Reviews - June 2009

Steve Martin The CrowSTEVE MARTIN
THE CROW: NEW SONGS FOR THE 5 STRING BANJO

Rounder Records
11661-0647-2

Every time I hear of an actor deciding to explore his or her music muse, my expectations for the finished product aren’t high because of past examples from several bodies of dusty work on the shelves. This isn’t the case with actor/comedian Steve Martin. For one, he has the credibility of being one of the chosen few to play with his idol Earl Scruggs on a latter day celebrity packed recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” He also wrote and picked on Tony Trischka’s Grammy nominated and 2007 IBMA Instrumental Album Of The Year, “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.” Before I even inserted the CD, I read through the wonderfully detailed 24page liner notes detailing the inspiration for each of the album’s songs (an excellent addition to the project) and learned from Steve’s own words the great degree of respect he has for the banjo: “I can’t imagine the vacancy I would have had in my life without this peculiar instrument running through it.”

With his childhood friend, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen at the control knobs, Martin brought in a who’s who list of musicians from a variety of genres to flesh out his creative endeavors with his fivestring wizardry. On his first fulllength bluegrass album, this “wild and crazy guy” enlisted Vince Gill and Dolly Parton (“Pretty Flowers”), Mary Black (“Calico Train”), and Tim O’Brien (“Daddy Played The Banjo”), along with banjo legend Earl Scruggs, and banjo masters Trischka, McEuen, and Pete Wernick. This comic’s talent shows a serious exploration of his love for the fivestring on a CD he jokingly refers to as “the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe and that includes possible alternative universes, too.” (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.)BC

Audie Blaylock and RedlineAUDIE BLAYLOCK AND REDLINE

Rural Rhythm
RHR 1042

Audie Blaylock has ranked among the most respected sidemen in bluegrass for more than twenty years, having worked with Jimmy Martin, Rhonda Vincent, Lynn Morris, and Michael Cleveland, to name a few. It should come as no surprise then that Audie Blaylock and Redline delivers fairly traditional bluegrass with seriously propulsive rhythms. Due to the CD’s cover art, folks may call this eponymous album “Hard Driving Bluegrass,” which is a fair description except for not saying anything about the superior vocals.

The band offers a fully-committed, exciting brand of roots bluegrass. Just check out the old-school fiddle kickoff leading to Audie’s cashonthebarrelhead singing on “Roll On Blues” by Connie Gately. It thrills just to read the songwriter credits on dusted-off Blaylock and crew: Bob Osborne, Lester Flatt, Frank Wakefield, Bill Tidwell, Cullen Galyean.

Although just their second album as a group, they offer the powerful chops of youth and a confident maturity of purpose and cohesion as an ensemble. Fiddler Patrick McAvinue, Jason Johnson on mandolin, bassist Matt Wallace, and banjoist Evan Ward deliver the goods on material as diverse as the Bailes Brothers’ “Send Me Your Address From Heaven” and the glacial gospel classic “Goodbye” from Jimmy Martin and Paul Williams. All but McAvinue contribute vocals.

The only true negative about the album (produced by Audie with Scott Vestal engineering) is that it leaves you wanting more. Altogether, the dozen songs aggregate but 33 minutes. That means each song fires out in a narrow range from 2:10 (the gorgeous a cappella “Who Will Sing For Me”) to 3:40 (“My Blue Eyed Darling”). Nine of them clock in at less than three minutes. That and the absence of any instrumental pieces somewhat undercuts the positive effects of carefully sequencing medium, fast, and slow material, sacred and secular songs. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040D, Arcadia, CA 91066,  www.ruralrhythm.com.)AM

Larry Keel & Natural BridgeLARRY KEEL & NATURAL BRIDGE
BACKWOODS

No Label
LKNB09

Expert musicians know in reality, it’s about the band and the final product, not just the star dominating the limelight. Larry Keel is an expert musician and having surrounded himself with musicians of high caliber, he gives them room to shine.

Mandolinist Mark Schimick, a forwardleaning player with a propulsive right hand, shows his chops and vocals on his own composition, “Ghost Driver,” sliding into the opening verse with a nifty intro full of rapid right-hand ornaments, setting a swinging, bluesy groove. He later closes the album with another original, “Swarmin’ Bees.” Banjoist Jason Flournoy gets his chance with his own “Bohemian Reel” and on the extended solo and backing on the rhythmically intriguing “Diamond Break.” Guest fiddler Bobby Britt appears on three tracks, most notably on a striking performance in which he underlines the gypsy roots of Kenny Baker’s “Bluegrass In The Backwoods.”

Of course, Keel is not obscured. He wrote four of he tunes. Two are exceptional: “Diamond Break,” co-written with Chris Jones, recalls Guy Clark in both structure and vocal; “They” is an impassioned and stomping plea for taking concern of our own lives rather than listening to the rants, plans, and lives of others.

Keel adds his unique lead vocals to five tracks which include the two mentioned above and on covers of Tom T. Hall’s “Faster Horses” and Lennon/McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son.” His “Faster Horses,” in many ways, trumps the original; its more world-weary and sly than Hall’s own version. While I won’t say he trumps the Beatles, Keel’s “Mother Nature’s Son” evokes a mood that Paul and John could only dream about.
And, of course, there are numerous mesmerizing Keel guitar solos scattered throughout the recording; check out “Bohemian Reel.” Better yet, check out the whole recording. (Keel Office, P.O. Box 30, Lexington, VA 24450, www.larrykeel.com.)BW

Bobby OsborneBOBBY OSBORNE & THE ROCKY TOP EXPRESS
BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND

Rounder Records
166106032

Given the title, you might think Bobby Osborne was going to go way out there. After all, he’s been going beyond traditional bluegrass since at least the mid’60s. If he has to mention it after all these years, there must be some wild stuff on this recording, right?

Well, not really. Two slow country tunes (“After The Fire Is Gone” and “You Can”) and a slow countryrock tune (the Eagles’ “Girl From Yesterday”) are about the limit. The other two songs of country origin, Jerry Reed’s “Let’s Sing Our Song” and Eddie Rabbitt’s ’70s country hit “Driving My Life Away,” are given uptempo and relatively straight bluegrass arrangements, but retain elements of country, swing, and pop. The Reed tune has a few more identity issues, seeming to shift moods as its struts along in its new bluegrass guise, but both are wellsuited to bluegrass treatment and therefore sound good.
There is much here that sounds good, especially Osborne’s vocals and the support of banjoist Dana Cupp, bassist Daryl Mosely, resonator guitarist Matt Despain and, in particular, fiddler Glen Duncan, who lets it fly several times to great effect. Among the highlights is “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul,” given a split arrangement with Osborne and Marty Stuart for a couple of traditional sounding verses, then Osborne and Connie Smith with a more country verse, closing in a trio with Osborne and double tracked Duncan. A good word should also be said for the cover of Ira Louvin’s “Way Up On The Mountain” and for the gospel and social commentary in “A Wise Man’s Mind Will Change.”

I closed a previous review of an Osborne recording with, “You’ll smile and nod in agreement while listening to it.” The same holds true here. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA, 01803 www.rounder.com.)BW

Olivia SmileyOLIVIA SMILEY & MAIN STREET
BRIGHT LIGHTS AND AVENUES

No Label
No Number

Olivia Smiley is a young, Indiana fiddler/singer/songwriter with confidence and a wealth of talent. This is her second recording and is backed by her band, Main Street, that includes guitarist/vocalist Jeff Guernsey, banjoist Klint Brown, and bassist Kolin Brown. Michael Cleveland guests throughout on mandolin.

The project opens with two covers and closes with two covers. Of those four songs, the standard “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” and the cover of Osborne and Pete Goble’s “Windy City” deserve mention. Of particular note is the arrangement of “We’ll Meet Again…,” on which Smiley and Guernsey trade the lead vocals. It makes for a nice twist and is underscored by a chugging rhythmic snap.

The true heart and interest, however, lies in the eight original songs and two original instrumentals contributed by Smiley herself—specifically, four of them. The first is the slow, threequarter-time “Love Left For You,” which expertly blends a gospel-style melody and a marching rhythm in the vocals. It is the album’s highlight. Then comes the wonderful imagery of “Seems Like Yesterday,” in which a house once wellkept declines as a father, now alone, does the same. The next is “I’ll Be Home,” a song that recalls the work of Claire Lynch in its use of direct lyrics and a great melodic hook; the extended solos are also well done all around. The last of the quartet is the country-swing instrumental, “Bitter Creek,” which features Smiley’s liquid and bluesy fiddling from start to finish over a snappy, closed chord rhythm.

You could stop there and claim success, but the two aforementioned covers, a couple of lesserbutgood originals, and some tight instrumental support throughout make it all the more so. (Olivia Smiley, P.O. Box 263, Greensburg, IN 47240, www.oliviasmiley.com.)BW

Steve Martin

Steve Martin The CrowTHE CROW: NEW SONGS FOR THE 5 STRING BANJO

Rounder Records
11661-0647-2

Every time I hear of an actor deciding to explore his or her music muse, my expectations for the finished product aren’t high because of past examples from several bodies of dusty work on the shelves. This isn’t the case with actor/comedian Steve Martin. For one, he has the credibility of being one of the chosen few to play with his idol Earl Scruggs on a latter day celebrity packed recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” He also wrote and picked on Tony Trischka’s Grammy nominated and 2007 IBMA Instrumental Album Of The Year, “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.” Before I even inserted the CD, I read through the wonderfully detailed 24page liner notes detailing the inspiration for each of the album’s songs (an excellent addition to the project) and learned from Steve’s own words the great degree of respect he has for the banjo: “I can’t imagine the vacancy I would have had in my life without this peculiar instrument running through it.”
With his childhood friend, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen at the control knobs, Martin brought in a who’s who list of musicians from a variety of genres to flesh out his creative endeavors with his fivestring wizardry. On his first fulllength bluegrass album, this “wild and crazy guy” enlisted Vince Gill and Dolly Parton (“Pretty Flowers”), Mary Black (“Calico Train”), and Tim O’Brien (“Daddy Played The Banjo”), along with banjo legend Earl Scruggs, and banjo masters Trischka, McEuen, and Pete Wernick. This comic’s talent shows a serious exploration of his love for the fivestring on a CD he jokingly refers to as “the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe and that includes possible alternative universes, too.” (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.)BC

Audie Blaylock and Redline

Audie Blaylock and RedlineAUDIE BLAYLOCK AND REDLINE

Rural Rhythm
RHR 1042

Audie Blaylock has ranked among the most respected sidemen in bluegrass for more than twenty years, having worked with Jimmy Martin, Rhonda Vincent, Lynn Morris, and Michael Cleveland, to name a few. It should come as no surprise then that Audie Blaylock and Redline delivers fairly traditional bluegrass with seriously propulsive rhythms. Due to the CD’s cover art, folks may call this eponymous album “Hard Driving Bluegrass,” which is a fair description except for not saying anything about the superior vocals.

The band offers a fully-committed, exciting brand of roots bluegrass. Just check out the old-school fiddle kickoff leading to Audie’s cashonthebarrelhead singing on “Roll On Blues” by Connie Gately. It thrills just to read the songwriter credits on dusted-off Blaylock and crew: Bob Osborne, Lester Flatt, Frank Wakefield, Bill Tidwell, Cullen Galyean.

Although just their second album as a group, they offer the powerful chops of youth and a confident maturity of purpose and cohesion as an ensemble. Fiddler Patrick McAvinue, Jason Johnson on mandolin, bassist Matt Wallace, and banjoist Evan Ward deliver the goods on material as diverse as the Bailes Brothers’ “Send Me Your Address From Heaven” and the glacial gospel classic “Goodbye” from Jimmy Martin and Paul Williams. All but McAvinue contribute vocals.

The only true negative about the album (produced by Audie with Scott Vestal engineering) is that it leaves you wanting more. Altogether, the dozen songs aggregate but 33 minutes. That means each song fires out in a narrow range from 2:10 (the gorgeous a cappella “Who Will Sing For Me”) to 3:40 (“My Blue Eyed Darling”). Nine of them clock in at less than three minutes. That and the absence of any instrumental pieces somewhat undercuts the positive effects of carefully sequencing medium, fast, and slow material, sacred and secular songs. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040D, Arcadia, CA 91066,  www.ruralrhythm.com.)AM

Larry Keel and Natural Bridge

Larry Keel & Natural BridgeBACKWOODS

No Label
LKNB09

Expert musicians know in reality, it’s about the band and the final product, not just the star dominating the limelight. Larry Keel is an expert musician and having surrounded himself with musicians of high caliber, he gives them room to shine.

Mandolinist Mark Schimick, a forwardleaning player with a propulsive right hand, shows his chops and vocals on his own composition, “Ghost Driver,” sliding into the opening verse with a nifty intro full of rapid right-hand ornaments, setting a swinging, bluesy groove. He later closes the album with another original, “Swarmin’ Bees.” Banjoist Jason Flournoy gets his chance with his own “Bohemian Reel” and on the extended solo and backing on the rhythmically intriguing “Diamond Break.” Guest fiddler Bobby Britt appears on three tracks, most notably on a striking performance in which he underlines the gypsy roots of Kenny Baker’s “Bluegrass In The Backwoods.”

Of course, Keel is not obscured. He wrote four of he tunes. Two are exceptional: “Diamond Break,” co-written with Chris Jones, recalls Guy Clark in both structure and vocal; “They” is an impassioned and stomping plea for taking concern of our own lives rather than listening to the rants, plans, and lives of others.

Keel adds his unique lead vocals to five tracks which include the two mentioned above and on covers of Tom T. Hall’s “Faster Horses” and Lennon/McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son.” His “Faster Horses,” in many ways, trumps the original; its more world-weary and sly than Hall’s own version. While I won’t say he trumps the Beatles, Keel’s “Mother Nature’s Son” evokes a mood that Paul and John could only dream about.
And, of course, there are numerous mesmerizing Keel guitar solos scattered throughout the recording; check out “Bohemian Reel.” Better yet, check out the whole recording. (Keel Office, P.O. Box 30, Lexington, VA 24450, www.larrykeel.com.)BW

Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top Express

Bobby OsborneBLUEGRASS AND BEYOND

Rounder Records
166106032

Given the title, you might think Bobby Osborne was going to go way out there. After all, he’s been going beyond traditional bluegrass since at least the mid’60s. If he has to mention it after all these years, there must be some wild stuff on this recording, right?

Well, not really. Two slow country tunes (“After The Fire Is Gone” and “You Can”) and a slow countryrock tune (the Eagles’ “Girl From Yesterday”) are about the limit. The other two songs of country origin, Jerry Reed’s “Let’s Sing Our Song” and Eddie Rabbitt’s ’70s country hit “Driving My Life Away,” are given uptempo and relatively straight bluegrass arrangements, but retain elements of country, swing, and pop. The Reed tune has a few more identity issues, seeming to shift moods as its struts along in its new bluegrass guise, but both are wellsuited to bluegrass treatment and therefore sound good.
There is much here that sounds good, especially Osborne’s vocals and the support of banjoist Dana Cupp, bassist Daryl Mosely, resonator guitarist Matt Despain and, in particular, fiddler Glen Duncan, who lets it fly several times to great effect. Among the highlights is “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul,” given a split arrangement with Osborne and Marty Stuart for a couple of traditionalsounding verses, then Osborne and Connie Smith with a more country verse, closing in a trio with Osborne and doubletracked Duncan. A good word should also be said for the cover of Ira Louvin’s “Way Up On The Mountain” and for the gospel and social commentary in “A Wise Man’s Mind Will Change.”

I closed a previous review of an Osborne recording with, “You’ll smile and nod in agreement while listening to it.” The same holds true here. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA, 01803 www.rounder.com.)BW

Olivia Smiley and Main Street

Olivia SmileyBRIGHT LIGHTS AND AVENUES

No Label
No Number

Olivia Smiley is a young, Indiana fiddler/singer/songwriter with confidence and a wealth of talent. This is her second recording and is backed by her band, Main Street, that includes guitarist/vocalist Jeff Guernsey, banjoist Klint Brown, and bassist Kolin Brown. Michael Cleveland guests throughout on mandolin.

The project opens with two covers and closes with two covers. Of those four songs, the standard “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” and the cover of Osborne and Pete Goble’s “Windy City” deserve mention. Of particular note is the arrangement of “We’ll Meet Again…,” on which Smiley and Guernsey trade the lead vocals. It makes for a nice twist and is underscored by a chugging rhythmic snap.

The true heart and interest, however, lies in the eight original songs and two original instrumentals contributed by Smiley herself—specifically, four of them. The first is the slow, threequarter-time “Love Left For You,” which expertly blends a gospel-style melody and a marching rhythm in the vocals. It is the album’s highlight. Then comes the wonderful imagery of “Seems Like Yesterday,” in which a house once wellkept declines as a father, now alone, does the same. The next is “I’ll Be Home,” a song that recalls the work of Claire Lynch in its use of direct lyrics and a great melodic hook; the extended solos are also welldone all around. The last of the quartet is the country-swing instrumental, “Bitter Creek,” which features Smiley’s liquid and bluesy fiddling from start to finish over a snappy, closedchord rhythm.

You could stop there and claim success, but the two aforementioned covers, a couple of lesserbutgood originals, and some tight instrumental support throughout make it all the more so. (Olivia Smiley, P.O. Box 263, Greensburg, IN 47240, www.oliviasmiley.com.)BW

Reviews - July 2009

Balsam Range - Last Train To Kitty Hawk

Balsam Range - Last Train To Kitty Hawk

BALSAM RANGE
LAST TRAIN TO KITTY HAWK

Mountain Home
MH12062

Western North Carolina ensemble Balsam Range announced their debut with authority on 2007’s acclaimed “Marching Home.” That album originated as a solo effort for fiddler and versatile singer Buddy Melton. Their sophomore outing, “Last Train To Kitty Hawk,” presents a true ensemble. The band spreads the vocal work to terrific effect. They (including Melton on vocals, guitarist Caleb B. Smith, and bass and resonator guitar player Tim Surrett) move effortlessly from driving bluegrass (“Julie’s Train”) to contemporary ballads (Somewhere In Between”) to 21st century bluegrass (“Last Train To Kitty Hawk”).
Melton and Smith trade the lead singing between verse and chorus on four of the first six songs, creating a hallmark of the still emerging Balsam Range sound. Smith figures prominently as lead vocalist, along with former member of the Kingsmen, Surrett, who sings lead on Ralph Stanley’s “I’m Lonesome Without You” and “Don’t Take Me Tonight As I Am” by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Southern gospel superstar Karen Peck Gooch provides the harmony on “The Holy Hills (A Tribute To Dottie Rambo).” Mandolinist Darren Nicholson also takes lead vocals on “Spring Will Bring The Flowers” by Timothy W. Smith. Marc Pruett, ranked among the most respected bluegrass banjo players for almost forty years, completes the fivesome.

Charlie Monroe’s “Down In Caroline,” is presented in a rousing version featuring Buddy, Tim, and Darren. The same trio sound equally powerful, but totally different in style on “Somewhere In Between” written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton. Melton has cowriter credit on “Julie’s Train” and Smith has solo credits for “Jack Diamond” and the instrumental closer, “Jaxon Point.” The collection also contains a halfdozen outstanding outside compositions. Milan Miller, who wrote two songs on their last album, comes through again with the immediately memorable modern murder song, “Caney Fork River,” placed right behind the infectious title track, written by James Ellis and Steve Dukes.

Indeed, the album easily passes the singalong test. You’ll find yourself singing along spontaneously to songs you haven’t even heard before. “Last Train To Kitty Hawk” demonstrates significant growth over a successful debut, expanding their use of vocal power while increasing the amount of contemporary material. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com. AM

Dailey & Vincent - Brothers From Different Mothers

Dailey & Vincent - Brothers From Different Mothers

DAILEY & VINCENT
BROTHERS FROM DIFFERENT MOTHERS

Rounder Records
1166106172

The note from the Editor that came with this CD read, “It may be a bit ‘On The Edge.’” Bluegrass is a dynamic music form that retains an important element that came from Mr. Monroe: discipline. This is a project with lots of session men and more high tech gimmickry than could have been imagined in the days of recording live. It’s still bluegrass, but Dailey & Vincent-style—that is, bluegrass as played today with lots of modern touches. There is no big surprise that the gospel numbers all sound great. There are lots of other good songs like “Your Love Is Like A Flower.” Not the old Flatt & Scruggs classic, but an update of that theme.

The duet is at the core of the fine vocals that predominate on this project. The duet on Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come And Gone” is a highlight for its simplicity and great vocals over just two guitars. There are a couple of nods to the Statler Brothers, one of Dailey’s longstanding influences, one with a touch of “Roadhog” Moran, the Statler’s comic alterego from the mid-1970s. Their reading of “Years Ago” is very close to the original by the Statler Brothers. They veer toward a movie soundtrack with the string-laden “On The Other Side.” This cut could crossover to mainstream country.

It is that last cut and when you start over, the banjos, fiddles, and urgency return toward what we all would recognize as bluegrass. There is a grand variety of music here and the boys have got another hit album here. It will be interesting to see where it takes them. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) RCB

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Lonely Street

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Lonely Street

DOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER
LONELY STREET

Rounder Records
1166106352

There seems to be a steady melding of bluegrass and country that, more often than not, strips the best qualities of both genres and leaves little for the listener other than the impression that where the artist is probably isn’t where he or she wants to be. But, with his latest release, Doyle Lawson is right where he wants to be.

As is to be expected, there is some fine traditional bluegrass on the album. New songs “Yesterday’s Songs,” “Johnny And Sally,” and “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come” are firmly planted in the tradition befitting bluegrass’s elder statesmen. The first intersection of country and bluegrass on the album is the traditional bluegrass treatment of songs by classic country artists: “Lonely Street” (Carl Belew), “Big Wind” (Porter Wagoner), and “Call Me Up And I’ll Come Callin’ On You” (Marty Robbins). Lawson is able to infuse these songs with the tight trio harmony with help from bassist Carl White and guitarist Darren Beachley to bring the songs fully into the bluegrass genre.

The second and perhaps most impressive intersection are the songs that are new, but sound like the classic country music that is not as often heard today. “Ain’t A Woman Somebody When She’s Gone,” “Oh Heart, Look What You’ve Done,” and “My Real World Of Make Believe” are fantastic melodies that allow the vocalists room to stretch out. “Down Around Bear Cove” is the sole instrumental and provides a showcase for this shortlived version of Quicksilver that includes the aforementioned White and Beachley joined by Joey Cox on banjo, Brandon Goodman on fiddle, and Josh Swift on resonator guitar. Instrumentally, Swift is the standout on the album.

Here, Lawson has been able to craft an album that should please both bluegrass purists and fans of classic country. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) CEB

Dry Branch Fire Squad - Echoes Of The Mountains

Dry Branch Fire Squad - Echoes Of The Mountains

DRY BRANCH FIRE SQUAD
ECHOES OF THE MOUNTAINS

Rounder Records
11661-0574-2

Dry Branch Fire Squad, celebrating over thirty years in bluegrass, has released an outstanding collection of songs rendered in their inimitable style. Founder and leader Ron Thomason has assembled a tight-knit and versatile group—Brian Aldridge on guitar and mandolin, Tom Boyd on banjo and resonator guitar, and Dan Russell on bass. Fiddle king Michael Cleveland also guests on several songs.

The Squad is known for their wide repertoire and blending of traditional bluegrass and old-time sounds, and this album continues on that signature path. Songs include all of the favorite bluegrass themes such as mother, love, death, and the gospel, while mixing in a good dose of soul, dogs, cowboys, and unidentified flying objects.

Death features prominently in the songs “Dixie Cowboy,” “Rider On An Orphan Train,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “Little Joe,” and “O Captain! My Captain!” Thomason’s clawhammer banjo adds a bit of suspense to these classic songs while the band provides an atmosphere that heightens the effect. A fine example is their wonderful turn on the tearjerker “Echo Mountain.”

As one would expect from the group, gospel songs play a powerful role in the second half of the album. The beautiful hymn “Power In The Blood” is given the a cappella treatment as the quartet unleashes their vocal prowess. Jimmy Martin’s and Paul Williams’ “Stormy Waters” and Larry Sparks’ and Neal Brackett’s “Thank You, Lord” provide the listener with worshipful moments to savor. And, what would a DBFS album be without a little humor, provide here by the cautionary tale of “(You Got To Pray To The Lord) When You See Those Flying Saucers.” Although the band has been through more than its share of personnel changes over its long history, this particular group has assembled a fine collection worthy of the legacy of the Dry Branch Fire Squad. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) CEB

Frank Wakefield - Ownself Blues

Frank Wakefield - Ownself Blues

FRANK WAKEFIELD
OWNSELF BLUES

Patuxent Music
CD182

Frank Wakefield has been one of the most notable presences on bluegrass mandolin for about fifty years now. His distinctive tone and a musical ear that draws on equal parts Bill Monroe and outerspace are a treasure, and it’s been great to see new recordings pop up from him more frequently these past few years.

“Ownself Blues” is an all instrumental outing, taking him through 11 originals (including revisiting his contemporary standard “New Camptown Races”) plus a pair of tunes by some oldtime musicians named Beethoven and Bach. He’s joined by a killer band, with Michael Cleveland and Nate Leath on fiddles, banjoist Mike Munford, Jordan Tice and Audie Blaylock on guitars, and bassist Darrell Muller. A group like that would carry anyone to new heights, and Wakefield uses them skillfully. Twin fiddles on a slower version of Bach’s classic Bouree and the delicate interplay of mandolin and guitar on the Beethoven track are just a few of the magical moments that stand out on this CD.

The influence of Monroe is pervasive on this album, most notably on the title track and “This Is For Bill,” as well as on “The Runaway Train” and “Sabbatical.” Wakefield still continues his ability to write twisted tunes and numbers such as “Flying Strings” and “The Old Cat Sneezed” can be seen as almost missing links between traditional bluegrass and newgrass. “Double Stoppin’ The Blues” is the kind of piece that takes the essence of Bill Monroe and integrates it into Wakefield’s own mandolin “voice.” The set ends with “Mandolin Special #2,” a composition with classical overtones that’s still distinguished by Wakefield’s pinched grassy tone.

In a sense, Wakefield is kind of missing link himself, someone as comfortable digging into roots as he is leaning out on the end of branches and still covering new territory. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) HK

Mark Delaney - Sidecar

Mark Delaney - Sidecar

MARK DELANEY
SIDECAR

Patuxent Music
CD175

Even with his extensive list of experiences, having played with regional favorites Patuxent Partners, Badly Bent, and the Good Deale Bluegrass Band, as well as with Randy Waller & The Country Gentlemen, the name Mark Delaney may not ring any bells for some listeners, but this banjo picker makes his sonic mark on the listeners’ memory with his new album.

Drawing inspiration from the Kentuckyborn grandfather that taught him the banjo and from his father, a jazz critic, Delaney builds on the Scruggs style with fantastic single string work as well as innovative melodies. Although he builds on the foundation the outcome is still deeply rooted in tradition. Along for the ride in this “Sidecar” are a group of likewise tradition-minded musicians: Barry Reid on bass, Audie Blaylock on guitar, Jesse Brock on mandolin, and Michael Cleveland on fiddle.

Song choices run the gamut from classic bluegrass (“Baby Blue Eyes,” “Fireball Express,” and “Black Diamond”) to classic country (“Six Days On The Road,” “Who Done It?”). Being as this is a banjo picker’s album, there are some great instrumentals, five of which were written by Delaney. It is within the range of songs that Delaney shines. While many players would want to make it known that it is their solo album, Delaney takes the opposite tact and lays back to the point of being unnoticeable on many of the tracks that feature vocals.

One of the fun things about a musicians’ solo album is the addition of guest vocalists. In this case, Delaney brings along some of his picking buddies and bandmates to showcase some fine regional talent that might not be familiar to people outside of the area. Singers Charles Thompson, Bryan Deere, Rusty Vint, John Miller, Tom Mindte, Dede Wyland, and Clarke Howard bring variety to the album. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) CEB

DVD

MARK JOHNSON
MARK JOHNSON TEACHES CLAWGRASS BANJO

Homespun Video
DVDJHNBJ21.
Tab included, 105 min., $29.95.
(Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.)

Mark Johnson’s hybrid style of banjo has seen him play with, among others, Tony Rice and Emory Lester in settings that have at least as much to do with bluegrass as oldtime music. His blend of frailing and dropthumb techniques with Scruggs bluegrass rolls has produced a truly unique way to approach banjo playing.

This instructional DVD by Johnson begins with a quick review of the basics of frailing and dropthumb patterns, using “Old Joe Clark” to illustrate the different styles. (I suspect that a basic knowledge of these styles would result in much more rapid progress through the lessons here, though not so much so with Scruggs-style.) Johnson then introduces his “forward” and “backward” rolls, which seem to be the key to transitioning toward his style of play (not quite the forward and backward rolls from Scruggs-style, by the way).

Johnson then works through six varied tunes including “Cherokee Shuffle,” “Cold And Frosty Morning,” “Angeline The Baker,” “Heartbroken,” “John Wilkes Booth,” and “Mosby’s Rangers.” The tunes are demonstrated by Johnson on the banjo, then broken down, and finally performed with Emory Lester backing on guitar. The presentation is excellent—split screens show both hands very clearly, and the sound and photography are topnotch. Happy Traum facilitates the discussion, and tablature is included.

If you are currently in either the bluegrass or the oldtime music camp and have secret longings for the other, or if you just want to try something new and pretty exciting on the banjo, this should be an excellent resource. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.) AW

BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND

Mike Marshall's Big Trio

Mike Marshall's Big Trio

MIKE MARSHALL’S BIG TRIO
BIG TRIO

Adventure Music America
AMA10512

Mike Marshall’s Big Trio eludes description. The threesome cooked up a melting pot of acoustic sounds, filled with a dash or two of bluegrass, a few pinches of classical, some traditional flavoring, and a few unknown ingredients. Perhaps the liner notes characterize the sound best: “Big Trio leaves no musical stone unturned, with a sound that clearly and cleanly integrates the history and international breadth of acoustic string music into an exciting and cohesive whole.”

With more than three decades of recording and performing to his name, Marshall (mandolin, mandocello, and guitar) enlisted a youthful jolt of energy from Alex Hargreaves (violin), and Paul Kowert (bass) for this all instrumental CD. Experience meets a new generation of masterful string musicians for a ninecut disc of instrumental innovation, powerful chops, and graceful finesse. This acoustic album commands listeners  attention. (Adventure Music America, 60 E. 56th St., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10019, www.adventuremusic.com.) BC

Jeremy Garrett - I Am A Stranger

Jeremy Garrett - I Am A Stranger

JEREMY GARRETT
I AM A STRANGER

Sugar Hill Records
SUGCD4054

Infamous Stringdusters’ Jeremy Garrett debuts with his first solo project. The singer/songwriter/fiddler paints a broad picture of his musical landscape with one foot planted in the traditional and another moving forward with energetic bluegrass.

Garrett puts his unique spin on legendary duo Flatt & Scruggs’ “What’s Good For You” with Americana vocalist Abigail Washburn. He also calls on musicians Paul Franklin (pedal steel) and Jeff Taylor (piano) to recreate the Hank Thompson hit “Today.” Then, Garrett does a 180 to give a reverential nod to his rock favorites, U2, on “North And South Of The River.” The CD’s title cut is a joint songwriting effort for Garrett and his dad, Glen, when they both had the idea of trying to explain the meaning of life. The string wizard rolls up his sleeves for “Y2K,” a rowdy instrumental he masterminded, and flexes his musical dexterity on “The Fields Of My Mind,” where he sings and fiddles at the same time with no overdubbing. Of course, Garrett turns to his musical cohorts in the bluegrass sextet for their instrumental skills including “End Of The Line” and shares the studio with Julie Elkins on banjo and Shawn Lane on mandolin among others.

Garrett recalls working on the album as a “superintense passion,” and that certainly shows with the final product. This one will go in the hot rotation in my CD collection as I anxiously wait for another Garrett production. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120997, Nashville, TN 37212, sugarhillrecords.com.) BC

Norman & Nancy Blake

Norman & Nancy Blake

NORMAN & NANCY BLAKE, BOYS OF THE LOUGH, AND JAMES & RACHEL BRYAN
RISING FAWN GATHERING

Western Jubilee Recording Co.
824761-040125

Good things come to those who wait. That’s true for these musicians, many of whom desired to do this project for more than 25 years after first meeting. With perseverance and four empty calendar dates, they gathered together at the Blakes’ home in Rising Fawn, Ga., and recorded in a makeshift studio in a large loft, taking breaks for socializing and joketelling. The final result is fifty minutes of beautiful music, merging from two different cultures.

Predominantly an instrumental CD, this 12song disc also features Norman Blake lending vocals to “The Sweet Sunny South,” “The Bonny Bunch Of Roses,” and “While The Band Is Playing Dixie.” Cathal McConnell from Boys Of The Lough takes over singing duties on “Derry So Fair.” Oldtime country is more center stage on some cuts like “The Sweet Sunny South” and “While The Band Is Playing Dixie,” which Sara and Maybelle Carter recorded in the mid1960s. Other songs such as “O’Connell’s Trip To Parliament”/“The Twin Katies” are distinctly Irish or Scottish.

Liner notes trace the history of the songs, some of which date back to the mid-1800s. “Rising Fawn Gathering” is an excellent cultural collaboration. Certainly, they could have recorded this album a few decades ago, but may not have had the musical maturity and depth that resonates throughout this friendly get-together. (Western Jubilee Recording Co., P.O. Box 9187, Colorado Springs, CO 80932, www.westernjubilee.com.) BC

ON THE EDGE

Alicia Nugent - Hillbilly Goddess

Alicia Nugent - Hillbilly Goddess

ALECIA NUGENT
HILLBILLY GODDESS

Rounder Records
1166106122

The 11 songs included here find Alecia Nugent in partnership with the cream of the Nashville/bluegrass songwriters, among them Carl Jackson (who also produces), Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, and Tim Stafford. It also finds her lovely voice wellsupported by Andy Falco, Andy Leftwich, Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, and Thomas Wywrot. Together they have created a pleasant recording that’s as much country as it is contemporary bluegrass, one in which the banjo appears on just four tracks while the piano appears on five, and drums on all but one.

The forms and tempos are also mostly of a country bent. Seven are slow. Of these, the two best are the dreamy meditation on the price of seeking stardom (“Just Another Alice”) and the more traditional shuffling country of “The Writing’s On The Wall.” The latter is a duet with Bradley Walker that recalls those classic breakup songs from George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

Two of the faster songs, drums or not, may (if they haven’t already) find their way up the bluegrass charts. “Wreckin’ The Train” is a crackling number set over pizzicato train rhythm, casting Nugent as a woman to whom good things happen, but ruins them by letting her rambling nature get the best of her. “Hillbilly Goddess” presents a portrait of a woman more at home with tractor pulls and doublewides, more comfortable in Paris, Tenn., rather than Paris, France, and who considers sushi fishing bait. Backed by the crisp drive of J.D. Crowe’s banjo, it should prove a crowd favorite.

Beyond her singing, what sets Nugent apart is her ability to make the songs believable. Perhaps some of that comes from hard experience, perhaps some from the ability to sympathize and synthesize, and perhaps some from sheer talent. Regardless of its source, it makes for some compelling listening. (Rounder Records One Rounder Way, Burlington MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BW

Balsam Range

Balsam Range - Last Train To Kitty Hawk

Balsam Range - Last Train To Kitty Hawk

LAST TRAIN TO KITTY HAWK

Mountain Home
MH12062

Western North Carolina ensemble Balsam Range announced their debut with authority on 2007’s acclaimed “Marching Home.” That album originated as a solo effort for fiddler and versatile singer Buddy Melton. Their sophomore outing, “Last Train To Kitty Hawk,” presents a true ensemble. The band spreads the vocal work to terrific effect. They (including Melton on vocals, guitarist Caleb B. Smith, and bass and resonator guitar player Tim Surrett) move effortlessly from driving bluegrass (“Julie’s Train”) to contemporary ballads (Somewhere In Between”) to 21st century bluegrass (“Last Train To Kitty Hawk”).
Melton and Smith trade the lead singing between verse and chorus on four of the first six songs, creating a hallmark of the still emerging Balsam Range sound. Smith figures prominently as lead vocalist, along with former member of the Kingsmen, Surrett, who sings lead on Ralph Stanley’s “I’m Lonesome Without You” and “Don’t Take Me Tonight As I Am” by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Southern gospel superstar Karen Peck Gooch provides the harmony on “The Holy Hills (A Tribute To Dottie Rambo).” Mandolinist Darren Nicholson also takes lead vocals on “Spring Will Bring The Flowers” by Timothy W. Smith. Marc Pruett, ranked among the most respected bluegrass banjo players for almost forty years, completes the fivesome.

Charlie Monroe’s “Down In Caroline,”  is presented in a rousing version featuring Buddy, Tim, and Darren. The same trio sound equally powerful, but totally different in style on “Somewhere In Between” written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton. Melton has cowriter credit on “Julie’s Train” and Smith has solo credits for “Jack Diamond” and the instrumental closer, “Jaxon Point.” The collection also contains a halfdozen outstanding outside compositions. Milan Miller, who wrote two songs on their last album, comes through again with the immediately memorable modern murder song, “Caney Fork River,” placed right behind the infectious title track, written by James Ellis and Steve Dukes.

Indeed, the album easily passes the singalong test. You’ll find yourself singing along spontaneously to songs you haven’t even heard before. “Last Train To Kitty Hawk” demonstrates significant growth over a successful debut, expanding their use of vocal power while increasing the amount of contemporary material. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com. AM

Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent - Brothers From Different Mothers

Dailey & Vincent - Brothers From Different Mothers

BROTHERS FROM DIFFERENT MOTHERS

Rounder Records
1166106172

The note from the Editor that came with this CD read, “It may be a bit ‘On The Edge.’” Bluegrass is a dynamic music form that retains an important element that came from Mr. Monroe: discipline. This is a project with lots of session men and more high tech gimmickry than could have been imagined in the days of recording live. It’s still bluegrass, but Dailey & Vincent-style—that is, bluegrass as played today with lots of modern touches. There is no big surprise that the gospel numbers all sound great. There are lots of other good songs like “Your Love Is Like A Flower.” Not the old Flatt & Scruggs classic, but an update of that theme.

The duet is at the core of the fine vocals that predominate on this project. The duet on Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come And Gone” is a highlight for its simplicity and great vocals over just two guitars. There are a couple of nods to the Statler Brothers, one of Dailey’s longstanding influences, one with a touch of “Roadhog” Moran, the Statler’s comic alterego from the mid-1970s. Their reading of “Years Ago” is very close to the original by the Statler Brothers. They veer toward a movie soundtrack with the string-laden “On The Other Side.” This cut could crossover to mainstream country.

It is that last cut and when you start over, the banjos, fiddles, and urgency return toward what we all would recognize as bluegrass. There is a grand variety of music here and the boys have got another hit album here. It will be interesting to see where it takes them. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) RCB

Doyle Lawson & Quick Silver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Lonely Street

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Lonely Street

LONELY STREET

Rounder Records
1166106352

There seems to be a steady melding of bluegrass and country that, more often than not, strips the best qualities of both genres and leaves little for the listener other than the impression that where the artist is probably isn’t where he or she wants to be. But, with his latest release, Doyle Lawson is right where he wants to be.

As is to be expected, there is some fine traditional bluegrass on the album. New songs “Yesterday’s Songs,” “Johnny And Sally,” and “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come” are firmly planted in the tradition befitting bluegrass’s elder statesmen. The first intersection of country and bluegrass on the album is the traditional bluegrass treatment of songs by classic country artists: “Lonely Street” (Carl Belew), “Big Wind” (Porter Wagoner), and “Call Me Up And I’ll Come Callin’ On You” (Marty Robbins). Lawson is able to infuse these songs with the tight trio harmony with help from bassist Carl White and guitarist Darren Beachley to bring the songs fully into the bluegrass genre.

The second and perhaps most impressive intersection are the songs that are new, but sound like the classic country music that is not as often heard today. “Ain’t A Woman Somebody When She’s Gone,” “Oh Heart, Look What You’ve Done,” and “My Real World Of Make Believe” are fantastic melodies that allow the vocalists room to stretch out. “Down Around Bear Cove” is the sole instrumental and provides a showcase for this shortlived version of Quicksilver that includes the aforementioned White and Beachley joined by Joey Cox on banjo, Brandon Goodman on fiddle, and Josh Swift on resonator guitar. Instrumentally, Swift is the standout on the album.

Here, Lawson has been able to craft an album that should please both bluegrass purists and fans of classic country. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) CEB

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad - Echoes Of The Mountains

Dry Branch Fire Squad - Echoes Of The Mountains

Echoes Of The Mountains

Rounder Records
11661-0574-2

Dry Branch Fire Squad, celebrating over thirty years in bluegrass, has released an outstanding collection of songs rendered in their inimitable style. Founder and leader Ron Thomason has assembled a tight-knit and versatile group—Brian Aldridge on guitar and mandolin, Tom Boyd on banjo and resonator guitar, and Dan Russell on bass. Fiddle king Michael Cleveland also guests on several songs.

The Squad is known for their wide repertoire and blending of traditional bluegrass and old-time sounds, and this album continues on that signature path. Songs include all of the favorite bluegrass themes such as mother, love, death, and the gospel, while mixing in a good dose of soul, dogs, cowboys, and unidentified flying objects.

Death features prominently in the songs “Dixie Cowboy,” “Rider On An Orphan Train,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “Little Joe,” and “O Captain! My Captain!” Thomason’s clawhammer banjo adds a bit of suspense to these classic songs while the band provides an atmosphere that heightens the effect. A fine example is their wonderful turn on the tearjerker “Echo Mountain.”

As one would expect from the group, gospel songs play a powerful role in the second half of the album. The beautiful hymn “Power In The Blood” is given the a cappella treatment as the quartet unleashes their vocal prowess. Jimmy Martin’s and Paul Williams’ “Stormy Waters” and Larry Sparks’ and Neal Brackett’s “Thank You, Lord” provide the listener with worshipful moments to savor. And, what would a DBFS album be without a little humor, provide here by the cautionary tale of “(You Got To Pray To The Lord) When You See Those Flying Saucers.” Although the band has been through more than its share of personnel changes over its long history, this particular group has assembled a fine collection worthy of the legacy of the Dry Branch Fire Squad. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) CEB

Frank Wakefield

Frank Wakefield - Ownself Blues

Frank Wakefield - Ownself Blues

OWNSELF BLUES

Patuxent Music
CD182

Frank Wakefield has been one of the most notable presences on bluegrass mandolin for about fifty years now. His distinctive tone and a musical ear that draws on equal parts Bill Monroe and outerspace are a treasure, and it’s been great to see new recordings pop up from him more frequently these past few years.

“Ownself Blues” is an all instrumental outing, taking him through 11 originals (including revisiting his contemporary standard “New Camptown Races”) plus a pair of tunes by some oldtime musicians named Beethoven and Bach. He’s joined by a killer band, with Michael Cleveland and Nate Leath on fiddles, banjoist Mike Munford, Jordan Tice and Audie Blaylock on guitars, and bassist Darrell Muller. A group like that would carry anyone to new heights, and Wakefield uses them skillfully. Twin fiddles on a slower version of Bach’s classic Bouree and the delicate interplay of mandolin and guitar on the Beethoven track are just a few of the magical moments that stand out on this CD.

The influence of Monroe is pervasive on this album, most notably on the title track and “This Is For Bill,” as well as on “The Runaway Train” and “Sabbatical.” Wakefield still continues his ability to write twisted tunes and numbers such as “Flying Strings” and “The Old Cat Sneezed” can be seen as almost missing links between traditional bluegrass and newgrass. “Double Stoppin’ The Blues” is the kind of piece that takes the essence of Bill Monroe and integrates it into Wakefield’s own mandolin “voice.” The set ends with “Mandolin Special #2,” a composition with classical overtones that’s still distinguished by Wakefield’s pinched grassy tone.

