Class Grass

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While names like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs ring loud in the American pop consciousness, most bluegrass performers -- with the possible exception of Alison Krauss -- have toiled in relative anonymity. Their audience base, like that for jazz, blues and folk, is small but rabid, supporting a small host of touring acts committed to the genre.

The Rarely Herd is a quartet and one of the relatively few groups able to make a decent living from playing bluegrass music. It has been a fixture at awards shows all through the '90s and more likely than not to get top billing at festivals.

The Herd's latest album, Coming of Age, is its fifth for Pinecastle and a subtle gem. The band's personnel has remained stable during the course of its career but Calvin Leport, the regular banjo player, was unable to make the sessions for this set. Producer Don Wayne Reno stepped in admirably, as did the young dobro magician Rob Ickes.

Guitarist Jim Stack takes most of the lead vocals, alternating that chore with his mandolin-picking brother Alan, while Jeff Weaver floats his tenor above the throbbing bottom of his bass playing. While Weaver's "That Ain't No Way To Go" is an uptempo cut guaranteed to get feet moving, the group harmonies are shown off especially well on the a cappella gospel tune, "Holy, Holy, Holy," that closes out the album. Bob Dylan's "One More Night" and the tender ballad "When Will I Let Go" -- written by Steve Wariner and Jim Weatherly -- are also noteworthy.

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