterparts offer vocals that are achingly raw and often beautifully high, the gals here show us what we were missing all those years. With angelic harmonies, uplifting vocals capable of dancing a jig on air and inflections pulled from both heart and gut, this talented group of women prove vocally and musically that they're every bit as engaging as their musical brothers.
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