From Jerry Douglas’ opening dobro licks to the last ensemble G chord, Empty Old Mailbox is a nearly perfect bluegrass album. Nearly perfect because it lacks the late great fiddler Randy Howard, to whose memory this CD is dedicated. Backed by a stampede of steller players including Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Ron Stewart, J.D. Crowe, Ron Rigsby, Carl Jackson, and Sammy Shelor on banjo, Stuart Duncan on Clawhmmer banjo, Ben Isaacs and Gene Libea on bass, Tim Stafford, Carl Jackson, Larry Sparks, Ray Craft, and Jimmy Sloas on guitar, David Blazer on cello, and Garnet Imes, Tim Surrett, Carl Jackson, Sonya Isaacs, Tina Rigsby, Gordon Kennedy, and Larry Sparks on vocals, session leader and mandolin player Don Rigsby has assembled an impressive array of talent.
Surprisingly, unlike many bluegrass solo efforts, this disc is less about hot picking than about heartfelt singing. Oh sure, there’s a whole passel of blazing licks and great solos, just listen to Don’s solo on “These Ole Blues;” but it’s the songs and the way they are delivered that will grab you hardest. Tunes like “Empty Old Mailbox” and “Son of a Gun” have a mournful center that is the very essence of great bluegrass.
Certainly a must-have for any bluegrass fan, Empty Old Mailbox is the kind of disc that can even turn around hot-country listeners who usually don’t much care for bluegrass. Wonderful songs played with feeling and style will make anyone sit back and listen.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’00 issue.