In a sense, Wakefield is kind of missing link himself, someone as comfortable digging into roots as he is leaning out on the end of branches and still covering new territory. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) HK

Mark Delaney

Mark Delaney - Sidecar

Mark Delaney - Sidecar

SIDECAR

Patuxent Music
CD175

Even with his extensive list of experiences, having played with regional favorites Patuxent Partners, Badly Bent, and the Good Deale Bluegrass Band, as well as with Randy Waller & The Country Gentlemen, the name Mark Delaney may not ring any bells for some listeners, but this banjo picker makes his sonic mark on the listeners’ memory with his new album.

Drawing inspiration from the Kentuckyborn grandfather that taught him the banjo and from his father, a jazz critic, Delaney builds on the Scruggs style with fantastic single string work as well as innovative melodies. Although he builds on the foundation the outcome is still deeply rooted in tradition. Along for the ride in this “Sidecar” are a group of likewise tradition-minded musicians: Barry Reid on bass, Audie Blaylock on guitar, Jesse Brock on mandolin, and Michael Cleveland on fiddle.

Song choices run the gamut from classic bluegrass (“Baby Blue Eyes,” “Fireball Express,” and “Black Diamond”) to classic country (“Six Days On The Road,” “Who Done It?”). Being as this is a banjo picker’s album, there are some great instrumentals, five of which were written by Delaney. It is within the range of songs that Delaney shines. While many players would want to make it known that it is their solo album, Delaney takes the opposite tact and lays back to the point of being unnoticeable on many of the tracks that feature vocals.

One of the fun things about a musicians’ solo album is the addition of guest vocalists. In this case, Delaney brings along some of his picking buddies and bandmates to showcase some fine regional talent that might not be familiar to people outside of the area. Singers Charles Thompson, Bryan Deere, Rusty Vint, John Miller, Tom Mindte, Dede Wyland, and Clarke Howard bring variety to the album. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) CEB

Alecia Nugent

Alicia Nugent - Hillbilly Goddess

Alicia Nugent - Hillbilly Goddess

HILLBILLY GODDESS

Rounder Records
1166106122

The 11 songs included here find Alecia Nugent in partnership with the cream of the Nashville/bluegrass songwriters, among them Carl Jackson (who also produces), Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, and Tim Stafford. It also finds her lovely voice wellsupported by Andy Falco, Andy Leftwich, Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, and Thomas Wywrot. Together they have created a pleasant recording that’s as much country as it is contemporary bluegrass, one in which the banjo appears on just four tracks while the piano appears on five, and drums on all but one.

The forms and tempos are also mostly of a country bent. Seven are slow. Of these, the two best are the dreamy meditation on the price of seeking stardom (“Just Another Alice”) and the more traditional shuffling country of “The Writing’s On The Wall.” The latter is a duet with Bradley Walker that recalls those classic breakup songs from George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

Two of the faster songs, drums or not, may (if they haven’t already) find their way up the bluegrass charts. “Wreckin’ The Train” is a crackling number set over pizzicato train rhythm, casting Nugent as a woman to whom good things happen, but ruins them by letting her rambling nature get the best of her. “Hillbilly Goddess” presents a portrait of a woman more at home with tractor pulls and doublewides, more comfortable in Paris, Tenn., rather than Paris, France, and who considers sushi fishing bait. Backed by the crisp drive of J.D. Crowe’s banjo, it should prove a crowd favorite.

Beyond her singing, what sets Nugent apart is her ability to make the songs believable. Perhaps some of that comes from hard experience, perhaps some from the ability to sympathize and synthesize, and perhaps some from sheer talent. Regardless of its source, it makes for some compelling listening. (Rounder Records One Rounder Way, Burlington MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BW

Reviews - August 2009

The Cockman Family - All About Love

The Cockman Family - All About Love

THE COCKMAN FAMILY
ALL ABOUT LOVE

CF Records
CF8591

The Cockman Family is one of the more influential bluegrass gospel groups throughout North Carolina and surrounding states. Over the years, they’ve garnished many awards for their unique and sincere approach to gospel music.

“All About Love” is the Cockmans’ latest in a series of unparalleled recordings. The dozen selections are a nice mix of gospel favorites and original material. Seven tracks were penned by various family members, some of which were inspired by sermons given by their church pastor. Caroline Cockman-Fisher (vocals) and Billy Cockman (banjo, guitar, and vocals) share the lead vocals on the inspirational “God Is Watching Over Me,” “The Wheel,” and “The Living God.” Also featured are interpretations of the gospel favorites “Angel Band,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and an instrumental version of “Power In The Blood.”

The album closes with a “Patriotic Medley” that includes stirring renditions of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” “America,” and others. “All About Love” is bluegrass gospel at its finest—another momentous milestone for the Cockman Family. (Cockman Family, P.O. Box 63, Sherrills Ford, NC 28673, www.cockmanfamily.com.) LM

David Davis - Two Dimes and a Nickel

David Davis and The Warrior River Boys - Two Dimes and a Nickel

DAVID DAVIS AND THE WARRIOR RIVER BOYS
TWO DIMES AND A NICKEL

Rebel Records
REBCD1827

Similarities abound between this recording and Davis’ previous release, “Troubled Times.” Both are full of talent of the highest caliber. The singing is dead on, as is the instrumental work. Backing Davis on both recordings are bassist/vocalist Marty Hays, guitarist Adam Duke and fiddler Owen Saunders. They were good then and they’re good now (if anything, they’re more cohesive). The one change is that Robert Montgomery has replaced Daniel Grindstaff on the banjo and also taken Duke’s vocal role. Again, there is no loss of quality.

The album has 12 songs that are dominated by mostly medium and slow tunes that lean heavily on the blues and tragedy and loss. It has two public domain tracks: “I’ve Been All Around This World” and a ripping cover of the oldtime tune “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town.”

The majority of the tracks are from contemporary songwriters, including three from upandcomer Tommy Freeman (check out “The Tennessee Line”). Alan Johnston, who wrote three for the last record, contributes four here. His best retells the John Hardy legend and details how Hardy’s troubles began from gambling for “Two Dimes And A Nickel.” Johnston’s “That’s When I Cried” is also achingly compelling.

The inclusion of a Marshall Tucker Band tune called “Blue Ridge Mountain Skies” has Davis and the band giving a nod to the original with a mildly southern rock intro, but they quickly bring it into line with a more traditional feel—except for a nifty descending chord turnaround in the chorus. Just as the “Troubled Times” album was one of the best releases of its year, “Two Dimes And A Nickel” is one of the best recordings of this year. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7045, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) BW

Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain - Dancin' In The Dirt

Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain - Dancin' In The Dirt

MELVIN GOINS & WINDY MOUNTAIN
DANCIN’ IN THE DIRT

Blue Circle Records
BCR018

Tom T. and Dixie Hall songs are all over bluegrass music these days. And why not?  The duo writes catchy songs that are recognizable after only a line or two. They are almost guaranteed crowd pleasers and and excellent way to open an album—certainly the case here. Melvin Goins digs into the title tune ‘Dancin’ In The Dirt,” setting a downtoearth mood.

The rest of this recording is about as diverse a mix as can be found on a traditional bluegrass release.  In 14 tracks, Goins and Windy Mountain (mandolinist/fiddler John Rigsby, banjoist/bassist Jack Hicks, and guitarist Bo Isaac) run through just about every countryoriented genre around. They cover bluegrass and country, of course, but also oldtime and rockabilly, gospel and blues, and even throw in a recitation for good measure. They cover “Hey, Good Lookin’” backed with drums and electric guitar. They do a medley of “Kentucky Waltz”/“Tennessee Waltz” and a rollicking rockabillyinflected “Haunted House.” “Deck Of Cards” is a postwar recitation number about a soldier using a deck of cards to symbolize the gospel (i.e., the Ace reminds him that there is one God).

With their version of Jim Eanes’ “Wiggle Worm Wiggle,” Goins recalls the era when bluegrass felt and struggled against the rise of rock-and-roll. “Old Shanghai” (written by the Goins Brothers, as was the Jimmie Rodgersstyle blues, “Two Kinds Of Blues”) and “Farmer’s Girl” are danceable, oldtime tunes. The lyrics have that pattertype delivery and just go wild, be they’re relating the fate of a rooster or the merits of a particular girl (regardless of the father’s occupation). They’re both fun and underscore very well the overall, lighthearted feel of the recording. The opening track says it all. (Blue Circle Records, P.O. Box 681286, Franklin, TN 37068, www.bluecirclerecords.com.) BW

Angelica Grim - Look for Me

Angelica Grim - Look for Me

ANGELICA GRIM
LOOK FOR ME

Patuxent Music
CD180

Nineteen year-old Californian Angelica Grim’s 12-track debut album proves that she is nothing if not a versatile singer with a strong yet tender voice. She writes but one song on the project—the bouncy title track that leaves you wanting more from her pen—but, the focus here is on Grim’s vocals and what she can do with a wide range of material.

From an uptempo nonsense song like “Rubber Dolly” to a slightly-updated version of the Stanleys’ “She’s More To Be Pitied” to Johnny Cash’s downbeat “I Still Miss Someone,” this young singer captures the mood and meaning of a song while flashing just the right amount of technique. She also manages to do credit to two Hazel Dickens songs, “Old Calloused Hands” and the gorgeous “West Virginia My Home,” and turns in one of this reviewer’s favorite covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” that features nice fingerstyle guitar work from Keith Arneson. She closes the album with an invigorating take on the Box Tops’ 1967 pop hit “The Letter,” which suggests Grim will be willing to take more vocal and musical risks in the future.

The more-than-capable studio band here includes John Miller (guitar), Frank Solivan (mandolin and harmony vocals), Chris Walls (bass), Mike Munford (banjo), and Michael Cleveland (fiddle), whose inimitable apearance alone is worth the price of admission. Bill Emerson (banjo) and Mike Auldridge (resonator guitar) each guest on two tracks. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.angelicagrim.com.) AKH

Carol Hausner - Still Hear Your Voice

Carol Hausner - Still Hear Your Voice

CAROL HAUSNER
STILL HEAR YOUR VOICE

Bramblewood Music
BR258454

Carol Hausner is a dynamic vocalist from Montpelier, Vt. She is noted for her heartfelt vocal style and imaginative songwriting. “Still Hear Your Voice” is Carol’s latest project featuring 14 performances including Don Reno and Red Smiley’s “No Longer A Sweetheart Of Mine,” “The Fiddler,” Tim Stafford’s “Rambling Heart,” and Patty Loveless’ country hit, “Nothin’ But The Wheel.” Also featured are numbers either composed or cowritten by Carol including “Last Years,” “Love Gone By,” and “Slipping Through My Hands.” While Carol is supported by an outstanding cast of guest pickers, it is her lead vocals that dominate the album from start to finish. For that reason alone, “Still Hear Your Voice” is a magnificent collection of traditional and contemporary bluegrass showcasing Carol Hausner’s talents. (Bramblewood Music, P.O. Box 624, Montpelier, VT 05601, www.carolhausner.com.) LM

Pathway - Somewhere Tonight

Pathway - Somewhere Tonight

PATHWAY
SOMEWHERE TONIGHT

Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR1005

More than the solid instrumental skills displayed throughout, and more than the fine songwriting that fills 11 of the 15 tracks, Pathway succeeds best on their singing. They can play—no doubt about it. Just listen to their cover of the instrumental standard “Soldier’s Joy” or the gentle setting they create for Tommy Hill’s slow, traditional country weeper, “You’re Looking For An Angel.” Or listen to the melodic sense they bring to the classic “One Tear” or to Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “They Don’t Make Girls Like Ruby Anymore.”

They can also write—no doubt about that either. Each of their songs, among them “What Must I Do,” “Somewhere Tonight,” and “Pathway,” show a thorough understanding of song construction and good ears for a turn of phrase.

It is, however, their singing that most catches one’s attention. Four of the bandmembers—Casey Byrd (resonator guitar), Justin Freeman (guitar), Mark Freeman (banjo), and Scott Freeman (fiddle)—have good lead voices. Which one leads which song, the liner notes don’t say. I was most impressed by whoever sings “What Must I Do.” His voice is the most resonant and the richest in timbre, though the other three are not far off. In harmony, which all share, including the remaining two members—Mitchell Freeman (bass) and Jake Long (mandolin)—their blend is seemless and very smooth.

Such good leads and tight blends are especially important for a band that emphasizes gospel music as much as Pathway does. Eight of their fifteen tracks are of that genre and all are original and all are good. Of those eight, “Pathway” with its velvet lilt, and “Somewhere Tonight,” with its energy and sense of mission rise above the rest.

This is this Mt. Airy, N.C., band’s debut for the Mountain Roads label and makes a strong promise about its future. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Hwy. 421, Bristol TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) BW

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers - Rambler's Call

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers - Rambler's Call

JOE MULLINS & THE RADIO RAMBLERS
RAMBLER’S CALL

No Label
No Number

Although he has been concentrating on keeping real radio alive the last few years, most bluegrass fans still recognize banjoman Joe Mullins from his years in the acclaimed Traditional Grass band with his late father, Paul “Moon” Mullins. Joe’s current group has dedicated “Rambler’s Call” to Moon’s memory. With their hardcore bluegrass, featuring less well-known classic bluegrass and country and excellent new material in the same spirit, Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers would make Moon proud.

Like the Traditional Grass, the Radio Ramblers are a big ensemble with six members—Adam McIntosh (guitar), Mike Terry (mandolin), and Evan McGregor (fiddle) with all three joining Joe in the singing. Tim Kidd (bass and drums) and resonator guitarist Matt DeSpain round out the band. These guys exhibit the right blend of energy, drive, and soulful passion to make this unabashedly midwestern-style of bluegrass click.

Wynn Stewart’s “Another Day, Another Dollar” gets the album off to a rousing, yet atavistic start, and things just get better from there. The band pulls from sources as diverse as Don Reno (“Charlotte Breakdown”) to Primitive Quartet (“No Longer An Orphan”) to Tony Senn and Tommy Stough whose “Boston Jail” is one of the album’s most pleasant surprises. The title track comes from Boys From Indiana alumnus Aubrey Holt, whose contributions as a topnotch songwriter remain underappreciated. Joe’s former bandmate, Gerald Evans, checks in with two most appropriately retro compositions, “The Old Rocking Chair” and “Don’t You Want To Go Home.”

In the middle of the last century, immigrants from the South, especially eastern Kentucky, migrated to Ohio and made the Dayton and Cincinnati areas a musically distinctive hotbed for bluegrass. Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers deserve their place in a powerful tradition of music made by people with names like Osborne, Allen, Wakefield, and Harvey. (Joe Mullins, 23 E. Second St., Xenia, OH 45385, (www.radioramblers.com.) AM

Tommy Webb - Heartland

Tommy Webb - Heartland

TOMMY WEBB
HEARTLAND

Rural Rhythm
RHY1043

Tommy Webb hails from Kentucky and sings in a country style that can and does easily crossover to bluegrass. His tenor has that patina that marks great country vocalists. The production by Ron Stewart is rich and multilayered. The picking is first-rate with strong vocal and instrumental performances by all of the bandmembers.

Webb had a hand in writing five of the fourteen songs. His material is every bit as good as that of Jim Rushing, Ricky Skaggs, and Mike Wells, among others. The traditional number “Little Sadie” stands out, as Webb puts down his guitar and plays clawhammer banjo. The material has a true, hard, country flavor. The bluegrass arrangements are natural extensions of the songs. The music could provide a few more surprises, but should please those who like well-sung bluegrass with a strong country edge. The ode to bluegrass, “If It Weren’t For Bluegrass Music (I’d Go Crazy)” may get old, but will surely please fans as it mentions so many artists. The powerful gospel number, “Fall Upon Him,” followed by “Good Day To Run” do much to dissipate the angst in “A Hard Row To Hoe.” The sweet arrangements throughout take the edge of lyrics that tell the hard truths of rural life today.

This is a fine effort from a singer who has much to say. Like some other fine projects recently, we hear a plaintive voice singing of the farmer’s fate and of others who struggle daily—the very same country folks who love to listen, sing, and play that old country soul and bluegrass. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) RCB

ON THE EDGE

Hamilton County - Brokedown Breakdown

Hamilton County - Brokedown Breakdown

HAMILTON COUNTY
BROKEDOWN BREAKDOWN

No Label
No Number

Hamilton County is a mandolin/guitar/bass trio from Maine, and “Brokedown Breakdown” is a mostly instrumental recording. To their credit, all 11 tracks are original compositions. All three players know their way around their respective instruments, with special kudos to bassist Adam Montminy. Although he’s mainly featured on a short break on the CD’s title cut, there’s no hiding in a spare acoustic trio, and his rich tone and solid time-keeping help strengthen the overall sound of the recording.

Having said that, this isn’t quite a totally satisfying album. Judging by the singing style of the one vocal track, “Borrowed Banjo Breakdown” (the singer is not credited in the liner notes), there’s a strong jamgrass influence here. Given the amazing array of redhot and creative acoustic musicians currently on the scene recording and performing, one really has to be special to be noticed. On this CD, there are just too many notquitememorable melodies and slightly-fudged licks here to make Hamilton County stand out from the crowd. It’s a shame, too, because at their best, on a number like “Suha,” composer/mandolinist Evan Chase and guitarist Bob Hamilton play deftly and cleanly over an interesting tune and varied arrangement.

There’s still a lot of potential with this group, and here’s hoping that with more attention paid to arrangement and polishing up a few clams here and there, Hamilton County could still end up turning some heads on the acoustic music circuit. (Hamilton County, 122 Emory St. #3, Portland, ME 04101, myspace/thehamiltoncounty.com.) HK

The Cockman Family - All About Love

The Cockman Family - All About Love

CF Records
CF8591

The Cockman Family is one of the more influential bluegrass gospel groups throughout North Carolina and surrounding states. Over the years, they’ve garnished many awards for their unique and sincere approach to gospel music.

“All About Love” is the Cockmans’ latest in a series of unparalleled recordings. The dozen selections are a nice mix of gospel favorites and original material. Seven tracks were penned by various family members, some of which were inspired by sermons given by their church pastor. Caroline Cockman-Fisher (vocals) and Billy Cockman (banjo, guitar, and vocals) share the lead vocals on the inspirational “God Is Watching Over Me,” “The Wheel,” and “The Living God.” Also featured are interpretations of the gospel favorites “Angel Band,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and an instrumental version of “Power In The Blood.”

The album closes with a “Patriotic Medley” that includes stirring renditions of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” “America,” and others. “All About Love” is bluegrass gospel at its finest—another momentous milestone for the Cockman Family. (Cockman Family, P.O. Box 63, Sherrills Ford, NC 28673, www.cockmanfamily.com.) LM

David Davis & The Warrior River Boys - Two Dimes & A Nickel

David Davis - Two Dimes and a Nickel

David Davis and The Warrior River Boys - Two Dimes and a Nickel

Rebel Records
REBCD1827

Similarities abound between this recording and Davis’ previous release, “Troubled Times.” Both are full of talent of the highest caliber. The singing is dead on, as is the instrumental work. Backing Davis on both recordings are bassist/vocalist Marty Hays, guitarist Adam Duke and fiddler Owen Saunders. They were good then and they’re good now (if anything, they’re more cohesive). The one change is that Robert Montgomery has replaced Daniel Grindstaff on the banjo and also taken Duke’s vocal role. Again, there is no loss of quality.

The album has 12 songs that are dominated by mostly medium and slow tunes that lean heavily on the blues and tragedy and loss. It has two public domain tracks: “I’ve Been All Around This World” and a ripping cover of the oldtime tune “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town.”

The majority of the tracks are from contemporary songwriters, including three from upandcomer Tommy Freeman (check out “The Tennessee Line”). Alan Johnston, who wrote three for the last record, contributes four here. His best retells the John Hardy legend and details how Hardy’s troubles began from gambling for “Two Dimes And A Nickel.” Johnston’s “That’s When I Cried” is also achingly compelling.

The inclusion of a Marshall Tucker Band tune called “Blue Ridge Mountain Skies” has Davis and the band giving a nod to the original with a mildly southern rock intro, but they quickly bring it into line with a more traditional feel—except for a nifty descending chord turnaround in the chorus. Just as the “Troubled Times” album was one of the best releases of its year, “Two Dimes And A Nickel” is one of the best recordings of this year. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7045, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) BW

Melvin Goins & Windy Mountain - Dancin’ In The Dirt

Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain - Dancin' In The Dirt

Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain - Dancin' In The Dirt

Blue Circle Records
BCR018

Tom T. and Dixie Hall songs are all over bluegrass music these days. And why not?  The duo writes catchy songs that are recognizable after only a line or two. They are almost guaranteed crowd pleasers and and excellent way to open an album—certainly the case here. Melvin Goins digs into the title tune ‘Dancin’ In The Dirt,” setting a downtoearth mood.

The rest of this recording is about as diverse a mix as can be found on a traditional bluegrass release.  In 14 tracks, Goins and Windy Mountain (mandolinist/fiddler John Rigsby, banjoist/bassist Jack Hicks, and guitarist Bo Isaac) run through just about every countryoriented genre around. They cover bluegrass and country, of course, but also oldtime and rockabilly, gospel and blues, and even throw in a recitation for good measure. They cover “Hey, Good Lookin’” backed with drums and electric guitar. They do a medley of “Kentucky Waltz”/“Tennessee Waltz” and a rollicking rockabillyinflected “Haunted House.” “Deck Of Cards” is a postwar recitation number about a soldier using a deck of cards to symbolize the gospel (i.e., the Ace reminds him that there is one God).

With their version of Jim Eanes’ “Wiggle Worm Wiggle,” Goins recalls the era when bluegrass felt and struggled against the rise of rock-and-roll. “Old Shanghai” (written by the Goins Brothers, as was the Jimmie Rodgersstyle blues, “Two Kinds Of Blues”) and “Farmer’s Girl” are danceable, oldtime tunes. The lyrics have that pattertype delivery and just go wild, be they’re relating the fate of a rooster or the merits of a particular girl (regardless of the father’s occupation). They’re both fun and underscore very well the overall, lighthearted feel of the recording. The opening track says it all. (Blue Circle Records, P.O. Box 681286, Franklin, TN 37068, www.bluecirclerecords.com.) BW

Angelica Grim - Look For Me

Angelica Grim - Look for Me

Angelica Grim - Look for Me

Patuxent Music
CD180

Nineteen year-old Californian Angelica Grim’s 12-track debut album proves that she is nothing if not a versatile singer with a strong yet tender voice. She writes but one song on the project—the bouncy title track that leaves you wanting more from her pen—but, the focus here is on Grim’s vocals and what she can do with a wide range of material.

From an uptempo nonsense song like “Rubber Dolly” to a slightly-updated version of the Stanleys’ “She’s More To Be Pitied” to Johnny Cash’s downbeat “I Still Miss Someone,” this young singer captures the mood and meaning of a song while flashing just the right amount of technique. She also manages to do credit to two Hazel Dickens songs, “Old Calloused Hands” and the gorgeous “West Virginia My Home,” and turns in one of this reviewer’s favorite covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” that features nice fingerstyle guitar work from Keith Arneson. She closes the album with an invigorating take on the Box Tops’ 1967 pop hit “The Letter,” which suggests Grim will be willing to take more vocal and musical risks in the future.

The more-than-capable studio band here includes John Miller (guitar), Frank Solivan (mandolin and harmony vocals), Chris Walls (bass), Mike Munford (banjo), and Michael Cleveland (fiddle), whose inimitable apearance alone is worth the price of admission. Bill Emerson (banjo) and Mike Auldridge (resonator guitar) each guest on two tracks. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.angelicagrim.com.) AKH

Carol Hausner - Still Hear Your Voice

Carol Hausner - Still Hear Your Voice

Carol Hausner - Still Hear Your Voice

Bramblewood Music
BR258454

Carol Hausner is a dynamic vocalist from Montpelier, VT. She is noted for her heartfelt vocal style and imaginative songwriting. “Still Hear Your Voice” is Carol’s latest project featuring 14 performances including Don Reno and Red Smiley’s “No Longer A Sweetheart Of Mine,” “The Fiddler,” Tim Stafford’s “Rambling Heart,” and Patty Loveless’ country hit, “Nothin’ But The Wheel.” Also featured are numbers either composed or cowritten by Carol including “Last Years,” “Love Gone By,” and “Slipping Through My Hands.” While Carol is supported by an outstanding cast of guest pickers, it is her lead vocals that dominate the album from start to finish. For that reason alone, “Still Hear Your Voice” is a magnificent collection of traditional and contemporary bluegrass showcasing Carol Hausner’s talents. (Bramblewood Music, P.O. Box 624, Montpelier, VT 05601, www.carolhausner.com.) LM

Pathway - Somewhere Tonight

Pathway - Somewhere Tonight

Pathway - Somewhere Tonight

Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR1005

More than the solid instrumental skills displayed throughout, and more than the fine songwriting that fills 11 of the 15 tracks, Pathway succeeds best on their singing. They can play—no doubt about it. Just listen to their cover of the instrumental standard “Soldier’s Joy” or the gentle setting they create for Tommy Hill’s slow, traditional country weeper, “You’re Looking For An Angel.” Or listen to the melodic sense they bring to the classic “One Tear” or to Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “They Don’t Make Girls Like Ruby Anymore.”

They can also write—no doubt about that either. Each of their songs, among them “What Must I Do,” “Somewhere Tonight,” and “Pathway,” show a thorough understanding of song construction and good ears for a turn of phrase.

It is, however, their singing that most catches one’s attention. Four of the bandmembers—Casey Byrd (resonator guitar), Justin Freeman (guitar), Mark Freeman (banjo), and Scott Freeman (fiddle)—have good lead voices. Which one leads which song, the liner notes don’t say. I was most impressed by whoever sings “What Must I Do.” His voice is the most resonant and the richest in timbre, though the other three are not far off. In harmony, which all share, including the remaining two members—Mitchell Freeman (bass) and Jake Long (mandolin)—their blend is seemless and very smooth.

Such good leads and tight blends are especially important for a band that emphasizes gospel music as much as Pathway does. Eight of their fifteen tracks are of that genre and all are original and all are good. Of those eight, “Pathway” with its velvet lilt, and “Somewhere Tonight,” with its energy and sense of mission rise above the rest.

This is this Mt. Airy, N.C., band’s debut for the Mountain Roads label and makes a strong promise about its future. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Hwy. 421, Bristol TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) BW

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers - Rambler’s Call

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers - Rambler's Call

No Label
No Number

Although he has been concentrating on keeping real radio alive the last few years, most bluegrass fans still recognize banjoman Joe Mullins from his years in the acclaimed Traditional Grass band with his late father, Paul “Moon” Mullins. Joe’s current group has dedicated “Rambler’s Call” to Moon’s memory. With their hardcore bluegrass, featuring less well-known classic bluegrass and country and excellent new material in the same spirit, Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers would make Moon proud.

Like the Traditional Grass, the Radio Ramblers are a big ensemble with six members—Adam McIntosh (guitar), Mike Terry (mandolin), and Evan McGregor (fiddle) with all three joining Joe in the singing. Tim Kidd (bass and drums) and resonator guitarist Matt DeSpain round out the band. These guys exhibit the right blend of energy, drive, and soulful passion to make this unabashedly midwestern-style of bluegrass click.

Wynn Stewart’s “Another Day, Another Dollar” gets the album off to a rousing, yet atavistic start, and things just get better from there. The band pulls from sources as diverse as Don Reno (“Charlotte Breakdown”) to Primitive Quartet (“No Longer An Orphan”) to Tony Senn and Tommy Stough whose “Boston Jail” is one of the album’s most pleasant surprises. The title track comes from Boys From Indiana alumnus Aubrey Holt, whose contributions as a topnotch songwriter remain underappreciated. Joe’s former bandmate, Gerald Evans, checks in with two most appropriately retro compositions, “The Old Rocking Chair” and “Don’t You Want To Go Home.”

In the middle of the last century, immigrants from the South, especially eastern Kentucky, migrated to Ohio and made the Dayton and Cincinnati areas a musically distinctive hotbed for bluegrass. Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers deserve their place in a powerful tradition of music made by people with names like Osborne, Allen, Wakefield, and Harvey. (Joe Mullins, 23 E. Second St., Xenia, OH 45385, (www.radioramblers.com.) AM

Tommy Webb - Heartland

Tommy Webb - Heartland

Rural Rhythm
RHY1043

Tommy Webb hails from Kentucky and sings in a country style that can and does easily crossover to bluegrass. His tenor has that patina that marks great country vocalists. The production by Ron Stewart is rich and multilayered. The picking is first-rate with strong vocal and instrumental performances by all of the bandmembers.

Webb had a hand in writing five of the fourteen songs. His material is every bit as good as that of Jim Rushing, Ricky Skaggs, and Mike Wells, among others. The traditional number “Little Sadie” stands out, as Webb puts down his guitar and plays clawhammer banjo. The material has a true, hard, country flavor. The bluegrass arrangements are natural extensions of the songs. The music could provide a few more surprises, but should please those who like well-sung bluegrass with a strong country edge. The ode to bluegrass, “If It Weren’t For Bluegrass Music (I’d Go Crazy)” may get old, but will surely please fans as it mentions so many artists. The powerful gospel number, “Fall Upon Him,” followed by “Good Day To Run” do much to dissipate the angst in “A Hard Row To Hoe.” The sweet arrangements throughout take the edge of lyrics that tell the hard truths of rural life today.

This is a fine effort from a singer who has much to say. Like some other fine projects recently, we hear a plaintive voice singing of the farmer’s fate and of others who struggle daily—the very same country folks who love to listen, sing, and play that old country soul and bluegrass. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) RCB

On The Edge: Hamilton County - Brokedown Breakdown

Hamilton County - Brokedown Breakdown

Hamilton County - Brokedown Breakdown

No Label
No Number

Hamilton County is a mandolin/guitar/bass trio from Maine, and “Brokedown Breakdown” is a mostly instrumental recording. To their credit, all 11 tracks are original compositions. All three players know their way around their respective instruments, with special kudos to bassist Adam Montminy. Although he’s mainly featured on a short break on the CD’s title cut, there’s no hiding in a spare acoustic trio, and his rich tone and solid time-keeping help strengthen the overall sound of the recording.

Having said that, this isn’t quite a totally satisfying album. Judging by the singing style of the one vocal track, “Borrowed Banjo Breakdown” (the singer is not credited in the liner notes), there’s a strong jamgrass influence here. Given the amazing array of redhot and creative acoustic musicians currently on the scene recording and performing, one really has to be special to be noticed. On this CD, there are just too many notquitememorable melodies and slightly-fudged licks here to make Hamilton County stand out from the crowd. It’s a shame, too, because at their best, on a number like “Suha,” composer/mandolinist Evan Chase and guitarist Bob Hamilton play deftly and cleanly over an interesting tune and varied arrangement.

There’s still a lot of potential with this group, and here’s hoping that with more attention paid to arrangement and polishing up a few clams here and there, Hamilton County could still end up turning some heads on the acoustic music circuit. (Hamilton County, 122 Emory St. #3, Portland, ME 04101, myspace/thehamiltoncounty.com.) HK

Reviews - September 2009

Lonesome Highway - The Highway Called

Lonesome Highway - The Highway Called

LONESOME HIGHWAY
THE HIGHWAY CALLED

No Label
No Number

Lonesome Highway is a fourpiece group from Romney, W.Va. Personnel includes John Arnold (banjo, harmony vocals), Tom Suddath (bass, vocals), Jimmy Kountz (mandolin, vocals), and Buddy Dunlap (guitar, vocals). This CD, their second, features primarily original compositions with nine of the fourteen tracks from Dunlap and Arnold.

The band has chosen tunes from the slightly more progressive end of the bluegrass spectrum for the project. The lead vocals are generally good with strong harmonies (although a few cuts are not as convincing as they could be), and the instrumental work is solid. Among the highlights are Vince Gill’s “All Prayed Up,” Dunlop’s “Hoping You Will Change Your Mind,” a spirited a cappella version of Dudley Connell’s “See God’s Ark AMovin,” and Tom Foley’s “Alberta Clipper.” Also included here are nice versions of “Gravel Yard” and “Dark Hollow.”

My one reservation is the overall choice of material—seven of the first eight songs are all from the love-sought, love-lost, or love-gone-wrong categories. More variety and generally stronger material would have strengthened this release. Overall, it’s a solid and wellperformed effort on the part of Lonesome Highway. (Lonesome Highway, HC66 Box 20, Romney, WV 26757, www.lhway.com.) AW

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

RUSSELL MOORE & IIIRD TYME OUT

Rural Rhythm Records
RHY1045

When a band as distinguished as IIIrd Tyme Out changes its name, you can’t help but wonder if anything else has changed as well. Original members Russell Moore (guitar, vocals), Steve Dilling (banjo, vocals), and Wayne Benson (mandolin, mandola, vocals) form a strong core unit. Justen Haynes (fiddle, vocals) is a relative newcomer, as is Edgar Loudermilk, who replaces Ray Deaton on upright bass and vocals.

Moore remains very much the frontman, turning in great lead vocals on ten of the album’s twelve tracks. He’s clearly enjoying himself on faster, grassier fare such as “Little John, I Am,” “Knee Deep In The Blues,” “Big City Blues,” and the radiofriendly “Carolina’s Arms.” Even “Hard Rock Mountain Prison (Till I Die),” which employs just about every bluegrass cliché, sounds great with Moore tearing through it over Dilling’s grinding banjo.

Moore is even more at home on ballads such as the sentimental “Me And Dad,” the bittersweet “The Last Greyhound” and “Prayer For Peace,” an update to Jim & Jesse’s “Weapon Of Prayer.” The best song here is Becky Buller’s “My Angeline,” a kind of flip side to IIIrd Tyme Out’s hit “John & Mary” that begins with Benson on mandola, but ends with love lost rather than celebrated.

Instrumentally, the band is as strong (perhaps even stronger) as ever, evidenced by their playing on each vocal track and the Celtictinged, Monroestyle Benson composition “Boiling Springs.”

One thing that does seem to have changed about the group is the amount of grand, gripping vocal arrangements they’re known for, but, luckily, we get to hear on “The Eastern Gate,” a fine gospel number that closes a good album. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AKH

Special Consensus - Signs

Special Consensus - Signs

SPECIAL CONSENSUS
SIGNS

Pinecastle Records
PRC1169

Over the years, Greg Cahill has maintained an impressively high level of musicianship in his Chicago-based band, Special Consensus. The latest incarnation on “Signs” shows no signs of letdown. The current version of the band includes Cahill on banjo, Justin Carbone on guitar, Ashby Frank on mandolin, and David Thomas on bass. Complementing the core band on “Signs” are guests Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar) and Tim Crouch (fiddle), with Sonya Isaacs contributing harmony vocals on “Footprints.”

The band tackles the never-ending quest for fresh, new material by writing or cowriting half of the 12 songs on the recording and choosing the remaining tracks wisely from a variety of sources—including two (“Footprints” and “Talkin’ Bout It Just Don’t Get It Done”) penned by Ronnie Bowman and a couple of underdonebutdeserving covers (“Mountain Girl” and “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You”).

Lead vocals are split pretty evenly between Carbone and Frank, both tasteful and appealing singers. No single track jumps out to my ears, though. In what seems to be a general feature of contemporary bluegrass music these days, there are a lot of medium tempo songs that, taken together, flatten the overall project. The exception, “Snowball Breakdown,” is a dandy uptempo instrumental with Cahill showing some fancy “tuning and a whole lot of pickin’.”

Instrumentally, the performances are masterful. Cahill is a superbly-talented banjo player—tasteful, clean, and imaginative. Carbone and Frank are wellknown in their own right as insiders (and sometimes hired guns) in the Nashville bluegrass scene, but Special Consensus is particularly enjoyable because of their commitment to being part of the band. That’s not to take away from the contributions of Kohrs and Crouch, but there’s an emphasis on ensemble sound and not just musical pyrotechnics that makes “Signs” particularly enjoyable. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus, NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) AWIII

The Stonemans - Patsy, Donna & Roni

The Stonemans - Patsy, Donna & Roni

THE STONEMANS
PATSY, DONNA & RONI

Patuxent Music
CD183

How long has it been since the pioneering Stoneman sisters recorded together? As their old buddy Charlie Waller might say, “Ages and ages ago.” Now, thanks to Tom Mindte at Patuxent Music, we can once again hear these ladies singing and strutting their musical stuff with Patsy on autoharp, Donna on mandolin, and Roni on banjo. Thankfully, the music is not overproduced, nor is the sisters’ own playing overshadowed by hot licks. The backup musicians, including Nate Grower and Merl Johnson on fiddles and Jeremy Stephens on guitar, support the stars tastefully, but stay out of the way.

Patsy, everfaithful to the memory of clan patriarch Pop Stoneman, sings four of his songs including “Sinking Of The Titanic,” along with her own autobiographical “Prayers And Pinto Beans.” Donna salutes brother, Scott, with the original “Scotty’s Bow” and honors her own gospel ministry with “House Of The Lord,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” and “I Feel Like Traveling On.” But it is her mandolin playing that will steal your heart. Her Monroeinflected style is quirky, fanciful, inventive, and, in a word, delightful, especially on the aforementioned “…Pinto Beans.”

Roni steps past her role as Ida Lee Nagger on Hee Haw! to get serious while singing “Shackles And Chains” and “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” showing off a fine voice. She also spotlights her banjo playing with a rousing version of Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby” and takes the lead on Pop’s “Remember The Poor Tramp Has To Live.” (With the sisters singing in close trio harmony, this number is one of the best on the CD.)

The music of the Stonemans has taken many twists and turns over the years. The twenty-first century finds these three sisters returning to the sounds they grew up on during the ’30s and ’40s. I think Pop and Hattie Stoneman would be proud. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) MHH

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

SARAH JAROSZ
SONG UP IN HER HEAD

Sugar Hill
SUG-CD-4049

If we were to judge Sarah Jarosz, who was still 17 when this was recorded (she’s 18 now), by the company she’s keeping on her Sugar Hill debut “Song Up In Her Head,” well, she’s doing pretty darn well: Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Ben Sollee, Tim O’Brien, Mark Schatz, Mike Marshall, Abigail Washburn, Darrell Scott, Chris Eldridge, to give only a partial run down.

By the third track, it’s pretty obvious why such top-flight players chose to be a part of this project—she’s already a top-flight artist herself. Her voice, though youthful, has a slightly world-weary tinge that draws a degree of expression that’s rare in someone her age. Whether she’s playing mandolin, guitar, or clawhammer banjo, she sounds natural and relaxed, and superb.

As a songwriter, Jarosz promises to be a major force. No dogs in this bunch (the title track, the exhilarating “Left Home,” both of her instrumentals—all highlights), but special mention must go to “Edge Of A Dream,” a coming-of-age evocation with a melodic grace that, again, is striking coming from a teenager.

From all indications, Sarah Jarosz is a major addition to the acoustic scene, her introduction to us among the best releases of the year. (Sugar Hill, PO Box 120897, Nashville, TN, sugarhillrecords.com.) DR

ON THE EDGE


Conor Mulroy - Salinger

Conor Mulroy - Salinger

CONOR MULROY
SALINGER

No Label
No Number

Conor Mulroy states that “Salinger” is “…through composed. It consists of a thirty-minute piece broken up into three movements for mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass, a twenty-minute piece broken up into two sections for nylon-string guitar, steel-string guitar, fiddle, and bass, and a short piece for solo piano.” An obvious point of comparison is Chris Thile’s recent album, “Punch,” with his Punch Brothers also “through composed” (in other words, somewhat classical in regards to form), using bluegrass instrumentation. There must be something in the air.

Two big differences are that “Punch” has vocals and banjo, while “Salinger” uses neither. The differences extend beyond instrumentation to style, as well. “Salinger” never dips far into dissonance, with contrasts subtle and gradual as opposed to jarring or abrupt. Overall, on the surface, “Salinger” is less demanding and somewhat more inviting, at least at first, than “Punch.” It’s relative calmness and easy contrasts, however, place demands of a different sort on the listener in that it too easily drifts into the background on initial listens if concentration flags, though repetition reveals plenty of musical substance—this is not Windham Hill-style, New Age noodling.

The playing is spotless; lead by Mulroy on mandolin, nylon-string guitar, and piano, guitarist John McGann (so impressive as one of the Wayfaring Strangers), Crooked Still’s double bassist Corey DiMario, and Grand National Fiddle Champion Tristan Clarridge. They play well as an ensemble, and ensemble is what this is all about. There’s little in the way of solos or improvising here, the unaccompanied elements more like thoughtful cadenzas in nature rather than lengthy flights of fancy. (Conor Mulroy, P.O. Box 7485, Jackson, WY 83002,  www.conormulroy.com.) DR

BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND


Marty Raybon and Full Circle - This, That, and the Other

Marty Raybon and Full Circle - This, That, and the Other

MARTY RAYBON AND FULL CIRCLE
THIS, THAT, AND THE OTHER

Synchoro Records
SRR128591

Just as the title implies, “This, That, And The Other” offers up a variety of music from Marty Raybon and his band. The 13 cuts, along with a bonus track (“Any Ol’ Stretch Of Black Top”), showcase the country, bluegrass, and gospels sides of Marty and perhaps underline the point that good music doesn’t need to be labeled.

Produced by Raybon, Marty once again demonstrates his untouchable vocal interpretations on songs such as the piano ballad “You Get Me.” He chisels out his own version of a couple of George Jones covers, “Ain’t Love A Lot Like That” and the humorous “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Much As Loving You).” He belts out hard-drivin’ ’grass on the opener, “Leavin’ On The Next Thing Smokin’,” and croons a silky-smooth snappy take on the a cappella, “Didn’t It Rain Rain Children” about the great Biblical flood.

Marty’s Full Circle Band—Chris Davis (mandolin), Daniel Grindstaff (banjo), Glenn Gibson (resonator guitar), and Jayd Raines (bass)—step center stage with tasteful fills, solid timing, and subtle melodious nuances that embellish Marty’s impeccable performance. (Marty Raybon, P.O. Box 74009, Tuscumbia, AL 35674, www.martyraybon.com.) BC


BOOKS

The Essential Clarence White Bluegrass Guitar Leads

The Essential Clarence White Bluegrass Guitar Leads

THE ESSENTIAL CLARENCE WHITE, BLUEGRASS GUITAR LEADS
BY ROLAND WHITE & DIANE BOUSKA WITH STEVE POTTIER & MATT FLINNER
Diane and Roland Music 9780982114629. Includes two CDs, 102 pp, $34.95. (Diane & Roland Music, 224 Bermuda Dr., Nashville, TN 37214, www.rolandwhite.com.)

In addition to being a labor of love, this book fills every wish list one might have for an instructional book on Clarence White’s lead guitar playing. It is the most thorough and indepth look at Clarence’s life and guitar style that has yet been published. If you enjoy or play bluegrass guitar, this book is (as it says in the title) essential.

Bluegrass fans will be familiar with Clarence’s legacy as one of the first bluegrass flatpickers to have an impact on the developing style back in the early 1960s. His brother and famed mandolinist Roland White and Roland’s wife Diane Bouska, with transcription help from guitarists Steve Pottier and Matt Flinner, have put together the ultimate Clarence White guitar book.

It is at once an instructional book with tab, a personal memoir by Roland White with many great family photos, and a discussion of Clarence’s style by Diane Bouska, providing an indepth look at Clarence’s technique with commentary on each tune. It includes two CDs, the first containing 14 guitar solos played by Clarence in 1962 on his Martin D18. Even if you’ve heard Clarence’s playing many times, you have to hear this. It is jawdroppingly good. The recordings are crystal clear thanks to Ben Surratt’s engineering and mastering of the original tapes. The disc also includes bonus video clips of Clarence playing two tunes on TV in 1973.

