Always a musically eclectic bluegrass band, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out shines its light on country music with its latest album, Timeless Hits From the Past Bluegrassed, served up on the Cracker Barrel label.
The "hits" the title refers to are "Gentle on My Mind," "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde," "Golden Ring," "The Old Home Place," "Only You," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "My Window Faces the South," "Farewell Party," "Big Spike Hammer," "Tulsa Time," "Mama Tried" and "John and Mary."
Of these, "The Old Home Place" and "Big Spike Hammer" are bluegrass standards. "Only You," the Platters' doo-wop classic from 1955, and the band-penned "John and Mary" are stage-tested mainstays of IIIrd Tyme Out's repertoire.
Released in January, the album currently stands at No. 1 on Billboard's bluegrass chart.
"As far as picking the songs, it was a collaborative effort between all five band members, our management team and Cracker Barrel," bandleader Moore explains.
Cracker Barrel is a restaurant chain that periodically commissions country and bluegrass artists to create customer-friendly albums that are then sold in the chain's gift shops and at other retail outlets.
Moore says the band suggested "three, maybe four" album themes to the company.
"The one we decided on and went with [focused on] the songs that influenced us as young musicians and sort of shaped us into who we are," he explains.
Besides Moore, who is the International Bluegrass Music Association's reigning male vocalist, IIIrd Tyme out consists of banjoist Steve Dilling, fiddler Justen Haynes, mandolinist Wayne Benson and bassist Edgar Loudermilk. All of them also sing harmony to Moore's lead vocals.
"As artists and as a band, we have to be true to ourselves," Moore continues. "I think that's one of the clues to our longevity."
The band has been in business since 1991.
"We listened to several different types of music growing up -- and still do," he says. "We're all big '80s-rock fans. Of course, we've all been influenced by country music since an early age."
The inclusion of "Only You" -- which the band does a cappella -- might seem a strange choice given the album's overall country flavor, but it's been a IIIrd Tyme Out staple since the act first recorded and performed it in the mid-'90s.
Moore says that after a Cracker Barrel representative heard the band sing "Only You" in a live show, he was "pretty headstrong" that it be recorded for the new project.
Moore developed an affinity for a cappella singing during his 1985-91 tenure with Doyle Lawson's band, Quicksilver, a group that routinely dispensed with instrumental accompaniment, particularly when singing gospel songs.
Up until this point in its career, the band had produced all its own albums. For Bluegrassed, however, it turned for studio guidance to Barry Bales, Alison Krauss' longtime bass player.
"Barry brought an element of understanding and knowledge of the songs we were cutting," Moore says. "He knew how to get the most out of us, especially as vocalists."
Having a producer also relieved Moore of the responsibility of working the control board.
"I could relax and concentrate on the job [of making music] itself," he reflects.
The band brought in Sonya Isaacs, of the Isaacs bluegrass band, and country thrush Pam Tillis to help out with two of the songs.
"You've got to have a strong female vocalist if you're going to try to recreate anything that George Jones and Tammy Wynette recorded," Moore declares, referring to the band's cover of the 1976 chart-topper, "Golden Ring."
"It made it less scary, less apprehensive knowing that Sonya had agreed to do Tammy Wynette's part on the vocal," he adds.
"Sonya and I go way back to the Doyle Lawson days," Moore says. "We used to perform quite a bit on the same shows with the Isaacs. Sonya, [her sister] Becky and I would get backstage a lot of times and sing some of Vince Gill's songs. It was a lot of fun. They're both exceptional vocalists."
Tillis was also picked to provide just the right vocal thrust.
"I knew if we were going to recut 'John and Mary,' which is one of our biggest songs, and make it a little different, it was going to have to be pretty strong," Moore says. "We felt that Pam -- with her background, her history and her notoriety in country music -- would bring something special. And she did. She knocked it out of the park. The harmonies that she provided on the chorus were spot on."
Once the songs and the supporting vocalists were chosen, the recording went rather quickly. Moore says all the songs were cut and ready for mixing within a five-day period, three at a studio in Asheville, N.C., and two in Nashville.
"I think [the speed of recording] is a testament to having Barry in the studio," Moore says.
The Cracker Barrel connection will be apparent at many of IIIrd Tyme Out's shows via banners that will hang above the stage and on the band's merchandise tables.
There will also be "five or six" appearances in Cracker Barrel restaurants, where the band will meet fans, sign autographs and perform a few songs.
Moore says the band will perform approximately 100 or 125 shows this year.