For over 25 years, Joe Val was, in the words of Peter Rowan, the voice of bluegrass in New England. It didn’t matter that he was a short, skinny Italian (his last name was really Valiante) from a blue-collar Boston suburb, nor did it matter that his renditions of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers standards were often tinted by a decidedly Yankee inflection. On-stage he was an unassuming, bespectacled, quietly smiling presence until he opened his mouth to sing, at which point he filled the entire hall. His high tenor voice had the clarity and heft of a ten-pound icicle, and no less an authority than Del McCoury is on the record expressing wonderment at its power.
Val, who worked at a day job as a typewriter repairman until his death in 1985 and who had to ask for time off from work in order to tour with his band, blazed the way for Boston’s nascent folk and bluegrass scene with the Lilly Brothers in the early ’60s, and later surrounded himself with the cream of that city’s musical crop, including banjo legends Don Stover and Bill Keith and the less well-known members of the New England Bluegrass Boys (notably the criminally unknown guitarist and singer Dave Dillon). His mandolin playing was good, though nothing to write home about; it was that voice that set him apart from all the competition, and still does. This collection of tracks from Val’s various Rounder albums, though not as nice as a wholesale reissue of his back catalog would be, is still an excellent overview of his work and includes such spine-tingling highlights as “T for Texas,” “Goodbye Old Pal,” and the hair-raising “Poor Ellen Smith.” The chorus to “A Voice From on High” still reverberates around one’s skull, and his yodeling on “Sparkling Brown Eyes” still sets a standard of soul and accuracy that is rarely matched. This disc is essential to any bluegrass collection.