The second CD contains slow and fast versions of the same 14 songs as rhythm tracks so you can practice with a great rhythm section that includes Roland White and Diane Bouska on rhythm guitars and Missy Raines on bass. The songs include “Shady Grove,” “Sally Goodin,” “FlopEared Mule,” “Banks Of The Ohio,” “Wildwood Flower,” and “Billy In The Lowground,” among others.

Roland and Diane are to be commended for creating such a thorough and accessible book. They could easily have just written a tribute to Clarence, but they’ve done that and gone beyond in giving us all an understanding of how and why his playing was so inspiring. In the foreword, Marty Stuart states that in Clarence’s “29 years on this earth, he made the kind of music that will live forever.” This labor of love by Roland and Diane ensures that it will. CVS

Lonesome Highway - The Highway Called

Lonesome Highway - The Highway Called

Lonesome Highway - The Highway Called

No Label
No Number

Lonesome Highway is a fourpiece group from Romney, W.Va. Personnel includes John Arnold (banjo, harmony vocals), Tom Suddath (bass, vocals), Jimmy Kountz (mandolin, vocals), and Buddy Dunlap (guitar, vocals). This CD, their second, features primarily original compositions with nine of the fourteen tracks from Dunlap and Arnold.

The band has chosen tunes from the slightly more progressive end of the bluegrass spectrum for the project. The lead vocals are generally good with strong harmonies (although a few cuts are not as convincing as they could be), and the instrumental work is solid. Among the highlights are Vince Gill’s “All Prayed Up,” Dunlop’s “Hoping You Will Change Your Mind,” a spirited a cappella version of Dudley Connell’s “See God’s Ark AMovin,” and Tom Foley’s “Alberta Clipper.” Also included here are nice versions of “Gravel Yard” and “Dark Hollow.”

My one reservation is the overall choice of material—seven of the first eight songs are all from the love-sought, love-lost, or love-gone-wrong categories. More variety and generally stronger material would have strengthened this release. Overall, it’s a solid and wellperformed effort on the part of Lonesome Highway. (Lonesome Highway, HC66 Box 20, Romney, WV 26757, www.lhway.com.) AW

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Rural Rhythm Records
RHY1045

When a band as distinguished as IIIrd Tyme Out changes its name, you can’t help but wonder if anything else has changed as well. Original members Russell Moore (guitar, vocals), Steve Dilling (banjo, vocals), and Wayne Benson (mandolin, mandola, vocals) form a strong core unit. Justen Haynes (fiddle, vocals) is a relative newcomer, as is Edgar Loudermilk, who replaces Ray Deaton on upright bass and vocals.

Moore remains very much the frontman, turning in great lead vocals on ten of the album’s twelve tracks. He’s clearly enjoying himself on faster, grassier fare such as “Little John, I Am,” “Knee Deep In The Blues,” “Big City Blues,” and the radiofriendly “Carolina’s Arms.” Even “Hard Rock Mountain Prison (Till I Die),” which employs just about every bluegrass cliché, sounds great with Moore tearing through it over Dilling’s grinding banjo.

Moore is even more at home on ballads such as the sentimental “Me And Dad,” the bittersweet “The Last Greyhound” and “Prayer For Peace,” an update to Jim & Jesse’s “Weapon Of Prayer.” The best song here is Becky Buller’s “My Angeline,” a kind of flip side to IIIrd Tyme Out’s hit “John & Mary” that begins with Benson on mandola, but ends with love lost rather than celebrated.

Instrumentally, the band is as strong (perhaps even stronger) as ever, evidenced by their playing on each vocal track and the Celtictinged, Monroestyle Benson composition “Boiling Springs.”

One thing that does seem to have changed about the group is the amount of grand, gripping vocal arrangements they’re known for, but, luckily, we get to hear on “The Eastern Gate,” a fine gospel number that closes a good album. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AKH

Special Consensus - Signs

Special Consensus - Signs

Special Consensus - Signs

Pinecastle Records
PRC1169

Over the years, Greg Cahill has maintained an impressively high level of musicianship in his Chicago-based band, Special Consensus. The latest incarnation on “Signs” shows no signs of letdown. The current version of the band includes Cahill on banjo, Justin Carbone on guitar, Ashby Frank on mandolin, and David Thomas on bass. Complementing the core band on “Signs” are guests Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar) and Tim Crouch (fiddle), with Sonya Isaacs contributing harmony vocals on “Footprints.”

The band tackles the never-ending quest for fresh, new material by writing or cowriting half of the 12 songs on the recording and choosing the remaining tracks wisely from a variety of sources—including two (“Footprints” and “Talkin’ Bout It Just Don’t Get It Done”) penned by Ronnie Bowman and a couple of underdonebutdeserving covers (“Mountain Girl” and “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You”).

Lead vocals are split pretty evenly between Carbone and Frank, both tasteful and appealing singers. No single track jumps out to my ears, though. In what seems to be a general feature of contemporary bluegrass music these days, there are a lot of medium tempo songs that, taken together, flatten the overall project. The exception, “Snowball Breakdown,” is a dandy uptempo instrumental with Cahill showing some fancy “tuning and a whole lot of pickin’.”

Instrumentally, the performances are masterful. Cahill is a superbly-talented banjo player—tasteful, clean, and imaginative. Carbone and Frank are wellknown in their own right as insiders (and sometimes hired guns) in the Nashville bluegrass scene, but Special Consensus is particularly enjoyable because of their commitment to being part of the band. That’s not to take away from the contributions of Kohrs and Crouch, but there’s an emphasis on ensemble sound and not just musical pyrotechnics that makes “Signs” particularly enjoyable. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus, NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) AWIII

The Stonemans - Patsy, Donna & Roni

The Stonemans - Patsy, Donna & Roni

The Stonemans - Patsy, Donna & Roni

THE STONEMANS
PATSY, DONNA & RONI

Patuxent Music
CD183

How long has it been since the pioneering Stoneman sisters recorded together? As their old buddy Charlie Waller might say, “Ages and ages ago.” Now, thanks to Tom Mindte at Patuxent Music, we can once again hear these ladies singing and strutting their musical stuff with Patsy on autoharp, Donna on mandolin, and Roni on banjo. Thankfully, the music is not overproduced, nor is the sisters’ own playing overshadowed by hot licks. The backup musicians, including Nate Grower and Merl Johnson on fiddles and Jeremy Stephens on guitar, support the stars tastefully, but stay out of the way.

Patsy, everfaithful to the memory of clan patriarch Pop Stoneman, sings four of his songs including “Sinking Of The Titanic,” along with her own autobiographical “Prayers And Pinto Beans.” Donna salutes brother, Scott, with the original “Scotty’s Bow” and honors her own gospel ministry with “House Of The Lord,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” and “I Feel Like Traveling On.” But it is her mandolin playing that will steal your heart. Her Monroeinflected style is quirky, fanciful, inventive, and, in a word, delightful, especially on the aforementioned “…Pinto Beans.”

Roni steps past her role as Ida Lee Nagger on Hee Haw! to get serious while singing “Shackles And Chains” and “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” showing off a fine voice. She also spotlights her banjo playing with a rousing version of Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby” and takes the lead on Pop’s “Remember The Poor Tramp Has To Live.” (With the sisters singing in close trio harmony, this number is one of the best on the CD.)

The music of the Stonemans has taken many twists and turns over the years. The twenty-first century finds these three sisters returning to the sounds they grew up on during the ’30s and ’40s. I think Pop and Hattie Stoneman would be proud. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) MHH

Conor Mulroy - Salinger

No Label
No Number

Conor Mulroy states that “Salinger” is “…through composed. It consists of a thirty-minute piece broken up into three movements for mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass, a twenty-minute piece broken up into two sections for nylon-string guitar, steel-string guitar, fiddle, and bass, and a short piece for solo piano.” An obvious point of comparison is Chris Thile’s recent album, “Punch,” with his Punch Brothers also “through composed” (in other words, somewhat classical in regards to form), using bluegrass instrumentation. There must be something in the air.

Two big differences are that “Punch” has vocals and banjo, while “Salinger” uses neither. The differences extend beyond instrumentation to style, as well. “Salinger” never dips far into dissonance, with contrasts subtle and gradual as opposed to jarring or abrupt. Overall, on the surface, “Salinger” is less demanding and somewhat more inviting, at least at first, than “Punch.” It’s relative calmness and easy contrasts, however, place demands of a different sort on the listener in that it too easily drifts into the background on initial listens if concentration flags, though repetition reveals plenty of musical substance—this is not Windham Hill-style, New Age noodling.

The playing is spotless; lead by Mulroy on mandolin, nylon-string guitar, and piano, guitarist John McGann (so impressive as one of the Wayfaring Strangers), Crooked Still’s double bassist Corey DiMario, and Grand National Fiddle Champion Tristan Clarridge. They play well as an ensemble, and ensemble is what this is all about. There’s little in the way of solos or improvising here, the unaccompanied elements more like thoughtful cadenzas in nature rather than lengthy flights of fancy. (Conor Mulroy, P.O. Box 7485, Jackson, WY 83002, www.conormulroy.com.) DR

Marty Raybon and Full Circle - This, That and The Other

Marty Raybon and Full Circle - This, That, and the Other

Marty Raybon and Full Circle - This, That, and the Other

MARTY RAYBON AND FULL CIRCLE
THIS, THAT, AND THE OTHER

Synchoro Records
SRR128591

Just as the title implies, “This, That, And The Other” offers up a variety of music from Marty Raybon and his band. The 13 cuts, along with a bonus track (“Any Ol’ Stretch Of Black Top”), showcase the country, bluegrass, and gospels sides of Marty and perhaps underline the point that good music doesn’t need to be labeled.

Produced by Raybon, Marty once again demonstrates his untouchable vocal interpretations on songs such as the piano ballad “You Get Me.” He chisels out his own version of a couple of George Jones covers, “Ain’t Love A Lot Like That” and the humorous “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Much As Loving You).” He belts out hard-drivin’ ’grass on the opener, “Leavin’ On The Next Thing Smokin’,” and croons a silky-smooth snappy take on the a cappella, “Didn’t It Rain Rain Children” about the great Biblical flood.

Marty’s Full Circle Band—Chris Davis (mandolin), Daniel Grindstaff (banjo), Glenn Gibson (resonator guitar), and Jayd Raines (bass)—step center stage with tasteful fills, solid timing, and subtle melodious nuances that embellish Marty’s impeccable performance. (Marty Raybon, P.O. Box 74009, Tuscumbia, AL 35674, www.martyraybon.com.) BC

The Essential Clarence White Bluegrass Guitar Leads

The Essential Clarence White Bluegrass Guitar Leads

The Essential Clarence White Bluegrass Guitar Leads

THE ESSENTIAL CLARENCE WHITE BLUEGRASS GUITAR LEADS
BY ROLAND WHITE & DIANE BOUSKA WITH STEVE POTTIER & MATT FLINNER
Diane and Roland Music 9780982114629. Includes two CDs, 102 pp, $34.95. (Diane & Roland Music, 224 Bermuda Dr., Nashville, TN 37214, www.rolandwhite.com.)

In addition to being a labor of love, this book fills every wish list one might have for an instructional book on Clarence White’s lead guitar playing. It is the most thorough and indepth look at Clarence’s life and guitar style that has yet been published. If you enjoy or play bluegrass guitar, this book is (as it says in the title) essential.

Bluegrass fans will be familiar with Clarence’s legacy as one of the first bluegrass flatpickers to have an impact on the developing style back in the early 1960s. His brother and famed mandolinist Roland White and Roland’s wife Diane Bouska, with transcription help from guitarists Steve Pottier and Matt Flinner, have put together the ultimate Clarence White guitar book.

It is at once an instructional book with tab, a personal memoir by Roland White with many great family photos, and a discussion of Clarence’s style by Diane Bouska, providing an indepth look at Clarence’s technique with commentary on each tune. It includes two CDs, the first containing 14 guitar solos played by Clarence in 1962 on his Martin D18. Even if you’ve heard Clarence’s playing many times, you have to hear this. It is jawdroppingly good. The recordings are crystal clear thanks to Ben Surratt’s engineering and mastering of the original tapes. The disc also includes bonus video clips of Clarence playing two tunes on TV in 1973.

The second CD contains slow and fast versions of the same 14 songs as rhythm tracks so you can practice with a great rhythm section that includes Roland White and Diane Bouska on rhythm guitars and Missy Raines on bass. The songs include “Shady Grove,” “Sally Goodin,” “FlopEared Mule,” “Banks Of The Ohio,” “Wildwood Flower,” and “Billy In The Lowground,” among others.

Roland and Diane are to be commended for creating such a thorough and accessible book. They could easily have just written a tribute to Clarence, but they’ve done that and gone beyond in giving us all an understanding of how and why his playing was so inspiring. In the foreword, Marty Stuart states that in Clarence’s “29 years on this earth, he made the kind of music that will live forever.” This labor of love by Roland and Diane ensures that it will. CVS

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

Sugar Hill
SUG-CD-4049

If we were to judge Sarah Jarosz, who was still 17 when this was recorded (she’s 18 now), by the company she’s keeping on her Sugar Hill debut “Song Up In Her Head,” well, she’s doing pretty darn well: Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Ben Sollee, Tim O’Brien, Mark Schatz, Mike Marshall, Abigail Washburn, Darrell Scott, Chris Eldridge, to give only a partial run down.

By the third track, it’s pretty obvious why such top-flight players chose to be a part of this project—she’s already a top-flight artist herself. Her voice, though youthful, has a slightly world-weary tinge that draws a degree of expression that’s rare in someone her age. Whether she’s playing mandolin, guitar, or clawhammer banjo, she sounds natural and relaxed, and superb.

As a songwriter, Jarosz promises to be a major force. No dogs in this bunch (the title track, the exhilarating “Left Home,” both of her instrumentals—all highlights), but special mention must go to “Edge Of A Dream,” a coming-of-age evocation with a melodic grace that, again, is striking coming from a teenager.

From all indications, Sarah Jarosz is a major addition to the acoustic scene, her introduction to us among the best releases of the year. (Sugar Hill, PO Box 120897, Nashville, TN, sugarhillrecords.com.) DR

Review: Various Artists - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival

VARIOUS ARTISTS
JUBILEE: BEST OF RENFRO VALLEY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
KET Ed. TV
No Number

Jubilee, produced by Kentucky Educational Television (KET), is one of the country’s finest music series, and since 1996 has presented a range of artists from J.D. Crowe to Roger McGuinn. This DVD (surprisingly hard to find online) is a special episode filmed at the 2008 Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival. Featured artists are Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley, the Grascals, Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition, and a few regional acts: Burchett, Morgan & 5ivespeed, the All American Bluegrass Band, Fast Lane, and the Cumberland Gap Connection.

This production is all about the music and is professionally shot with multiple cameras. The crew has extensive experience and knows when to cut to a solo or when to frame a trio. That’s a welcome change from the usual television fare where the crew doesn’t have a clue about the dynamics of a bluegrass band. What you won’t get here is any sense of the festival itself. It’s all focused on the main stage. For most bluegrass fans, that won’t matter. The show is edited by removing all betweensong talk, so all you get are the performances. Some viewers may prefer getting the full set, including stage banter, rather than just the songs, but you might appreciate not hearing the sometimes lame stage talk between songs.

All the main acts are in good form with Rhonda serving her usual high energy show (good to see Kenny Ingram on banjo). The show is a time capsule from 2008 and would be a valuable addition to any bluegrass video collection, but not essential. (KET Duplication Services, 600 Cooper Dr., Lexington, KY 40502, e-mail: shop@ket.org.) CVS

Reviews - October 2009

Various Artists - Flatpicking Bluegrass

Various Artists - Flatpicking Bluegrass

VARIOUS ARTISTS
FLATPICKING BLUEGRASS
FGM Records FGM 128

“Flatpicking Bluegrass” is the latest installment in the Flatpicking Guitar Magazine album series. As one would expect, some of the best flatpick guitarists are brought in to show their wares. But, what’s cool about this project is the way it was put together with an excellent band brought in to flesh out a set of bluegrass songs so they stand on their own. Then, once the base is built, the guitarists are encouraged to take that extra break or two to flesh out the premise of the album at both fast and slower tempos.

Put together by Dan Miller of FGM and produced by Tim May, the album highlights a list of accomplished guitarists that include May, Stephen Mougin, Brad Davis, Jim Hurst, Tim Stafford, John Chapman, Chris Jones, Josh Williams, Jim Nunally, Jeff White, Richard Bennett, and Kenny Smith. The backing band consists of Shad Cobb, Chris Joslin, Dave Harvey, and Charlie Chadwick, with backing vocals by Jeremy and Jason Chapman, Brad Davis, Wil Maring, Patty Mitchell, Amanda Smith, and Alan O’Bryant. As far as the lead vocals, the guitarists themselves provide their own.

There are some barnburners on here including John Chapman taking on “East Virginia Blues,” Josh Williams on “Long Journey Home,” and Kenny Smith ripping on “Air Mail Special On The Fly.” Those wonderful cuts are balanced by the more midtempo numbers, showing that flatpick guitar playing can also be done slower and sweeter. Some fine examples of this are Jim Hurst on an old school countrified version of “When The Golden Leaves Begin To Fall,” Stephen Mougin’s take on “My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains,” Tim Stafford on “I’ll Stay Around,” Jeff White on “Six White Horses,” and Brad Davis on the classic “Banks Of The Ohio.” (FGM Records, P.O. Box 2160, Pulaski, VA 24301, www.fgmrecords.com.)

Lost and Found

Lost and Found - Love, Lost and Found

LOST & FOUND
LOVE, LOST AND FOUND
Rebel Records REBCD 1829

With Dempsey Young’s tragic death in 2006, bluegrass music lost a master mandolin stylist whose smooth, melodic playing helped define the sound of a highly distinctive band. Thankfully, the Lost & Found’s latest release contains Young’s last studio recordings, seven tracks on which he plays and one of which also features his lead vocal.

One only has to listen to the effortless kickoff on “I Want To Be Wanted,” the tasteful, sweet fills on “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die,” or his slinky break on “Trail Of Sorrow” to know how different Young’s approach was from most other mandolin pickers. His work on “Waltz Medley” is typically gorgeous; so is his bouncy playing in support of Scottie Sparks’ country vocal on Ernest Tubb’s “Ill Always Be Glad To Take You Back.” The Pete Goblepenned “Pretty Roses Remind Me Of You” features more of Young’s concise, yet emotional, phrases paired with Ronald Smith’s banjo in between Allen Mills’ sincere vocals, all perfect for a love song. Young sings the nostalgic “A Daisy A Day,” a performance sure to bring a tear to many an eye.

The six tracks on which Young does not appear are every bit as worthy of the Lost & Found brand, with Scott Napier performing more than ably in the impossible task of filling Young’s spot. In particular, “If Today Was The Last Day” showcases Napier’s style, which is clearly influenced by, but not a copy of, Young’s. With Smith’s strong, subtle banjo picking and Sparks and Mills dividing lead vocal duties, the disc as a whole, which benefits by adhering for the most part to the love song theme, is a worthy addition to the band’s canon, made with grace under tough circumstances. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) AKH

Blue Sky Boys - Are You From Dixie?

Blue Sky Boys - Are You From Dixie?

BLUE SKY BOYS (BILL & EARL BOLICK)
ARE YOU FROM DIXIE?
Gusto Records GT70549

This CD came as a total surprise. In 2008, while attending Bill Bolick’s funeral in Hickory, N.C., the thought occurred to me that we’d probably seen the last Blue Sky Boys reissues. After all, we’d been blessed with several fine releases in recent years. With the last of the Blue Sky Boys passed from the scene, I feared that any chance of additional releases would diminish with time.

I didn’t reckon with Copper Creek Records’ Gary Reid, who’d also attended Bill’s funeral. He convinced the folks at IMG, owners of the Starday/King catalog, to reissue (as a memoriam on a single CD) two LPs the Blue Sky Boys cut for Starday Records; a gospel set and a secular set.

These were the first studio recordings made by the Bolicks following their 1951 departure from music. Starday’s Don Pierce had contacted the brothers in 1961, wanting them to record. After a decade out of music, they declined, but Bill provided some 1940s radio transcriptions to Pierce, which were released in 1962. The album did well, and Pierce persisted with his pleas for them to record.

In August 1963, Bill and Earl journeyed to Nashville, where they made these two historic albums. But, things didn’t proceed without a hitch. The Starday producers wanted to “update” the pristine sound of the Blue Sky Boys with extraneous Nashville instruments. The Bolicks were against it, but finally compromised; if they could cut the gospel album with just the addition of fiddle and bass, they would record the secular set as the producer’s wished. They reasoned that since they’d been out of the loop so long, Starday would know better what the public would buy.

The secular recordings include steel guitar, electric guitar, drums, and occasional piano. Happily, for the most part the extra instruments don’t intrude as much as one would expect—only on about a half dozen songs. On 27 of the 28 titles, the lead instruments are the mandolin and fiddle (the exception is “In The Pines,” which features uncredited resonator guitar). The choice of Hank Snow’s fiddler, Tommy Vaden, was inspired. Tommy sounds as if he’d worked with the Blue Sky Boys for years; interplay between fiddle and mandolin is flawless.

This is some of the Blue Sky Boys’ finest work, and two thirds of these songs don’t appear elsewhere by the brothers—four of them previously unreleased. And there’s a wonderful set of notes by Gary Reid. In spite of the tracks with Nashville instruments, this album gets my hearty recommendation. (Gusto Records, 1900 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville, TN 37210, www.countrymusicusa.com.) WVS

Bearfoot - Doors and Windows

Bearfoot - Doors and Windows

BEARFOOT
DOORS AND WINDOWS
Compass Records
7 4502 2

I have been listening to Bearfoot for a couple of years now. They have a reputation for sounding as wonderful in concert as they do on their albums. The core of the group, Kate Hamre on bass and lead vocals, Angela Oudean on fiddle and vocals, Mike Mickelson on guitar and vocals, and Jason Norris on mandolin and vocals are from Alaska. Not long ago, the group added a mainlander to the fold with fiddler, songwriter, vocalist, and former Biscuit Burner, Odessa Jorgenson, who’s rounded out the Bearfoot sound wonderfully.

Bearfoot is a part of the newer side of bluegrass where the younger generation brings in modern yet downtoearth sensibilities and influences to the music. The end result is a fiddle based sound supported by sweet vocals that exude a sense of life lived and loved. The opening cut, the Megan McCormick penned “Oh My Love,” is a perfect example of this—infectious and Sunday-drive worthy.

The guest musicians brought in for this Garry West produced album include the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall on resonator guitar, Alison Brown on banjo, Todd Phillips on bass, Andrea Zonn on fiddle, and Larry Atamanuik on drums. Highlights include the upbeat traditional “Single Girl,” some unique takes on John Hiatt’s “Before I Go” and the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” and a couple of wonderful sliceoflife cuts in “Heaven” and “Northward Bound.” (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) DH

Hornagraphy

Hornography

VARIOUS ARTISTS
HORNOGRAPHY
Left of Center Records
869

Scratch the surface of the musical mainstream and you’re bound to find countless niches of musical brilliance. “Hornography” is an inspired showcase for one of these niches. It represents a musical convocation of various masters of the resonator guitar composing songs and collaborating in various configurations with their different sizes, shapes and models of Tim Scheerhorn’s much soughtafter Scheerhorn guitars.

This 17-track collection is, of course, a musthave for resonator guitar aficionados. Yet with its dazzling musicianship, imaginative original compositions and stylistic range (everything from progressive and traditional bluegrass to blues and the occasional jazz flavored forays), it will also delight mainstream listeners.

Jimmy Ross came up with this Scheerhorncentric album concept. He also served as executive producer and brought on board Jim Scheerhorn who testdrives his own guitars on several tracks, including on an evocative instrumental called “Autumn Sunset,” which he also wrote. Ross also enlisted noted producer/multi-instrumentalist Randy Kohrs, who besides producing, engineering and mixing many of the tracks, also wrote, sings, and plays on several tracks.

The other namebrand contributors to this inspired project are too numerous to list here, but Bruce Bouton, Rob Ickes, Todd Livingston, Andy Leftwich, Alan Bibey, Scott Vestal, and Adam Steffey are just a few of the masters who lent their talent and expertise to “Hornography.” (Left of Center Records, 2322 Foster Ave., Nashville, TN 37210, myspace.com/hornographycd.) BA

Leroy Mumma - Its About Time

Leroy Mumma - Its About Time

LEROY MUMMA
IT’S ABOUT TIME
No label
No number

I met LeRoy Mumma (pronounced MOOmaw) in the late 1960s. He was playing with Charlie Bailey when I joined Charlie’s band. LeRoy also appeared with the Bailey Brothers on a number of gigs, including the Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. LeRoy’s a fine fiddler, the kind of musician who makes others look good, even when they’re not—which was the case with yours truly. I was struggling to keep up with those guys, all of whom were professionals.

LeRoy played solid backup, with doublestops often reminiscent of Tater Tate. That may have partly been why the Baileys liked him. Tater was their favorite fiddler and LeRoy had some of the same licks. We played a few shows together in the 1970s with Charlie and Dan Bailey, but more often just Charlie. Banjo pioneer Johnnie Whisnant worked some of those shows, too; LeRoy also fiddled on Johnnie’s Rounder album.

When Charlie moved from Wilmington, Del., back to Tennessee, I lost contact with LeRoy, who was living in Pennsylvania. The next time I ran into LeRoy Mumma was the early 1980s at the Gettysburg, Pa., bluegrass festival. He was working with Bob Paisley, with whom he cut five albums. He also played with the Spirits Of Bluegrass for a while, but recently he’s been freelancing.

For this project (his first CD on his own), LeRoy chose a nice mixture of standards and obscure (at least to me) tunes. He enlisted his old associates, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, to back him—good choice. They provide sympathetic accompaniment, and the interplay with mandolin and banjo makes for an exciting fiddle album. (LeRoy Mumma, 1281 Kramer Mill Rd., Denver, PA 17517, mumma@dejazzd.com.) WVS

New Found Road

New Found Road

NEW FOUND ROAD
SAME OLD PLACE
Rounder Records
1166106092

This project shows the maturity a band can have in both vocal and song arrangement. In my opinion New Found Road has quietly become one of the best bluegrass/country flavored groups of the modern bluegrass era. Selecting songs from a variety of writers such as Sonya Isaacs, Tim Stafford, Larry Sparks, Ronnie Bowman, and Carter Stanley, NewFound Road shows that it can handle songs as varied as an old Del Reeves tune “On The Back Row” to a barnburning instrumental “Piledriver” written by Justin Moses. For this project, the band consists of Tim Shelton on guitar and lead vocal, Joe Booher on mandolin, Justin Moses on resonator guitar, JR Williams on banjo and Randy Barnes on bass. The group has additional help from Brandon Godman and Jim VanCleve on fiddles and vocals.  The CD kicks of with a driving version of Sonya Isaacs’ “Try To Be” and other selections include Ronnie Bowman’s “River Of Pain,” Larry

Sparks “Brand New Broken Heart,” and Tim O’Brien’s “Full Circle.” The highlights for me are the wonderful a cappella of “Give Me Jesus,” and from the Stanley’s, Ralph’s “I Am The Man Thomas” and Carter’s “Lonesome River.”

Please note as of this writing Randy Barnes has been replaced on bass by Jamey Booher and Junior Williams has been replaced on banjo by Josh Miller. This leaves Tim Shelton as the only remaining founding member. But if this project is any example, Shelton and New Found Road will have a good future with old and new fans alike. (Rounder Records, One Burlington Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BF

Rhonda Vincent - Destination Life

Rhonda Vincent - Destination Life

RHONDA VINCENT
DESTINATION LIFE
Rounder Records
1166106232

Every note is perfect. Each vocal inflection, harmony part, and timing increment is perfectly placed. Rhonda Vincent’s new Rounder album, “Destination Life” is about as technologically flawless as it can get. So what is there to talk about?

Well, we might mention that, for the first time, to achieve such perfection Rhonda needed to look no further than her own group. Stalwart fiddler Hunter Berry, coproducer of the album with Rhonda, and longtime bassist Mickey Harris are joined by Rage newbies Ben Helson on guitar and Aaron McDaris on banjo. When you’ve got a road band this good, why look elsewhere?

Then there are the songs, many of which are compositions in the modern bluegrass vein. They run the gamut from the odd chords of the opener “Last Time Loving You” to Pete Goble’s slow countryinflected “I Can Make Him Whisper I Love You” to the gutwrenchingbuthopeful “Destination Life.”

Standouts include the duet with Ben Helson on “Crazy What A Lonely Heart Will Do” which features the resonator guitar work of Mickey Harris (who knew?), and “Stop The World (And Let Me Off)” whose rumba beat provides a nice break from the stricter bluegrass meters.

Still and yet, after a rimption (if I may use that good old Southern word) of heartbreak, it is refreshing to hear the band launch into the old fiddle tune “Eighth Of January” on which Rhonda demonstrates that her mandolin playing is still solid as a rock. Another nod to tradition comes from Aaron McDaris’s fingerpicked guitar (dare I say Scruggsstyle guitar?) on “I Heard My Savior Calling Me.”

Rhonda continues to charge full-speed ahead through the bluegrass world, living her dream, singing her heart out, and cranking out album after album of intense, high quality music. “Destination Life” is another stellar addition to the Rhonda Vincent catalog. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) MHH

Spring Creek - Way Up On A Mountain

Spring Creek - Way Up On A Mountain

SPRING CREEK
WAY UP ON A MOUNTAIN
Rebel Records
REBCD1832

Spring Creek, the young Colorado based quartet, hits the nail squarely on the head with “Way Up On A Mountain,” their third and best CD. They’ve chosen new material perfectly suited to their intense traditional bluegrass sound. They wrote half of the tracks themselves, five more come from various songsters, and the sole traditional offering, “In Despair,” is a relatively obscure Monroe classic, performed with conviction.

The band members share the vocal duties in different duo and trio combinations, for a nice variety. Especially effective is the highbaritone trio on the chorus of “It’s Alright My Darlin’,” and the fullout trio arrangement on “Lonesome Town.” Taylor Smith plays driving rhythm guitar, tasteful lead, and sings four songs, including the title track. Jessica Smith lays her bass playing right in the pocket and wrote two of the three songs she sings here.

Alex Johnstone plays a refreshingly Monroe-influenced downstroke-style mandolin. Chris Elliot’s solid banjo reflects his years of study with Alan Munde and Pete Wernick and his tunes “Cuba Vera Swing” and “Under The Gun” demonstrate his versatility and originality, with a particularly nice use of Keith tuners on the latter. Michael Cleveland and Sally Van Meter appear as guests and their playing adds depth and fullness while not overshadowing the core group.

The music ranges from dark and bluesy (“Tangled In The Pines”) to swingy and lighthearted (“Drivin’ Me Crazy”), and everything in between. With this release the band’s sound has jelled and shows the tight precision of musicians who have played together regularly for years. Some credit for this surely goes to record producer Jeff White. The members of Spring Creek are living up to their considerable potential and with a little luck they will go far. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.springcreekbluegrassband.com.) CAH

Two High String Band - Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito

Two High String Band - Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito

TWO HIGH STRING BAND
HOT TEXAS BLUEGRASS BURRITO
No Label
THSB 200901

The Two High String Band from Texas is a sixpiece bluegrass band featuring some pretty familiar names. Try banjo great Alan Munde, mandolinist Billy Bright (once part of Tony Rice’s touring band), and bassist Mark Rubin (formerly of the Bad Livers), along with Erik Hokkanen on fiddle, and Brian Smith and Geoff Union on guitars and vocals. Eight of the twelve tracks on their “Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito” are originals, augmented by covers ranging from standards like “I’ve Just Seen The Rock Of Ages” to unlikely but inspired covers such as John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird.”

Like with most burritos, the ingredients can range from mouthwatering to joltingly spicy. Also like real burritos, it can only take a few bad tasting items to spoil the overall flavor, and that’s the case with this CD, as well. It’s a shame, too, because there’s a lot of brilliant playing here. Alan Munde is absolutely on top of his game, tossing out one tasty and tasteful break after another, and Bright matches him with a host of fine solos, as well as original instrumentals like “Jerusalem Café,” “Waltz Into Morning,” and “E. Compton Blues,” all of which show a healthy Monroe influence.

As with many hot picking bands, it’s the vocals that suffer. Also, as with many contemporary CDs, the notes don’t indicate which of the band’s four vocalists are featured on any given track. But, lead vocals are just shaky enough and wavering on pitch to detract from the overall positive effect of the picking. Hokkanen’s fiddle work is a bit inconsistent, too, playing a nice solo on “High On The Ohio,” but starting off with a slightly sour intro. His background drones on “Waltz Into Morning” distract from an otherwise gorgeous and moody instrumental.

So it’s hard to speculate as to why the end results came out this way. Certainly fans of Alan Munde, good mandolin picking, and new Monroeesque instrumentals will find a lot of pleasure in this CD. Those whose tastes run towards smoother singing might have to look elsewhere. (Two High String Band, 1809 Stanley Ave., Austin, TX 78745, www.highstring.com.) HK

Wayne Taylor and Appaloosa

Wayne Taylor and Appaloosa

WAYNE TAYLOR & APPALOOSA
No Label
No Number

Since retiring from the Navy and as lead singer head of their Country Current bluegrass ensemble, Wayne Taylor has had the musical freedom he has been seeking where he can showcase his own material. Taylor is a strong guitarist, vocalist and songwriter whose talents have become well known amongst his peers. After a year or so of sideman duties with such bands as Bill Emerson’s Sweet Dixie, Taylor decided to venture out and form his own group. To that end Taylor has pulled together an experienced and solid band with Emory Lester on mandolin, Mark Delaney on banjo, Kip Martin on bass, and Dave Giegerich on resonator guitar; all familiar names. All the material on this project was either written or cowritten by Taylor with the exception of “Bury Me In Dixie” by David Parker, “Dancin’ With Judy” by Chris & Karen Walls, and “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by Craig & Charlie Reid. The songs include the melodic “Cold Cold River,” the  Gospels of “Heaven’s Door,” and “Jesus And Me,” the oddtempo of “40 Years,” and the lookingback of “Dirt Roads.”

The project was produced by Taylor and Emory Lester and was solidly recorded and mixed at George Hodgkiss’ Phoenix studios in Browntown, Va. This collection is sure to be a hit with Taylor’s many fans and will provide song fodder for those searching for new tunes. (Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa,1751 Regents Park Rd., West
Crofton, MD 21114, www.waynetaylorandappaloosa.com.) BF

Reviews - November 2009

HIGHLIGHTS

Dale Ann Bradley - Don't Turn Your Back

Dale Ann Bradley - Don't Turn Your Back

DALE ANN BRADLEY
DON’T TURN YOUR BACK
Compass Records
7 4511 2

It should be no secret to anyone who listens, Dale Ann Bradley’s voice possesses a rare combination of power and tenderness that few in any genre can lay claim to. “Don’t Turn Your Back” puts this voice on full display proving why she has been voted the IBMA’s Female Vocalist Of The Year for the past three years.

Drawing from a who’s who of great songwriters, the album pulls from several genres, but doesn’t sound disparate in the capable hands of both vocalist and band. Louisa Branscomb contributes three songs, including the title track (which speaks of moving forward even when faced with adversity), “Ghost Bound Train” (cowritten with Bradley), and “Will I Be Good Enough,” one of the albums standout tracks with its spoken thoughts that cross every parent’s mind.

From the world of country music, Bradley pulls the Al Anderson-penned “The Last Thing On My Mind” and A.P. Carter’s “Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room,” giving both a great bluegrass spin. From the world of rock-and-roll, she gives a similar spin to Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” The album’s final track, “Music City Queen,” also cowritten by Bradley and Branscomb, is a beautiful song that tells the story of Bradley and countless others who have chased a dream down the Cumberland River.

Bradley’s voice is lifted and pressed forward by the ringers in the studio: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Bub on bass, Gena Britt Tew on banjo, Tim Laughlin on mandolin, and Alison Brown on banjo (as well as the album’s producer). Harmony vocals are supplied by Jamie Dailey, Darrin Vincent, Steve Gulley, and Claire Lynch. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) CEB

DeDe Wyland - Leave The Light On

DeDe Wyland - Keep The Light On

DEDE WYLAND
KEEP THE LIGHT ON
Patuxent Music
CD189

Tony Trischka’s 1983 album, “A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas” (Rounder Records)—one of the pinnacles of newgrass music—is an instrumental tour de force. However, a brief vocal track, “John’s Waltz To The Miller,” pops up before the albums closing cut, its direct, simple melody providing a lilting respite before the albums final finger-twister. What elevates the tune (a Trischka/Wyland original) from simply pretty to profoundly beautiful is the voice that delivers it, belonging to rhythm guitarist Dede Wyland.

Wyland’s best known for her tenure in Trischka’s 1980s newgrass band, Skyline, and before that, the Milwaukee-based Grass, Food and Lodging. After Skyline, she concentrated on teaching, though whenever she’s turned up as a guest or for the occasional showcase, it’s served to remind listeners that Wyland remains among the most affecting, and downright beautiful voices to ever glide atop banjos and mandolins.

Yet, since leaving Skyline in the 1980s…poof! At least in the public arena, Wyland seemed to disappear. A somewhat under-the-radar 1998 EP, “Everything That Glitters,” did little to raise her profile, but “Keep The Light On” should (not to say “will”), because this is a great album, the disc fans of Wyland’s have been hoping for, these many years. Simply put, Wyland must be heard by all lovers of the female voice in bluegrass.

Carrying over from her EP is banjoist Mike Mumford, joined by Wyatt Rice (guitar), Rickie Simpkins (mandolin and vocal harmonies), and bassist Ronnie Simpkins to form the core band, along with bassist Ira Gitlin (another carry-over from the EP), guitarist Tom McLaughlin, and fiddler Darol Anger, each making single appearances, and guest harmonizers Randy Barrett, Dudley Connell, Fred Travers, and David McLaughlin.

The David Via title track, the re-recorded “Everything That Glitters,” Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Devoted To You,” Miller/Britt’s waltzing-then-driving yodeler “Chime Bells;” 11 cuts and 11 winners, each played with crisp, driving virtuosity. The Stanleys’ “The Memory Of Your Smile” should satisfy lovers of the high lonesome sound, with its haunting, minor-tinged chorus both smooth and gritty. Closing the disc is a gorgeous new recording of “John’s Waltz To The Miller.” In a sensible world, this recording would install the tune in the realm of modern bluegrass standards. Let’s hope. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848. www.pxrec.com.) DR

Kenny Ray Horton - A Canary's Song

Kenny Ray Horton - A Canary's Song

KENNY RAY HORTON
A CANARY’S SONG
Fader 4 Records
No Number

The name Kenny Ray Horton may not be easily recognizable, but that may be about to change. This native of Comfort, Mo., has an extensive background in both country and bluegrass music and has written material for such noted artists as Kenny Rogers. In 2008, he became the lead singer of the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band, Country Current, and only the fourth person in the band’s 36 year history to hold that position.

These 12 superlative tracks highlight Kenny’s considerable vocal and songwriting talents. Joining him are Country Current bandmates, Keith Arneson (banjo), Pat White (fiddle and vocals), and Jeremy Middleton (bass and vocals). Other supporting musicians include Mike Auldridge (resonator guitar) and Darren Beachley (background vocals). Most of the titles were either written or co-written by Kenny. One exception is the title song which was co-authored by Garth Brooks and inspired by the practice of miners taking canaries into the mines as they dug for coal (as long as the canaries were singing, the miners knew the air was safe to breathe). Another is the humorous and fast-paced “Papa Come Quick” (“Jody and Chico”).

Kenny is at his best, however, performing his own material including “Horses You Can’t Tame,” “Mailpouch Chew,” “Wherever You Are,” and “Grateful.” Also featured is the Pat White instrumental, “S.O.S.” This album is a pleasant surprise and one of the more dynamic collections of original bluegrass music this year. Highly recommended! (Fader 4 Music, P.O. Box 251, Point of Rocks, MD 21777.) LM

COMPACT DISCS

Bryan Sutton Almost Live

Bryan Sutton - Almost Live

BRYAN SUTTON
ALMOST LIVE
Sugar Hill Records
SUGCD4040

In a way, “Almost Live” is a retrospective look at a career not even halfway accomplished. Its ten songs are essentially reunions between Bryan Sutton and the friends and bands with which he has played or still plays. For example, Sutton subbed with the Bluegrass Sessions group on their tour a few years ago, so Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, and Mark Schatz return the favor by playing here on his original instrumental “Morning Top.” Sutton played on Chris Thile’s “How To Grow A Woman From The Ground” with Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, and Gary Garrison, so they back him on another original, “Big Island Hornpipe.” He also did several shows with Hot Rize, leading to two cuts here, “Church Street Blues” and “Kitchen Girl.” Other regular and semiregular gigs, along with session work, account for his duets and quartets that fill the remaining six tracks.

Indisputably good are the two numbers Sutton does with Hot Rize. Those tracks have a relaxed, offhand feel that makes them highly attractive, especially the gently propulsive cover of Norman Blake’s “Church Street Blues.” In a sense, they breathe new life into a tune that doesn’t need new life. Also indisputably good is “Le Pont De La Moustache,” a Django-style original that recalls the swing tunes Sutton included on his “Ready To Go” album. Session mate Aubrey Haynie reprises his Stephane Grappelli role and is joined by Crouch and accordianist Jeff Taylor for about five minutes of delightful gypsy jazz. Good things can also be said of the Celtic-tinged waltz duet with Russ Barenberg, the clawhammerdriven “Wonder Valley Gals,” and the beauty of the spare “Loretta’s Waltz.”

In fact, good things can be said of all the tracks because it’s a good album. Perhaps it is not as good as Sutton’s earlier “Ready To Go”—an album that had greater diversity and slightly stronger material—but, it’s an album worthy of repeated airings. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212 www.sugarhillrecords.com. BW

Blu' Lonesum' - Sweet Virginia

Blu' Lonesum' - Sweet Virginia

BLU’ LONESUM’
SWEET VIRGINIA
No Label
No Number

The word in the music scene today is, “Anybody can make a record these days.” The theory being that it’s fairly easy to record and create a CD or mp3 in these technologically advanced times. The fact is, however, that even back in the day, there were ways for unsigned bands to put together a vinyl album or produce a cassette tape with a small company or on their own. There have been many good recordings made in this fashion over the years, as well as some inferior product that is amateur sounding at best. The debut album “Sweet Virginia” by Blu’ Lonesum’ is an example of the former.

In bluegrass music, in my opinion, the key to a small label or self-produced recording is the vocals. Mediocre instrumentation is one thing, but bad or mediocre vocals can be brutal. Thankfully, the lead and harmony singing on “Sweet Virginia” is good and solid. Blu’ Lonesum’ is made up of J.R. Dunbar on guitar, Steve Roach  on banjo, Jody Lambert on bass and vocals, Travis Fitzgerald on mandolin and vocals, and Mike Lambert on guitar and vocals. Another positive aspect of this traditional bluegrass project is the sweet fiddle work provided throughout by guest Doug Bartlett, a bluegrass veteran who’s worked with the Lonesome River Band and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, among others.

There is standard bluegrass fare on here, but thankfully not the same old songs one often finds. The standout cuts include “Carolina Morning,” “Keen’s Mountain Prison,” and “Then I’ll Stop Calling Your Name.” The album also offers up some good original songs including the excellent title cut, written by Jody Lambert, and a new instrumental written by Roach called “Bull Rider.” (J.R. Dunbar, 500 E. Gretna Rd., Gretna, VA 24557, myspace.com/blulonesum.) DH

Constant Change - Hills Of Home

Constant Change - Hills Of Home

CONSTANT CHANGE
HILLS OF HOME
Papa Leo Records
PL090001

Constant Change is fourth generation bluegrass from the fertile central North Carolina scene. The members play bluegrass like they grew up with it, because they did. Selfdescribed “new traditionalists,” the band’s roots are sufficiently powerful that IBMA Hall Of Honor member Curly Seckler selected them to back him up on a May 2009 public television performance. Energetic and engaging, “Hills Of Home” is the fourth album in seven years from Constant Change.

