This is an especially pleasing four-CD set, comprising most of the Country Gentlemen
's recordings for the Rebel label over a period of nine years, when they used bluegrass music as a vehicle for innovation by way of country, folk, and rock. The influence of the Osborne Brothers
can be heard throughout their early work (along with more mainstream country sources), but then they start cutting Dylan
and Tom Paxton
songs. The odd early individual tracks lead into the contents of the Bringing Mary Home
album, which established their reputation nationally as a bluegrass act to be reckoned with. Disc One ends with the controversial "Big Bruce," a gay parody of Jimmy Dean
's "Big Bad John" that skirts a fine line between satire, burlesque, and slur. Disc Two features several previously unissued songs, and also shows the group growing artistically amid a flurry of concert activity -- a surprising number of songs from this period were cut on the fly at semi-pro and improvised studios, as the band fit recording in anywhere they could. Disc Three picks up in 1969 -- the group by this time was freely adapting popular as well as folk tunes, thus the presence of "Mrs. Robinson" amid the bluegrass standards. By Disc Four, the group was nearing a summit of popularity and creativity. The irony was that, even as they were achieving success, the group was nearing a decision to leave Rebel. This collection isn't quite ideal, since it is missing a key mid-'60s live recording; the booklet and annotation are very thorough, as is the session information, all of it pitched at the Bear Family level.