A bit less than 40 minutes in length, this set of tunes can be considered as revolutionary as the arrival of Bill Monroe on the country music scene. While nobody is going to give Del McCoury credit for inventing bluegrass, he and his Dixie Pals seem well past the midpoint in developing a new way to interpret the genre on this classic early-'70s recording, reissued on compact disc more than two decades later. McCoury's style on this record can be compared to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Like that long-running and popular group, Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals commonly were described simply by tacking the word "chamber" in the right place, as if it were a Post-it note, making "chamber bluegrass" out of the proceedings just like the MJQ were critically served up as a "chamber jazz" group. It is more than attire that inspired these descriptions, not that clothing isn't considered an important part of a performer's image by some. Indeed, it was enough for the MJQ to walk on-stage in their normal attire of suits and ties to turn off certain jazz listeners. Avant-garde jazz maestro Anthony Braxton has written about this, calling it "the sweaty brow syndrome." The desire to see a player really "gittin' down and sweatin'" as the music heats up on-stage is in complete contrast to the commonly accepted notion of a chamber music ensemble, expected to stay cool and dry. The bluegrass audience is philosophically ruled by something called "the yee-haw factor," which sounds like it could even be a sub-department of the sweaty brow syndrome, or vice versa. This McCoury record "will never be among the records I play constantly," Jack O'Ryan wrote in Old Time Music magazine the year this album was originally released. Referring to the term "chamber bluegrass," the writer bemoans what he hears as a lack of "precipitous, exhilarating flangdang." For the record, the MJQ would have considered McCoury and band underdressed on their album cover photo: white shirts, but no ties and jackets. Brows are sweating, true, but it is probably because the group is posing in the middle of a pasture.
The huge audience that McCoury built up through dedicated, almost nonstop touring is hardly there to hear a Hindemith quartet, make no mistake. Neophytes in the bluegrass world might even think they had entered an alternate universe when a number such as "Big Rock in the Road" can be compared to chamber music. What is interesting about the notion is not the perversity of judging players by their sweat secretions; such a problem could easily be balanced out by having players pedal an exercise bike while performing. But in both jazz and bluegrass, the subject of chamber music is essentially another example of these genres drawing in outside influences, one of the great sustaining factors in either style. The musical atmosphere that makes some critics think they are breathing the stuffy air of a classical recital hall can better be described as a sense of precise articulation, and a concept of sustaining certain moods, that seems to be a part of the way bluegrass pickers from McCoury's generation on up play their instruments. Logically, these stylistic developments are related to the players' exposure to the big wide world of musical styles. The early generations of players learned music from parents, relatives, and other locals, and heard their first country & western on Grand Old Opry broadcasts. By the '70s, Dixie Pal members such as sibling Jerry McCoury on bass and the superb banjoist Bill Runkle had absorbed these essential influences along with everything else from James Brown to Leonard Bernstein, and were just as likely to enjoy a broadcast of Bob Marley as Roy Acuff. The groundbreaking that McCoury did on this album turned out to be the foundation for a new and expanding audience for bluegrass. And since it inevitably led listeners back to Ralph Stanley, it can be assumed that even the old-time music crowd is happy about it by now, yee-haw factor or not. The quintet gets a wonderfully full sound on tracks such as the title number and the lovely "When I Stop Dreaming." Fiddler Billy Sage and Runkle mesh all over the place -- "In My Mind to Ramble" is a journey for the listener as well as the narrator, while "I'm Lonely Tonight" is just not going to be the case for the listener to whom bluegrass is the best company of all.