The members come from an area about an hour (all in different directions) from Raleigh, which certainly does not resemble the mountains on the CD cover. The group solidified in the fall of 2005 when mandolinist and baritone Daniel Aldridge rejoined older brother Brian on banjo, lead and tenor vocals, and some lead guitar. The band also includes Dan Wells (guitar and vocals), a veteran of the James King Band and Carolina Road, and founder Clifton Preddy, a fiddler and vocalist who has played with more than a dozen bands. Standup bass player and singer Gary Baird joined in 2006 after stints with New Classic Grass and Lynwood Lunsford.

The influence of second generation North Carolina bluegrass artists proves obvious in both the band’s musical style and songwriting credits. A.L. Wood (with whom the Aldridge brothers’ father, Mike, played for many years) composed both the title song and the opener, “Roses And Carnations.” A.L.’s neighbor, Dewey Farmer, wrote “Carolina Sunshine,” while “Bitter Sweet [sic] Memories Of Home” comes from long time Bass Mountain Boys fiddler (again, a Mike Aldridge connection) Johnny Ridge. Wells adds a couple of originals to a pleasingly diverse mix of generally surprising choices.

On “Hills Of Home Constant Change” approaches this wonderful set of material with sharp musicianship, solid arrangements, and strong harmonies. They move easily from ballads and gospel songs to edgy drive. There is not a single weak track among the 14.

The five musicians also share demanding day jobs that limits their performances to two or three times a month, their range to Virginia through Georgia, and their capacity to rehearse and record. Despite their obvious talent and topnotch ability for selecting material, this puts something of a glass ceiling on how far Constant Change can go nationally. I think the members understand and have made their peace with this. Constant Change seems ready to join their heroes in the ranks of outstanding regional bluegrass bands from the Tar Heel State. (Constant Change, 3041 Preddy Rd., Franklinton, NC 27525, www.papaleorecords.com.) AM

Dewey Brown - Hard Times For A Fiddler

Dewey Brown - Hard Times For A Fiddler

DEWEY BROWN
HARD TIMES FOR A FIDDLER
Dew Bug Records
DB-339

Clinch Mountain Boys’ fiddler Dewey Brown starts his sophomore album off in style with “Hard Times Are Here,” a rollicking duet with his boss, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and he’s joined by another legendary voice, Del McCoury, on “Play The Lonesome Sound,” a celebration of the high-lonesome ideal that Brown reaches for, and grabs, on the disc’s other 13 tracks.

Brown wrote those two, as well as the other four vocal tracks on which he earnestly takes the lead vocal: the sinner’s prayer song “Let Me In Your Heart,” “Leslie’s Home Away From Home,” and “Memories,” both full of nostalgia, with the latter paying tribute to …Mama’s fried chicken and Daddy’s good whippins… and “Near My God To Thee,” which features harmony vocals from Nathan Stanley and an altar call recitation from Dr. Ralph.

The other seven tracks on this 35-minute album are fiddle tracks, with Brown giving them the full Stanley-style treatment by staying close to the melody with taste and authority. “A Maiden’s Love” is a mid-tempo, lilting number, contrasting with the quick breakdowns of “It’s Two O’Clock,” “Brown’s Breakdown,” “Black Mountain Blues,” “Walking In My Sleep,” the blistering “Lee Highway Blues,” and the bluesy Curly Ray Cline composition “Lost Train.” The prettiest tunes here are the Brown original “Beaver Dam,” which has a Monroe-style Celtic tinge, and the traditional “Cherokee Shuffle.”

With a house band of Steve Sparkman (banjo), James Alan Shelton (guitar), and Jack Cooke (bass), this effort is a pleasing variant on the Stanley sound. (Dew Bug Records, P.O. Box 411, Graham, NC 27253, www.deweybrown.com.) AKH

The Gibson Brothers - Ring The Bell

The Gibson Brothers - Ring The Bell

THE GIBSON BROTHERS
RING THE BELL
Compass Records
7 4506 2

Brothers Eric and Leigh Gibson continue to ring the bell for the classic sound of brother duets with their first album for Compass Records. This time around, they bring with them a slightly more raw sound to their tight harmonies. In addition to the rawer touch, the group has also added mandolin player Joe Walsh to the group, whose buoyant playing weaves seamlessly throughout the album’s 12 songs. Walsh also contributes to the songwriting duties, cowriting “I Can’t Like Myself” with the Gibson Brothers and bassist Mike Barber. The brothers, themselves, contribute five songs to the project covering love (“Forever Has No End,” “That’s What I Get For Lovin’ You,” “What Can I Do?”) and farming (“Farm Of Yesterday” and “Bottomland”). Songs from writers Joe Newberry, Marshall Warwick, Chet O’Keefe, Shawn Camp, and Paul Kennerly round out the project with themes of family, love, and death.

Recorded with the Gibson Brothers touring band of Eric on banjo, Leigh on guitar, Barber, Walsh, and fiddler Clayton Campbell, the music builds on the solid foundation of previous albums. Stepping outside their comfort zones, the brothers bring in Mike Witcher on resonator guitar throughout (including a rousing solo on “I Can’t Like Myself”) and percussionist Erick Jaskowiak on “Farm Of Yesterday.”

With a renewed interest in the sound of brother duets, the Gibson Brothers should not be overlooked. Their authentic sound is a breath of fresh air in the marketplace. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) CEB

Jesse McReynolds and The Virginia Boys and Amanda - Family Harmony

Jesse McReynolds and The Virginia Boys and Amanda - Family Harmony

JESSE McREYNOLDS AND THE VIRGINIA BOYS AND AMANDA
FAMILY HARMONY
J&J Music
No Number

There are few, if any, bluegrass music stars for whom an album titled “Family Harmony” is more appropriate. Yet now, instead of being joined by his late, great brother and duo partner Jim, Jesse McReynolds (lead vocals, mandolin, and guitar) is joined here by three of his grandchildren: Garrett McReynolds (guitar and tenor vocals), Amanda McReynolds (lead and harmony vocals), and Luke McKnight (vocals and mandolin). The result has the feel of a laid-back singin’ session in the family living room, albeit one with Gary Reece and Charlie Cushman playing banjo, Tony Wray and Dave Salyers playing guitar, Kent Blanton on bass, and Jason Carter and Travis Wetzel on fiddle.

Amanda’s harmony vocals add a nice touch throughout the 12-song disc, and she steps out front to deliver a beautiful cover of the Carpenters’ “Top Of The World.” Garrett does an equally fine job on “Live And Let Live.” Jesse handles the rest of the lead vocal duties, breathing life into classics such as “I’m Waiting To Hear You Call Me Darling” and self-penned tracks “Make Hay While The Sun Is Shining,” “Take Time To Smell The Roses,” and “I’m Gonna Put My Life On Hold.”

The finest cut is a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Alberta Bound,” a bouncy tune perfectly suited for a vocal performance from Jesse, recalling his glory days. (J&J Music, P.O. Box 1385, Gallatin, TN 37066, www.jimandjesse.com) AKH

Mac Traynham & Shay Garriock - Turkey In The Mountain

Mac Traynham & Shay Garriock - Turkey In The Mountain

MAC TRAYNHAM & SHAY GARRIOCK
TURKEY IN THE MOUNTAIN
Southern Mountain Melodies
No Number

Often, we think of tradition as being handed down from parents to children, and that’s an important form of transmission. It’s also possible to immerse oneself in the traditions of one’s neighbors—what Mac Traynham and Shay Garriock have done for many years in southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. Mac has appeared on four previous CDs; this is their first recorded collaboration, though they have been playing together and learning from older musicians and each other for many years.

On this recording, Shay does most of the fiddling and Mac does all the banjo playing and singing. Mac’s wife, Jenny Traynham, also plays guitar on four cuts.The 22 cuts on this recording have many influences; a few of the betterknown are Hick and Uncle Norm Edmonds, Wade Ward, Uncle Charlie Osborne, Matokie Slaughter, Gaither Carlton, Taylor Kimble, and recordings of Grayson and Whittier.They start with “Jordan Is A Hard Road,” which is a long way from the Uncle Dave Macon song. Shay’s fiddle leaps and dives with the melody, and Mac follows him precisely. Shay likes to tune down a step to FCGD, and he plays a driving “Shooting Creek” in that tuning. Mac sings six songs, including “Joke And Henry.” They picked up a lovely setting of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” from Hick Edmonds; it soars, swoops, and meanders along. “Possum Trot” features twin fiddles.

Most of this CD features wonderful fiddle/banjo duets, but “Big Eyed Rabbit” features solo banjo with Mac singing words he penned to this Matokie Slaughter tune. Mac also does some nice fingerpicking on a few tunes. This CD captures two master oldtime musicians at the top of their form and belongs in your collection. (Shay Garriock, 90 Reeves Rd., Pittsboro, NC 27312, macandshaycd.homestead.com.) SAG

Mon River Ramblers - 27

Mon River Ramblers - 27

MON RIVER RAMBLERS
TWENTY-SEVEN
Yard Sale Records
No Number

The Mon River Ramblers are based in Pittsburgh, Pa., deriving their name from the Monongahela River that flows through the heart of the city. Starting out as a jam band at the University of Pittsburgh, the group currently consists of the Kuzemka brothers, Jim (guitar) and Jeff (banjo), along with Paul Dvorchak (fiddle), Robin Brubaker (bass), and Luke Stamper (fiddle).

The ten-song disc is the band’s recording debut and consists of original material, the lone exception being the gospel standard “No Hiding Place.” The band’s style is highlighted by precise picking, especially on a pair of instrumentals, “Economic Breakdown” and “Catamount.”  Their lead and harmony vocals are flawless on numbers such as “One More Night,” “This Old Road,” and “Always Be Blue.”  For a first time effort, the Mon River Ramblers have come out swinging with a home run that should open doors of opportunity for the group. (Luke Stamper, 4503 1/2 Corday Way, Pittsburgh, PA 15224, www.monriverramblers.com) LM

Smooth Kentucky - Few More Miles

Smooth Kentucky - Few More Miles

SMOOTH KENTUCKY
A FEW MORE MILES
No Label
No Number

“Smooth Kentucky” is a Baltimore/D.C.-area band that includes the area’s finest and up-and-coming young musicians. The band consists of Ed Hough (guitar), B.J. Lazarus (mandolin), David Frieman (bass), Cris Jacobs (guitar), Patrick McAvinue (fiddle), Jordan Tice (guitar), and Dave Geigerich (resonator guitar). Special guests include Mike Munford on banjo and harmony vocal assistance from Sarah and Maria Fitzmaurice, David Markowitz, and Chris Bentley. With the exception of Bob Dylan’s “You Belong To Me,” all of the selections are written or cowritten by Ed and/or B.J.

“Smooth Kentucky” is an Americana acoustic band with bluegrass roots (only one cut on the project has a banjo). However, the grassy feeling is there with topnotch performances by McAvinue, Tice, Giegerich and Lazarus. Ed Hough’s lead vocals are solid, with backing harmony from Lazarus, Jacobs, and the guests. A good, solid production from a young band making their mark in the MidAtlantic. (Smooth Kentucky, 7010 Heathfield Rd., Baltimore, MD 21212, www.smoothkentucky.com.) BF

ON THE EDGE

Chris Pandolfi - Looking Glass

Chris Pandolfi - Looking Glass

CHRIS PANDOLFI
LOOKING GLASS
Sugar Hill Records
SUG-CD-4056

Banjoist Chris Pandolfi is among the new crop of young red-hot pickers currently making their marks in bands of fellow firebrands—in his case, the Infamous Stringdusters. All of the Strindusters help out Pandolfi (bassist Travis Book, mandolinist Jesse Cobb, fiddler Jeremy Garrett, resonator guitarist Andy Hall, guitarist Andy Falco), along with former member (and current Punch Brother guitarist) Chris Eldridge, the Matt Flinner Trio (mandolinist Flinner, guitarist Ross Martin, bassist Eric Thorin), fiddler Stuart Duncan, and bassist Byron House.

No standards here (at least not yet), the 11 newgrassy instrumentals coming from Pandolfi’s pen, and as solo projects by banjoists, this one has a somewhat understated vibe—not much flash, even on the fastest numbers, while some of the most affecting moments come courtesy of slower pieces, particularly “Big Bend,” with Flinner’s trio in support and my pick as the most likely future standard. In fact, this album seemed to take a bit longer than usual to sink in, but it did. Tunes such as “Close Encounters” seem to glide along nicely, although with repeated listening, the contours come to sound less predictable even as they become familiar.

The disc’s closer is a duet for banjo and bass, again, somewhat introspective and with an appropriate title, “Melancholy,” encapsulating much of Pandolfi’s style—satisfying to listen to as long as you give it some time and your full attention. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, www.sugarhillrecords.com. DR

DVD

BEYOND BASIC BLUEGRASS RHYTHM GUITAR:
BACKUP TECHNIQUES FOR INTERMEDIATE AND ADVANCED PLAYERS

TAUGHT BY STEVE KAUFMAN
Homespun DVDKAUGT22.
One DVD (1 hr. 40 min.), 23-page PDF booklet on disc, $29.95. (Homespun, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.)

For many people, advanced rhythm guitar is an oxymoron. But, it’s as important a skill and interesting a topic as any in bluegrass. Bluegrass rhythm guitar is often taught at workshops and camps around the country, but there is seldom a course offered on advanced rhythm guitar. This DVD is a welcome addition to the teaching aids available because it dares to go beyond “boom-chuck.”

Steve Kaufman, a three-time winner of the National Flatpicking Championship in Winfield, Kans., adds here to his list of DVDs for Homespun, and I consider it required viewing for anyone interested in adding variety and interest to their rhythm playing. He is a comfortable and engaging teacher, and it’s fun to work through his lessons.

Kaufman teaches rhythm for “Little Rock Getaway,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “St. Anne’s Reel,” “Kentucky Waltz,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Alabama Jubilee,” and “Sally Goodin,” with topics covered such as eighth-note, quarter-note, and half-note bass runs; treble string runs; seventh, minor, diminished, and augmented chords and shapes; chord substitutions; and much more.There are times where it does seem to go pretty fast, but that’s not really a problem with a DVD.

There’s a lot of juicy stuff here to get into, especially if it’s new to you. I’m planning to study this DVD many more times. Of particular revelation for me was his playing on “Kentucky Waltz,” which includes a nice substitution from the playing of Jethro Burns. All Homespun DVDs are well recorded with superb sound and dual cameras for right and left hands, and this one includes a PDF booklet on the DVD. Recommended. CVS

A GUITAR LESSON WITH DAVID BROMBERG
Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop
GW992DVD.
Includes tab book, 116 min., $29.95.
(Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, P.O. Box 802, Sparta, NJ 07871, www.guitarvideos.com.)

David Bromberg is a master of fingerpicking-style guitar, having studied in the ’60s with Reverend Gary Davis and other country blues legends. He’s also been playing music on the road since then in various configurations, but mostly with his own band, which includes an eclectic mix of acoustic, electric, and brass instruments.

When I was in high school, I wore out his album “How Late’ll You Play ’Til” and am still a big fan of David’s playing, singing, and repertoire. This is not a bluegrass instructional DVD; there’s no bluegrass anywhere on here; but, it deserves mention in this magazine because bluegrass guitar players and singers have somehow forgotten how much fingerpickingstyle guitar was prominent with bluegrass players such as Earl Scruggs and others. If you love that sound as much as I do, then this is an essential DVD to own and spend time with.

The DVD has Bromberg and his guitar for 116 minutes, teaching nine classic fingerstyle songs, including “Delia,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Sleep Late In The Morning,” and “Buck Dancer’s Choice,” to name a few. “St. Anne’s Reel” is the only flatpicking-style song on here.
David’s a marvelous teacher, anecdotal and specific, and holds your attention throughout with humor and selfdeprecation, just like in his shows. It also includes a tab book for all the songs, and the close-ups and splitscreen video techniques are great aids to learn this deceptively difficult style of guitar playing. The lessons are more for intermediate to advanced players, but beginners can also pick up a lot of good information. And if you’ll excuse me now, I need to learn that cool Reverend Gary Davis contrarymotion lick. Highly recommend. CVS

FIDDLE FOR THE ABSOLUTE BEGINNER:
GET STARTED THE RIGHT WAY

BY JIM WOOD
Homespun HL00642098.

20 EASY TUNES FOR THE BEGINNING FIDDLER:
LEARN TO PLAY JAM SESSION FAVORITES

BY JIM WOOD
Homespun HL00642102.

(Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com)

Jim Wood is a wellrespected teacher and session man. He is also a columnist for Fiddler Magazine. His credentials should be enough to make one want these DVDs. Although, there are more reasons to seriously consider obtaining these videos. These DVDs are of a set. The first volume introduces the budding fiddler to the instrument. The second two-DVD set expands the number of tunes using the same solid and patient techniques. Both volumes are encouraging and thorough in their approach.

The first DVD begins with relaxing and exercising. There is attention to keeping your wrist loose with proper body alignment. Great attention is given to hold the bow and how to care for and use the bow. There is much about tuning and fiddle setup and using colored tapes to emulate frets.
Then it’s on to the A scale and the first tune, “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Wood breaks the tune down to each note and has the student play the basic shuffle over the scale, then over the tune. There is a great section here where the student is taught how to play backup using graphics to highlight the chord changes and what notes to play. He also demonstrates chopping with the bow and stresses the importance of using a metronome. Then it is on to playing slurs (more than one note on a bow stroke) and two more tunes, “Old Joe Clark” and “Cripple Creek.”

The second DVD set teaches over twenty tunes ranging from “Sweet Betsy From Pike” and “Sweet Hour Of Prayer,” as well as the bedrock fiddle tunes “Soldier’s Joy,” “Southwind,” “Sally Goodin” (in A and G), “Sally Ann,” “Red Wing,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Down Yonder,” and many more. As with the first volume, Wood’s approach is patient and attentive to the needs of the student fiddler. Tunes are broken down to simple basics, and techniques are described in great detail. You will learn to play in several keys. Jim’s wife, Inge, plays guitar so that you can play along with the DVD and get the feel of playing these tunes with other people.

These DVDs are well worth the investment and will go a long way to get you fiddling. Complete scores for all of the material taught are in PDF format on the DVDs. If there is no fiddle teacher around, this will be a good substitute. If there is, it will help you learn even faster. Either way, you’ll be you headed down the road to becoming a fiddler. RCB

MEL BAY PRESENTS: THE MURPHY METHOD, EASY SONGS FOR BANJO
TAUGHT BY CASEY HENRY

Mel Bay MB22030DVD.
(Mel Bay Publications, #4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO 63069, www.melbay.com.)

The Murphy Method is the common sense method of learning, used by many folks who don’t want to be hindered by learning too much music theory, but want to be able to play an instrument. In days gone by, young people watched their elders play and imitated them, often when no one was around. In this case, we are looking at banjo. Casey Henry is an accomplished banjo player and, as it turns out, a very good teacher. There is no tablature used here. Learning is by example and, so, we are patiently shown how each tune is played at speed and then painstakingly slowed down, lick by lick.

Murphy Henry, whom the method is named after, supports her daughter on guitar and vocals, so both leads and backup playing can be demonstrated. The lessons are well-organized and well thoughtout, providing clear shots of both hands and an empirical example of how the banjo interacts with the guitar and vocals. This meshing of banjo and guitar lines is at the heart of traditional bluegrass music.

The focus is on five songs, all of them standards: “Old Home Place,” “NinePound Hammer,” “Salty Dog,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Ballad Of Jed Clampett.” Not only will you learn to play clean, concise versions of these tunes, you will be given patient examples that you can return to, until you get each lick. There is an assumption made that the viewer can already play the basic rolls, knows most of the basic licks, and can string them together. There is a chapter, “CGD Songs” that will help with all of this.

If you want to learn to play banjo, but tablature makes you break out in cold sweats, this DVD will open a lot of doors for you, especially, if you don’t want to get bogged down in that labyrinth called music theory. The Henrys will teach you what you need to know without burying you in gobbledygook. RCB

BOOKS

PARKING LOT PICKER’S SONGBOOK, FIDDLE EDITION
BY GERALD JONES AND DIX BRUCE
Mel Bay MB21662BCD.
(Mel Bay Publications, #4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO 63069, www.melbay.com.)

This volume is the latest in the Mel Bay series of Parking Lot Picker’s Songbooks. The Fiddle Edition contains no tab, only lead sheets for each of the songs. A lead sheet provides the melody, chord progression, and words. Whether or not they are the words you know for the songs is another story, but most seem to be in line with conventional versions.

Most of the material is from the public domain with a few evergreens of later years thrown in for good measure. Other features are the pictures of fiddlers throughout the book and some fiddle related material in the introduction. There is enough information in the book to teach someone who does not play fiddle, with a short section describing where the notes are on the fiddle and which finger plays which note on which string. A transposition chart and keys are given for the lower voice and suggestions for keys for higher-pitched voices. As with all of the books in this series, there are notes on how to learn a song. A page dedicated to mandolin chords and double stops is handy for an intermediate player trying to sing the songs with some harmony, but it hardly gets into the depth required for such an endeavor.

Gerald Jones gives some pointers on how to learn to play a song on the fiddle. This book does give you the required information, i.e., the melody and chords. The embellishments and flourishes are not discussed here.This is a great little songbook that could be used by anyone to learn songs. There are notes on the song sources at the end of the book and each song has sources listed at the bottom of each page. The biggest problem with this book is that it does not go into enough depth to teach a parking lot picker to play fiddle breaks on the songs. Without previous experience or some additional help in the form of a teacher or mentor, a student of fiddle could only play the melodies. RCB

Reviews - December 2009

Iron Horse - Small Town Christmas

Iron Horse - Small Town Christmas

IRON HORSE
SMALL TOWN CHRISTMAS

B Sharp
CD001

Iron Horse is not one of those names you hear often or see all that frequently on those large ads for bluegrass festivals. Like so many bands that fill their home region with great music, Iron Horse is on par with the more familiar names. A look at their Web site and one sees they’ve done a series of tribute CDs for a wide range of musicians and groups and three CDs of their own material. This is the most recent project.

Christmas music is perennial and unlike other projects, will only get played in that short window at year’s end. The songs are all original and fall within the template of mainstream, contemporary bluegrass. Each song is well sung and played, with lots of great instrumental licks and outstanding harmony. There is a sense of nostalgia to much of the music.

If you love bluegrass Christmas music and are looking to add to your collection, don’t pass up this fine project. The songs and performances are all high caliber and over time, they could well stand next to the tried and true sounds that hold that special magic for the holidays. (Iron Horse, 40 Le Ann St., Rogersville, AL 35652, www.ironhorse.com.) RCB

Palmer Divide - Shenandoah Train

Palmer Divide - Shenandoah Train

PALMER DIVIDE
SHENANDOAH TRAIN

No Label
PD004

This is Palmer Divide’s fourth release. With the exception of a cover in tribute of their late friend Eddy Lee (“April’s Fool”), this is also their fourth album of all original material. While none of the eleven tunes dip below a solid average and all are wellplayed, the musical high spots come later in the recording.

The three opening tunes come across as somewhat forced, leaning heavily on an ominous, modal, or ballad style. It could be argued that all three deal with themes requiring such a feel, be it the struggles of those on “Whiskey Row,” the miner’s life of “Shenandoah Train,” or the guilt of “Blackjack Joe.” To that I would agree, but it becomes all too predictable. Reasonable imagery and wellplayed, yes, but predictable nonetheless. Tune four, however, represents a shift, as though we are emerging into the light. “Eye Of The Storm” has a lighter, airier sense about it and also some intriguing lyrics relating to the need for all of us to be grateful at all times and remember that life has a way of changing directions from calm to stormy in a moment’s notice.

“St. Michael’s Stomp,” the album’s instrumental, soon follows and gives the band a chance to let go. They make the most of it. From there, we go to Lee’s engaging “April’s Fool,” a memory of losing your heart to a girl forever, all told in images of weather and changing seasons. This is followed by “Voices Of Home,” a slow cowboylike lament that is the best track on the album, which is in turn followed by a wonderful portrait of “All Day Singin’ And Dinner On The Grounds.”

This is an album that never takes you below average and rewards the listener with a number of excellent tracks. (Palmer Divide, 14310 Sun Hills Dr., Colorado Springs, CO 80921, www.palmerdivide.com.) BW

Lou Reid and Carolina - My Own Set Of Rules

Lou Reid and Carolina - My Own Set Of Rules

LOU REID AND CAROLINA
MY OWN SET OF RULES

Rural Rhythm
RHY1051

Lou Reid states that “My Own Set Of Rules” sums up this album as a whole. In that he produced it, he’s right, basically. But, such a title implies some breaking of ground or going against tradition. That, apart from increasing the tempo of “She’s More To Be Pitied,” I don’t hear.

What I do hear is an album of good music executed well in all departments and an album heavy on new compositions (11 of 13 tracks)—two from guitarist Shannon Slaughter, one from banjoist Trevor Watson, and nine from Jerry Salley, Ray Edwards, and Harley Allen, among others. There are two standards, including “In Despair” and the aforementioned Carter Stanley tune. Watson’s composition “Beat The Train” is the album’s lone instrumental.

All in all the album is a wellconsidered mix of contemporary styles, traditional, and country. Gospel tunes, four in all, are prominent and provide two of the album’s best tracks. Slaughter’s “It’s Hard To Stumble When Your Down On Your Knees” recalls those Quicksilver arrangements Reid once sang; this one is a cappella and makes an interesting use of vocal rhythmic sounds, as once did “Jesus Gave Me Water.” The other standout, “John In The Jordan,” is a nice blend of oldtime and contemporary gospel styles. Of the secular tunes, “Picture Me There” is excellent and has an instantly familiar quality, but it is Allen’s “A Tall Cornstalk” that most catches the attention. It’s a bit silly, but the rollicking tempo and the story of a cornstalk’s life and its fear of farmers, mules, and butter and salt is a great change from the standard bluegrass themes.

Reid’s “own rules” turn out to be those consistant with good music. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BW

Wheeler - Bluegrass Gospel

Wheeler - Bluegrass Gospel

WHEELER
BLUEGRASS GOSPEL

Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR 1006

Talk about making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Wheeler does so and more on this their debut. They also make an emotional noise unto the Lord—and a heartfelt noise and a beautiful noise.

Darrin Vincent is quoted in the liner notes as saying, “Their vocals are really good.” Far be it from me to contradict Mr. Vincent, but their vocals are beyond really good. Tiffany Wheeler, principle lead vocalist, is a star awaiting recognition, of which this may be her start. Her ability to go from an emotional whisper to an declaritive shout is impressive. Her explosive rendition of bandmate Mark Jackson’s “I Will” with its nice tension building of “I Never” released by “I Will” gets the album off in fine fashion, but it is her a cappella cover of the traditional “What A Day That Will Be” that is the album’s highlight. The band harmonies are sharp on that cover when they finally join in on the chorus, but her solo lead in the verse will send shivers down the spine.

To focus solely on the vocals misses the breadth of this group (bass and vocals, Kevin Wheeler; mandolin and vocals, Mark Jackson; guitarist Justin Salyer; banjoist Stephen Mounts) as instrumentalists and writers. They are equally at home with oldtime and contemporary gospel forms, writing all but five of the album’s fifteen tracks, and while hot solo instrumental work is not commonly associated with gospel music, it is with this group. When is the last time you saw an instrumental included that was not an instrumental version of a famous vocal number? Justin Salyer here challenges that tradition with his “Solomon’s Song.”

I can only figure that Wheeler sees it all as part of making a joyful noise unto the Lord, which, as I said at the start, they do with this recording. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Hwy. 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) BW

Southern Rail - On The Road From Appomattox

Southern Rail - On The Road From Appomattox

SOUTHERN RAIL
ON THE ROAD FROM APPOMATTOX

Railway Records
SRCD0609

Massachusetts-based Southern Rail has now been in the bluegrass business for thirty years. As the liner notes indicate, “On The Road From Appomattox” is the final installment of a yearlong, three-CD celebration of this achievement. Anchored by the husband-wife team of Jim Muller on guitar and Sharon Horovitch on bass, the present group includes John Roc on mandolin with Rich Stillman back in the saddle on banjo.

Although the album title might lead one to expect an offering of Civil War songs, the CD instead features a strong selection of traditional and contemporary material including some excellent-but-not-overdone compositions such as “Holding Things Together,” “Roustabout,” and “Polka On A Banjo.” On the latter, Rich Stillman has done his homework and replicates Earl’s classic break faithfully. He also uses his D-tuners to good effect on “Holding Things Together.” In fact, Rich’s clean, tasteful banjo playing is one of the strong points of the recording.

Most of the songs feature the lead singing of Jim Muller with trio harmony on the chorus. Quartets are offered on “Beyond The Heavens” (performed a cappella), “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (taken at blistering pace), and “Hobo On A Freight Train To Heaven.” The only song that doesn’t quite work for me is the up-tempo version of “I Love To Tell The Story,” but that could possibly be because I’m used to the more staid Broadman Hymnal version. Instrumentally speaking, the jaunty “Panhandle Rag” suits John Roc’s mandolin playing just fine, and Jim Muller’s mournful and old-sounding “On The Road From Appomattox” includes some pleasantly unexpected note choices.

In spite of the picture of the cannon on the cover, there is no flash and powder here, only the solid, well-executed music of a band that has been immersed in and devoted to bluegrass for three decades. (Railway Records, P.O. Box 232, Watertown, MA 02471, www.southernrail.com.) MHH

Amanda & Scott Anderson - Another Day

Amanda & Scott Anderson - Another Day

AMANDA & SCOTT ANDERSON
ANOTHER DAY

Mato
1314

Amanda and Scott Anderson are a daughter/father team from Florida. While they also perform as members of the Bluegrass Parlor Band, as well as in a band fronted by the senior Anderson, this recording principally features the burgeoning singing talents of Amanda, who was—take a deep breath now—fifteen years old and had been playing the fiddle for barely a year and a half at the time this album was made.

So is this a novelty CD? Not in the least. Amanda’s singing is accomplished and relaxed, and she is surrounded by a covey of skilled pickers, including Jarrod and Cory Walker on (respectively) mandolin and resonator guitar.  Dad’s no slouch on either the five or sixstring, and gets a nice turn up front on “Wayfaring Stranger.”

Is it a breakthrough CD? Well, no, not quite. In a musical world in which clones of Alison Krauss are almost plentiful enough to populate their own country, a young woman with a fiddle and a soft wispy delivery isn’t doing herself any favors by covering a couple of tunes associated with Krauss (“Looking In The Eyes Of Love” and the Beatles’s “I Will”). On the fiddle tunes “RedHaired Boy” and “Soldier’s Joy,” she keeps it pretty straight and simple, leaving the stretching out to the other players, although she does take a nice couple of turns through Mark Schatz’s “Eileen’s Waltz.”

There’s no question that Amanda Anderson is precociously talented. And it’s too much to expect an artist to come out of the gate with a fullydeveloped original approach, although she does tantalize with covers of numbers by the bands Wise Child (“Breakaway”) and the Duhks

(“Out Of The Rain”). Perhaps it’s enough to say that this is a family making some fine music together, with the promise of continued growth and a more distinctive musical identity in their future. (Mato Music, 3609 NW 136th St., Gainesville, FL 32606, www.scottandersonmusic.com.) HK

Brandon Rickman - Young Man, Old Soul

Brandon Rickman - Young Man, Old Soul

BRANDON RICKMAN
YOUNG MAN, OLD SOUL

Rural Rhythm Records
RHY-1046

Bluegrass fans know Rickman as the lead singer for the Lonesome River Band, but, with this project, he seeks to show off his own skills in a simpler setting, achieving a sound somewhere between James Taylor and an acoustic Kenny Chesney while relying on his originals and songwriters such as Craig Market, Chris Stapleton, Buddy Owens, Kevin Denney, and Jerry Salley.

The ominous “Always Have, Always Will” by Rickman and Chris Stapleton and the Rickman-penned “Here Comes That Feeling Again” both feature the banjo of Aaron McDaris and sound the most similar to Rickman’s previous work. A sparse arrangement of “Rain And Snow” (featuring only Rickman’s guitar and voice and Jenee Fleenor’s fiddle and harmony vocals) and a Bill Monroe/Lester Flatt-style take on “Let Me Walk Lord” (with Andy Ball on mandolin and harmonies) are two stylish nods to bluegrass tradition. “Rest For His Workers” is a dose of sunny gospel.

Rickman also enjoys himself on “I Bought Her A Dog,” in which a husband proves to outsmart himself when he tries to avoid becoming a father. “What I Know Now” and “So Long 20s” both feature Rickman evoking a young man’s nostalgia, while “Wide Spot In The Road” and “I Take The Backroads” are windows-down celebrations of small-town life.

The heart-tugging love story of “Dime Store Rings” and the family love “Wearing Her Knees Out Over Me” close the album, each adding a wrinkle that makes this album a more enjoyable listen. Another effort like this from Rickman would be especially welcome, especially with more originals. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AKH

Joel Mabus - No Worries Now…

Joel Mabus - No Worries Now…

JOEL MABUS
NO WORRIES NOW…

Fossil Records
2009

I’m embarrassed and grateful. I’m red-faced because, until now, I had never heard of Joel Mabus, and this is his twentieth album, but it’s also with gratitude that I’ve finally crossed paths with his marvelous talent. It took no more than twenty seconds after hitting the CD’s first track, “Am I Right,” that I turned to my wife and said, “I like this guy.” Judging by this CD alone, Mabus understands the intricate details of the “keep-it-simple” formula. He proves less is more throughout this 14-track disc. Backed only by Frank Youngman on upright bass, Mabus adds his acoustic guitar, mandolin, and vocals in a simple, yet powerful, arrangement of many cleverly written tunes. Except for a couple of numbers, he wrote the lyrics and music to the rest of the record. Listeners will enjoy the light verse of “Alligator Ate Her Poodle,” the ditty, “Come Along Again,” and the jump tune, “Am I Right.”  Mabus explores the life of colorful small-town crime boss, “Charlie Birger,” reflects on the hymns he sang in church as a child through the instrumental, “The Lost Shall Be Redeemed” and dreams of days gone by in “Halfway Home.” He even includes the bonus track, “Extra Poison” to complement “Poison In The Glass” about the fates of some of history’s intriguing characters. (Fossil Records, P.O. Box 306, Portage, MI 49081, www.joelmabus.com.) BC

Ricky Skaggs - Solo: Songs My Dad Loved

Ricky Skaggs - Solo: Songs My Dad Loved

RICKY SKAGGS
SOLO: SONGS MY DAD LOVED

Skaggs Family Records 69890 10092

“Solo: Songs My Dad Loved” finds Ricky Skaggs pulling a Stevie Wonder, or maybe a Todd Rundgren, or to stay a bit closer to home, perhaps a Jim Reeves—a one man band via overdubs. Obviously, such a feat is far from new, and no longer much of a feat. Nowadays, high school kids do it all the time in their basements, garages, and bedrooms, but they aren’t likely to pull it off like this, because by the time Skaggs (b. 1954) finished high school, he was a seasoned veteran of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys.

Stanley comes to mind during “Little Maggie,” a CMB staple, which Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder blazed through with stunning virtuosity on their “Bluegrass Rules” disc a dozen years ago. This time it’s everything that one wasn’t—intimate, direct, sparse, and a bit mournful, Skaggs simply accompanying himself on banjo. Guitars of the acoustic, resonator, and Danelectro electric baritone variety, along with round hole, octave, and fhole mandolins, mandocello, fiddle, piano, bass, and percussion also pass through Skaggs’ fingers by disc’s end.

The opening, a gently swinging “Foggy River,” sets the tone for what’s to come—pristine playing and nothin’ fancy singing, with even the three oldtime instrumentals steered toward gentle expression, not fancy flash. Represented are such familiar Skaggs (father and son) favorites as the Monroe Brothers, Roy Acuff, and God on beautifullyarranged gospel tunes such as “Sinners, You Better Get Ready [sic],” “God Holds The Future In His Hands,” and “City That Lies Foursquare.”

These were favorites of Hobart Skaggs’, but clearly his son loves them, too, and listeners are lucky for that. (Skaggs Family Records, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.) DR

Reviews - January 2010

Buddy Merriam - Back Roads Mandolin

Buddy Merriam - Back Roads Mandolin

BUDDY MERRIAM
BACK ROADS MANDOLIN

LilyPad Records
534

It’s not easy to put together a highquality instrumental bluegrass CD, so it’s especially impressive that a regional band, albeit a veteran one, has done such an impressive job. Buddy Merriam, leader and mandolinist with New York’s Buddy Merriam & Back Roads, has assembled a rich and enjoyable collection of original tunes.

“Back Roads Mandolin” hits all the right notes in every sense of the word. The 14 tunes are put together with as much variety in arrangement and instrumentation that you could possible manage, using the same basic core of players. Yet Merriam manages to keep the music rooted in bluegrass while occasionally integrating the influences of gypsy jazz, native American music, and even a touch of polka. Each of the players is given chances to kick off various tunes as well.

Every instrumentalist has a distinctive musical voice. Merriam has a woody tone and a Monroeesque backbone that comes through, allowing the listener to hear every bit of varnish and wood grain in his mandolin. Jerry Oland and his banjo are the relentlessly solid engine that propels each tune. Fiddler Greg Oleyar is more of a chameleon, using overdubbed twin fiddling in some places that hearkens back to the Blue Grass Boys’ sound, while, in other spots, plays with daring imagination. Guitarist Bob Harris is one of those unheralded regional treasures, showing hints of David Grier’s influence, but still manages to create fiery and amazing lead breaks that are uniquely his own. And Ernie Sykes needs no solos on the bass to give a cohesive bottom and drive to the album’s sound.

Greg Cahill’s liner notes are too intriguing to try and summarize, except to say that the story behind Merriam’s musical career and the inspirations behind each tune (further elaborated upon by Merriam in the sleeve notes) are fascinating and memorable. And it says a lot about the quality of this project that the only thing I can find to quibble about is that those same notes are printed quite small for these rapidly aging eyes. But, it’ll be worth your while to dig out your magnifying glass or bifocals, crank up your stereo, computer, iPod, or Victrola, and treat yourself to a tasty collection of original instrumental bluegrass. (Lily Pad Records, P.O. Box 862, Sound Beach, NY 11789, www.backroadsbluegrass.com.) HK

Bill Yates & Friends - Country Gentlemen Tribute Volume II

Bill Yates & Friends - Country Gentlemen Tribute Volume II

BILL YATES AND FRIENDS
COUNTRY GENTLEMEN TRIBUTE VOLUME II

MasterShield Records
No Number

Bill Yates was a long-time member of the Country Gentlemen. This second volume may speak to the popularity of the idea of resurrecting the sound of that mainstay band. Nevermind that there is plethora of material currently available from the band, here is a fine collection of some of the most popular material the band recorded.

The Country Gentlemen were personified by the voice and presence of one man: Charlie Waller. It was often said that he could have been a big name in country music, but chose to remain in bluegrass. His voice and the style of the band did much to define bluegrass for a very long time. Mike Phipps sounds remarkably like Waller. Both have powerful voices and the tones are very similar as well.
The band here is thoroughly professional, keeping the sound as most will remember it with appropriate picking and vocals. The songs, 14 in all, include, “Bringing Mary Home,” “Matterhorn,” “Fox On The Run,” and “The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier.” The balance of material ranges toward the later days of the band’s recordings.

If you cannot get enough of the Country Gentlemen sound, you can add to your collection with this CD. As the music moves forward, it is understandable that there are folks who want to preserve and remember the older sounds. This project does just that, very well. (MasterShield Records, 6683 Vista Heights Rd., Bridgewater, VA 22812, www.mastershield.com.) RCB

Foggy Mountain Hilton - Show Me The Way To Go Home

Foggy Mountain Hilton - Show Me The Way To Go Home

FOGGY MOUNTAIN HILTON
SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME

Patuxent Music
CD199

Foggy Mountain Hilton is an exciting bluegrass band active in the Washington, D.C., area and includes Eddie Goldbetter (mandolin and vocals), Geff King (bass and vocals), Matt Levine (guitar, banjo, resonator guitar, and vocals), and Tom Lyon (fiddle).  Also assisting are banjo pickers Mark Delaney and Kevin Roop and fiddler Sue (Raines) Tice. What is most impressive about this 15-piece collaboration is the variety of material.

While a few old standards (“Living Like A Fool” and “Tiny Broken Heart”) are included, many are unique tunes arranged in a solid bluegrass style. The title song was written by banjo picker Cullen Galyean and recorded by the Border Mountain Boys in 1969, while “Ain’t Gonna Waste My Time” and “Extra” are from country singers Don Gibson and Freddie Hart respectfully. Also included is an obscure Barrier Brothers number, “Please Don’t Leave Me Alone” along with Geff King’s own “Bluegrass Music Has Ruined My Life” which concerns the trials and tribulations of playing in a bluegrass band.

“Show Me The Way To Go Home” is a delightful listening experience that demonstrates that there is no limit to the imagination as to what type of material can be placed into a bluegrass format. Other aspiring bands would do well to follow this example set by Foggy Mountain Hilton. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD  20848, www.pxrec.com.) LM

Jake Dewhirst - Shades Of Grey

Jake Dewhirst - Shades Of Grey

JAKE DEWHIRST
SHADES OF GREY

No Label
No Number

Jake Dewhirst, a young guitarist and mandolinist from Washington state, has released his debut recording of twelve tracks (nine instrumentals and three vocals). Eight of the tracks (including the three vocals) are his original compositions. The four covers include “Amazing Grace,” the traditional tunes “Willow Garden” and “Beaumont Rag,” and Earl Scruggs’s “Nashville Blues.”
The music here leaves no doubt that Dewhirst is a rising guitar talent. He is a confident and a fluid guitarist with quick tempos (as on his tune “Southbound Train”), yet uses a minimalist approach on the slower tunes. His range of styles goes from melody and strum to a shimmering and ornate arpeggio approach (on his “Fly By”) reminiscent of David Grier. The majority of the tracks, however, including “Beaumont Rag” and his own “Dawson County,” find him with his own variant of the intricate contemporary guitar leads developed since the mid’70s. He could stand a bit more rhythmic and melodic accent to his mostly evenlystressed leads. I liked his version of “Nashville Blues,” a tune that’s always struck me as angry or aggressive trying to break free of its slow/medium, grinding tempo. Dewhirst captures that straining-at-the-shackles very well.

As a tunesmith, he does a credible job. His songs are about average, one being a gospel song and the other two are of the rambleronatrain variety, but the syllables and stresses strike well and don’t sound forced. His instrumentals are a mix of styles and qualities: “Dawson County” is straightforward with a melody that hints at “Shady Grove”; the solo “Priceless” is a pleasant, lilting 6/8 tune. I found a couple of the originals, particularly the solo guitar on “Driftwood,” somewhat meandering, but that and the abovementioned need for definition in his solos does not lessen what is a good debut recording. (Jake Dewhirst, 13812 32nd Ave. NW, Gig Harbor, WA 98332, www.myspace.com/jakedewhirst.) BW

Del McCoury - Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury

Del McCoury - Celebrating 50 Years of Del McCoury

DEL MCCOURY
CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF DEL MCCOURY

McCoury Music
MCM0050

Del McCoury’s greatest success has come in the last two decades of his fifty years in bluegrass music. He has done as much as anyone to innovate within the music’s traditional boundaries and expose new fans to the music with stellar recordings and electrfying live shows driven almost entirely by audience requests.
This fifty-track/five-disc set is a different take on the boxed set, featuring 32 newly recorded versions of songs McCoury has made his own, from the early days of his career up to the time McCoury took ownership of his recordings with 1999’s “The Family.” Cuts like “Don’t Stop The Music,” “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Are You Teasing Me?,” “Big Rock In The Road,” “Rain And Snow,” “High On A Mountain,” “Bluest Man In Town,” “Loneliness & Desperation,” “I Feel The Blues Movin’ In,” and “Queen Anne’s Lace” are all here, showcasing the peerless sound of the Del McCoury Band, which includes sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), fiddler Jason Carter, and bassist Alan Bartram.

