It was planned as a celebration, but there'll be an inevitable somber side when fiddler Johnny Warren, his longtime banjo-picking friend Charlie Cushman and the rest of their group take the stage at The Station Inn to mark the release of their second tribute to Fiddlin' Paul Warren — inevitable because, even as Warren remembers his father and his father's music, he'll be remembering his son, also named Paul, who died in that massive Hendersonville pile-up just a couple of weeks ago.
It was a shocking blow, and one from which Warren, his family and his colleagues can hardly be expected to have recovered by Friday night. Even so, there'll be a good measure of warmhearted joy to be found in the occasion, for the Warren-Cushman tributes are labors of love that signal both a resurrection of the elder Paul Warren's brilliant (and still not sufficiently appreciated) music, and a renewal of Johnny Warren's commitment to the instrument and his legacy.
Born and raised in Hickman County, Paul Warren first came to prominence through an extended stint with Johnnie & Jack, then joined Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys in 1954. He remained with the duo for the next 15 years, and stuck with Flatt and his Nashville Grass until failing health forced him into retirement a year before his death in January 1978.
Yet while Warren was, as country music historian Eddie Stubbs notes, "the most visible fiddle player" in bluegrass for a long stretch of his career, the job afforded only brief opportunities for him to publicly perform the wealth of old-time fiddle tunes he'd learned as a youngster — and as was often the custom in those days, his employers frowned on the idea of a sideman making his own albums. So while his recorded output as a bluegrass sideman is considerable, only a few snippets of TV shows and some bootleg tapes documented his captivating embrace of a Middle Tennessee fiddle legacy — until Johnny Warren and Charlie Cushman began work on their first Tribute to Fiddlin' Paul Warren back in 2007.
A player himself, Johnny Warren had, not long before his father's death, pulled out a guitar, turned on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and accompanied him on a sackful of tunes with names like "Pretty Girl Goin' To Milk a Cow," "Wait in the Kitchen 'til the Cook Comes Home" and "Ole Joe Can't Play the Fiddle ('Cause the Bow's Too Short and Broke in the Middle)." But though he took his dad's place in the Nashville Grass for a while, Johnny Warren eventually opted for a career as a golf pro, and the tapes sat in a closet for a couple of decades.
Then, as the 30th anniversary of Fiddlin' Paul Warren's death approached, Johnny — who by that time had begun to make occasional forays as a fiddler again — pulled out the tapes and took them to Cushman. They found a place to transfer them to disc, and began to work up the tunes, calling on bassist Kent Blanton to assist them, and drawing Marty Stuart, former Foggy Mountain Boy Curly Seckler and even Earl Scruggs himself into the project. The result was that first Tribute, and it was about as perfect a tribute as one could hope for — at least, until they went back to make the second.
Even if you're familiar with the classic sound of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys' records, and even if you're familiar with how Paul Warren's fiddle fit into that context, the Tribute albums are a revelation. To begin with, Johnny Warren's grasp of his father's style is absolutely uncanny, and absolutely delicious. When he cut loose on a fiddle tune, the insouciant flourishes that made but an occasional appearance in Paul's bluegrass playing came to the fore — and each rendition on these albums makes clear just how deeply Johnny has internalized them, not as a set of rote gestures, but as a fundamental musical identity.
Remarkably, Volume Two takes that re-creational genius a step further, building around an ensemble that includes Blanton, but also makes room for Del McCoury in an unusual instrumental-only supporting role, and for Jerry Douglas in an equally unusual background-only role — he goes tune after tune doing nothing but playing backup licks, and obviously had a ball doing so. Ricky Skaggs turns up for a few numbers, and so does guitar phenom Bryan Sutton (playing some archtop rhythm), but the focus is, as before, on Johnny Warren playing his heart out on his dad's old tunes, with Cushman taking on the role of Earl Scruggs and doing it just right.
It's a truism that music can be a healing force in times of despair, but one can reasonably hope that it affords the Warren family some solace at a difficult time — and for the rest of us, there's no doubt at all that the tribute Johnny Warren and Charlie Cushman have paid, and continue to pay, to Fiddlin' Paul Warren is a source of endless warmth for the heart and the soul.