To many, the idea of bluegrass musicians mining the early Van Halen catalog undoubtedly sounds like a joke. After all, is it really feasible to meld bare-bones, blue-collar, esteemed American roots music with arena-schlock material originally sung by a man fond of wearing pants with the rear end cut out?
The answer, as evidenced by Strummin’ With the Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen (CMH Records), is a surprisingly emphatic yes. Actually, the concept works a little too well; many of the performances are so straightforward and heavy-handed that there are few traces of the irony that made the David Lee Roth era of the band (VH’s output from 1978-84) such a guilty pleasure. If the musicians assembled had to keep from laughing behind their banjos and fiddles during these sessions, or were wearing the type of smirk eternally planted on Eddie Van Halen‘s face, it is tough to tell.
If the whole thing is a joke, then Roth is in on it, as he reprises his vocals on the disc’s opening two tracks. The first, “Jump,” by the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band, is ushered in with fast, slick picking as the basis for the melody, a welcome change from the overpowering keyboards on the original. But Roth’s cheesy intonation (“I get uhhhp!”) calls attention to just how mundane the song’s lyrics are. Apparently no amount of rearranging can breathe life into a tune whose emotional crux is the protagonist having his “back against the record machine.”
Still, that dud is the exception on this tribute album. The following track, “Jamie’s Cryin,” is much more effective, with Roth (again backed by the Jorgenson band) employing what amounts to a sincere, slightly hushed delivery. The presence of mandolin and fiddle make for a folksy feel, allowing the intimacy and vulnerability of the lyrics to come across more so than on the original (though strangely the song closes with two minutes of up-tempo instrumentation more befitting a celebratory tune).
As for the other vocalists filling Roth’s role, the results are mixed. Mountain Heart singer Steve Gulley is spot-on belting out “Dance the Night Away,” perhaps Van Halen’s most classically styled pop song, and the huge group chorus ringing out above the mandolin-heavy arrangement makes it a country radio hit in waiting. The John Cowan Band doesn’t fare as well with “Runnin’ With the Devil,” as Cowan’s overzealous vocals — his delivery morphs into something resembling a howl toward the end of the track — prove to be a distraction.
Elsewhere, Cornbread Red turns the nonsensical “Panama” into a feel-good, hoedown-style anthem. The Nashville Bluegrass Band makes “Could This Be Magic?” a full-on ragtime swing number. And David Grisman and Sons offer a loose, almost improvisational sounding instrumental version of “Hot for Teacher” that is such a pleasant piece of creativity that it somehow seems too short, even at 4:42.
Then there is Dennis Caplinger‘s rendition of “Eruption.” There is little deviation note-for-note from the original, which stands as Eddie Van Halen’s most indulgent recorded moment: two minutes of scorching, rapid-fire licks, prominently placed as the second track on the band’s self-titled debut album. That Caplinger tackles this tune with his banjo is not only ambitious, but at long last a flat-out lighthearted moment on the album. The high marks for musicianship on the disc notwithstanding, this collection could have used more of those. For if Roth made nothing else clear during his stint in Van Halen — buttless pants or not — it was that this music is not to be taken too seriously.
— By George Henn