Eighteen other songs are taken from “The Family,” “Del And The Boys,” “It’s Just The Night,” and “The Company We Keep,” showing that the band hasn’t lost much and that McCoury’s voice has grown richer along with his ear for great songs. The music here is great, allowing you to create your own private McCoury concerts by shuffling through the tracks in any order whatsoever.

However, to package about 160 minutes of music on five CDs at a $50 price point is not consumer-friendly at all, especially in this era of falling CD sales and all-around recession. A more attractively packaged two- or three-CD set priced at about $30 would be a must-buy, but one might have an even better listening experience by working back through the original recordings, especially McCoury’s efforts on Rounder Records, to more fully experience some of the very best acoustic music of this or any other generation. (McCoury Music, P.O. Box 128437, Nashville, TN 37212, www.mccourymusic.com.) AKH

Barbwire Bluegrass - You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

Barbwire Bluegrass - You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

BARBWIRE BLUEGRASS
YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET

C & L Entertainment
C&LE219

The Barbwire Bluegrass Band works out of Georgia and consists of Ricky and Ben Ponder of Manchester and the father and son team of Gary and Casey Looper of Cummings. This is their debut recording. Stylistically, the music here recalls that mid1980s to mid1990s bluegrass that featured touches of country and a bit of contemporary ideas, but which had not gone so far into either as to lose sight of the tradition.

At the core of the band’s sound is the songwriting of guitarist and principle (I’m guessing, as the notes don’t indicate who sings which songs) lead vocalist Ricky Ponder. There are 12 tracks and Ponder wrote 11 of them. The one exception is a cover of “County Fool,” which attempts to and mostly does recreate Del McCoury’s version from Alan Bibey’s “In A Blue Room” CD. Ponder’s songs vary up and down in the midtempo range, with several slower songs and no real uptempo tunes. Strength in many of its manifestations is a common theme in his writing. He sings of the strength of the farmer and of the railroad worker in the title cut and in “Let My Hammer Ring” respectively. He also touches on the strength of the “Hurricane” coming to Florida and of the “Mighty Misssippi,” and of the strength of the John 3:16 Bible verse and of the strength you’ll need if you want to avoid trouble “If You Play With Fire.” Other songs touch on memory (“Carolina”), desperados (“Mason County”), and the psychological struggles of dealing with winter (“When The Pond Freezes Over”).

While fiddler Gary Looper, banjoist Casey Looper and bassist Ben Ponder each get in their licks and kicks and solos, it is guest mandolinist Nick Powell, taking several long solos and quite a few fills, who dominates the instrumental work of what is a reasonable first band release. (C & L Entertainment, P.O. Box 691505, Charlotte, NC 28227, www.candlentertainment.com.) BW

Dan Menzone - Frostbite

Dan Menzone - Frostbite

DAN MENZONE
FROSTBITE

No Label
No Number

Any one of the songs here, taken alone, would be pleasing. Mixed and matched in the right way in groups of three or four, the same might be said. Taking the album as a whole it falls short. That should indicate to you that it is not the musicianship that’s in question.

Dan Menzone is a banjoist of considerable ability with a nicely struck tone, a clear control of note spacing, and a firm grasp that earcatching solos need not be flashy. You can then go down the list of the supporting musicians. Guitarist Wyatt Rice, bassist Ron Rice, fiddler Rickie Simpkins, mandolinist Adam Steffey, resonator guitarist Rob Ickes, and vocalists Richard Bennett and Don Rigsby. You can’t do any better than that cast and everyone sounds like they’re on their game. Their work on such old favorites as Scruggs’s “Randy Lynn Rag,” Crowe’s “Black Jack,” Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” and McGee’s “Blue Night” is impeccable.

What lowers this recording’s appeal starts with the pace of the songs. Eight of the thirteen tracks clock in at a medium fast to fast gait. Four others are on the faster end of medium tempo. All of them are in the same time signature, all begin and end with Menzone’s banjo, and all use a similar chugging and churning rhythm. It is not until the eleventh tune that we get an actual slow song Menzone’s “Missing You.” The contrast is so welcome that it proves to be one of the album’s best cuts, flirting with passages reminiscent of the slow instrumentals performed by such ’60s San Francisco rock bands as It’s A Beautiful Day.

The result is that, wellplayed as the recording is, there is a certain sameness to it. Varying the song tempos, rhythms, and presentation would have made an album of good parts a good whole. (Dan Menzone, 78 Potter Village Rd., Charlton, MA 01507, www.danmenzone.com.) BW

Detour - The Road That Lies Ahead

Detour - The Road That Lies Ahead

DETOUR
THE ROAD THAT LIES AHEAD

Bluegrass Ahead
0901

You could argue that the second release from the Michigan band, Detour, is mandolinist Jeff Rose’s recording. Afterall, he wrote nine of the tunes, including three instrumentals. Each one of the compositions is on the “good” to “very good” level, and “My Life Just Ain’t A Bluegrass Song” is just the kind of song that finds its way onto the charts with its clever catalogue of all the standard bluegrassisms that are missing from the singer’s life. Rose’s mandolin playing is also of very high standard.

Yet, to say it’s his recording is to overlook the fine vocals of bassist and lead singer Zak Bunce. He sings lead on each of the nine vocal numbers and does so in a commanding way. He can sing it smooth, as on the title cut or on Rose’s plea for slowing life down, “Goin’ Nowhere Fast.” He can sing it mournful, as on Rose’s graveyard portrait “Cold Stones” or his “Dear Brother.” He can sing it powerful, as on the high speed, rockinfluenced version of “Sixteen Tons” or the cover of “Sitting On Top Of The World” or on “My Life Just…” In short, he can sing. And we mustn’t overlook the collective contributions and arranging by guitarist Scott Zylstra and newcomers, banjoist Kevin Gaugier and fiddler Peter Knupfer. Now, it’s true that no one dominates the recording the way that Rose and Bunce do, but their solos, support, and ideas go a long way toward the success of this album.

This is Detour’s second release and an extremely good contemporary bluegrass recording—one full of attractive arrangements, earcatching touches such as the upward vocal slide into the chorus of the title cut, sharp New Grass Revivallike rhythmic punctuations, fine soloing, and tight harmonies. (Jeff Rose, 3315 Rose Rd., Brethren, MI 49619, www.detourbluegrass.com.) BW

Sawmill Road - Fire On The Kettle

Sawmill Road - Fire On The Kettle

SAWMILL ROAD 2
FIRE ON THE KETTLE

SMR Records
SMR 102

“Fire On The Kettle” is the latest release from Sawmill Road and one of the more imaginative bluegrass bands based in the western United States.  The current group consists of Dick Brown (banjo and vocals), Steve Spurgin (bass and vocals), Charlie Edsall (guitar), Mark Miracle (mandolin and vocals), and Doug Bartlett (fiddle and vocals).

Steve Spurgin is well-known for his numerous compositions and solo projects. Three of the fifteen selections are Steve’s own pieces including the title song “Leave Me The Way I Am” and “The Far Side Of The River.” One highlight is “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a maritime tale penned by the late Stan Rogers concerning the heroic efforts to salvage a sunken ship by the vessel’s former crew members. Other prominent entries include Charlie Monroe’s “Down In Caroline,” “The Leaves Mustn’t Fall,” and the Dick Brown Celtic-tinged instrumental, “Dunluce Castle.” “Fire On The Kettle” is a superb collection that establishes Sawmill Road as a significant voice in the arena of contemporary bluegrass music. (Sawmill Road, P.O. Box 371, Carson City, NV  89702, www.sawmillroad.net.) LM

David Via - All Night Long

David Via - All Night Long

DAVID VIA
ALL NIGHT LONG

DigOMatic Records
No number

David Via has been playing rootsy and progressive bluegrass music in Virginia and North Carolina for years. He’s performed with various incarnations during his career, the best known being his Corn Tornado band that featured musicians Curtis Burch, Danny Knicely, and “Fiddly Dave” VanDeventer. He is also one of the best songwriters in the business and his new album “All Night Long” showcases 11 new originals.

As producer of this CD, Via brought in an Ateam of session musicians to back him up. When I knew I was reviewing this album, I had a chance to talk with Via. I asked him one question: “Was this simply an Ateam of ringers brought in for the project, or are these musicians friends of yours that you enjoy playing with?” He answered, “They are all friends, people I’ve played with through the years who at one time were only ‘Alist’ to me. I tried to keep it to just friends, and true friends they are.”

And, that is the feel of this album with friends including Jim VanCleve, Ronnie Bowman, Garnet Imes Bowman, Sammy Shelor, Alan Bibey, Wyatt Rice, Rob McCoury, Nate Leath, Dan Tyminski, Tommy Morse, Tim O’Brien, John Flower, Paul Leech, Craig Market, Melany Earnhardt, Woody Wood, Vince Herman, and Dennis Crouch supporting, yet not overshadowing, these new and earthy songs. A lover of the resonator guitar, Via uses three squareneck slingers on this project, Randy Kohrs, Billy Cardine, and Curtis Burch. The highlights include a song about a loved one going to heaven (“Louise”), an Old West murder song (“The Wind Will Blow”), a song describing the taking of land by the government (“Eminent Domain”), a fun romp called “Festival,” and the coming-of-age tune “Mama Said.” (Melany Earnhardt, 2307 Madison Ave., Greensboro, NC 27403, www.davidvia.com.) DH

Jerry Butler and John Wade - Haulin' Grass

Jerry Butler and John Wade - Haulin' Grass

JERRY BUTLER AND JOHN WADE
HAULIN’ GRASS

Blue Circle Records
BCR019

Concept albums are rare in bluegrass, but here the theme is trucks, truckers, and trucking; 13 tracks of trucks. Butler and Wade, both former members of Carolina Road and now members of Jerry Butler and the BluJ’s, cover four classics of the trucking song genre; they are Merle Haggard’s “Movin’ On,” two versions of Lester Flatt’s “Backin’ To Birmingham,” John Denver’s “Back Home Again,” and a tune made famous by Del Reeves, “Looking At The World Through A Windshield.” To go with those are several covers and several new songs. Tom T. and Dixie Hall contribute three tunes, the best of which is the portrait of an aging waitress, “Shorty Is Forty.” There is also a vibrant cover of Justin Tubb’s “Be Glad,” arguably the best track here, though not truly a trucking song.
Not much about trucking itself is missing: Will and Sonny heroically keeping the goods in “Movin’ On”; the faithful trucker who’s “Forty Years Of Lonesome” on the road ends sadly; the philosophic resignation that a strong attitude keeps the trucker on “The Road I’m On” and makes him a “Legend Of The Highway”; and the long hauls, the stresses on marriages, and the pleasures of being “Back Home Again” and seeing “Daddy’s Girl.”

Butler and Wade and the supporting musicians—banjoists Kenny Ingram and Troy Engle, fiddler Ron Stewart, mandolinist Chris Harris, resonator guitarist Matt Leadbetter, and vocalists Steve Gulley and Melissa Lawrence—turn in fine performances throughout. It is Butler who dominates. His voice is perfect for the material. Trucker songs are not high lonesome songs; they lean toward the country side of the ledger, and that requires a warm, resonant, midrange voice. Butler brings just that kind of vocalizing to the project, singing it weary where needed, crowing with bravado when called for, and using pathos, sentimentalism, or humor. All that makes for a very good recording. (Blue Circle Records, P.O. Box 681286, Franklin, TN 37068, www.bluecirclerecords.com.) BW

ON THE EDGE

Piedmont Textile Workers On Record, Gaston Co., North Carolina, 1927-1931 - Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues

Piedmont Textile Workers On Record, Gaston Co., North Carolina, 1927-1931 - Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues

PIEDMONT TEXTILE WORKERS ON RECORD: GASTON COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA, 1927-1931
GASTONIA GALLOP: COTTON MILL SONGS & HILLBILLY BLUES

Old Hat
CD-1007

Old Hat specializes in recycling regional music from 1920s North Carolina. This set’s focus is even narrower: all but one performance were recorded by workers in Gaston County cotton mills during and immediately after Gastonia’s historic bloody and unsuccessful National Textile Workers’ strike in 1929. Several songs address working conditions and the low economic status of mill hands, though none allude to the strike itself.

David McCarn and Wilmer Watts account for 14 of the CD’s 24 tracks, and they’re both musically and topically a cut above the others. The former’s “Cotton Mill Colic” was a local hit, inspiring two answer songs from McCarn himself (both included here) and more mill songs by Dorsey Dixon (of the Dixon Brothers) a few years later. Years later, even Jim & Jesse’s hit “Cotton Mill Man” (1965) echoed McCarn’s sentiments. None of these songs deal directly with the strike (a topic that was too hot to handle), but they do ennumerate the discontents that prompted mill hands to walk out.

McCarn’s fingerpicked guitar is a treat to hear, as is the banjo of Wilmer Watts who could pick or frail as needed and do both with skill. “Walk Right In Belmont” (1927) is a localized version of “Midnight Special,” with slide guitarist Frank Wilson joining Watts in a spiffy duet backing. Other Watts titles were made in 1929 and include several that feature strong banjo leads. “Been On The Job Too Long” is a great performance that inspired the Johnson Mountain Boys’ “Duncan And Brady,” and “Working For My Sally” is a comedy narrative that survives from the days of the 1849 Gold Rush. “Cotton Mill Blues,” taken from a 1900 poem, pulls no punches: Uptown people call us trash/Say we never have no cash/That is why the people fret/Call us the ignorant factory set. (Old Hat Records, P.O. Box 10309, Raleigh, NC 27605, www.oldhatrecords.com.) RKS

BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND

Claire Lynch - Whatcha Gonna Do

Claire Lynch - Whatcha Gonna Do

CLAIRE LYNCH
WHATCHA GONNA DO

Rounder Records
11661-0606-2

Claire Lynch certainly gets plenty of praise from her peers. “I’ve always thought Claire Lynch has the voice of an angel,” said Emmylou Harris, a self-described fan of Claire’s work. Mary Chapin Carpenter says Lynch is “one of my very favorite singers in all of acoustic, country, and bluegrass music.” With those rave reviews, whatcha gonna do to add to those remarks.

Claire has a crystalline voice that beautifully interprets her latest selection of others’ songs and her own compositions. Surprisingly, she says after she’d finished picking the final songs for the 12-cut disc, a theme of choice and consequence seemed to weave its way  throughout. Lynch recorded her first cheating song, “The Mockingbird’s Voice” and invited special guest Jesse Winchester to sing one of his songs “That’s What Makes You Strong.” There are fun songs like “Great Day In The Mornin’,” “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and “Crazy Train.” Garth Brooks co-wrote with Buddy Moondock “A Canary’s Song” which Claire describes as a “miner’s mindset of hope and destiny.”

Produced by Lynch, this CD features the stellar musicianship of her band: Jim Hurst on guitar, mandolin, banjo, and vocals; Jason Thomas on fiddle, mandolin, and vocals; and bassist Mark Schatz who also picks up the clawhammer banjo. There’s some additional percussive help from Kenny Malone and Erick Jaskowiak (“Great Day In The Mornin’”). “Whatcha Gonna Do” is another remarkable display of Lynch’s abilities as a singer and songwriter. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BC

FILM

The New Lost City Ramblers - Always Been A Rambler (DVD)

The New Lost City Ramblers - Always Been A Rambler (HDVD)

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS
ALWAYS BEEN A RAMBLER

Arhoolie Foundation AF DVD 20

By coincidence, in the wake of the recent passing of Mike Seeger comes director/editor/writer Yasha Aginsky’s marvelous new documentary Always Been A Rambler about the seminal old-time music revival band, the New Lost City Ramblers, co-founded by Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen, and later featuring Paley’s successor Tracy Schwarz.
This is a film of important American cultural history, rousing music, and just plain good fun—exactly like the New Lost City Ramblers themselves. The Ramblers’ influence can’t be overestimated. Entranced by old records of traditional Southern rural music, they sought out surviving giants of the genre (notably Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb, and Maybelle and Sara Carter) and championed their sounds in the 1960s to an eager new audience—the national folk music revival. The Ramblers were stirring singers and formidable multi-instrumentalists. And, as one interviewee notes, they were musical Johnny Appleseeds; six months after their appearance at a folk festival, college campus, or coffee house, a local old-time or bluegrass band invariably sprouted up.

The San Francisco-based Aginsky, whose documentaries have twice been nominated for Academy Awards, has assembled a fabulous blend of archival photographs, modern interviews, classic performance films, and concert selections from the Ramblers’ final tours. Numerous acoustic music greats—Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, David Grisman, and Doc Watson are only a few—share their genuine admiration. As McCoury points out, the Ramblers weren’t just great musicians, they were strong musicians. It’s wondrous to find them putting out an amazingly big sound down through the years, even though they were only a trio without a bass. Some rousing black and white footage underscores that the Ramblers had both pleasing polish and glorious grit, a rare combination indeed.

In the course of the film, the Ramblers get their chance to poke fun at critics who had dismissed them as mere slavish imitators of old 78 rpm recordings of mountain music. As folk music great Bob Dylan rightly notes, “They breathed new life into those songs, and their records stand the test of time, just like the originals.”

Always Been A Rambler joins a select pantheon of essential films of old-time and bluegrass music, including Albert Ihde’s Bluegrass Country Soul, Rachael Liebling’s High Lonesome: The Story Of Bluegrass Music, the Best Of The Flatt & Scruggs TV Show collections, and John Cohen’s own The High Lonesome Sound. Highly recommended. (Arhoolie Foundation, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 04530, www.arhoolie.com.) RDS

Reviews - February 2010

David Holt and Josh Goforth - Cutting Loose

David Holt and Josh Goforth - Cutting Loose

DAVID HOLT AND JOSH GOFORTH
CUTTING LOOSE

High Windy Audio
HW 1262

David Holt began searching for the cultural roots of oldtime music and storytelling in the late 1960s. Josh Goforth was born into that tradition in Madison County, North Carolina. In this recording of a live performance at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, they weave together six stories about the old-timers they knew with ten songs and tunes. Both sing and play guitar. David also plays banjo, steel guitar, mouth bow, washboard, bones and spoons, and harmonica. Josh plays fiddle, mandolin, paper bag, and stump fiddle.

They talk about Aunt Ziporah Rice (Josh’s great great great aunt) who was 105 years old when David learned “Blackeyed Susie” from her. David recalls one of her sayings, “Be good to your friends. Without them, you’d be a total stranger.” Josh burns up the strings on Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s signature tune, “Guitar Boogie.” Next is “My Last Meal” from blues singer Jimmy Rogers with David on his national steel guitar and Josh on his Wayne Henderson guitar. “Things Are Coming My Way” is all rhythm and singing, and comes from Bessie Jones. “Sourwood Mountain” follows a story about Josh’s Grandad. Etta Baker was a friend of David’s, and he learned “Railroad Bill” from her. “I’ve Got The Blues And Can’t Be Satisfied” came to David via Doc Watson (with whom he performs now) from Mississippi John Hurt. David performs it on oldtime banjo. “Jesus Said Go” came from Cas Wallin of the great ballad-singing family in Sodom, N.C. Josh sings it a cappella. The CD closes with two tunes fiddled by Josh, “Star Of Munster” and “Hell Broke Loose In Georgia,” accompanied by David on bones and spoons.

If a diverse sampling of mountain music and stories appeals to your tastes, you might enjoy this recording as much as the audience sounds like they did. (High Windy Audio, P.O. Box 553, Fairview, NC 28730, www.highwindy.com.) SAG

Grasstowne - The Other Side of Towne

Grasstowne - The Other Side of Towne

GRASSTOWNE
THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWNE

Pinecastle Records
PRC 1170

This group’s newest release continues their foray into a modern approach to bluegrass music with a lean toward contemporary songwritings and arrangements. Original material from the bandmembers is mixed in with a number of compositions by writers including Wayne Winkle, Melba Montgomery, and Billy Sherrill. Winkle’s “Laura Lie” is one of the highlight tunes, cowritten by Craig Market. Other selections include “Hard Working Man” and the title cut. Instrumentally, the band cuts loose on Alan Bibey’s “Tobaccoville Road.” On the softer side, there is “God Bless Mommy” and Billy Sherrill’s “The Door.” Gospel selections include “Lifting Up The Cross” and “Salvation Of The Lord.”

The production and recording quality is very good. The band’s core is Steve Gulley, Alan Bibey, and Phil Leadbetter, with Jason Davis on banjo and Travis Greer on bass. This is a very enjoyable project and a must for Grasstowne fans and followers. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus, NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) BF

Herschel Sizemore - B-Natural

Herschel Sizemore - B-Natural

HERSCHEL SIZEMORE
B-NATURAL

Amandolena Records
No Number

Outside of the collected works of Bill Monroe, it’s been hard for contemporary mandolinists to create a tune that can truly be called a standard. Let’s see, there’s Jesse McReynolds and “Dixie Hoedown,” Frank Wakefield’s “New Camptown Races,” and how about that “Rebecca” tune by Herschel Sizemore? I wonder what he’s up to these days.

Well, he’s keeping some pretty good musician company in central Virginia and still churning out some fine tunes. “BNatural” is his cleverlynamed new instrumental collection. Sizemore has 12 new pieces on which he’s joined by fiddler Ron Stewart, Terry Baucom on banjo, and Alan Bibey on lead guitar and second mandolin, with Jimmy Haley and Mike Bub ably laying down the rhythm. Only time will tell which tunes will grow legs and spread throughout the eightstring community or beyond, as Sizemore lets the other instruments establish the melody on several numbers. My money’s on either “Charlotte’s Reel,” with its harmonic twists and turns or “Derrington Express,” a rocket of a tune whose twin mandolins and innate jauntiness give it drive and power to spare.

With the exception of “Tamba’s Waltz,” most of the pieces here are uptempo bluegrassers with occasional echoes of older melodies. “Augusta Heritage” contains echoes of “Cherokee Shuffle”/“Lost Indian,” while “Shootin’ Creek” (which follows his “Monroe’s Dream” in the album tracking) evokes Big Mon’s “Roanoke.” “BNatural” is worth a listen whether you’re scouting new hot tunes to play or just want to listen to a core of contemporary bluegrass’s best pickers stretch on nearly a halfhour’s worth of solid instrumental bluegrass. (Amandolena Records, 5720 Barns Ave. NW, Roanoke, VA 24019, www.herschelsizemore.com.) HK

Songs From The Road Band - As The Crow Flies

Songs From The Road Band - As The Crow Flies

SONGS FROM THE ROAD BAND
AS THE CROW FLIES

Lucks Dumpy Toad Records
1002

With members from groups as varied as Town Mountain, the EmmittNershi Band, Larry Keel’s Natural Bridge and others, the Songs From The Road Band got together to produce a project of new songs written or cowritten by Charles Humphrey III (of the Steep Canyon Rangers). The bulk of the songs are bluegrass. However, a few of the tunes have a more country flavor in which steel guitar and drums can be heard in addition to harmonica and accordion.

The band’s core is Andy Thorn (banjo), Mark Schimick (mandolin), Sam Wharton (guitar), and Nicky Sanders (fiddle), and Humphrey on bass. Guests this project include Shannon Whitworth, John Stickley, Lance Mills, Robert Greer, Jonathan Byrd, Kevin Brock, Clyde Mattocks, Jill Fromewick, and the Outlaw Choir who provide background harmonies.

The project kicks off with a blazing title cut, “As The Crow Flies,” that has some interesting harmony. There is the humor of “How Can It Be Wrong If It Grows Wild” and Shannon Whitworth’s lead vocal on “How Many More Must Die” is chilling. “I Picked The Wrong Day To Stop Loving You” is about a man unable to get over it, and “Song For Gram Parsons” is a tribute to the countryrock pioneer who apparently was a big influence on many of the bandmembers. Overall this is a good project. (Lucks Dumpy Toad Records, 91 Wolf Park Cir., Asheville, NC 28804, www.myspace.com/songsfromtheroadband.) BF

Jim Lauderdale - Could We Get Any Closer?

Jim Lauderdale - Could We Get Any Closer?

JIM LAUDERDALE
COULD WE GET ANY CLOSER?

Sky Crunch Records
No Number

Jim Lauderdale is a veteran songwriter and recording artist of amazing prolixity. In recent years, he has written a steady stream of hit songs for everyone from George Strait to George Jones and released a long string of his own albums while jumping nimbly from one genre to another.

The Grammy-nominated “Could We Get Any Closer?” finds Lauderdale squarely back on the bluegrass track. This collection of a dozen new original tunes has studio backing from Adam Steffey (mandolin), Scott Vestal (banjo), and a host of other bluegrass luminaries. Awardwinning resonator guitarist Randy Kohrs (who has been a guiding force on previous Lauderdale projects) picks and sings harmony on several cuts while producing and mixing the entire album.

Lauderdale’s quirky vocal style and lyric inventiveness serve him admirably in the highlonesome vein. Highspirited breakdowns like the playful “I Took A Liking To You” and the tongueincheek lament “All She Wrote” have irresistibly hot licks and masterful musicianship. But, this collection’s emotional center of gravity lies with more emotionally nuanced, sometimes mysterious songs that are Lauderdale’s forte. These include “Calico,” the haunting “Ghosts On The Ridge,” and a rousing traditional gospelgrass cut called “Lead Me.”

And while all of “Could We Get Any Closer” makes for fine listening, it’s these songs that tend to linger in the imagination and leave lesser writers in awe of Lauderdale’s talents. (Sky Crunch Records, P.O. Box 120957, Nashville, TN 37212, www.jimlauderdale.com.) BA

The Dixie Beeliners - Susanville

The Dixie Beeliners - Susanville

THE DIXIE BEE-LINERS
SUSANVILLE

Pinecastle Records
PRC-1171

Shades of Bruce Springsteen—at least when he’s behind the wheel of a vehicle and in a happy mood. “Susanville,” the Dixie Bee-Liners’ third album, begins with a few banjo chords and a GPS-like voice instructing: “Enter highway. Drive more than two thousand miles.” And ends with a similar final track proclaiming, “Arrive at destination.”

In between are a few more global positioning pointers and a baker’s dozen of songs relating to the cars, trucks, truck stops, and the open road, all originals and most co-written by lead vocalists Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward. Bluegrass mingles with blues, swing, and honky-tonk, and need I say, it would be a terrific CD for road trips of any length. Even though it pulls into some lyrically forlorn places, such as the title track, the music is always upbeat and infectiously rhythmic. One can almost see the beehive hairdo atop the waitress of “Trixie’s Diesel-Stop Café” as she offers her tiger puddin’ (featuring guest vocalist Kay Adams).

The sextet (as it was at the time “Susanville” was recorded) appears to feature some instrument-swapping and, between Woodward and Hart, features guitars (including the 12-string and a telecaster), mandolin, dulcimer, fiddle, and harmonica. Rachel Renee Johnson (fiddle, bouzouki, harmony vocals), Jeremy Darrow (doghouse and electric basses, cell, mandolin, guitar), Jonathan Maness (lead guitar, mandolin, harmony vocals), and banjoist Sam Morrow complete the band, with guests Dan Dugmore (pedal steel), Steve Duncan (drums, only sparingly!), Todd Livingston (resonator guitar), John Jorgenson (various keyboards), and bass guitarist Wayne Wilson helping out in spots. Bil VornDick produced.

Breezy but substantial, the Dixie Bee-Liners should appeal to fans of modern bluegrass and far beyond. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus, NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) DR

Gold Heart

Gold Heart - My Sisters and Me

GOLD HEART
MY SISTERS AND ME

Rural Rhythm
RHY1047

Gold Heart is a fine name for an upandcoming young band from Leesburg, Va., that features the three Gold sisters, Analise on mandolin, Jocelyn on lead guitar, and Shelby on fiddle. In true sisterly fashion, the lead singing is parcelled out among the three, although Jocelyn comes out ahead with six leads to three each for Analise and Shelby. But, since she also wrote the bulk of the songs, perhaps this is understandable. As a title, “My Sisters And Me” is not as straightforward as it seems, for at no time does any one sister claim to be the “Me,” thereby setting herself apart.

The music you will find here is thoroughly modern bluegrass, well played, well sung, and well arranged. Aaron McDaris helps out on the fivestring and, as is often the norm today, keeps the banjo roll going almost constantly, backing up not only the fiddle, but the mandolin and vocals as well. In fact, banjo is the dominant sound on the CD, although Andy Hall does get in some tasty licks on the resonator guitar.

Although “My Sisters And Me” is not a gospel album, there is a strong religious presence not only on the a cappella “Heavenly Home,” but also on “Ride Of Your Life” (let Him drive), “Things” (there’s a reason our best plans fail), “Amidst Life’s Storm” (look up to the Master), and “You Know How” (he thanks the Lord above for bringing them this far). The most memorable song on the CD is the appropriately titled “Sister,” with a clever musical hook that is almost a call and answer. It is sung by Shelby, and, in spite of what you might expect, not written by the sisters.

Curmudgeons may find this collection of songs a little too upbeat, a little too happy, with a few too many clichés embedded in the lyrics. (Things have a way of working out or No sense in living in the past.) And there are those of us who are always going to miss the rough edges. But these women are young, they seem determined, and they are writing their own material. There is time and room for their music to grow (perhaps they might download some Hazel & Alice or Molly O’Day.) My guess is that we will be hearing more from the Gold sisters. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) MHH

Steve Lutke - Appalachian Uprising

Steve Lutke - Appalachian Uprising

STEVE LUTKE
APPALACHIAN UPRISING

Ampersand Records
CD008

Steve Lutke is a very talented and innovative banjo player who has put together a CD of 12 original compositions. He is ably backed by Travis Wetzel (fiddle/mandolin), Bob Harris (guitar), Randy Bailey, and Ken Neil (bass), and Noah Segal (Djembe).

There are a few cuts here on which you could hang the bluegrass label (they tend to be the ones that are done very, very fast, for some reason). The rest seem to be exercises in technique and experimental banjo direction. Of course, judging music which sets off in a new direction is always a challenge—what standards does one use? On one hand, those who are thirsting for something new and different may find a lot to like with this material.  On the other hand, if you need a strong and identifiable melody line to relate to a tune, you will find this quite challenging. A frequent element is a roll sequence repeated over and over, using various chord positions, which makes pegging the melody difficult. The overall technique is very impressive, at any rate. Lutke has technical virtuosity in spades, and the banjo is front and center throughout the CD, backed by delicate fiddle and guitar. If new directions and a wealth of technical expertise appeal to you, I would recommend this release very highly.

Finally, I know we aren’t supposed to take liner notes too seriously, but, “Steve is simply one of the world’s greatest musicians of our time (the Michael Jordan of the banjo) and ‘Appalachian Uprising’ is one of the very best banjo albums ever recorded?” Hmm. (Ampersand Records, P.O. Box 6023, Bridgewater, NJ, www.stevelutke.com). AW

Monroe Crossing - Heartache & Stone

Monroe Crossing - Heartache & Stone

MONROE CROSSING
HEARTACHE AND STONE

No Label
MC0809

Playing fulltime since October 2004 and managing eight gigs a month even in the heart of winter, Monroe Crossing has long since established themselves as one of the upper Midwest’s foremost bluegrass outfits. The band formed in September of 2000 out of three different mid1990s groups (Pretty Good Bluegrass Band, Big Skyota, and the Deadly Nightshade Family Singers). Since then, Art Blackburn (guitar), Lisa Fuglie (fiddle and vocals), Matt Thompson (mandolin), and Mark Anderson (bass) have remained constant members of Monroe Crossing, joined by a half-dozen banjo players along the way.

With banjo player Benji Flaming back in the fold since the beginning of 2007, the five bandmembers commenced their tenth anniversary in September 2009 with the release of “Heartache And Stone.” This their tenth album demonstrates their strengths. These start with Monroe Crossing’s instrumental excellence, offering tasteful, succinct breaks and fresh arrangements. The veteran Blackburn had developed a sweet guitar style more than twenty years ago. In Monroe Crossing, those of similar taste surround him. Their vocals generally feature a solo lead by Fuglie or Blackburn, with harmonies, if at all, only on the chorus. Thus they provide a refreshing alternative to “formulaic, bass-heavy threepart-harmony on everything” arrangements.

The album includes diverse original and cover material. Fuglie provides five songs, while Blackburn adds a pair (including the title cut) of wistful reflections. Becky Buller’s “Raven Tresses” serves as the new song from a hot contemporary bluegrass composer. “Mason Harris” comes from Benji’s banjo teacher, Kevin Barnes, of Stoney Lonesome. They deliver a very straightforward reading of “4+20” from Stephen Stills during CSNY’s heyday. The band’s other “rock tune” cover is more of a reach. Inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall Of Fame at the same time as Prince, it should be no surprise Monroe Crossing covers his “Purple Rain.” They certainly put the ’grass to the Prince, including a neat banjo break, but can’t quite overcome that, unlike “Raspberry Beret,” “Purple Rain” is not a story song.

On their upbeat numbers with Lisa singing lead (her “Ned Kelly,” for example), the group can be most favorably compared to the best bluegrass bands of the 1980s. The group, however, also displays a certain tendency to move predictably from upbeat outlaw songs to introspective ballads.

Some hardcore traditionalists will no doubt assert that Monroe Crossing has a folk sound. Undoubtedly true on certain, slower material, this also gives the band a distinctive sound. Stable, experienced lineups produce effective ensembles. Monroe Crossing is no exception, offering excellent singing and playing on fresh material that’s well arranged. (Monroe Crossing, 17625 Argus St. NW, Ramsey, MN 55303, www.monroecrossing.com.) AM

Adam Steffey - One More For The Road

Adam Steffey - One More For The Road

ADAM STEFFEY
ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD

Sugar Hill
SUGCD4057

More than once, the tyranny of the vocal has wrecked a great instrumentalist’s solo album. It’s not hard to sympathize with a picker who wants to survive (financially) as a musician. Maybe they express themselves beautifully through a pick or a bow, but just try to make a living strictly (or even primarily) as an instrumentalist. So, they sing. And too often, they shouldn’t. Having devoted untold hours at their instrument, developing years of hardearned technique and the taste to use it effectively, if they haven’t done the same for their pipes, why should they be expected to approach the same level as singers?

Though, it is what audiences want, and if you don’t give the customers what they want, you lose customers. Hiring guest singers only solves the problem for the disc, setting up audiences for a letdown at your concerts. So it was with some trepidation that I popped the new Adam Steffey disc into the player, having read this quote from him about “One More For The Road”: “I didn’t want to make an instrumental album, because I think those can get monotonous.” Well, they can, but when they are made by people like Steffey, one of the best musicians in bluegrass, I find that they don’t. And vocal albums can get monotonous just as easily. So, we seem to have different tastes as listeners. And, I’d still love to hear an allinstrumental album from him (his 2001 “Grateful” CD also mixed vocal with instrumental cuts).

However, this is among those rare solo albums by a player who actually sings beautifully, even if Steffey is selfdisparaging about his voice (“I love singing, but I hate to hear myself back,” he says). The album is an unalloyed pleasure for anyone who loves bluegrass music, played or sung. The darkness of the title cut finds Steffey’s rich baritone alternating with the bullseye mandolin picking we expect from one of the most thoughtful mandolin soloists out there. Coming second on the disc, after the opening instrumental, it lets us know that there will be no diminution of quality when he switches from single strings to vocal chords.

Surrounded by past and present colleagues, it is quite a feat to create a vocal project with guest crooners Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman, and particularly Alison Krauss on a stunning rendition of the Bluegrass Cardinals tune, “Warm Kentucky Sunshine,” and not end up sounding like the third or fourth wheel. They all sound wonderful, including Steffey, from beginning to end.

And as for those instrumentals, two of which he uses to open and close the disc, if you buy the album for those four cuts, you’ll be getting your full money’s worth. “Deep Rough,” “Half Past Four,” and “Barnyard Playboy” reside within bluegrass territory with newgrass mountains visible in the distance, while the traditional “Durang’s Hornpipe” sounds as fresh as the original. Steffey and guests—banjoist Ron Block, fiddlers Ron Stewart and Stuart Duncan, guitarist Clay Hess, resonator guitarist Randy Kohrs, and bassist Barry Bales—are old friends and sound like it, playing with a relaxed cohesion that allows them to whip up plenty of excitement without showboating. No doubt about it, Steffey’s produced a disc that has the earmarks of a classic. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, sugarhillrecords.com.) DR

Various Artists - Bluegrass Express

Various Artists - Bluegrass Express

VARIOUS ARTISTS
BLUEGRASS EXPRESS

J&J Music
No Number

In 1972, Jim & Jesse had been on the air for two years with a nationally-syndicated country music television show originating from WSM radio. For three of those shows, they invited Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and their bands to perform as a special show called “Bluegrass Express.” Jesse McReynolds has now released the first of these shows and it’s well worth seeing. The picture and audio quality are outstanding, but it’s the performances that really stand out on this thirty-minute DVD.

In 1972, Jim & Jesse had one of their greatest bands with Vic Jordan on banjo, Jim Brock on fiddle, and Keith McReynolds on bass. On this show, they perform “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “Your Old Love Letters” (with Carol Johnson in a stunning trio), “I Don’t Love Nobody,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” (a trio with Bill Monroe), and “[Old] Salty Dog Blues” (with Lester Flatt). Bill Monroe performs “Muleskinner Blues,” “I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years” (with James Monroe on lead), “Bluegrass Breakdown [sic],” and “Wicked Path Of Sin” with Kenny Baker on fiddle, Joe Stuart and James Monroe on guitars, Monroe Fields on bass, and Jack Hicks on banjo. Lester Flatt performs with Roland White on mandolin (whom Lester refers to as ChiChi), Paul Warren on fiddle, Haskel McCormick on banjo, Johnnie Johnson on bass, and Jack Martin on resonator guitar, performing “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Bluebirds Singing,” and “Orange Blossom Special.” Everyone joins in on “Lonesome Road Blues” for the finale.

Apparently, these three bands put a touring show together in 1972, but I don’t have any more information about that. My only complaint is that whoever created this DVD didn’t put a menu on it, which would have allowed the viewer to go directly to individual songs or sections. This is essential viewing, though, for anyone interested in that time in bluegrass history. You can see and hear how comfortable they are with their playing and how easy they make it look. And, it’s a reminder of how great these performers are and were. (J&J Music, P.O. Box 1385, Gallatin, TN 37066, www.jimandjesse.com). CVS

King Of The Queen City - The Story of King Records - By Jon Hartley Fox

King Of The Queen City - The Story of King Records - By Jon Hartley Fox

KING OF THE QUEEN CITY: THE STORY OF KING RECORDS
BY JON HARTLEY FOX

University of Illinois Press 9780252034688.
Bibliography, index, 280 pages, B&W pictures, $29.95.
(Univ. of Ill. Press, 1325 S. Oak St., MC-566, Champaign, IL 61820, www.press.uillinois.edu.)

Jon Hartley Fox’s history of King Records tracks Syd Nathan’s label from its very first release up through today’s still futile efforts to put a historical plaque on their old facility in Cincinnati. Fox has compiled decades of research into an imminently readable and entertaining book.

The majority of King’s output was not bluegrass. Country, R&B, black gospel, blues, and James Brown filled the label’s catalog. Reno & Smiley and the Stanley Brothers were King’s bluegrass mainstays. In the 11page chapter on bluegrass music, we learn that Reno & Smiley cut over 250 songs for King, and the Stanleys nearly 200, including the classic album King 615. Nathan, who actively produced most King artists, pushed both bands to include lead guitar, something that eventually became a signature part of the Stanley sound and a staple lead instrument in bluegrass music.

Nathan was on the forefront of race relations and integration in the record business, and he frequently asked his black artists to rerecord country hits and his white artists to cover R&B songs. Case in point: the Stanley Brothers’ “Finger Poppin’ Time” was originally a top-five hit for the Midnighters, an R&B vocal group.

King was also a model of vertical integration. They owned everything from the recording studio, to the pressing plant, to their own distribution network. After Nathan’s death, the company was sold to Starday, and eventually to Moe Lytle who launched Gusto Records and IMG, which have been largely responsible for making Kings bluegrass recordings continuously available since the ’70s.

This book holds a lot of non-bluegrass-related information, but King played such an important part in bluegrass history that it is well worth it for the bluegrass material it does contain. And I stand firmly behind any book that quotes my favorite song lyric ever: True love’s not like lard. CAH

Reviews - March 2010

Here are reviews for March as contributed by: C. Eric Banister, Robert C. Buckingham, Bill Conger and David Royko

HIGHLIGHT


Steep Canyon Rangers - Deep In The Shade

Steep Canyon Rangers - Deep In The Shade

STEEP CANYON RANGERS
DEEP IN THE SHADE

Rebel Records REBCD1834

Also known as Steve Martin’s backup band to the wider, non-bluegrass public, Steep Canyon Rangers is simply as good as a tradition-based modern bluegrass band gets. They cover all the bases and then some—instrumentally, vocally, and in composition.

Ten of the twelve numbers included here are originals, written or co-written by bassist Charles Humphrey III or banjoist/singer Graham Sharp, with the lone instrumental coming from fiddler/singer Nicky Sanders. Mandolinist/singer Mike Guggino and guitarist/lead singer Woody Platt complete the classic quintet lineup. And their sometimes boss, banjoist/actor/funny man Martin, wrote the laudatory liner notes.

SCR doesn’t range far from traditional territory, but explores it thoroughly, stretching slightly on Sharp’s “Mourning Dove,” hitting all the notes beautifully on their a capella rendition of Leadbelly’s “Sylvie,” and swinging with charming insouciance through Merle Haggard’s “I Must Be Someone Else You’ve Known.” That leaves the original vocal tunes, and they add up to a pleasing batch. Particularly effective is “There Ain’t No Easy Street,” their version of the classic depression era style number, describing the current downturn with clever wordplay without trivializing the seriousness of the subject.

No reservations here, and it is a bit of a coup that Martin chose them for his very high-profile foray into bluegrass, bringing them exposure that’s rare for any bluegrass band. Those exposed to this album, and to bluegrass for the first time because of it, will be getting a healthy dose of the real thing. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) DR

Barry Scott & Second Wind - In God's Time

Barry Scott & Second Wind - In God's Time

BARRY SCOTT & SECOND WIND
IN GOD’S TIME

Rebel Records
REBCD1826

Probably most widely known for his nine-year stint as lead singer and guitarist for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Barry Scott is now stepping out to form his own group, Second Wind, and reaching back to his gospel roots with “In God’s Time.” What started as a solo record to enable Scott to record some of his songs, as well as some of his favorites, slowly evolved into a group project as the varied members added to the sound and feel of the album.

Scott wrote seven of the album’s fourteen songs, while the other half of the album is drawn from gospel greats such as Dottie Rambo (“Is That The Lights Of Home?”), Lee Roy Abernathy (“Take A Moment And Live”), and Ruby Moody (“Plan Of Salvation”). Bassist Jason Leek contributes “In That Land” on which he also sings lead.

The central themes of the album are salvation and looking forward to getting Home. A deviation from those is the closing song, “Living Daddy’s Dream.” Scott’s father grew up playing music in country bands, opening for many big name country artists. After marrying, he began to perform gospel music, but never struck out on his own. With help from Vince Gill (on harmony vocals and guitar), Scott sings about fulfilling his father’s long-time dream in a perfect tribute to his father.

