James Blackwood and The Light Crust Doughboys

The Light Crust Doughboys are more legend than band now -- the longest-running Western swing outfit around, old men playing old music. Together since the 1920s, The Light Crust Doughboys are practically just a name at this point, a ghost of Christmas dances past, even though some members of the group, including banjo player-guitarist Marvin "Smokey" Hormel, have been with the band for almost seven decades. And James Blackwood enjoys the same status; he's been one of the biggest names in Southern gospel music for more than 60 years, with a shelf full of Grammy awards and more praises than a hymn book to show for it. (Johnny Cash called Blackwood's recording of "Over the Next Hill We'll Be Home," a Cash original, "one of the biggest honors and thrills I have ever had.") Then again, unless you own a wicked crossover move like Kirk Franklin, being a successful gospel singer means no one knows your name outside of a Sunday church social. But that hardly matters to Blackwood; after all, he's doing the Lord's work.

At times, however, Blackwood does it too much; his gospel becomes a bit too literal, his booming voice overshadowing everything else on Red River Valley Memories. Occasionally, there is nothing else: A handful of scripture readings by Blackwood appear on the disc with little or no accompaniment. Though most of the album is more sermon than song, it's to the Doughboys' credit that Red River Valley is listenable and danceable without being pious. You can almost forget the subject matter when Montgomery and the band are doing their best to prove that their music can swing without a drummer. Of course, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Blackwood and the Doughboys' reputation has given them more than their fair share of leeway in the past. Not that they need it much; Red River Valley shows that both are at the top of their game, even if they don't really need to be anymore.

Red River Valley Memories isn't for everyone -- if you're under the age of 30, you're likely to deem it corny or worse -- but a select few will cherish it, wear out its digital grooves. With Blackwood and the Doughboys' respective pasts, it makes sense that the first collaboration between the two, Keep Lookin' Up: The Texas Swing Sessions, resulted in another Grammy nomination for Blackwood. And Red River Valley Memories will likely garner another nod for the team. It should: Blackwood's tenor is just as strong as ever on the jaunty redo of "The Bells of St. Mary's" and the lingering "Home on the Range." The Doughboys match Blackwood's every step, handling songs such as the title track and "Render Unto Caesar Blues" with a subtle touch that can only be found with years of experience. And they certainly have that.


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