Leek is one example of the versatility of the band Scott has assembled that, in addition to Leek, includes Matthew Munsey on mandolin and Travis Houck on resonator guitar. The banjo duties are handled by 15-year old Zane Petty. Petty shines as the MVP of the album playing with a style and phrasing far beyond his years. Guitar ace Kenny Smith and banjo player Joe Dean also make appearances on the project.

Now that Scott has caught his second wind, it seems like he’s ready to make another run at a long stint of praising God and entertaining fans. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) CEB

Tom Godlesky & Buncombe Turnpike - Ditch Diggin' Blues

Tom Godlesky & Buncombe Turnpike - Ditch Diggin' Blues

TOM GODLESKI & BUNCOMBE TURNPIKE
DITCH DIGGIN’ BLUES

No Label
No Number

For their fourth independent release, Tom Godleski & Buncombe Turnpike continue to grow as musicians and songwriters. Bandleader, bassist, and lead vocalist Tom Godleski has found a fantastic family trio of musicians to surround him, and the result is an outstanding traditional bluegrass album.

The band gathers around banjo player Bucky Hanks whose propulsive picking lays down a great musical bed for the other instruments to jump on. The other players would be Hanks’ sons Caleb on mandolin and Micah on guitar. It’s often recognized that family members strike a vocal harmony like no other, and these two do that here, not only with vocals, but also with instruments as the harmony on “Encarna” attests, as does the father/son lick trading on the classic “Dry Run Creek.” The group gets to stretch out a bit on the traditional “Vodka Before Brunch.” Guests on the album include Don Lewis on fiddle and Tony Reece on resonator guitar.

Aside from his other duties, Godleski also serves as the primary songwriter of the outfit, writing or co-writing seven of the twelve songs. Themes range from the beauty of home (“Where The Hills Are Blue”), the beauty of love (“Snowbound” and “Hobo Love”), and what may be the only bluegrass song written for an Olympic gold medalist (“Nadia Comaneci”). Micah Hanks contributes one song, “The Ghost Of Henry Lee,” on which he also sings lead and plays guitar and bass.

This North Carolina band continues to improve and provide excellent traditional bluegrass to listeners. (Tom Godleski, 710 Riverview Church Rd., Asheville, NC 28806 www.buncombeturnpike.com.) CEB

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers - Clouds of Dust

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers - Cloud of Dust

CHRIS JONES & THE NIGHT DRIVERS
CLOUD OF DUST

GSM Records
102 2009

With a resonant baritone voice that would be at home in country music as easily as the straight-ahead bluegrass Chris Jones inhabits, a black cowboy hat wouldn’t be out of place atop his head. It would join a number of others—a songwriter’s sombrero, a radio host’s homburg, a guitar picker’s panama, a sideman’s stovepipe, or a bandleader’s beret—depending on the day’s assignment.

A hatter would be kept busy with “Cloud Of Dust,” the latest album with his group, the Night Drivers, with eight of fourteen songs written or cowritten by Jones, who sings lead and plays guitar from top to bottom. He’s won IBMA awards in more than one category, including as a songwriter, and the imposing batch included here should provide listeners with pleasure and give other performers fresh, distinctive material for their repertoire. The Night Drivers, a fine group, is Ned Luberecki (banjo and vocals), Jon Weisberger (bass and vocals), Mark Stoffel (mandolin), and Aaron Till (fiddle and vocals). The healthy guest list includes singers Darrin Vincent, Sally Jones, Shawn Lane, and fiddler/singer Jeremy Garrett, resonator guitarist Mike Witcher, and fiddler Megan Lynch.

As the years have passed, a very slight hint of grit has only added to Jones’s full, expressive, and tonally accurate pipes, especially affecting on the traditional gospel track “Come On Little Children.” Other highlights include his beautifully darktoned original “What You Do,” the exuberant “Cloud Of Dust,” and the waltzing Jones/Weisberger cut, “Silent Goodbye.” There are no bland tracks to be found here. A nice bit of spice comes on the Jones/Luberecki instrumental, “Draw For 5,” giving the usual bluegrass banjo number a couple of subtle twists.

The album’s closing tune, “Bluegrass DJs,” speaks to Jones’s experience in radio, a song custommade for broadcasters in need of that elusive track that fills out only a minute or so to avoid dead air or deadlier banter. And with that, Jones tips his hats as he bids us a very fond farewell. (Chris Jones, P.O. Box 984, Franklin, TN 37065, www.chrisjonesmusic.com.) DR

The Hagar's Mountain Boys - Forever Yours

The Hagar's Mountain Boys - Forever Yours

THE HAGAR’S MOUNTAIN BOYS
FOREVER YOURS

No Label
No Number

Good traditional bluegrass music is alive and well on Hagar’s Mountain and the Boys are bringing it down the mountain. For their third independent release, the Hagar’s Mountain Boys draw from a wide swath of music sources and bathe them in traditional sounds. Produced by Mountain Heart’s Jason Moore, the Boys play a rugged, straightforward bluegrass, ringing their harmonies out loud and clear. You can almost see them taking a step back from the microphone to let them loose.

Right away, their style is evident on the opening number “Shot Man Blues,” the story of a man who can’t stay away from another man’s wife. The sound provided by bandmembers Blake Johnson (bass), Cliff Smith (banjo), Mike Johnson (guitar), and Ricky Stroud (mandolin) is a refreshing change from some of the slick sounds coming from Music City. But, the band doesn’t away from commercial sounding songs; rather they put their own spin on it. Accompanied by Mountain Heart’s Jim VanCleve (who plays fiddle throughout the album), the band turns in a great version of the Travis Tritt hit, “Anymore,” that rivals the original in beauty and passion.

The instruments aren’t the only sweet change. The harmonies are rough-hewn, but beautifully blended. On the melody of “Sweet Summer Dream,” the Boys lift the song high and lilting, while “Lord, Don’t Leave Me Here” will have listeners shouting “Hallelujah!”

Traditional bluegrass is far from dead, and this release proves there are still bands out there striving to keep it alive and viable. (Ricky Stroud, 949 Youngs Chapel Church Rd., Roxboro, NC 27574, www.thehagarsmountainboys.com.) CEB

Keith Sewell - The Way of a Wanderer

Keith Sewell - The Way of a Wanderer

KEITH SEWELL
THE WAY OF A WANDERER

Rubber Dog Records
RDR2009

In most regards, “The Way Of A Wanderer” sounds comfortingly traditional. The 11 cuts are originals by Keith Sewell (four are cowritten with Niall Toner), who plays most of the instruments (mandolin, guitars, banjo, fiddle, bass, and Wurlitzer organ) with a pristine beauty that never sounds too careful or clinical. Perfectly matched is his accurate and expressive lowtenor voice with a strong southern inflection. The songs cover traditional themes, while the percussion, played by Fred Eltringham, is subtle and never upfront.

Then again, Sewell, a veteran songwriter (covered by artists ranging from Ricky Skaggs to BR549) and musician (his sideman work includes stints with Skaggs, Sam Bush, Dixie Chicks, and Jerry Douglas), obviously is not untouched by modern influences, so the second cut, “Abigail,” chugs in an insistent 5/4 time signature, reminiscent of John Hartford’s classic newgrass tune, “On The Road.” Some of the disc’s solos teeter on the edge of jamgrass, yet never quite roll into that camp. Rob Ickes, the lone guest string player, also lends some modern touches, his spirit fully engaged, particularly in the slower, introspective numbers, evoking distant vistas that have become the domain of modern resonator guitarists.

Less appealing is Sewell’s use of fadeouts on a few cuts; “Imogene,” for example, leaves us on a high note of simmering solos that deserve an exciting ending more so than a gentle drift into silence. But, that is a minor point. Sewell, whose previous CD, “Love Is A Journey,” was released on Skaggs Family Records, has created a disc that should appeal to a range of listeners—bluegrass fans as well as country and acoustic music lovers of all stripes. (Rubber Dog Records, 3175 Quarry Rd., Mt. Juliet, TN 37122, www.keithsewell.com.) DR

ON THE EDGE


Emmitt Nershi Band - New Country Blues

Emmitt Nershi Band - New Country Blues

EMMITT NERSHI BAND
NEW COUNTRY BLUES

SCI Fidelity Records
SCIFI1122

Jamgrass music is an acoustic-oriented subgenre of jamband music (or newgrass music, depending on one’s perspective). Two of the biggest jamgrass bands have been Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident. Both seem to be officially disbanded, but they apparently get together for reunion shows and tours.

Drew Emmitt (mandolin and vocals) and Bill Nershi (guitar and vocals) were/are integral members of LS and SCI, respectively, and their collaboration makes sense. “New Country Blues” features the relaxed, laidback sound that jamgrass fans will welcome—newgrass without the intense demands that more rigorous bands require of their listeners and practitioners. Nine of the eleven tracks are composed by Emmitt or Nershi or both, and eight feature vocals that are friendly and direct. Besides the leaders, musicians include bluegrass fiddler Jason Carter and banjoist Andy Thorn, who has logged time with Larry Keel’s band, Natural Bridge, among the finest newgrass ensembles around. Resonator guitarist Rob Ickes contributes on two cuts.

The stand-out track is an instrumental by Thorn, “Flight Of The Durban,” featuring the most interesting compositional twists and textures. He is a musician to watch. Fans of the jamgrass genre and the two bands that spawned the Emmitt Nershi Band should enjoy this new offspring. (SCI Fidelity Records, 4760 Walnut St., Ste. 106, Boulder, CO 80301, www.emmittnershiband.com.) DR

Acousticure - Bluegrass Van

Acousticure - Bluegrass Van

ACOUSTICURE
BLUEGRASS VAN

Gryllus Records GCD 073

This acoustic quartet demonstrates the worldwide influence of bluegrass music. Labeled a Hungarian bluegrass band, I really would not have known these guys were from across the pond. Their beautifully sung lyrics show no trace of an accent until a foreign female, Anett Mudris, voice enters on cut seven for the old traditional Hungarian folk song, “Kis Kece Lanyom.”

Adras Troth picks guitar, banjo, resonator guitar, and mandolin; Peter Gyergyadsez plays double bass; Geza Kremnitzky plays mandolin, banjo, guitar; and Zsolt Pinter jams on mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. All members share singing duties. Country Gentlemen, Tony Rice, and Ricky Skaggs are cited as some of their influences. They apparently learned quite well, as tight vocals and superb chops are showcased throughout the 14-track “There Is Bluegrass” (the translation of the actual CD title “Bluegrass Van.”)

“This kind of music can only be played with joy,” the band states on its Web site. That belief is conveyed in this project from the up-tempo opening number “Bring Back To Me” to the final driving tune “Threshold Of Love.” Captivating instrumentals (the Hungarian dance melody “Apor’s Choice,” “Andrew’s Breakdown,” and “Plastic Killer Breakdown”) and the group’s cover of Vince Gill’s “Liza Jane” make this album a must have for your collection. (Gryllus Records, Inc., 1539 Budapest, Pf 655, Hungary, www.acousticure.hu.) BC

INSTRUCTIONAL DVD


Jim Van Cleve - Become a More Complete Fiddler

Jim Van Cleve - Become a More Complete Fiddler

JIM VanCLEVE
BECOME A MORE COMPLETE FIDDLER
AcuTab Video 00684 09091. Two DVDs, four hrs. total, $50. (AcuTab, P.O. Box 21061, Roanoke, VA 24018, www.acutab.com.)

So you are a fiddler looking to expand your knowledge base? Look no further. This two-DVD set is more than four hours long. In that four hours, we are treated to a biographical interview with Jim and a lot of insights into the making of a fiddle player. Driven by a passion to play, a supportive family, and a couple of good breaks, a young man becomes a well-known bluegrass fiddler with a cutting edge band. Jim came on the scene just over ten years ago as fiddler on the Rambler’s Choice album “Sounds Of The Mountains,” a now classic bluegrass recording. His playing belied his relative newcomer status as it showed a great deal of maturity for someone just out of high school.

The long interview is interspersed with demonstrations of fiddle played with a band. Topics on building breaks, playing licks, and using the key to your advantage are discussed with short demonstrations. Jim plays each scale. Tunes are played in different keys to demonstrate the shifting of double-stops and licks. All the while, there are references to degrees of scale, (i.e.; one, three, five). So, knowledge of basic music theory will be a plus. When Jim starts talking about flatted thirds and fifths, you will be more comfortable.

Another important aspect Jim addresses is: play the melody. Your solo should be a bold statement. As you wrap up your break, bring the intensity down before the singing starts. Don’t be afraid to play on the front of the beat. This is demonstrated very nicely on “Banks Of The Ohio” and “Pretty Polly” in three different keys.

Before each song, Jim breaks down the scale and demonstrates the more common double-stops that bring the piece to life. He repeats this each time he changes key. He teaches three of his originals (“Nature Of The Beast,” “Devil’s Courthouse,” and “#6 Barn Dance”), as well as Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss.” A split-screen on these tunes show both the bowing and noting hands.

Jim VanCleve is an articulate and accomplished musician and does a good job of explaining what he’s doing. There’s much information here and may take a long time to digest. Be prepared to spend some serious time with these presentations. RCB

Reviews - April 2010

HIGHLIGHT


Chris Warner - Going To The Dance

Chris Warner - Going To The Dance

CHRIS WARNER
GOING TO THE DANCE

Patuxent Music CD200

Chris Warner is a force of nature on the banjo. A graduate of the Jimmy Martin school of higher bluegrass learning, Warner is all about timing. With that comes a heavy dose of control. Things never get out of hand, which doesn’t mean they don’t get exciting. From Tom Adams’ fine lead vocals to Warner’s powerhouse banjo picking, we are treated to lots of excitement.

There are two fiddlers on this project. Michael Cleveland and Patrick McAvinue. Both tend toward the inflammatory side, but are held in check here to sizzle without going over the top. Their tone and licks are amazing and tasteful throughout. Warner wrote ten of the fourteen pieces here. There are two traditional pieces (both fiddle tunes) and a Jimmy Martin/Paul Williams classic, “Leavin’ Town.” While leading the proceedings with his banjo, Warner plays more of a supporting role vocally by adding baritone to the trios. It is only on “Banjo Blues” that Chris sings lead. This cut reaches back to the mountains and to banjo players like Roscoe Holcomb. The title cut shows what makes Warner’s playing so good. He twins the mandolin and when they break into “Cotton Eyed-Joe” at the end of the song, the banjo and fiddle burn down the barn.

The vocals here are top notch. Tom Adams and Darren Beachley get in a couple of great duets. The trios are classic bluegrass. “Taxes, Troubles, and Heartaches” is a Carroll Swam original. Mark Seitz’s tenor and mandolin stand out with Swam’s warm lead vocal and Warner’s great baritone. The instrumentals are consistently interesting and well played.

There are gems throughout the project, such as Dick Laird’s break on “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” There is a touch of old-time (Warner uses an old-time banjo tuning to good effect on “Bonaparte’s Retreat”), a pinch of country, and a whole lot of great bluegrass on this CD. The performances here will stand the test of time. This is an essential addition to the collection of any fan of traditional bluegrass and bluegrass banjo. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB

Missy Werner - Drifting and Dreaming

Missy Werner - Drifting and Dreaming

MISSY WERNER
DRIFTING AND DREAMING

No Label
No Number

Missy Werner, a veteran lead vocalist from the Cincinnati area, makes a push for national recognition with this her debut solo album. There are 12 songs, most of them using post’80s bluegrass stylings. All were selected by Werner and producer Dwight McCall and are either from current writers or are covers. Of the covers, only “Plant Some Flowers” by Jimmie Davis and the pop/country hit “Snowbird” would qualify as well known tunes.

Thematically, the tunes run the range of human experience, yearning for a love, losing a love, saying good riddance to a love gone wrong, remembering the departed, “Living In Troubled Times,” and self-improvement. Werner covers Dolly Parton’s portrait of the joy of living, “Early Morning Breeze.” Parton is a master of country melody and poetic description, and Werner turns in a nice rendition. It is one of the two or three best tracks here; “Snowbird” and “Plant Some Flowers” are the other two. A track or two later is “Gypsy Joe And Me” (another Parton song), this one a tale of sadness and loss. “The Rope” uses sailing and “drifting from the shore” as metaphors for life and concludes that we all need to reach out for help sometimes.

Backing all these tunes is an allstar cast that includes, Tim Stafford, Ron Stewart, Randy Kohrs, Alan Bibey, and Harold Nixon. Werner’s voice and performance are of the same high quality. She has a clear, pure tone and a good understanding of placing her words against the rhythm. Nothing sounds strained. Nothing is forced. Twelve songs and twelve good performances, and that equals a debut that should garner recognition. (Missy Werner, 4958 Cedar Brook Ct., Liberty Twp., OH 45011, www.missywerner.com.) BW

Nathan Day - The Bluegrass Album

Nathan Day - The Bluegrass Album

NATHAN DAY
THE BLUEGRASS ALBUM

No Label
No Number

Nathan Day is a singer/songwriter from Connecticut. With the title The Bluegrass Album, he is signaling his fans that this recording represents a change from his usual style. Making that change brings with it some ups and downs. On the downside, his singer/songwriter background has resulted in his guitar mixed too far forward and several times is at odds with good bluegrass band rhythm. This is most apparent on his otherwise fine “Sweet Honeydew.”

On the upside, he is bold at bringing in freshsounding twists of melody and coloring. Fortunately, the positives outweigh the negatives, making for a good recording overall.

There are eleven songs and two bonus tracks. Of the thirteen, two are traditional bluegrass standards. “Pig In The Pen” opens the recording and is a bright, likable effort. “Bury Me Beneath The Willow” shows that, vocally, Day has a familiarity with the Skaggs and Rice version, though he takes it a bit faster. Both are good covers.

Day wrote the rest of the material. His lyrics are straightforward: lovers leaving on the midnight train; a man struggling to drink memory away; the influence of a hometown…that sort of thing. But, melodically and structurally, the songs offer interesting variation on bluegrass form. Among the best are “Firecracker” and “Beautiful Day.” The midtempo love song, “One More Song,” and the guitar and vocal bonus track, “Road Song,” are also well done.

Ably backing Day are bassist Bart Holcomb, resonator guitarist Roger Williams, fiddler Mike Barnett, mandolinist Bob Dick, banjoist Dave Dick, and vocalists Amy Gallatin and HannaH. (Nathan Day, P.O. Box 93, New Hartford, CT 06057, www.nathandaymusic.com.) BW

Born Into Bluegrass - The Songs of Cullen Galyean

Born Into Bluegrass - The Songs of Cullen Galyean

BORN INTO BLUEGRASS
THE SONGS OF CULLEN GALYEAN

Mountain Roads Recordings
MMR1007

There’s a region of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the North Carolina/Virginia border that has produced some of the finest banjo players in bluegrass. From Mount Airy, N.C., to Galax, Va., and the communities nearby, there emerged in the late 1940s and ’50s such exponents of threefinger banjo as Larry Richardson, L.W. Lambert, and Ted Lundy. Cullen Galyean of Lowgap, N.C., was also among this distinguished group of musicians.

Cullen, a multiinstrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, played and/or recorded with an impressive array of bands over the years, many of them from his section of the Blue Ridge. There were the Mountain Ramblers, Virginia Mountain Boys, Border Mountain Boys, Foot Hill Boys, and a brief stint on mandolin with Ralph Stanley, just to name a few.

This CD presents 15 of Cullen’s compositions; three instrumentals and twelve songs. My favorite is “Days Of Grey And Black,” which I first heard performed by Randall Collins and Curtis Blackwell circa 1970. There are two wellconceived gospel numbers, “Traded The Bottle For A Bible” and “Carry It Back To The Cross,” but really there’s not a throwaway number here. One instrumental, “Midnight Ramble,” is the original recording with which Cullen won the banjo competition at the 1965 bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Va. A dazzling display of technical skill, it’s easy to see why he won.

The group of musicians assembled here is impressive. The list includes Rick Allred, Terry Baucom, Wesley and Derek Easter, Mickey Galyean (Cullen’s son), Jimmy Haley, Billy Hawks, Junior Sisk, and Johnny Williams—16 outstanding pickers in all, with Cullen Galyean himself providing baritone vocals and playing banjo on two numbers. “Bluegrass Time” is the last song Cullen recorded playing banjo. (Because of health issues, he hasn’t played in about five years.) This is a wonderful collection of traditional bluegrass. Recommended without reservation. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) WVS

Jessie Baker - Yessir

Jessie Baker - Yessir

JESSIE BAKER
YESSIR!

Patuxent Music
CD196

For the last couple of years, readers of this magazine may have seen advertisements for the Baker Brothers and their music. Hailing from Indiana, Jessie and Taylor Baker are teenagers who took up bluegrass at a young age and have progressed ever since. In recent years, Jessie has gone on to play with many top bands in the business including fellow Hoosiers, the Wildwood Valley Boys, Karl Shifflet, Wildfire, Melvin Goins, Marty Raybon, and more. He is now a member of the powerhouse band Flamekeeper that backs the awardwinning Michael Cleveland. This new allinstrumental album, Yessir!, represents a coming-out party in the bluegrass tradition for Jessie Baker, as this is his first solo project.

Early on, Baker was inspired by Earl Scruggs and Don Reno and the album starts off with the Reno/Strouppenned “Follow The Leader.” It’s one of many standards found here, along with “San Antonio Rose,” “Jesus Savior Pilot Me,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” and another Reno tune called “Banjo Riff.”

Baker keeps the tempos fairly subdued, which only reminds the listener that some of these familiar tunes have been dredged up one too many times over the years. Fortunately, however, there are some real barnburners including “Boston Boy,” “Banjo Fling,” “Johnson Mountain Chimes,” and the new Baker original and title cut, “Yessir.”

Jessie is a very good player who more than holds his own. Another saving grace that keeps this album from sounding like just another collection of oftmined standards is the exceptional fiddling of Michael Cleveland who plays on all but one cut. Other musicians on the project include Marshall Wilborn, Dudley Connell, David McLaughlin, Audie Blaylock, Nate Leath, Patrick McAvinue and Barry Reid. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) DH

None Of The Above - Turn The Page

None Of The Above - Turn The Page

NONE OF THE ABOVE
TURN THE PAGE

After Five Records
AFR10102009

For the second time in just a few years, a bluegrass band has covered Journey’s ’80s rock classic “Don’t Stop Believing.” None Of The Above’s version is less frantic and less imitative of the original than that recorded by Pine Mountain Railroad, but is arranged more intricately and is equally worthy. Either way proves the song adapts well to bluegrass. The same can be said of NOTA’s cover of America’s “Sister Golden Hair.” Both are album highlights. Both also reflect a slight change of direction for the band, as nothing listed on their first four recordings seems remotely like these two songs.

There have also been some bandmember changes since the group’s last recording. The two newcomers who join guitarist Tim Sands, bassist Tim Harrison, and mandolinist David Crawford are vocalist Allison Trogdon and banjoist Jon Cornatzer. Trogdon, a polished vocalist with outside bluegrass influences, sings lead on two songs (including “Don’t Stop…”) and contributes harmonies throughout. Cornatzer takes the lead on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon Of Darkness” and swings between tradition and contemporary on the banjo. He contributes two instrumentals, the moody “Road To Bei Hei” (which is a bit short) and the lilting “Tamara” (which would work better if it were two minutes shorter).

Tim Sands still handles most of the lead singing. His expressive voice brings great texture to Julie Miller’s “Midnight & Lonesome,” Tim O’Brien’s “Turn The Page Again,” and Jeff White’s swinging country “Blue Trail Of Sorrow.” He is at his best on “Sister Golden Hair” and in a lively duet with Trogdon on Gillian Welch’s “Wichita,” an oldtime number. The latter revolves around a nifty instrumental riff and is arguably the best track on the recording.

There’s much to like about this CD. There’s variety with wellconsidered and wellexecuted arrangements. The playing is good and the harmonies tight. Keep an ear out for it. (None Of The Above, 1809 Brims Grove Rd., Pinnacle, NC 27043, www.noneoftheabove.net.) BW

Eric Ellis - Every Night Before Breakfast

Eric Ellis - Every Night Before Breakfast

ERIC ELLIS
EVERY NIGHT BEFORE BREAKFAST

Blue Banjo Records
001

Eric Ellis is an excellent banjo player, highly regarded by his fellow musicians. The cast of supporting players reflects this admiration. Bobby Hicks and David Johnson play fiddles. Dave Haney, who played guitar with the late Joe Val, is on guitar and vocals. Billy Gee plays bass and Nick Chandler plays mandolin.

Ellis is a Scruggs-influenced picker. Scruggs licks populate his backup and lead work. He’s a tasteful player with lots of good ideas. He opens up the project with a spot-on version of “Randy Lynn Rag” and then jumps into Don Reno’s “Better Luck Next Time.” The dozen songs and tunes display Ellis’ banjo playing in a variety of tempos and settings. He handles all with the ease and grace of the seasoned player.

Nick Chandler’s mandolin playing is the other standout on this project. Ellis has played in Chandler’s band and the interplay between the two is apparent. Chandler’s breaks stand out for their tone and timing. The fiddles suffer from a murky mix with too much reverb that detracts from the overall effectiveness of their playing. The overuse of echo detracts from the power of some of the playing in general.

The range of material is refreshing. Everything from Steve Earle to the Louvin Brothers to Tom McKinney’s “Uptown” and an interesting Ellis original, “Cedar Creek,” that demonstrates his prowess along with that of Chandler. The fiddle break is a gem, as well. If you’re a fan of solid traditional banjo playing, don’t miss this project. (Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, www.appstate.edu.) RCB

The Henhouse Prowlers - A Dark Rumor

The Henhouse Prowlers - A Dark Rumor

THE HENHOUSE PROWLERS
A DARK RUMOR

No Label
No Number

Vivid songwriting backed with good bluegrass chops of all styles is at the core of the latest recording from the Chicago based Henhouse Prowlers. From the group’s principal songwriters, guitarist Ben Benedict and resonator guitarist James Weigel, come eight truly inspired tracks. Other band members are Ben Wright on banjo, Ryan Hinshaw on fiddle, Jon Goldfine on bass, and featuring Don Stiernberg on mandolin. Benedict’s best effort is the slow country tune “Silver Lining.” Almost parloresque in its wistfulness and resignation, the song revolves around the line Every silver lining has its cloud and that she is his. That’s country song wordtwisting at its best. Weigel contributes five standout originals. “Uncle Bubba” involves running from a hurricane in Texas, being part of a poor black family driving in the early 1960s south, when an interlude shifts from fast/medium to slow and details the inheritance received from the death of Uncle Bubba. Rich in description, it’s hard not to be drawn in. Two tracks later is Weigel’s pondering of “Trouble.” We all have it, we all search for a way out of it, trouble remains—all in classic three quarter time bluegrass bounce. His best song, one of the two best on the recording, is “Drifter.” In it, the subject relates his wish to settle down and to make amends for his wandering life. As he struggles, the song gets angrier and more declarative. In three minutes and fifty-five seconds, we go from loose guitar rhythm and weary vocals to full blown anthem with touches of Levon Helm.

Add to these four other Benedict and Weigel originals, a cover of the Stonemans’ “Turn Me Loose,” and a rhythmically interesting instrumental from fiddler Hinshaw. “Turn Me Loose,” with its tale of hard luck and its refrain, Hey, you. Who, me? Yeah, you, is the other of the two best tracks and kicks off a really good album in high style. (Henhouse Prowlers, 3963 W. Belmont Ave., Unit 117, Chicago IL 60618, www.henhouseprowlers.com.) BW

ON THE EDGE


Sam Bush - Circles Around Me

Sam Bush - Circles Around Me

SAM BUSH
CIRCLES AROUND ME

Sugar Hill Records SUGCD4055

Much has already been written about mandolinist/fiddler/singer Sam Bush returning to his roots with Circles Around Me. Well, yes, but that’s the way it’s always been with Sam Bush albums. The acknowledged “King of Newgrass” music and founder/leader of New Grass Revival from 1971 through 1989 has more than a halfdozen solo albums under his belt, and the first one opened with “Big Mon,” the instrumental Bill Monroe selfportrait. Every album since has featured—not just dabbled in—bluegrass and prenewgrass music, and not out of any sense of obligation. It is where he comes from, and he absolutely loves it. And, Sam Bush is great at it all.

What is different this time is the conscious (and slightly melancholic and wistful) glance back, though more in theme than musical style. From the opening title track, Bush is contemplating mortality and his own place in the world. And it is a bit jarring, coming from one of music’s seemingly eternally youthful firebrands.

At the same time, it is invigorating by the end, because what he created in his early days, exemplified by two nowclassic New Grass Revival closing cuts, still sounds so fresh. “Souvenir Bottles”—here tightened up, but with its builtin nostalgia intact—sounded slightly quaint in the ’70s as delivered by the new hippies on the block. Now, it comes full circle, with Bush representing the sage as well as the youngster who listens in awe, like a man looking in the mirror in disbelief at the wizened visage glaring back. The hushed transition between Scott Vestal’s banjo solo and Bush’s mandolin exploration is among the disc’s highlights.

The CD is packed with reflective moments, even if they’re not always explicit, with Tex Logan (“Diamond Joe”) and the early Country Gentlemen (the crackling waltz “You Left Me Alone”) circling around him, while Bush spins his own ellipses of instrumental newgrass gold on “Blue Mountain.”

Nobody is better than Bush at the bluesy instrumental side of Monroe, and adding to the bittersweet ancient tones he conjures on “The Old North Woods” are bassist Edgar Meyer with Meyer’s son, George, and wife, Connie, on violins. Family is further touched upon with the brief “Apple Blossom” fiddle/banjo duet, posthumously featuring original NGR banjoist Courtney Johnson, the track’s dedicatee along with Sam’s recently deceased dad. Bush also tosses his hat into the ring of murder balladeers with an effective cocomposition written with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, “The Ballad Of Stringbean And Estelle,” a “true song” (as Monroe would have said) about the 1973 murders of the Grand Ole Opry star and his wife.

Vestal, bassist Byron House, drummer (yes, this is newgrass music) Chris Brown, and guitarist Stephen Mougin are Bush’s house band, and besides those already mentioned, exquisite guest turns are provided by Del McCoury and Jerry Douglas. Bush has never made a better record as he stands firmly in the center of these massive circles, creating new ones for his fellow future giants. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, sugarhillrecords.com.) DR

MandoMorphosis 2010

MandoMorphosis 2010

MANDOMORPHOSIS
2010

No Label
No Number

While bluegrass generally evokes thoughts of banjos and fiddles, there’ll always be a special connection with the mandolin. The challenging eightstringed beastie in the hands of Bill Monroe and the countless others who’ve followed his path will always convey some of its grassy heritage, no matter how far it strays stylistically.

Straying far brings us to 2010, the debut CD from the group MandoMorphosis. They’re based in the Pacific Northwest where mandolins are as ubiquitous as espresso bars. Therefore, the band consists of seven mandolinists, some of whom stray to guitar, fiddle, and resonator guitar over the course of the album. The only familiar name to me was Orville Johnson, known primarily for his bluesy resonator guitar work and crusty vocals on duo projects with the likes of Laura Love and Mark Graham. The other octostringers (I don’t expect this term to catch on) are Matt Sircely, Michael Connolly, David Tiller, Scott Schaffer, Pete Frostic, and Adam Larrabee.

The 17 tracks are mostly originals with the exception of a Chopin nocturne and a choro piece by Jacob do Bambolin. These are beautifully played and arranged, as is “Matt’s Idea” (a blues tinged new grass piece) and “Ed” (a gentle chamber jazz trio). So is the recording’s one vocal, Orville Johnson’s “Nero’s Fiddle,” a powerfully mournful and politically charged number.
If the album falls short in any category, it’s that at over an hour’s worth of music, there’s a shortage of distinctive melodies among the lion’s share of the originals.  “Crime Dog” seems based more on a chord progression rather than a melodic theme, and many of the other cuts are hung on only the slightest of unifying riffs. The playing is unfailingly fine, but no individual mandolinist’s “voice” emerges to identify himself.

The result is a wide ranging recording that gives the impression of some unfulfilled potential. They show that a mandolin septet focusing on influences far from bluegrass can make a go of it. But, I’m guessing that even the most dedicated mandophile may ultimately want more melody and less noodling. (MandoMorphosis, 1525 Taylor Ave. N., #602, Seattle, WA 98109, www.mandomorphosis.com.) HK

Springfield - Cross Over

Springfield - Cross Over

SPRINGFIELD
CROSS OVER

Vocation Records
SPG03

Springfield is a French quartet taking a brave and challenging path to music success. Their album Cross Over features mostly original songs, sung in English, with a strong bluegrass core that leans slightly to the folky end of the tradition spectrum. How’d they do? By the evidence here, exceptionally well.

They’ve created an interesting and appealing set of new songs, mostly composed by lead singer/bass guitarist Pierre Jean Lorre, with some contributions from and collaborations with mandolinist Louis Lorre and guitarist Phillippe Checa. The lion’s share of the tunes have historical inspirations, some European and some with intriguing American roots, such as “Josiah” (about escaped slave/abolitionist Josiah Henson), “Seattle” (drawn from the words of Chief Seattle to President Grover Cleveland in 1854), and “Oregon Trail.”

The songs are consistently wellsung and carefully arranged, with nice use of banjoist JeanMichael Gardin and guest Manu Bertrand on resonator guitar. Even the low whistle on “Mary Reed” doesn’t seem out of place. The two covers included here give more evidence of the group’s arranging skills. The standard “Sitting On Top Of The World” is presented in a soft gentle manner that brings a whole new life to the song, while Dan Fogelberg’s “Wandering Shepherd” kicks off with an a cappella quartet and builds into a strong gospel number. The CD’s sole instrumental track, “Spring Fills,” also indicates how well these players fare on a straight ahead bluegrass number.

There’s not much holding this ensemble back from international success. Lorre’s accent is strong to these American ears, but he still enunciates with clarity and expressiveness. If there’s any area in which they could strive to improve, it might be in their lyrics. While the stories they tell are evocative, the choice of words sometimes shows the challenges of writing well in a second language; something that most writers this side of Joseph Conrad have struggled with. But, that doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of this recording, a strong bid to grab the attention of international bluegrass fans. (Springfield, 6 Rue des Pommiers, 91200, AthisMons, France, www.springfieldbluegrassband.fr.) HK

BOOKS


Man of Constant Sorrow - Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean

Man of Constant Sorrow - Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean

MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW: MY LIFE AND TIMES
BY DR. RALPH STANLEY WITH EDDIE DEAN
Gotham Books 978159240425

In Ralph Stanley’s wildest dreams, one wonders if he ever envisioned writing a memoir. And, if it hadn’t been for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it is likely that this book, Man Of Constant Sorrow, would have never been born. Music journalist Eddie Dean also deserves much credit for taking what was surely an oral history and turning it into a riveting narrative.

Ralph takes us from his childhood on Smith Ridge in southwest Virginia, through his partnership with Carter as the Stanley Brothers, and on through his solo career with the Clinch Mountain Boys which saw the loss of two more great lead singers, Roy Lee Centers and Keith Whitley. As is fitting, the old Kentucky fox hunter, Curly Ray Cline, gets his own chapter, as does Bill Monroe.

The story is told in Ralph’s own words, which makes for an entertaining read. As he says, “I know correct and proper English just fine, but I don’t use it because that’s not the way I was raised.” He is surprisingly candid about many of the major events in his life including Carter’s battle with alcohol which led to his untimely death in 1966 at the age of 41. Ralph admits he was “scared to go it alone” because Carter “was the one everybody loved.” His competitiveness with his older brother is still evident in remarks such as, “I helped my mother more than Carter did.”

A memoir, of course, allows you to shape your own story and Ralph sets the tone early on when he declares, “I’m just an old hillbilly and proud of it, too.” Man Of Constant Sorrow upholds that myth (Ralph practically gloats about Carter beating bass player Chick Stripling to a pulp), while at the same time undercutting it with every recounting of Ralph’s myriad accomplishments far from the hills of home.

Although the book is by no means a tellall, Ralph takes six pages to “call out” John Duffey, labeling him “mean as a striped snake”; hardly fair since John is gone and can’t respond. Ralph’s declaration that “I don’t play bluegrass” also seems a bit ungrateful since the bluegrass community has been his primary working venue all these years. On an irksome note, the text has numerous typos (such as “Little Magpie” for “Little Maggie”) and entire phrases are carelessly repeated in several places.

In the end, however, Man Of Constant Sorrow reveals not someone who is “plain as an old shoe,” but rather a wonderfully complex individual who has lived a complicated and often painful life and who is savvy enough to realize the wisdom of telling that story himself. A fascinating read. Highly recommended (Gotham Books, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014, www.penguin.com.) MHH

The Crow - Steve Martin - New Songs for the Five String Banjo

The Crow - Steve Martin - New Songs for the Five String Banjo

THE CROW-STEVE MARTIN
NEW SONGS FOR THE FIVE STRING BANJO
TRANSCRIBED BY TONY TRISCHKA.
$19.95, 40 pp.

Hot on the heels of Steve Martin’s recent banjo CD The Crow comes this nicely done book of tabs transcribed by Tony Trischka, with notes and helpful hints on the tunes by Martin (who wrote all but one) and an introduction by Trischka. Included are three clawhammer selections along with the three-finger-style tunes, and various tunings, including open D, D tuning, G modal, and C modal. The tablature is standard notation with large print and very easy to read. Complete words to all songs are included as well. (Note that if you are hoping for the tab to the breaks by Tony and Béla on the signature cut “The Crow,” they are not included because, according to Martin, “They would probably demand something like money.”)

This book should be of interest to any banjo player intrigued with Martin’s original compositions on The Crow and his quite individualistic and refreshing approach to the five-string. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.) AW

Reviews - May 2010

HIGHLIGHT


The Del McCoury Band - Family Circle

The Del McCoury Band - Family Circle

THE DEL McCOURY BAND
FAMILY CIRCLE
McCoury Music MCM 0014

It’s fitting that Family Circle is the title of the Del McCoury Band’s most focused effort since 1999’s The Family, an album released at the height of their crossover popularity. Family Circle, which highlights Del’s peerless tenor lead on each of 14 tracks over 45 minutes of music, again shows why the powerful fivepiece music machine is so legendary.

Rob McCoury’s banjo groove underpins perfect harmonies on “Sweet Appalachia,” an album opener that serves as an anthem for the cultural background of bluegrass music. “Barbaric Splendor,” from the set list of New Riders Of The Purple Sage, is a gritty “leather and lace” song that Del somehow pulls off with ease. Del’s voice goes down smooth and hot like the moonshine he’s singing about on Revenuer’s Blues,” cowritten by Ronnie Bowman and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin and harmony vocals), while “Hello Lonely” is a new song that sounds like an oldschool bluegrass number, featuring nimble tradeoffs between Rob’s banjo and Jason Carter’s fiddle. “Delma Blue” is the kind of lonely waltz that Del was born to sing.

Showing that DMB is as versatile as they are powerful, “I’m Justified” is a joyous fourpart harmony gospel celebration of salvation that ranks up there with anything done by more gospeloriented acts over the past few years. “Bad Day For Love” is back in more familiar DMB territory, a bluesy raveup that’s sure to be rock-hard on the live stage, while the Johnny Mercerpenned “I Remember You” is a changeup, one that has Del’s halfyodel neatly matched to the sentimentality of a 1940s movie soundtrack.

Del turns wickedly mean on Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” followed by a western interlude of the Alaska ballad “White Pass Railroad” and Mark Knopfler’s “Prairie Wedding.” “Honey Hurry Home,” “Mexico’s Daughter,” and a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Break Up” are three tasty treats that leave you wanting more of this great recording. (McCoury Music, P.O. Box 625, Goodletsville, TN 37070, www.mccourymusic.com.) AKH

Honi Deaton and Dream - The Other Side

Honi Deaton and Dream - The Other Side

HONI DEATON AND DREAM
THE OTHER SIDE
C And L Entertainment
C&LE218

When you’ve got a bandleader with the vocal talents of Honi Deaton, an album should showcase that voice. Nelson McSwain, who produced The Other Side along with Honi Deaton & Dream, understands that concept. Honi’s lead vocals stand out on every song, supported ably by her husband Jeff on mandolin, Josh Brooks on banjo, and Wade Power on guitar. (Note: personnel are not listed on the CD.) Each musician brings a powerful set of chops to the recording, but no one gets in the way of Honi’s singing with heavyhanded backup. And the harmony vocals are as tight as you could want.

The Other Side is a good example of today’s modern bluegrass. The recording features acoustic instruments exclusively (no fiddle), and the well arranged songs, six cowritten by Honi, have a strong Americana flavor. The band even moves into hard rock territory with the Guns ’N Roses number “Sweet Child Of Mine.” This might not be everyone’s cuppa tea, but it is well done and with Honi singing, you can actually understand the words! On the other hand, “Georgia On My Mind” and “How Great The Art,” which undoubtedly bring down the house at a live show, don’t quite measure up to the classic versions by Ray Charles and Kate Smith. Honi shines more brightly on her own song, “I Wish You Were Still In Love With Me,” a slow tearjerker whose heartbreaking title says it all. “Roadkill On The Highway Of Love” by Honi and Jeff is the most harddriving (no pun intended!) number on the disc. Unfortunately, though the concept is clever, the imagery is a bit too graphic for a love song. I kept thinking of armadillos.

In spite of a few misses, the original material, tight harmonies, impressive instrumentation, and strong lead vocals on this recording make for some well performed twenty-first century bluegrass. (C&L Entertainment, P.O. Box 691505, Charlotte, NC 28227, www.candlentertainment.com.) MHH

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

DARIN & BROOKE ALDRIDGE
Mountain Home
MH12592

This young and recently wed duo from North Carolina hit the ground running with “I Thought I’d Seen It All,” the plaintive yet energetic and uplifting opening track on their new CD. And over the course of the ensuing 11 tracks, their charm, inspiration, and vocal prowess never let up.

To put it simply, there’s little not to love here. The songs, including one written by Darin and several by Nashville veteran Jerry Salley (who also contributes background vocals and produced this fine album) are memorable, and the instrumental picking is masterful. If these two sound like they know what they’re doing, it’s because they do. Brooke previously recorded a wellreceived solo gospel album for Pinecastle Records and Darin is a former member of the Country Gentlemen and has performed occasionally with Blue Highway.

Nearly always front and center in the mix is Brooke’s lovely, disarmingly powerful voice, which imbues everything she sings with amazing emotional and spiritual immediacy. Most of the time Darin’s softer tenor (he sort of sounds like a younger, less imposing Vince Gill) is overshadowed by his wife’s daunting vocals; but in harmony, their voices meld with seamless beauty. (Mountain Home Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.)

Jimmy Martin Jr. - A Tribute To My Dad

Jimmy Martin Jr. - A Tribute To My Dad

JIMMY MARTIN, JR.
A TRIBUTE TO MY DAD
No Label
No Number

Given the size of his father’s catalog and the number of songs that fall in the “greatest hits” category, choosing which 11 songs to include here was probably difficult and it most likely boiled down to which songs meant the most to Martin, Jr.

The songs chosen create a balanced mix of roughly five fast, three medium, and three slow songs. Two of the tracks, “Big Country” and “Sweet Dixie,” are instrumentals. All three of the slow songs are in threequarter time. The selections are representative of the elder Martin’s golden age, spanning from his 1958 single “Ocean Of Diamonds” to “Future On Ice” recorded in 1970. Included are covers of “Sunnyside Of The Mountain,” “Hold Whatcha Got,” “Freeborn Man,” and “You Don’t Know My Mind.” Two songs, “Little Maggie” and “Doin’ My Time” (both arguably less associated with Martin, Sr.), are also covered.

All tunes are performed in ’60s era Sunny Mountain Boy style with evenhanded and crisp banjo from Derek Dillman, Monroe style mandolin from Ronnie Prevette, and classic fiddle lines from Ward Stout and Brian Arrowood. Hints of the originals appear here and there, most notably the rolling banjo and mandolin figure that opens “Hold Whatcha Got,” but there is little or no direct re-creation.

Vocally, the two Martins are quite different, both in timbre and phrasing. Where Martin, Sr., had a pointed tenor quality and a somewhat frantic attack, Martin, Jr., chooses his punctuations more sparingly. He tends to drop to lower pitches where his father would have soared, and he has a thicker, more resonant sound. He sings well throughout, but is at his best on the slow tunes and really hits his stride on “It Takes One To Know One.” The Martin mood is captured here; exactly what a tribute should do. (Jimmy Martin, Jr., 4531 Chandler Rd., Hermitage TN 37076.) BW

Patuxent Partners - Seven Or Eleven

Patuxent Partners - Seven Or Eleven

PATUXENT PARTNERS
SEVEN OR ELEVEN
Patuxent Music
CD-185

The greater Washington, D.C., area was once heralded as the mecca of bluegrass.  Great bands including the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, as well as artist Buzz Busby called the area home. You could go to car lots and see Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, or Charlie Moore perform. The clubs that booked bluegrass were legendary, and the range of music styles was exciting. Bluegrass was on tv and drive-time radio. The region surrounding the greater D.C.-area is still rife with bluegrass in all sorts of places. Great pickers, bands, and events still happen frequently. The Patuxent Partners are long-standing members of this community and their style reflects the great diversity that has always marked the music that’s indigenous to the area.

Opening with a strong honky-tonk number with mandolin and banjo playing twin lines, they move into Buzz Busby’s “Where Will This End?,” nailing the three-part harmony. Tearing into the original instrumental “Kildare,” Tom Mindte’s mandolin goes over the top in some sort of virtuosic ecstasy. John Braunschwyler’s banjo shines throughout with a full tone and inventive licks and fills. Jack Leiderman is a fiddler’s fiddler. His take on the Kenny Baker standard “Washington County” stands up to the bench mark set by that legendary master. Leiderman’s soulful introduction to Mindte’s “From The Gutter To The Grave” forebodes the sorry plight of the drunkard, a theme long held forth in the bluegrass canon.

Drawing from a wide range of well-known songwriters, the material is all first rate without being overdone. The playing by all members is accomplished, and the vocals are solid. They get to the core of the song, as in Scotty Stoneman’s “Heartaches Keep On Coming.” This is a band to watch. They’ll be attracting more attention if they continue to present such fine bluegrass. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB

Lee Watson - Northern Track

Lee Watson - Northern Track

LEE WATSON
NORTHERN TRACK
No Label
LWM001

Most of the time, you’ll find Lee Watson singing, songwriting, and playing guitar for the Canadian group, the Breakmen. But, as with all singer/songwriters, the time eventually comes for a first solo album. Watson’s time has come.

There are 11 songs and all are Watson originals. Providing the instrumental and harmony support are some of the West and Northwest’s finest players, including Ivan Rosenberg on resonator guitar, Julie Elkins on banjo, David Thompson on bass, Greg Spatz on fiddle, and Ben Winship on mandolin.

Over the years, I’ve been impressed by dozens of good singers in bluegrass. Watson puts them all in a new perspective. He is a truly fine vocalist with a lyrical mid-range and an array of abilities. Control, phrasing, inflection, emotion—he brings a high degree of skill to each strength. Listen to the power, clarity, and fullness of expression he brings to the slow country plea of “To The End Of The World.” It doesn’t get much better.

As a songwriter, his tunes expand on classic bluegrass and country melodic motives and, as such, seem instantly comfortable. Consider the hint of “Ashes Of Love” in the opening title track. You’re pulled right in and you remain. Of his lyrics, on the other hand, it can be said that while he stays with standard themes and images, he does offer several fine turns of phrase. His line about selling a fiddle to a blind man in exchange for true sight is but one example. My favorite, however, is “That Rooster He’s The Devil” in which Satan stalks the night in the form of a fowl, his …beak blowing steam. It’s one of the highlights of a debut album full of good songs made all the better by the artist’s truly fine vocals. (Lee Watson, 217 N. 51 St., Seattle, WA 98103, www.leewatsonmusic.com ) BW

Etta Baker - Banjo

Etta Baker - Banjo

ETTA BAKER
BANJO
Music Maker
MMCD109

For many, Etta Baker was a name on an old LP of Appalachian instrumentals found in the cheapo bins for decades on various labels. That LP was reissued many times over and her One Dime Blues was heard by folks who had no idea who she was. She lived in relative obscurity in Morganton, N.C., where she played mostly guitar. Over the years, several people encouraged her banjo playing, and this CD displays her two-finger take on what she remembered of her father’s clawhammer playing.

Recorded in nearly a half-dozen sessions, the quality of this recording is rich and full, an aural treat. Playing a less than stellar instrument, Baker draws a full and satisfying tone from the banjo in an object lesson on how less can really be more. Her precise and clean picking lays out the melody with no unnecessary fanfare. Wayne Martin’s fiddle snakes along, catching every melodic twist and turn in these understated but exciting tunes. David Holt’s slide guitar on “John Henry” is the perfect foil for Baker’s direct banjo.

It is to the credit of the Music Maker Foundation that they sought to release this project and do so with such high production values. The consistency of the sound throughout the range of sessions that make up this recording is amazing. Although some tunes are repeated, the versions bring something different to the ear each time. “Love Somebody,” (commonly known as “Soldier’s Joy”) is an original take on an old evergreen. The last two cuts are from 1955 and feature Boone Reid playing clawhammer banjo.

At the start of the disc, we hear Etta Baker stating that she tries to capture what she heard her father and those before him play on the banjo. This is an important look backwards into banjo history by someone who grew up and lived in the tradition. We are richer for having this valuable project available. (Music Maker Relief Foundation, P.O. Box 1358, Hillborough, NC 27278, www.musicmaker.org.) RCB

Josh Williams - Down Home

Josh Williams - Down Home

JOSH WILLIAMS
DOWN HOME
Pinecastle Records
PRC 1173

Where have you been Josh Williams? Nine years after his debut CD and six years after the second, finally comes release number three. And, Down Home proves to be worth the wait.

No, it’s not strictly a bluegrass recording. You know that from the cymbal splash behind the banjo kickoff in the opener, “Lonesome Feeling.” Drums continue through the track and on five others, as well. Pedal steel is used on three. Sometimes the result is straight country, as on the ode to the joys of an old picture album, “Kodak, 1955,” or as on the Carl Jackson penned title cut. Other times, the result is a country/bluegrass hybrid that adds a fresh twist to an old standard such as “Lonesome Feeling” or gives a bouyancy to Jimmy Martin’s “The Last Song” or to “Polka On The Banjo.” The best of these hybrids is “Streets Of Bakersfield.” Though it lacks a bit of the sauciness and energy of the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakam version, Williams nails the bitterness that is the heart of the song.

The rest of the recording (about half) is bluegrass. The first of these, “Blue Railroad Train,” is a nod to one of Williams’ heroes, Tony Rice, with Rice playing the lead guitar and Williams handling the vocals, even using a few Rice vocal inflections in tribute. Williams then lets fly a brilliant performance of “Cherokee Shuffle,” on which he plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo, all in an authoritative display of melody and variation. A few tracks later, Tom T. Hall’s “We’ll Burn That Bridge” crackles with life, getting a boost from Aaron McDaris on banjo and Darrin Vincent and Jamie Dailey on harmony vocals. It’s one of 12 great songs that bring us full circle to the opening question.

Where have you been Josh Williams? Honing his craft behind this vibrant recording—that’s where. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) BW

Randy Kohrs - Quicksand

Randy Kohrs - Quicksand

RANDY KOHRS
QUICKSAND
Rural Rhythm Records
RHY1052

As a resonator guitarist, Randy Kohrs isn’t the likeliest of bandleaders, but with passionate lead vocals matching his significant instrumental skills, Quicksand is evidence that Kohrs is comfortable at the helm.

An assertive break at the beginning of “Devil Of The Trail” kicks off the 13track/43minute disc and captures the adventurous nature of this disc. Most of the tunes feature percussion, which takes it out of the “strictly bluegrass” category, but tracks such as “Time And Time Again” (a high octane number with great instrumental teamwork between Kohrs and Aaron Ramsey on mandolin) are highly listenable. So are Webb Pierce’s honky tonk “It’s Been So Long,” the lyrical “Cumberland,” and the driving “More About John Henry” (a Tom T. Hall track with rock’n’roll-style backing vocals).

The percussion is more fitting on the more modern country sounding tracks; the alcohol soaked trilogy of “Die On The Vine,” “Quicksand,” and “This Must Be The Bottom,” the spooky guy in the woods ballad “The Ghost Of Jack McCline,” the nostalgic “Sunday Clothes,” and “Truman’s Vision” (a protest of eminent domain).

Kohrs’ performance and production win big when he takes the biggest risks, namely on the juke joint blues of “Down Around Clarksville” and the gospel shouter “If You Think It’s Hot Here.” Both feature Kohrs’ bluesy voice at its best, accented by sharp mandolin from Adam Steffey. They are truly stunning tracks that show what can happen when a bluegrass or acoustic artist is willing to step past the confines of the prevailing Nashville sound. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AKH


BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND

The Watkins Family - Heaven's Worth Waiting For

The Watkins Family - Heaven's Worth Waiting For

THE WATKINS FAMILY
HEAVEN’S WORTH WAITING FOR

Watkins Family Music
No Number

Bluegrass, gospel, and country music blend together for this beautiful new collection of songs from the Watkins Family. With the loss of dearly departed patriarch, Don, the family faithfully moves forward with its ministry of music. Mother, Judy (vocals), and children, Todd (guitar, resonator guitar, and bass), Shanon (bass and fiddle), and Lorie (banjo, mandolin, and guitar), share their splendid harmonies in this 11-track mixture of ballad and up-tempo songs.

Nominated Best Contemporary and Traditional Bluegrass Gospel Group by SPBGMA, the Watkins Family is equally adept with hard-driving bluegrass as well as with the piano-laced number “To Know You More.” Familiar names in bluegrass circles, Stuart Duncan (fiddle, cello, and mandolin) and Bryan Sutton (guitar, mandolin, and banjo) are two of the musicians enlisted for the project. Dr. Jerry Falwell introduces “Sometimes You Gotta Rock The Boat” to the backdrop of stormy sound effects.

While the entire CD is a non-stop blessing of listening pleasure, thumbs up from me go to “She’s Working On Her Testimony” and “What Love Has Grown.” (Watkins Family, P.O. Box 294, Eastonlice, GA 30538, www.watkinsfamilymusic.com.) BC

BOOKS

lowinger1

I Hear A Voice Calling: A Bluegrass Memoir - by Gene Lowinger

I HEAR A VOICE CALLING: A BLUEGRASS MEMOIR
BY GENE LOWINGER
University of Illinois Press 9780252076633.
Index, 144 pp., 75 b&w photos, $19.95. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL 61820, www.press.uillinois.edu.)

With I Hear A Voice Calling, Gene Lowinger becomes the first fiddler to share the challenges and excitement that came with being one of Bill Monroe’s elect, a Blue Grass Boy. Often introduced by Monroe as the “Jewish boy from New York City,” Gene worked with Bill for only six months, June 1965 through January 1966, before turning in his notice and leaving “an environment in which I felt isolated and alien.” Still, he counts Bill Monroe as his first mentor and clearly loves the man who “showed me that it is okay to dream.”

After leaving Nashville, Gene went back to New York where he studied violin, became an orchestra player, and wrote Bluegrass Fiddling, one of the earliest fiddle instruction books. When a freak accident (a dancer fell on him) made it impossible for him to play, he worked as a computer analyst for ten years before discovering photography. Almost inevitably, this passion led him to photograph Monroe who invited him on stage to play and then admonished him to “practice, shave, and get a haircut!” This fortunate event led Gene (healed from his deteriorating disc and pinched nerve) back to the fiddle and to the “epiphany” that became this book.

Photos of Monroe, most taken in 1993, constitute a major portion of this work. As a Blue Grass Boy, Gene was granted inside access and many of his shots capture the private and playful side of his former boss. There are also some 1960s pictures of Gene with his own band, the New York Ramblers, which included the amazing lineup of David Grisman, Jody Stecher, and Winnie Winston.

As Gene says, working for Bill Monroe was the “beginning of a spiritual journey that would lay out the path for the rest of my life.” He would find other mentors along the way, but what he learned from Monroe, “to be doggedly tenacious in pursuing my vision,” would stand him in good stead no matter what his quest.

Gene joins Bob Black and Butch Robins in providing glimpses into the rarefied world of the Blue Grass Boys. Like his fellow musicians, he too offers personal insights into the enigmatic personality of the man who hired them, the man who said, “I take you boys into the band with me to teach you how to play the music right.” I Hear A Voice Calling is a welcome addition to the growing list of bluegrass memoirs. MHH

Hands In Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia - by Tim Barnwell

Hands In Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia - by Tim Barnwell

HANDS IN HARMONY: TRADITIONAL CRAFTS AND MUSIC IN APPALACHIA
BY TIM BARNWELL
W.W. Norton & Co. 9780393068153.
Hardback, 188 pages, b&w photographs, $49.95. (W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110, www.wwnorton.com.)

Hands In Harmony, by photographer Tim Barnwell, has three elements: pictures, words, and music. Seventy nine black and white portraits depict artists—from old time musicians and singers to carvers and potters—who are dedicated to carrying on traditions passed down from previous generations. Next come oral histories gleaned from interviews the author conducted. A 22-track CD in the back cover contains some examples of their playing. Each section succeeds on its own, but I wish the pictures and words were better integrated. Why not put the stories right next to the pictures so we wouldn’t have to flip back and forth?

The portraits beautifully capture the characters of the people pictured. My favorites were Ralph Stanley with grandson Ralph III on this knee, Ralph II posing with his Washington Redskins pool table, and Kenny Baker with his fiddle and a hint of a smile. Some famous personalities (Bill Monroe, Doc Watson) are mixed in with lesser known folks (Obray Ramsey, Leesa Sutton).

The stories in the oral history section really let the personalities shine through. When available, a Web site is included so that you can get more information or, in some cases, actually make purchases. Your enjoyment of the accompanying CD will be directly proportional to your appreciation for oldtime music, but it’s a great introduction to these performers. The track listing gives personnel credits, but does not list the pages where you can find the matching picture and story, leaving the reader to search through the entire book to find them. CAH

Review: The Del McCoury Band - Family Circle

HIGHLIGHT


The Del McCoury Band - Family Circle

The Del McCoury Band - Family Circle

THE DEL McCOURY BAND
FAMILY CIRCLE
McCoury Music MCM 0014

It’s fitting that Family Circle is the title of the Del McCoury Band’s most focused effort since 1999’s The Family, an album released at the height of their crossover popularity. Family Circle, which highlights Del’s peerless tenor lead on each of 14 tracks over 45 minutes of music, again shows why the powerful five piece music machine is so legendary.

Rob McCoury’s banjo groove underpins perfect harmonies on “Sweet Appalachia,” an album opener that serves as an anthem for the cultural background of bluegrass music. “Barbaric Splendor,” from the set list of New Riders Of The Purple Sage, is a gritty “leather and lace” song that Del somehow pulls off with ease. Del’s voice goes down smooth and hot like the moonshine he’s singing about on Revenuer’s Blues,” co-written by Ronnie Bowman and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin and harmony vocals), while “Hello Lonely” is a new song that sounds like an old school bluegrass number, featuring nimble trade offs between Rob’s banjo and Jason Carter’s fiddle. “Delma Blue” is the kind of lonely waltz that Del was born to sing.

Showing that DMB is as versatile as they are powerful, “I’m Justified” is a joyous fourpart harmony gospel celebration of salvation that ranks up there with anything done by more gospel oriented acts over the past few years. “Bad Day For Love” is back in more familiar DMB territory, a bluesy raveup that’s sure to be rock-hard on the live stage, while the Johnny Mercer penned “I Remember You” is a change up, one that has Del’s half yodel neatly matched to the sentimentality of a 1940s movie soundtrack.

Del turns wickedly mean on Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” followed by a western interlude of the Alaska ballad “White Pass Railroad” and Mark Knopfler’s “Prairie Wedding.” “Honey Hurry Home,” “Mexico’s Daughter,” and a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Break Up” are three tasty treats that leave you wanting more of this great recording. (McCoury Music, P.O. Box 625, Goodletsville, TN 37070, www.mccourymusic.com.) AKH

Review: Honi Deaton and Dream - The Other Side

Honi Deaton and Dream - The Other Side

Honi Deaton and Dream - The Other Side

HONI DEATON AND DREAM
THE OTHER SIDE
C And L Entertainment
C&LE218

When you’ve got a bandleader with the vocal talents of Honi Deaton, an album should showcase that voice. Nelson McSwain, who produced The Other Side along with Honi Deaton & Dream, understands that concept. Honi’s lead vocals stand out on every song, supported ably by her husband Jeff on mandolin, Josh Brooks on banjo, and Wade Power on guitar. (Note: personnel are not listed on the CD.) Each musician brings a powerful set of chops to the recording, but no one gets in the way of Honi’s singing with heavy-handed backup. And the harmony vocals are as tight as you could want.

The Other Side is a good example of today’s modern bluegrass. The recording features acoustic instruments exclusively (no fiddle), and the well arranged songs, six co-written by Honi, have a strong Americana flavor. The band even moves into hard rock territory with the Guns ’N Roses number “Sweet Child Of Mine.” This might not be everyone’s cuppa tea, but it is well done and with Honi singing, you can actually understand the words! On the other hand, “Georgia On My Mind” and “How Great The Art,” which undoubtedly bring down the house at a live show, don’t quite measure up to the classic versions by Ray Charles and Kate Smith. Honi shines more brightly on her own song, “I Wish You Were Still In Love With Me,” a slow tearjerker whose heartbreaking title says it all. “Roadkill On The Highway Of Love” by Honi and Jeff is the most hard-driving (no pun intended!) number on the disc. Unfortunately, though the concept is clever, the imagery is a bit too graphic for a love song. I kept thinking of armadillos.

In spite of a few misses, the original material, tight harmonies, impressive instrumentation, and strong lead vocals on this recording make for some well performed twenty-first century bluegrass. (C&L Entertainment, P.O. Box 691505, Charlotte, NC 28227, www.candlentertainment.com.) MHH

Review: Darin & Brook Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

DARIN & BROOKE ALDRIDGE
Mountain Home
MH12592

This young and recently wed duo from North Carolina hit the ground running with “I Thought I’d Seen It All,” the plaintive yet energetic and uplifting opening track on their new CD. And over the course of the ensuing 11 tracks, their charm, inspiration, and vocal prowess never let up.

To put it simply, there’s little not to love here. The songs, including one written by Darin and several by Nashville veteran Jerry Salley (who also contributes background vocals and produced this fine album) are memorable, and the instrumental picking is masterful. If these two sound like they know what they’re doing, it’s because they do. Brooke previously recorded a well received solo gospel album for Pinecastle Records and Darin is a former member of the Country Gentlemen and has performed occasionally with Blue Highway.

Nearly always front and center in the mix is Brooke’s lovely, disarmingly powerful voice, which imbues everything she sings with amazing emotional and spiritual immediacy. Most of the time Darin’s softer tenor (he sort of sounds like a younger, less imposing Vince Gill) is overshadowed by his wife’s daunting vocals; but in harmony, their voices meld with seamless beauty. (Mountain Home Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.)

Review: Jimmy Martin, Jr. - A Tribute To My Dad

Jimmy Martin Jr. - A Tribute To My Dad

Jimmy Martin Jr. - A Tribute To My Dad

JIMMY MARTIN, JR.
A TRIBUTE TO MY DAD
No Label
No Number

Given the size of his father’s catalog and the number of songs that fall in the “greatest hits” category, choosing which 11 songs to include here was probably difficult and it most likely boiled down to which songs meant the most to Martin, Jr.

The songs chosen create a balanced mix of roughly five fast, three medium, and three slow songs. Two of the tracks, “Big Country” and “Sweet Dixie,” are instrumentals. All three of the slow songs are in threequarter time. The selections are representative of the elder Martin’s golden age, spanning from his 1958 single “Ocean Of Diamonds” to “Future On Ice” recorded in 1970. Included are covers of “Sunnyside Of The Mountain,” “Hold Whatcha Got,” “Freeborn Man,” and “You Don’t Know My Mind.” Two songs, “Little Maggie” and “Doin’ My Time” (both arguably less associated with Martin, Sr.), are also covered.

All tunes are performed in ’60s era Sunny Mountain Boy style with evenhanded and crisp banjo from Derek Dillman, Monroe style mandolin from Ronnie Prevette, and classic fiddle lines from Ward Stout and Brian Arrowood. Hints of the originals appear here and there, most notably the rolling banjo and mandolin figure that opens “Hold Whatcha Got,” but there is little or no direct re-creation.

Vocally, the two Martins are quite different, both in timbre and phrasing. Where Martin, Sr., had a pointed tenor quality and a somewhat frantic attack, Martin, Jr., chooses his punctuations more sparingly. He tends to drop to lower pitches where his father would have soared, and he has a thicker, more resonant sound. He sings well throughout, but is at his best on the slow tunes and really hits his stride on “It Takes One To Know One.” The Martin mood is captured here; exactly what a tribute should do. (Jimmy Martin, Jr., 4531 Chandler Rd., Hermitage TN 37076.) BW

Review: Patuxent Partners - Seven Or Eleven

Patuxent Partners - Seven Or Eleven

Patuxent Partners - Seven Or Eleven

PATUXENT PARTNERS
SEVEN OR ELEVEN
Patuxent Music
CD-185

The greater Washington, D.C., area was once heralded as the mecca of bluegrass. Great bands including the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, as well as artist Buzz Busby called the area home. You could go to car lots and see Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, or Charlie Moore perform. The clubs that booked bluegrass were legendary, and the range of music styles was exciting. Bluegrass was on tv and drive-time radio. The region surrounding the greater D.C.-area is still rife with bluegrass in all sorts of places. Great pickers, bands, and events still happen frequently. The Patuxent Partners are long-standing members of this community and their style reflects the great diversity that has always marked the music that’s indigenous to the area.

Opening with a strong honky-tonk number with mandolin and banjo playing twin lines, they move into Buzz Busby’s “Where Will This End?,” nailing the three-part harmony. Tearing into the original instrumental “Kildare,” Tom Mindte’s mandolin goes over the top in some sort of virtuosic ecstasy. John Braunschwyler’s banjo shines throughout with a full tone and inventive licks and fills. Jack Leiderman is a fiddler’s fiddler. His take on the Kenny Baker standard “Washington County” stands up to the bench mark set by that legendary master. Leiderman’s soulful introduction to Mindte’s “From The Gutter To The Grave” forebodes the sorry plight of the drunkard, a theme long held forth in the bluegrass canon.

Drawing from a wide range of well-known songwriters, the material is all first rate without being overdone. The playing by all members is accomplished, and the vocals are solid. They get to the core of the song, as in Scotty Stoneman’s “Heartaches Keep On Coming.” This is a band to watch. They’ll be attracting more attention if they continue to present such fine bluegrass. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB

Review: Lee Watson - Northern Track

Lee Watson - Northern Track

Lee Watson - Northern Track

LEE WATSON
NORTHERN TRACK
No Label
LWM001

Most of the time, you’ll find Lee Watson singing, songwriting, and playing guitar for the Canadian group, the Breakmen. But, as with all singer/songwriters, the time eventually comes for a first solo album. Watson’s time has come.

There are 11 songs and all are Watson originals. Providing the instrumental and harmony support are some of the West and Northwest’s finest players, including Ivan Rosenberg on resonator guitar, Julie Elkins on banjo, David Thompson on bass, Greg Spatz on fiddle, and Ben Winship on mandolin.

Over the years, I’ve been impressed by dozens of good singers in bluegrass. Watson puts them all in a new perspective. He is a truly fine vocalist with a lyrical mid-range and an array of abilities. Control, phrasing, inflection, emotion—he brings a high degree of skill to each strength. Listen to the power, clarity, and fullness of expression he brings to the slow country plea of “To The End Of The World.” It doesn’t get much better.

As a songwriter, his tunes expand on classic bluegrass and country melodic motives and, as such, seem instantly comfortable. Consider the hint of “Ashes Of Love” in the opening title track. You’re pulled right in and you remain. Of his lyrics, on the other hand, it can be said that while he stays with standard themes and images, he does offer several fine turns of phrase. His line about selling a fiddle to a blind man in exchange for true sight is but one example. My favorite, however, is “That Rooster He’s The Devil” in which Satan stalks the night in the form of a fowl, his …beak blowing steam. It’s one of the highlights of a debut album full of good songs made all the better by the artist’s truly fine vocals. (Lee Watson, 217 N. 51 St., Seattle, WA 98103, www.leewatsonmusic.com ) BW

Review: Etta Baker - Banjo

Etta Baker - Banjo

Etta Baker - Banjo

ETTA BAKER
BANJO
Music Maker
MMCD109

For many, Etta Baker was a name on an old LP of Appalachian instrumentals found in the cheapo bins for decades on various labels. That LP was reissued many times over and her One Dime Blues was heard by folks who had no idea who she was. She lived in relative obscurity in Morganton, N.C., where she played mostly guitar. Over the years, several people encouraged her banjo playing, and this CD displays her two-finger take on what she remembered of her father’s clawhammer playing.

Recorded in nearly a half-dozen sessions, the quality of this recording is rich and full, an aural treat. Playing a less than stellar instrument, Baker draws a full and satisfying tone from the banjo in an object lesson on how less can really be more. Her precise and clean picking lays out the melody with no unnecessary fanfare. Wayne Martin’s fiddle snakes along, catching every melodic twist and turn in these understated but exciting tunes. David Holt’s slide guitar on “John Henry” is the perfect foil for Baker’s direct banjo.

It is to the credit of the Music Maker Foundation that they sought to release this project and do so with such high production values. The consistency of the sound throughout the range of sessions that make up this recording is amazing. Although some tunes are repeated, the versions bring something different to the ear each time. “Love Somebody,” (commonly known as “Soldier’s Joy”) is an original take on an old evergreen. The last two cuts are from 1955 and feature Boone Reid playing clawhammer banjo.

At the start of the disc, we hear Etta Baker stating that she tries to capture what she heard her father and those before him play on the banjo. This is an important look backwards into banjo history by someone who grew up and lived in the tradition. We are richer for having this valuable project available. (Music Maker Relief Foundation, P.O. Box 1358, Hillborough, NC 27278, www.musicmaker.org.) RCB

Review: Josh Williams - Down Home

Josh Williams - Down Home

Josh Williams - Down Home

JOSH WILLIAMS
DOWN HOME
Pinecastle Records
PRC 1173

Where have you been Josh Williams? Nine years after his debut CD and six years after the second, finally comes release number three. And, Down Home proves to be worth the wait.

No, it’s not strictly a bluegrass recording. You know that from the cymbal splash behind the banjo kickoff in the opener, “Lonesome Feeling.” Drums continue through the track and on five others, as well. Pedal steel is used on three. Sometimes the result is straight country, as on the ode to the joys of an old picture album, “Kodak, 1955,” or as on the Carl Jackson penned title cut. Other times, the result is a country/bluegrass hybrid that adds a fresh twist to an old standard such as “Lonesome Feeling” or gives a bouyancy to Jimmy Martin’s “The Last Song” or to “Polka On The Banjo.” The best of these hybrids is “Streets Of Bakersfield.” Though it lacks a bit of the sauciness and energy of the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakam version, Williams nails the bitterness that is the heart of the song.

The rest of the recording (about half) is bluegrass. The first of these, “Blue Railroad Train,” is a nod to one of Williams’ heroes, Tony Rice, with Rice playing the lead guitar and Williams handling the vocals, even using a few Rice vocal inflections in tribute. Williams then lets fly a brilliant performance of “Cherokee Shuffle,” on which he plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo, all in an authoritative display of melody and variation. A few tracks later, Tom T. Hall’s “We’ll Burn That Bridge” crackles with life, getting a boost from Aaron McDaris on banjo and Darrin Vincent and Jamie Dailey on harmony vocals. It’s one of 12 great songs that bring us full circle to the opening question.

Where have you been Josh Williams? Honing his craft behind this vibrant recording—that’s where. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) BW

Review: Randy Kohrs - Quicksand

Randy Kohrs - Quicksand

Randy Kohrs - Quicksand

RANDY KOHRS
QUICKSAND
Rural Rhythm Records
RHY1052

As a resonator guitarist, Randy Kohrs isn’t the likeliest of bandleaders, but with passionate lead vocals matching his significant instrumental skills, Quicksand is evidence that Kohrs is comfortable at the helm.

An assertive break at the beginning of “Devil Of The Trail” kicks off the 13track/43minute disc and captures the adventurous nature of this disc. Most of the tunes feature percussion, which takes it out of the “strictly bluegrass” category, but tracks such as “Time And Time Again” (a high octane number with great instrumental teamwork between Kohrs and Aaron Ramsey on mandolin) are highly listenable. So are Webb Pierce’s honky tonk “It’s Been So Long,” the lyrical “Cumberland,” and the driving “More About John Henry” (a Tom T. Hall track with rock’n’roll-style backing vocals).

The percussion is more fitting on the more modern country sounding tracks; the alcohol soaked trilogy of “Die On The Vine,” “Quicksand,” and “This Must Be The Bottom,” the spooky guy in the woods ballad “The Ghost Of Jack McCline,” the nostalgic “Sunday Clothes,” and “Truman’s Vision” (a protest of eminent domain).

Kohrs’ performance and production win big when he takes the biggest risks, namely on the juke joint blues of “Down Around Clarksville” and the gospel shouter “If You Think It’s Hot Here.” Both feature Kohrs’ bluesy voice at its best, accented by sharp mandolin from Adam Steffey. They are truly stunning tracks that show what can happen when a bluegrass or acoustic artist is willing to step past the confines of the prevailing Nashville sound. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AKH

Review: The Watkins Family - Heaven's Worth Waiting For

The Watkins Family - Heaven's Worth Waiting For

The Watkins Family - Heaven's Worth Waiting For

THE WATKINS FAMILY
HEAVEN’S WORTH WAITING FOR
Watkins Family Music
No Number

Bluegrass, gospel, and country music blend together for this beautiful new collection of songs from the Watkins Family. With the loss of dearly departed patriarch, Don, the family faithfully moves forward with its ministry of music. Mother, Judy (vocals), and children, Todd (guitar, resonator guitar, and bass), Shanon (bass and fiddle), and Lorie (banjo, mandolin, and guitar), share their splendid harmonies in this 11-track mixture of ballad and up-tempo songs.

Nominated Best Contemporary and Traditional Bluegrass Gospel Group by SPBGMA, the Watkins Family is equally adept with hard-driving bluegrass as well as with the piano-laced number “To Know You More.” Familiar names in bluegrass circles, Stuart Duncan (fiddle, cello, and mandolin) and Bryan Sutton (guitar, mandolin, and banjo) are two of the musicians enlisted for the project. Dr. Jerry Falwell introduces “Sometimes You Gotta Rock The Boat” to the backdrop of stormy sound effects.

While the entire CD is a non-stop blessing of listening pleasure, thumbs up from me go to “She’s Working On Her Testimony” and “What Love Has Grown.” (Watkins Family, P.O. Box 294, Eastonlice, GA 30538, www.watkinsfamilymusic.com.) BC

Book Review: I Hear A Voice Calling - Gene Lowinger

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I Hear A Voice Calling: A Bluegrass Memoir - by Gene Lowinger

I HEAR A VOICE CALLING: A BLUEGRASS MEMOIR
BY GENE LOWINGER
University of Illinois Press 9780252076633.
Index, 144 pp., 75 b&w photos, $19.95. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL 61820, www.press.uillinois.edu.)

With I Hear A Voice Calling, Gene Lowinger becomes the first fiddler to share the challenges and excitement that came with being one of Bill Monroe’s elect, a Blue Grass Boy. Often introduced by Monroe as the “Jewish boy from New York City,” Gene worked with Bill for only six months, June 1965 through January 1966, before turning in his notice and leaving “an environment in which I felt isolated and alien.” Still, he counts Bill Monroe as his first mentor and clearly loves the man who “showed me that it is okay to dream.”

After leaving Nashville, Gene went back to New York where he studied violin, became an orchestra player, and wrote Bluegrass Fiddling, one of the earliest fiddle instruction books. When a freak accident (a dancer fell on him) made it impossible for him to play, he worked as a computer analyst for ten years before discovering photography. Almost inevitably, this passion led him to photograph Monroe who invited him on stage to play and then admonished him to “practice, shave, and get a haircut!” This fortunate event led Gene (healed from his deteriorating disc and pinched nerve) back to the fiddle and to the “epiphany” that became this book.

Photos of Monroe, most taken in 1993, constitute a major portion of this work. As a Blue Grass Boy, Gene was granted inside access and many of his shots capture the private and playful side of his former boss. There are also some 1960s pictures of Gene with his own band, the New York Ramblers, which included the amazing lineup of David Grisman, Jody Stecher, and Winnie Winston.

As Gene says, working for Bill Monroe was the “beginning of a spiritual journey that would lay out the path for the rest of my life.” He would find other mentors along the way, but what he learned from Monroe, “to be doggedly tenacious in pursuing my vision,” would stand him in good stead no matter what his quest.

Gene joins Bob Black and Butch Robins in providing glimpses into the rarefied world of the Blue Grass Boys. Like his fellow musicians, he too offers personal insights into the enigmatic personality of the man who hired them, the man who said, “I take you boys into the band with me to teach you how to play the music right.” I Hear A Voice Calling is a welcome addition to the growing list of bluegrass memoirs. MHH

Book Review: Hands In Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia - Tim Barnwell

Hands In Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia - by Tim Barnwell

Hands In Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia - by Tim Barnwell

HANDS IN HARMONY: TRADITIONAL CRAFTS AND MUSIC IN APPALACHIA
BY TIM BARNWELL
W.W. Norton & Co. 9780393068153.
Hardback, 188 pages, b&w photographs, $49.95. (W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110, www.wwnorton.com.)

Hands In Harmony, by photographer Tim Barnwell, has three elements: pictures, words, and music. Seventy nine black and white portraits depict artists—from old time musicians and singers to carvers and potters—who are dedicated to carrying on traditions passed down from previous generations. Next come oral histories gleaned from interviews the author conducted. A 22-track CD in the back cover contains some examples of their playing. Each section succeeds on its own, but I wish the pictures and words were better integrated. Why not put the stories right next to the pictures so we wouldn’t have to flip back and forth?

The portraits beautifully capture the characters of the people pictured. My favorites were Ralph Stanley with grandson Ralph III on this knee, Ralph II posing with his Washington Redskins pool table, and Kenny Baker with his fiddle and a hint of a smile. Some famous personalities (Bill Monroe, Doc Watson) are mixed in with lesser known folks (Obray Ramsey, Leesa Sutton).

The stories in the oral history section really let the personalities shine through. When available, a Web site is included so that you can get more information or, in some cases, actually make purchases. Your enjoyment of the accompanying CD will be directly proportional to your appreciation for oldtime music, but it’s a great introduction to these performers. The track listing gives personnel credits, but does not list the pages where you can find the matching picture and story, leaving the reader to search through the entire book to find them. CAH

Reviews - June 2010

HIGHLIGHT


Scott Napier - All Out Front

Scott Napier - All Out Front

SCOTT NAPIER
ALL OUT FRONT
No Label, No Number

If there’s a young mandolin player who deserves to be out front on today’s bluegrass scene, it’s Scott Napier. This southeastern Kentucky native has been an able sideman to such notables as Larry Sparks, Dale Ann Bradley, and Marty Raybon. Now comes his first solo CD, a swirl of tradition and innovation.

It’s a reviewer’s delight to encounter a musician who makes you put down your note-taking pencil and just listen. Scott Napier has the total package of technical virtuosity, great tone, good taste and just sheer fun with the mandolin. I was hooked from the first track, the bouncy and insinuating original instrumental “Blue Barn.” Another Napier tour de force is “Dash Hound” (check out those effortless triplets followed by shining harmonics and blazing-high position riffs).

Napier has recruited a stellar supporting cast—all of them truly out front—that makes this CD additionally appealing. Michael Cleveland fiddles on most of the tracks, and he’s at his best here; his playing both spirited and nuanced. Bobby Osborne contributes his instrumental “Cherokee Lady.” You can practically see him and Scott grinning, picker to picker, during their mandolin duets.

And there’s pleasing variety. One of the real keepers is a one-minute Napier solo “Intermission Blues” played on the resonator mandolin. He gets such a lonesome, compelling sound from the instrument that you wonder why it’s never caught on in bluegrass. Another original, “Young One,” shows that Napier and company can swing with jazzy, understated elegance. They also put their stamp on the Bill Monroe classic “Bluegrass Stomp.”

There are three vocal tracks, all noteworthy. Dale Ann Bradley beautifully interprets “Life’s Hourglass” (a touching original by Melinda Napier) with Don Rigsby adding harmony. Rigsby returns to sing a real home-in-the-hills lead on “Carbide Light,“ a Scott Napier composition that could pass as a century-old coal miner’s song. Marty Raybon is in equally fine form on the Rodney Crowell number “Long Hard Road.”

I don’t have space to praise all the other excellent musicians here, but special mention must be made of Clay Hess (flatpicking guitar) and Josh McMurray (banjo). They wonderfully compliment Napier’s mandolin stylings, and I hope we’ll hear more collaborations from them. Meanwhile, All Out Front should bring Scott Napier to a wider listenership. He’s earned it. (Scott Napier, P.O. Box 443, Clay City, KY 40312, myspace.com/scottnapiermandolin.) RDS


The Haints - Shout Monah

The Haints - Shout Monah

THE HAINTS
SHOUT MONAH
No Label, No Number

The Haints is an oldtime trio which came together in far western Canada in 2007. Erynn Marshall, fiddle, banjouke, and vocals, is from Victoria, B.C., but has steeped herself in West Virginia and Kentucky fiddling and has previous recordings both solo and with Chris Coole. She also wrote Music In The Air Somewhere, about fiddling and singing in West Virginia. She now resides in Galax, Va. Pharis Romero, guitar and vocals, is also from British Columbia. Jason Romero (banjo, guitar, banjouke, and vocals) was making a name for himself as a banjo player and maker in Arcata, Cal., when he met Pharis on a trip up north. All the banjos he plays on this recording were made by him. Daniel Lapp joins the band on bass on “Jake’s Got A Bellyache” from the Hammons Family of West Virginia and on harmony fiddle on “Life’s Fortune,” which is a waltz that Erynn wrote for Pharis’ and Jason’s wedding. All three are fine singers, and their voices blend well.

Erynn, who won first place in fiddle at the 2008 Appalachian Stringband Festival in West Virginia, is a fine talent who plays with power and control and always sounds relaxed. Jason is accomplished at both clawhammer and fingerpicking on the banjo.

The CD opens with a fine version of “Knoxville Rag” from the Kentucky duo Burnett and Rutherford. There are nine instrumentals and six songs on the recording. “Lowe Bonnie” is a Jason/Pharis duet from Jimmie Tarlton. Jason leads on banjo with a medley of “Devil’s Dream” from Mike Seeger and “Last Chance” from Hobart Smith and on “Baptist Shout,” performed in a lovely oldtime threefinger-style. Erynn solos on French Carpenter’s haunting “Old Christmas Morning.” She learned “Eadle Alley” from Melvin Wine. Pharis’ clear voice takes the lead on Charlie Poole’s “Milwaukee Blues,” on Land Norris’ “Charming Betsy,” on “When The Good Lord Sets You Free,” from the Carolina Tar Heels, and on Henry Thomas’ song “Bob McKinney.” “Tupelo Blues” comes from the dynamic Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers, and the Haints capture the driving tension in the tune just right. Fans of fiddle banjo duets will enjoy the medley of “Chattanooga” with “Hogs Walking Through the

Pasture” which is done tuned down to F.

Each of the 15 pieces is performed wonderfully, with obvious love and respect for the sources. Lovers of oldtime string band music need this recording in their collections. (Jason Romero, 3600 Telegraph Rd., Cobble Hill, BC, VOR 1L4, Canada, www.thehaints.com.) SAG

Albemarle Ramblers - Gentlemen From Virginia

Albemarle Ramblers - Gentlemen From Virginia

ALBEMARLE RAMBLERS
GENTLEMAN FROM VIRGINIA
Merriweather Records
No Number

Pete Vigour on fiddle and Dick Harrington on guitar are both from Virginia. Pete is known for the band Uncle Henry’s Favorites, among others. Dick recorded recently in Troublesome Creek. Arnie Naiman on banjo hails from Ontario where he plays in the band Ragged But Right.

They open with a medley of the West Virginia fiddle tune “Yew Piney Mountain” and Kentucky banjo player John Hammond’s song “My Mama Always Talked To Me” with Dick singing lead. Arnie leads on Uncle Dave Macon’s “From Earth To Heaven,” which features two banjos, Arnie on clawhammer, and Pete on twofinger-style. Two more are from Uncle Dave—“Way Down On The Old Plank Road” and “On The Dixie Bee Line.” Pete sings lead on “BlackEyed Susie.” The title cut is a fiddle tune from Tommy Hunter. There are two other cuts with no singing, a medley of an uncommon “Lady Of The Lake,” “Haning’s Farewell,” and “Falls Of Richmond,” and Arnie’s original “Walking The Dog.” “Wild Hog In The Woods” and “Lonesome Homesick Blues” are familiar songs done nicely here. “Glendy Burke” is a Stephen Foster song. “Home In That Rock” is an African-American hymn. “Reuben’s Train” was learned from fellow Virginian and ace fiddler, Mark Campbell.

The Albemarle Ramblers is a tight oldtime stringband with strong arrangements, impeccable playing and singing, and an interesting collection of songs and tunes. Their CD is enjoyable listening and comes highly-recommended. (Pete Vigour, 3131 Sugar Hill Ln., Crozet, VA 22932, www.albemarleramblers.com.) SAG

Benton Flippen & The Smokey Valley Boys - 270 Haystack Rd

Benton Flippen & The Smokey Valley Boys - 270 Haystack Rd

BENTON FLIPPEN & THE SMOKEY VALLEY BOYS
270 HAYSTACK RD
Music Maker Foundation
MMCD111

Benton Flippen is an institution in Surry County, N.C., and in the greater world of old-time music. He is a member in good standing of the true vine. Having fiddled for more than six decades and lived for nine, he was once a youngster in the membership of legendary Surry County fiddlers. Now he is the grand patriarch and, as such, is revered. There is little new here, but that is indeed the point.

The band is typical of a 1960s Surry County old-time band with two guitars, mandolin, banjo (either clawhammer or three-finger-style), all supporting the fiddle lead.That is the definition of an old-time band in those parts. Mr. Flippen still yields his surgical skills with the bow. His intonation is better than most and he’s able to drive a tune better than fiddlers half his age. The program includes twenty tested and true tunes. “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Logan County Blues,” “Cider” (a sweet fiddle/banjo duet), and “Sugar Hill” are all standards to the region. Flippen’s sure handedness on “Sunny Home In Dixie,” a real fiddle workout, sounds better than any version out there today.

The two guitars lay down a solid base for the band. The banjo shadows the fiddle, sliding with it and clucking the melodic highlights. Kevin Fore and Andy Edmonds share banjo duties. The mandolin, played by Wesley Clifton, grandson of the esteemed Vernon Clifton of the Camp Creek Boys, is strummed in a chunky rhythmic pattern unlike anything in bluegrass, just as his grandfather had done.

Andy Edmonds (on banjo) and Flippen flat out burn an old-time version of “Flop Eared Mule” with three-finger banjo and fiddle, backed by the band. If you are interested in old-time fiddling, old-time band sounds, or just great mountain music, don’t miss this release. It is amazing how good Benton Flippen is at nearly 90. (Music Maker Relief Foundation, 224 W Corbin St., Hillsborough, NC 27278, www.musicmakerstore.org.) RCB

Brand New Strings - No Strings Attached

Brand New Strings - No Strings Attached

BRAND NEW STRINGS
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
Rural Rhythm
RHY 1057

Brand New Strings is just that, a brand new group based in Tennessee. Guitarist/lead vocalist Randall Massengill, bassist Tim Tipton, and resonator guitarist Matt Leadbetter are former members of Blue Moon Rising. Mandolinist/lead vocalist Mike Ramsey and banjoist Stuart Wyrick came over from New Road.

As New Road was a gospel band and Blue Moon Rising had strong ties to that genre, gospel songs are prominent. Of thirteen songs, no less than six fall in that category. “High On A Hilltop” is the closest thing to a standard here and is arguably the best gospel song on the album. Giving it a close run is Ramsey’s “Caught Up,” a rollicking tune set in motion by his propulsive mandolin.

Among the secular tracks, a few deserve special mention. “Merry Go Round,” from songwriter Alan Johnston, has a decidedly McCouryesque feel, notably from Ramsey’s vocal delivery. “Rainy Nights And Memories” sounds like pure, shuffling George Jones, soaring lines and the clipped word “night” and all. Ramsey’s “First Date” rounds out the album with a melodic look at a man bent on marriage after one date. What’s striking with this song and with “Merry Go Round” and “Caught Up,” as well, is how instantly familiar the material sounds. It would not be surprising to see several of them on the charts.

Nor would it be surprising to see this album chart as a whole. Great songwriting, excellent song selection, and arrangement. Classic traditional lead vocals from Ramsey and Massengill. All that equals an impressive debut. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040 Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BW

Buddy Pendleton & Friends - Gems From A Master Fiddler

Buddy Pendleton & Friends - Gems From A Master Fiddler

BUDDY PENDLETON & FRIENDS
GEMS FROM A MASTER FIDDLER
Summer Sky Prod.
No Label, No Number

This is a regional all-star project honoring Patrick County, Va., fiddler Buddy Pendleton. Buddy can be seen at local fiddle contests walking around carrying his fiddle case, wearing a cowboy hat that makes him look a bit taller than he really is, and looking for a welcoming jam. Once that fiddle comes out of the case, you’re in for a treat. Here the music is much like a jam. Fifteen cuts featuring fiddle tunes, old bluegrass gems, and some old-time songs, sparkle with decisive picking and singing and, of course, fine fiddling. With the likes of Sammy Shelor, the impeccable Hershel Sizemore, Johnny and Jeanette Williams to name a few, gathering around the mics and spicing up the proceedings we get a joyous collection with many musical highlights.

Pendleton is a veteran of many bands including Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, the Greenbriar Boys, and bands that featured many of the artists here. His fiddling is known for its quicksilver fluidity. There is no letdown here. He glides through each break, often putting in more notes than one can imagine as on “Tennessee Waltz.” He tackles traditional tunes with ease and glides through Vassar Clements’ “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” His fills on the vocal cuts are spot on and his sweet take on old favorites such as “The Old Spinning Wheel In The Parlor” are textbook examples of notable fiddling.

The cast of singers and fellow pickers is large. Hershel Sizemore’s mandolin is a wonderful plus, as are the Williams’ fine vocals on lead and harmony throughout. There are too many musicians to name here, but their roles all add up to a great tribute to a great fiddler. It’s great to hear this collection of fine music and have the privilege to hear the great fiddling of this master fiddler in such a warm context. (Summer Sky Prod., 1017 Falls Ave., Madison, TN 37115, www.summerskyproductions.com.) RCB

The Chapmans - Grown Up (A Revisionist History)

The Chapmans - Grown Up (A Revisionist History)

THE CHAPMANS
GROWN UP (A REVISIONIST HISTORY)
Compass Records
7 4532 2

Here’s a nifty twist for a retrospective album. Rather than compile a greatest hits from their twenty years as a group, the Chapmans gathered in their studio in Missouri, chose favorites from their early recordings, and rerecorded them with new arrangements and new guests. Now, I’d like to be able to compare them song by song, but the truth is that I only have one recording of one of the songs included here, “El Cumbanchero.” Then I got to thinking about it and realized that if you already follow the Chapmans, you’ll probably buy this to see how they changed the songs, and if you don’t know the band, you’ll consider it based on reviews of the quality of the music at hand.

All but two of the thirteen songs were originally recorded between 1993 and 1997. The other two, “River Of Sorrow” and “I Wanna Be Loved Like That,” are new. “River Of Sorrow” is a traditional waltztime tune about floating on a river of tears after a lover’s departure. “I Wanna Be Loved Like That” demands that if it isn’t like it is in the movies, better to keep looking. Both are slow, lyrical, and of excellent quality.

In fact, “excellent quality” is a phrase you can apply to much of this recording. Of excellent quality in the way the arrangements and production present thick rich sound that fills speakers and room. Harmonies of excellent quality that only family groups can truly achieve. There are instrumental performances of excellent quality, and you’ll find tracks of excellent quality from almost start to finish, be it the medium country bounce of “Why Did You Lie,” Buck Owen’s hopeful “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” the rolling “Rolling Away On A Big Sternwheeler,” the mandolinguitar weeper “Mommy Please Stay Home With Me,” or Sam Cooke’s doowop “Bring It On Home To Me.”

So there it is, a fresh retrospective of excellent quality. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) BW

Dailey & Vincent - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers

Dailey & Vincent - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers

DAILEY & VINCENT
CRACKER BARREL OLD COUNTRY STORE PRESENTS: DAILEY & VINCENT SING THE STATLER BROTHERS
Rounder Records
11661-0640-2

Too often, “tribute” albums tend to be well intentioned, but tossed-off efforts lacking in the focus and innovation that gifted artists usually bring to new and original material. That’s certainly not the case with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers. Jamie Dailey and Darin Vincent are both devoted fans of the legendary Virginia-based country vocal quartet that dominated both the charts and country music awards throughout the 1970s and ’80s. D&V have also collaborated with the Statlers a time or two in the past and have developed a warm friendship.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the multi-award-winning, immensely talented duo breathes new fervor into this collection of 12 familiar and not so familiar Statler Brothers chart toppers with lovely, inventive harmonies and masterful bluegrass arrangements provided by the usual A-list of bluegrass pickers. Their inspired update of the Statlers’ signature song, “Flowers On The Wall” (a miniature slice of small-town Americana if there ever was one!) is a sheer delight. They also inject fresh immediacy into oldies like “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” and “Hello Mary Lou,” a bouncy tune that the Statlers re-popularized many moons ago.

Even a notch or two higher are D&V’s lovely vocal treatment of “Too Much On My Heart” and their poignant recasting of “Class Of ’57,” a song whose incisive commentary on lost dreams and waylaid ambitions rings as true today as ever. In short, Dailey & Vincent have done the Statlers proud, and then some. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BA

Deeper Shade Of Blue - Bluegrass To The Bone

Deeper Shade Of Blue - Bluegrass To The Bone

A DEEPER SHADE OF BLUE
BLUEGRASS TO THE BONE
To The Bone Records
No Number

Even though they’ve been playing since 1998 and have recorded four previous selfreleased recordings, A Deeper Shade Of Blue is probably an unfamiliar name. The band consists of guitarist Troy Pope, mandolinist Jason Fraley, banjoist Jimmy Fraley, resonator guitarist Frank Poindexter, and bassist Brian Hinson. Most of their gigs have been local to North and South Carolina, and until now, their recordings were not sent for review or airplay. Bluegrass To The Bone, therefore, is something of a debut.

For that debut, the band has chosen five covers of traditional bluegrass standards: “Sweetheart You’ve Done Me Wrong,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” “I’ll Stay Around,” “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” That may be a couple standards too many. “Sweetheart You’ve Done Me Wrong” with its high lonesome harmony, I would have kept, as I would also the wonderful “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” and the bluesy “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” That would have been enough. The other two, while done well enough, are not given any new feel and don’t add much.

Rounding out the 13 tracks are four lesserknown covers and four band originals, of which two are instrumentals. “Are You Thankful,” written by Pope and Poindexter, is the best of these. A threequarter time gospel tune, it weds a nice melody with a positive message. Close on its heels is a jaunty cover of “I Believe In The Old Time Way.”

Bluegrass To The Bone is a pleasant recording, wellexecuted both instrumentally (particularly the mandolin of Fraley and the reso-guitar of Poindexter) and vocally (Pope’s tenor range leads) and offers no less than five tracks that are on the very good level. (Frank Poindexter, 4319 Stack Rd., Monroe NC 28112, www.deepershadeofblue.com.) BW

Donal Baylor - Town And Country Fiddler

Donal Baylor - Town And Country Fiddler

DONAL BAYLOR
TOWN AND COUNTRY FIDDLER
No Label,
DB-01

In recent years, the IBMA has made an effort to reinforce the “International” part of the association’s name by reaching out to more artists overseas. There are vibrant, even if small, bluegrass scenes in places as diverse as the Czech Republic, Ireland, Japan, England, and even Brazil. On this new album by fiddler Donal Baylor, the bluegrass scene of Australia is featured front and center.

Baylor is a widely-respected fiddler in his native Australia where he’s played with Australian music veteran Slim Dusty, as well as American musician Mike Compton. On “Town And Country Fiddler,” he showcases his love of American bluegrass music with a little western swing thrown in the mix. When you listen to the first few songs on the CD, you’ll hear them played with a little bit of a different timing than what you hear in the U.S. I had this conversation with a musician friend from Canada last summer who pointed out that they play more up on their tippy toes, with a bounce to it, as opposed to American pickers who play (as she put it) “with their heel stomping in the dirt on the ‘one.’” Australians seem to have a similar beat as Canadians.

Baylor’s playing is very good with great double-stops and is backed by able musicians including a rare appearance by mandolin luthier Steve Gilchrist. Highlights include Baylor’s take on three Bill Monroe tunes, of whom he calls “the greatest composer of fiddle tunes ever.” The Monroe cuts are “Jekyll Island” and a couple that Monroe wrote, but never recorded, “Farewell To Long Hollow” and “My Father’s Footsteps.” Other standouts include a melancholy “Elzick’s Farewell” and a fired up “Kansas City Railroad Blues.” (Donal Baylor, 2 Adams Pl., Watson, ACT 2602, Australia, www.donalbaylor.com.) DH

Jim Lloyd And The Skyliners - Songs From My Attic

Jim Lloyd And The Skyliners - Songs From My Attic

JIM LLOYD AND THE SKYLINERS
SONGS FROM MY ATTIC
Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR-1008

Jim Lloyd is a banjo-picking barber from Rural Retreat, Va. Active in the old-time community of southwest Virginia, he and his band, the Skyliners, acquit themselves with aplomb on this outing of mostly novelty numbers and old country songs. The Skyliners are comprised of Mark Rose on bass and Trevor McKenzie plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Rose is a solid musician, his timing and note choice while walking through the project add a swinging underpinning to the project.

They open with “You Can’t Grow An Onion Upside Down,” a Tom T. and Dixie Hall number that is full of that great wit and common sense. McKenzie sings lead on a powerful rendition of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” accompanying himself with some effective banjo playing. Lloyd struts his own banjo chops on “Waiting For The Robert E. Lee,” one of two tributes to the late, great banjo player from Gray, Tenn., Will Keys. The other Keys cover, “Evergreen,” is a strong tribute to the man who showed us all that there is another way to play old-time banjo.

The interplay between the guitar and banjo in the arrangements catches the best of that old-time stringband sound. That interplay that would morph into bluegrass under the hand of Bill Monroe, reflecting more contemporary sounds but still retaining something of the past. Here, the past is held high and sounds great. The casting of the Harley Carpenter song (not traditional as per the liner notes), “Three Men On A Mountain,” in the mold of Dock Boggs, gives this song a new dimension making it sound much older than its thirty-odd years.

The combination of Lloyd and the Skyliners works well. This is a fine program by folks who just sit down, sing, and play with honesty.“Valentines’ Day” features some nice twin guitar on the break. The inclusion of Fats Waller’s “Feet’s Too Big” really shows off Rose’s bass playing and a side of Jim Lloyd that often gets overlooked by the light his personality casts. This is recommended to all fans of honest, no pretense, old-time music. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 412, Bristol, TN 37620.) RCB

Larry Stephenson - 20th Anniversary

Larry Stephenson - 20th Anniversary

LARRY STEPHENSON
20th ANNIVERSARY
Whysper Dream
WDM7425

Larry Stephenson earned his bones while playing with Bill Harrell and then with the Bluegrass Cardinals. Since 1989, Larry has headed up his own band. This new project is a twentyyear celebration of that career and with this Larry brings together twenty great artists, many of whom he has worked with over the years. As Larry states in the liner notes, “I’ve had 11 guitar players, 5 banjo players, 10 bass players, 3 fiddle players, and around 20 others who were fillins.” And, he appreciates and thanks them all for helping him along the way.

Larry has played all over the country, Canada, and has played many times on the Opry. He is also a 1992 inductee to the Virginia Country Music Hall Of Fame. The 13 songs on this CD feature Larry singing in duos or trios with such fellow artists as Ricky Skaggs, David Parmley, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Ronnie Reno, Sonny Osborne, Dudley Connell, and others.

The musicians on the project are too many to list here, but include folks from Jason Barie, Aubrey Haynie, and Del McCoury to Jamie Dailey, Ben Surratt, and Darin Vincent. Larry has been with Pinecastle Records for over fifteen of his twenty years and has been one of the labels most popular artists. This project is sure to be a hit with Larry’s fans, old and new. (Whysper Dream Music, 1937 Upper Station Camp Ck. Rd., Cottontown, TN 37048, www.larrystephensonband.com.) BF

Thomas Wywrot - Everytime I Walk This Road

Thomas Wywrot - Everytime I Walk This Road

THOMAS WYWROT
EVERY TIME I WALK THIS ROADD
Right Good Records
RGR- 0001

Thomas Wywrot is a guitarist, banjo picker, and singer from Ontario, Canada, who got the bluegrass bug at a young age. He played in a family band before heading south to become yet another successful alumnus of East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program. Wywrot then went on to play with the Boohers, Mark Newton, and Alecia Nugent before settling in with the Isaacs. On his new solo album, “Every Time I Walk This Road,” Wywrot’s guitar, banjo, and harmony singing talent is backed by a stellar cast of musicians who cohesively round out his musical vision.

On this album, Wywrot chooses to sing harmony while letting others take on the lead vocals. Alan Bartram steps up to sing lead on three songs while Daniel Salyer sings lead on six other cuts with Bartram’s vocals being the stronger of the two. While Salyer hits the notes just fine, his voice is more smooth than powerful and it helps that he is backed by good harmony singers like Wywrot, Bartram, Laura Keel, and Alecia Nugent. The best way to describe this album is it is a sum of its parts, a collection of original and traditional songs where all of the various pieces successfully come together to produce some fine contemporary bluegrass. And, there is a positivity about this album that flows from Wywrot that is refreshing.

Wywrot’s guitar playing is tasteful and sweet. Backing him up instrumentally on the album is Bartram, Jason and Jeremy Chapman, Jim VanCleve, Randy Kohrs, Jesse Stockman, and Ashby Frank. Highlights include three original Wywrot tunes including two new instrumentals, “Meat Eater” and “F.T.L.” Salyer brings two original songs to the plate and there are other tracks written by Carter Moore, Ben Winship, Kevin Welch, as well as Michael Martin Murphy’s “Carolina In The Pines.” (Thomas Wywrot, 604 Harpeth Pkwy. E., Nashville, TN 37221, www.thomaswywrot.com.)

Buddy Greene - A Few More Years

Buddy Greene - A Few More Years

BUDDY GREENE
A FEW MORE YEARS
Rufus Music Co.
RMCD195315

Singer/songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica maven Buddy Greene has worked with dozens of country, gospel and bluegrass names in and out of Nashville, but one of his most important relationships was with former employer and mentor Jerry Reed. After the recent deaths of Reed and of Greene’s father, Greene was inspired to make A Few More Years, a 14-track acoustic gospel record that clocks in at a generous 57 minutes.

With plenty of harmonica, piano, and Celtic instrumentation, there’s no bluegrass music here per se, but this list of great pickers make this project attractive to bluegrass fans: Jerry Douglas (resonator guitar), bassists Dennis Crouch and Byron House, Pat Flynn (guitar and mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Luke Bulla. Also, Vince Gill contributes harmonies to the sweeping, ancient-toned title track, while Ben and Sonya Isaacs sing on the gorgeous “Shall We Gather At The River.”

Greene’s engaging vocal style comes across well on “Twelve Gates To The City,” “Denomination Blues,” “How Can I Keep From Singing,” and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” He also turns in a tour de force on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” His originals “The God Who Rescued Me” and “In the New Jerusalem” fit right in, making this a heartfelt disc that will satisfy any fan of folk-tinged gospel music. (Buddy Greene, P.O. Box 3687, Brentwood, TN 37024, www.buddygreene.com.) AKH

Steve Smith, Chris Sanders And Hard Road - Signs Along The Road

Steve Smith, Chris Sanders And Hard Road - Signs Along The Road

STEVE SMITH, CHRIS SANDERS AND HARD ROAD
SIGNS ALONG THE ROAD
No Label
DN747

There have been changes for Steve Smith, Chris Sanders, and Hard Road. Their third release introduces a totally revamped lineup. Of the band from the first two releases, only fiddler Nate Lee makes an appearance and then on only two songs, including a fine slithering solo on the funky “Isabella.” In their places step a couple of star players and a couple of soontobe star players. Bill Evans, a protege of Smith’s from Cloud Valley, joins on banjo. On bass is Bill Amatneek, formerly with the David Grisman Quintet. Also here are champion fiddler Megan Lynch and upancoming guitarist Aaron McCloskey.

What has not changed is Smith’s and Sanders’ vision and their dedication to presenting a wide variety of musical styles offered in packages that often swirl and change and break free from the usual pattern of verse, chorus, solo, and which are liberally punctuated with rhythmic interjections and interesting chord colorings. Contemporary bluegrass, country, country rock, jazz, folk, and gospel—each gets its moment in the sun. “The Same For You” and Smith’s mandolin instrumental, “Jon Seivert’s Blues” are both straight bluegrass, perhaps even traditional bluegrass in feel. From there it gets further out, culminating in the jazzinflected instrumental “Mice On The Stove.”

Smith and Sanders also continue writing lyrics that bounce between introspective psychological examinations and concrete stories, exploring such subjects as talking about “All Things Left Behind,” breaking free “Link By Link” from shackles mental and physical, making a plea that the actions of the young were once “The Same For You,” and detailing the life of an abused woman who relies on the “Kindness Of Strangers.” These combined with more traditional love and loss themes offer quite an array of emotions. Signs Along The Road refuses any one label, except perhaps that of good, evocative music. (Hard Road, P.O. Box 7892, Las Cruces, NM 88006, www.desertnight.com.) BW

The Honey Dewdrops - If The Sun Will Shine

The Honey Dewdrops - If The Sun Will Shine

THE HONEY DEWDROPS
IF THE SUN WILL SHINE
No Label
No Number

The Honey Dewdrops is the duo of Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, and it’s hard to listen to them and not make comparisons to Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s earlier acoustic recordings. It’s not just the male/female/two guitars format, but the tone of their singing, the gently dark turns which their songs take, and the essences of bluegrass encapsulated in the instrumental breaks which strongly evoke Welch and Rawlings. Still, that’s not a bad influence to have, and repeated listening brings out the components that give this Virginiabased husband/wife duo their own sound.

By going with 11 original numbers, they’re able to stand on the solid foundation of their own musical vision. Their harmonies are sweet and moving, each of their voices standing on its own, but blending to good effect. Their bluegrass roots are a bit more upfront than most folk or oldtime duos, from songs such as “Wandering Boy” and the CD’s sole instrumental “1918” (featuring Parrish on mandolin) to the Tony Rice lick that pops up in “Without Tears.” “Stomping Ground” and “Bluest Blue Eyes” do come off as Welch/Rawlings outtakes, beautiful tracks if perhaps falling short of the timeless quality of the best of the latter’s music. But having one’s inspirations show is not necessarily a surprising thing for a debut recording, and the strong reliance on original material and a spare, live duet sound give ample hope that the Dewdrops will continue to build on their unique strengths. Their talent is such that it’s quite possible that a new band recording in the year 2020 might cite the Honey Dewdrops as a prime influence. (Honey Dewdrops, 7631 Fairview Farm, Scottsville, VA 24590, www.thehoneydewdrops.com.) HK

Laurie Lewis - Blossoms

Laurie Lewis - Blossoms

LAURIE LEWIS
BLOSSOMS
Spruce & Maple Music
SMM2005

If you’ve grown accustomed to the usual bouquet of beautiful bluegrass from Laurie Lewis, then you’ll certainly want to pick the fragrant new flower from her garden of music.

“Blossoms,” however, provides a different kind of offspring from the two-time IBMA Female Vocalist Of The Year. Cultivated for this 14-cut spray of tunes is a cross-pollination of genres from bluegrass, folk, and country. Unlike many CDs that kick off with a driving number, Lewis opts for the a cappella cut, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a tune she has loved since her teenage years when she heard Pete Seeger’s version. The singer/songwriter also showcases her wonderful writing muse on songs like “Chain Of Letter,” “Sirens,” and “Return To The Fire.” Tim O’Brien lends his vocal talents on “The Roughest Road,” a lovely song on the gift of forgiveness. She even solicits the help of Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Click and Clack from NPR’s Car Talk) for a spoken word part on her hip traffic-jammed inspired song “Cool Your Jets.”

Lewis showcases her fiddling chops on two instrumentals, “Sophie’s House” along with Suzy Thompson and the traditional tune, “Beaver Creek.” Bandmates—Craig Smith, Tom Rozum, Todd Phillips, and Scott Hoffman—joined her in the studio, as did a host of other musicians. Thumbs up on this mixed arrangement of songs. Long may they blossom in your CD player! (Spruce & Maple Music, P.O. Box 9417, Berkeley, CA 94709, www.spruceandmaplemusic.com.) BC

Review: Albemarle Ramblers - Gentleman From Virginia

Albemarle Ramblers - Gentlemen From Virginia

Albemarle Ramblers - Gentlemen From Virginia

ALBEMARLE RAMBLERS
GENTLEMAN FROM VIRGINIA
Merriweather Records
No Number

Pete Vigour on fiddle and Dick Harrington on guitar are both from Virginia. Pete is known for the band Uncle Henry’s Favorites, among others. Dick recorded recently in Troublesome Creek. Arnie Naiman on banjo hails from Ontario where he plays in the band Ragged But Right.

They open with a medley of the West Virginia fiddle tune “Yew Piney Mountain” and Kentucky banjo player John Hammond’s song “My Mama Always Talked To Me” with Dick singing lead. Arnie leads on Uncle Dave Macon’s “From Earth To Heaven,” which features two banjos, Arnie on clawhammer, and Pete on twofinger-style. Two more are from Uncle Dave—“Way Down On The Old Plank Road” and “On The Dixie Bee Line.” Pete sings lead on “BlackEyed Susie.” The title cut is a fiddle tune from Tommy Hunter. There are two other cuts with no singing, a medley of an uncommon “Lady Of The Lake,” “Haning’s Farewell,” and “Falls Of Richmond,” and Arnie’s original “Walking The Dog.” “Wild Hog In The Woods” and “Lonesome Homesick Blues” are familiar songs done nicely here. “Glendy Burke” is a Stephen Foster song. “Home In That Rock” is an AfricanAmerican hymn. “Reuben’s Train” was learned from fellow Virginian and ace fiddler, Mark Campbell.

The Albemarle Ramblers is a tight oldtime stringband with strong arrangements, impeccable playing and singing, and an interesting collection of songs and tunes. Their CD is enjoyable listening and comes highly-recommended. (Pete Vigour, 3131 Sugar Hill Ln., Crozet, VA 22932, www.albemarleramblers.com.) SAG

Review: Benton Flippen & The Smokey Valley Boys - 270 Haystack Road

Benton Flippen & The Smokey Valley Boys - 270 Haystack Rd

Benton Flippen & The Smokey Valley Boys - 270 Haystack Rd

BENTON FLIPPEN & THE SMOKEY VALLEY BOYS
270 HAYSTACK RD
Music Maker Foundation
MMCD111

Benton Flippen is an institution in Surry County, N.C., and in the greater world of old-time music. He is a member in good standing of the true vine. Having fiddled for more than six decades and lived for nine, he was once a youngster in the membership of legendary Surry County fiddlers. Now he is the grand patriarch and, as such, is revered. There is little new here, but that is indeed the point.

The band is typical of a 1960s Surry County old-time band with two guitars, mandolin, banjo (either clawhammer or three-finger-style), all supporting the fiddle lead.That is the definition of an old-time band in those parts. Mr. Flippen still yields his surgical skills with the bow. His intonation is better than most and he’s able to drive a tune better than fiddlers half his age. The program includes twenty tested and true tunes. “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Logan County Blues,” “Cider” (a sweet fiddle/banjo duet), and “Sugar Hill” are all standards to the region. Flippen’s sure handedness on “Sunny Home In Dixie,” a real fiddle workout, sounds better than any version out there today.

The two guitars lay down a solid base for the band. The banjo shadows the fiddle, sliding with it and clucking the melodic highlights. Kevin Fore and Andy Edmonds share banjo duties. The mandolin, played by Wesley Clifton, grandson of the esteemed Vernon Clifton of the Camp Creek Boys, is strummed in a chunky rhythmic pattern unlike anything in bluegrass, just as his grandfather had done.

Andy Edmonds (on banjo) and Flippen flat out burn an old-time version of “Flop Eared Mule” with three-finger banjo and fiddle, backed by the band. If you are interested in old-time fiddling, old-time band sounds, or just great mountain music, don’t miss this release. It is amazing how good Benton Flippen is at nearly 90. (Music Maker Relief Foundation, 224 W Corbin St., Hillsborough, NC 27278, www.musicmakerstore.org.) RCB

Review: Brand New Strings - No Strings Attached

Brand New Strings - No Strings Attached

Brand New Strings - No Strings Attached

BRAND NEW STRINGS
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
Rural Rhythm
RHY 1057

Brand New Strings is just that, a brand new group based in Tennessee. Guitarist/lead vocalist Randall Massengill, bassist Tim Tipton, and resonator guitarist Matt Leadbetter are former members of Blue Moon Rising. Mandolinist/lead vocalist Mike Ramsey and banjoist Stuart Wyrick came over from New Road.

As New Road was a gospel band and Blue Moon Rising had strong ties to that genre, gospel songs are prominent. Of thirteen songs, no less than six fall in that category. “High On A Hilltop” is the closest thing to a standard here and is arguably the best gospel song on the album. Giving it a close run is Ramsey’s “Caught Up,” a rollicking tune set in motion by his propulsive mandolin.

Among the secular tracks, a few deserve special mention. “Merry Go Round,” from songwriter Alan Johnston, has a decidedly McCouryesque feel, notably from Ramsey’s vocal delivery. “Rainy Nights And Memories” sounds like pure, shuffling George Jones, soaring lines and the clipped word “night” and all. Ramsey’s “First Date” rounds out the album with a melodic look at a man bent on marriage after one date. What’s striking with this song and with “Merry Go Round” and “Caught Up,” as well, is how instantly familiar the material sounds. It would not be surprising to see several of them on the charts.

Nor would it be surprising to see this album chart as a whole. Great songwriting, excellent song selection, and arrangement. Classic traditional lead vocals from Ramsey and Massengill. All that equals an impressive debut. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040 Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BW

Review: Buddy Pendleton & Friends - Gems From A Master Fiddler

Buddy Pendleton & Friends - Gems From A Master Fiddler

Buddy Pendleton & Friends - Gems From A Master Fiddler

BUDDY PENDLETON & FRIENDS
GEMS FROM A MASTER FIDDLER
Summer Sky Prod.
No Label, No Number

This is a regional all-star project honoring Patrick County, Va., fiddler Buddy Pendleton. Buddy can be seen at local fiddle contests walking around carrying his fiddle case, wearing a cowboy hat that makes him look a bit taller than he really is, and looking for a welcoming jam. Once that fiddle comes out of the case, you’re in for a treat. Here the music is much like a jam. Fifteen cuts featuring fiddle tunes, old bluegrass gems, and some old-time songs, sparkle with decisive picking and singing and, of course, fine fiddling. With the likes of Sammy Shelor, the impeccable Hershel Sizemore, Johnny and Jeanette Williams to name a few, gathering around the mics and spicing up the proceedings we get a joyous collection with many musical highlights.

Pendleton is a veteran of many bands including Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, the Greenbriar Boys, and bands that featured many of the artists here. His fiddling is known for its quicksilver fluidity. There is no letdown here. He glides through each break, often putting in more notes than one can imagine as on “Tennessee Waltz.” He tackles traditional tunes with ease and glides through Vassar Clements’ “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” His fills on the vocal cuts are spot on and his sweet take on old favorites such as “The Old Spinning Wheel In The Parlor” are textbook examples of notable fiddling.

The cast of singers and fellow pickers is large. Hershel Sizemore’s mandolin is a wonderful plus, as are the Williams’ fine vocals on lead and harmony throughout. There are too many musicians to name here, but their roles all add up to a great tribute to a great fiddler. It’s great to hear this collection of fine music and have the privilege to hear the great fiddling of this master fiddler in such a warm context. (Summer Sky Prod., 1017 Falls Ave., Madison, TN 37115, www.summerskyproductions.com.) RCB

Review: The Chapmans - Grown Up (A Revisionist History)

The Chapmans - Grown Up (A Revisionist History)

The Chapmans - Grown Up (A Revisionist History)

THE CHAPMANS
GROWN UP (A REVISIONIST HISTORY)
Compass Records
7 4532 2

Here’s a nifty twist for a retrospective album. Rather than compile a greatest hits from their twenty years as a group, the Chapmans gathered in their studio in Missouri, chose favorites from their early recordings, and rerecorded them with new arrangements and new guests. Now, I’d like to be able to compare them song by song, but the truth is that I only have one recording of one of the songs included here, “El Cumbanchero.” Then I got to thinking about it and realized that if you already follow the Chapmans, you’ll probably buy this to see how they changed the songs, and if you don’t know the band, you’ll consider it based on reviews of the quality of the music at hand.

All but two of the thirteen songs were originally recorded between 1993 and 1997. The other two, “River Of Sorrow” and “I Wanna Be Loved Like That,” are new. “River Of Sorrow” is a traditional waltztime tune about floating on a river of tears after a lover’s departure. “I Wanna Be Loved Like That” demands that if it isn’t like it is in the movies, better to keep looking. Both are slow, lyrical, and of excellent quality.

In fact, “excellent quality” is a phrase you can apply to much of this recording. Of excellent quality in the way the arrangements and production present thick rich sound that fills speakers and room. Harmonies of excellent quality that only family groups can truly achieve. There are instrumental performances of excellent quality, and you’ll find tracks of excellent quality from almost start to finish, be it the medium country bounce of “Why Did You Lie,” Buck Owen’s hopeful “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” the rolling “Rolling Away On A Big Sternwheeler,” the mandolinguitar weeper “Mommy Please Stay Home With Me,” or Sam Cooke’s doowop “Bring It On Home To Me.”

So there it is, a fresh retrospective of excellent quality. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) BW

Review: Dailey & Vincent - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers

Dailey & Vincent - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers

Dailey & Vincent - Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers

DAILEY & VINCENT
CRACKER BARREL OLD COUNTRY STORE PRESENTS: DAILEY & VINCENT SING THE STATLER BROTHERS
Rounder Records
11661-0640-2

Too often, “tribute” albums tend to be well intentioned, but tossed-off efforts lacking in the focus and innovation that gifted artists usually bring to new and original material. That’s certainly not the case with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers. Jamie Dailey and Darin Vincent are both devoted fans of the legendary Virginia-based country vocal quartet that dominated both the charts and country music awards throughout the 1970s and ’80s. D&V have also collaborated with the Statlers a time or two in the past and have developed a warm friendship.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the multi-award-winning, immensely talented duo breathes new fervor into this collection of 12 familiar and not so familiar Statler Brothers chart toppers with lovely, inventive harmonies and masterful bluegrass arrangements provided by the usual A-list of bluegrass pickers. Their inspired update of the Statlers’ signature song, “Flowers On The Wall” (a miniature slice of small-town Americana if there ever was one!) is a sheer delight. They also inject fresh immediacy into oldies like “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” and “Hello Mary Lou,” a bouncy tune that the Statlers re-popularized many moons ago.

Even a notch or two higher are D&V’s lovely vocal treatment of “Too Much On My Heart” and their poignant recasting of “Class Of ’57,” a song whose incisive commentary on lost dreams and waylaid ambitions rings as true today as ever. In short, Dailey & Vincent have done the Statlers proud, and then some. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BA

Review: A Deeper Shade Of Blue - Bluegrass To The Bone

Deeper Shade Of Blue - Bluegrass To The Bone

Deeper Shade Of Blue - Bluegrass To The Bone

A DEEPER SHADE OF BLUE
BLUEGRASS TO THE BONE
To The Bone Records
No Number

Even though they’ve been playing since 1998 and have recorded four previous selfreleased recordings, A Deeper Shade Of Blue is probably an unfamiliar name. The band consists of guitarist Troy Pope, mandolinist Jason Fraley, banjoist Jimmy Fraley, resonator guitarist Frank Poindexter, and bassist Brian Hinson. Most of their gigs have been local to North and South Carolina, and until now, their recordings were not sent for review or airplay. Bluegrass To The Bone, therefore, is something of a debut.

For that debut, the band has chosen five covers of traditional bluegrass standards: “Sweetheart You’ve Done Me Wrong,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” “I’ll Stay Around,” “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” That may be a couple standards too many. “Sweetheart You’ve Done Me Wrong” with its high lonesome harmony, I would have kept, as I would also the wonderful “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” and the bluesy “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” That would have been enough. The other two, while done well enough, are not given any new feel and don’t add much.

Rounding out the 13 tracks are four lesserknown covers and four band originals, of which two are instrumentals. “Are You Thankful,” written by Pope and Poindexter, is the best of these. A threequarter time gospel tune, it weds a nice melody with a positive message. Close on its heels is a jaunty cover of “I Believe In The Old Time Way.”

Bluegrass To The Bone is a pleasant recording, wellexecuted both instrumentally (particularly the mandolin of Fraley and the reso-guitar of Poindexter) and vocally (Pope’s tenor range leads) and offers no less than five tracks that are on the very good level. (Frank Poindexter, 4319 Stack Rd., Monroe NC 28112, www.deepershadeofblue.com.) BW

Review: Donal Baylor - Town And Country Fiddler

Donal Baylor - Town And Country Fiddler

Donal Baylor - Town And Country Fiddler

DONAL BAYLOR
TOWN AND COUNTRY FIDDLER
No Label,
DB-01

In recent years, the IBMA has made an effort to reinforce the “International” part of the association’s name by reaching out to more artists overseas. There are vibrant, even if small, bluegrass scenes in places as diverse as the Czech Republic, Ireland, Japan, England, and even Brazil. On this new album by fiddler Donal Baylor, the bluegrass scene of Australia is featured front and center.

Baylor is a widely-respected fiddler in his native Australia where he’s played with Australian music veteran Slim Dusty, as well as American musician Mike Compton. On “Town And Country Fiddler,” he showcases his love of American bluegrass music with a little western swing thrown in the mix. When you listen to the first few songs on the CD, you’ll hear them played with a little bit of a different timing than what you hear in the U.S. I had this conversation with a musician friend from Canada last summer who pointed out that they play more up on their tippy toes, with a bounce to it, as opposed to American pickers who play (as she put it) “with their heel stomping in the dirt on the ‘one.’” Australians seem to have a similar beat as Canadians.

Baylor’s playing is very good with great double-stops and is backed by able musicians including a rare appearance by mandolin luthier Steve Gilchrist. Highlights include Baylor’s take on three Bill Monroe tunes, of whom he calls “the greatest composer of fiddle tunes ever.” The Monroe cuts are “Jekyll Island” and a couple that Monroe wrote, but never recorded, “Farewell To Long Hollow” and “My Father’s Footsteps.” Other standouts include a melancholy “Elzick’s Farewell” and a fired up “Kansas City Railroad Blues.” (Donal Baylor, 2 Adams Pl., Watson, ACT 2602, Australia, www.donalbaylor.com.)DH

Review: Jim Lloyd And The Skyliners - Songs From My Attic

Jim Lloyd And The Skyliners - Songs From My Attic

Jim Lloyd And The Skyliners - Songs From My Attic

JIM LLOYD AND THE SKYLINERS
SONGS FROM MY ATTIC
Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR-1008

Jim Lloyd is a banjo-picking barber from Rural Retreat, Va. Active in the old-time community of southwest Virginia, he and his band, the Skyliners, acquit themselves with aplomb on this outing of mostly novelty numbers and old country songs. The Skyliners are comprised of Mark Rose on bass and Trevor McKenzie plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Rose is a solid musician, his timing and note choice while walking through the project add a swinging underpinning to the project.

They open with “You Can’t Grow An Onion Upside Down,” a Tom T. and Dixie Hall number that is full of that great wit and common sense. McKenzie sings lead on a powerful rendition of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” accompanying himself with some effective banjo playing. Lloyd struts his own banjo chops on “Waiting For The Robert E. Lee,” one of two tributes to the late, great banjo player from Gray, Tenn., Will Keys. The other Keys cover, “Evergreen,” is a strong tribute to the man who showed us all that there is another way to play old-time banjo.

The interplay between the guitar and banjo in the arrangements catches the best of that old-time stringband sound. That interplay that would morph into bluegrass under the hand of Bill Monroe, reflecting more contemporary sounds but still retaining something of the past. Here, the past is held high and sounds great. The casting of the Harley Carpenter song (not traditional as per the liner notes), “Three Men On A Mountain,” in the mold of Dock Boggs, gives this song a new dimension making it sound much older than its thirty-odd years.

The combination of Lloyd and the Skyliners works well. This is a fine program by folks who just sit down, sing, and play with honesty.“Valentines’ Day” features some nice twin guitar on the break. The inclusion of Fats Waller’s “Feet’s Too Big” really shows off Rose’s bass playing and a side of Jim Lloyd that often gets overlooked by the light his personality casts. This is recommended to all fans of honest, no pretense, old-time music. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 412, Bristol, TN 37620.) RCB

Review: Larry Stephenson - 20th Anniversary

Larry Stephenson - 20th Anniversary

Larry Stephenson - 20th Anniversary

LARRY STEPHENSON
20th ANNIVERSARY
Whysper Dream
WDM7425

Larry Stephenson earned his bones while playing with Bill Harrell and then with the Bluegrass Cardinals. Since 1989, Larry has headed up his own band. This new project is a twentyyear celebration of that career and with this Larry brings together twenty great artists, many of whom he has worked with over the years. As Larry states in the liner notes, “I’ve had 11 guitar players, 5 banjo players, 10 bass players, 3 fiddle players, and around 20 others who were fillins.” And, he appreciates and thanks them all for helping him along the way.

Larry has played all over the country, Canada, and has played many times on the Opry. He is also a 1992 inductee to the Virginia Country Music Hall Of Fame. The 13 songs on this CD feature Larry singing in duos or trios with such fellow artists as Ricky Skaggs, David Parmley, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Ronnie Reno, Sonny Osborne, Dudley Connell, and others.

The musicians on the project are too many to list here, but include folks from Jason Barie, Aubrey Haynie, and Del McCoury to Jamie Dailey, Ben Surratt, and Darin Vincent. Larry has been with Pinecastle Records for over fifteen of his twenty years and has been one of the labels most popular artists. This project is sure to be a hit with Larry’s fans, old and new. (Whysper Dream Music, 1937 Upper Station Camp Ck. Rd., Cottontown, TN 37048, www.larrystephensonband.com.) BF

Review: Thomas Wywrot - Every Time I Walk This Road

Thomas Wywrot - Everytime I Walk This Road

Thomas Wywrot - Everytime I Walk This Road

THOMAS WYWROT
EVERY TIME I WALK THIS ROADD
Right Good Records
RGR- 0001

Thomas Wywrot is a guitarist, banjo picker, and singer from Ontario, Canada, who got the bluegrass bug at a young age. He played in a family band before heading south to become yet another successful alumnus of East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program. Wywrot then went on to play with the Boohers, Mark Newton, and Alecia Nugent before settling in with the Isaacs. On his new solo album, “Every Time I Walk This Road,” Wywrot’s guitar, banjo, and harmony singing talent is backed by a stellar cast of musicians who cohesively round out his musical vision.

On this album, Wywrot chooses to sing harmony while letting others take on the lead vocals. Alan Bartram steps up to sing lead on three songs while Daniel Salyer sings lead on six other cuts with Bartram’s vocals being the stronger of the two. While Salyer hits the notes just fine, his voice is more smooth than powerful and it helps that he is backed by good harmony singers like Wywrot, Bartram, Laura Keel, and Alecia Nugent. The best way to describe this album is it is a sum of its parts, a collection of original and traditional songs where all of the various pieces successfully come together to produce some fine contemporary bluegrass. And, there is a positivity about this album that flows from Wywrot that is refreshing.

Wywrot’s guitar playing is tasteful and sweet. Backing him up instrumentally on the album is Bartram, Jason and Jeremy Chapman, Jim VanCleve, Randy Kohrs, Jesse Stockman, and Ashby Frank. Highlights include three original Wywrot tunes including two new instrumentals, “Meat Eater” and “F.T.L.” Salyer brings two original songs to the plate and there are other tracks written by Carter Moore, Ben Winship, Kevin Welch, as well as Michael Martin Murphy’s “Carolina In The Pines.” (Thomas Wywrot, 604 Harpeth Pkwy. E., Nashville, TN 37221, www.thomaswywrot.com.)

Review: Buddy Greene - A Few More Years

Buddy Greene - A Few More Years

Buddy Greene - A Few More Years

BUDDY GREENE
A FEW MORE YEARS
Rufus Music Co.
RMCD195315

Singer/songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica maven Buddy Greene has worked with dozens of country, gospel and bluegrass names in and out of Nashville, but one of his most important relationships was with former employer and mentor Jerry Reed. After the recent deaths of Reed and of Greene’s father, Greene was inspired to make A Few More Years, a 14-track acoustic gospel record that clocks in at a generous 57 minutes.

With plenty of harmonica, piano, and Celtic instrumentation, there’s no bluegrass music here per se, but this list of great pickers make this project attractive to bluegrass fans: Jerry Douglas (resonator guitar), bassists Dennis Crouch and Byron House, Pat Flynn (guitar and mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Luke Bulla. Also, Vince Gill contributes harmonies to the sweeping, ancient-toned title track, while Ben and Sonya Isaacs sing on the gorgeous “Shall We Gather At The River.”

Greene’s engaging vocal style comes across well on “Twelve Gates To The City,” “Denomination Blues,” “How Can I Keep From Singing,” and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” He also turns in a tour de force on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” His originals “The God Who Rescued Me” and “In the New Jerusalem” fit right in, making this a heartfelt disc that will satisfy any fan of folk-tinged gospel music. (Buddy Greene, P.O. Box 3687, Brentwood, TN 37024, www.buddygreene.com.) AKH

Review: Steve Smith, Chris Sanders And Hard Road - Signs Along The Road

Steve Smith, Chris Sanders And Hard Road - Signs Along The Road

Steve Smith, Chris Sanders And Hard Road - Signs Along The Road

STEVE SMITH, CHRIS SANDERS AND HARD ROAD
SIGNS ALONG THE ROAD
No Label
DN747

There have been changes for Steve Smith, Chris Sanders, and Hard Road. Their third release introduces a totally revamped lineup. Of the band from the first two releases, only fiddler Nate Lee makes an appearance and then on only two songs, including a fine slithering solo on the funky “Isabella.” In their places step a couple of star players and a couple of soontobe star players. Bill Evans, a protege of Smith’s from Cloud Valley, joins on banjo. On bass is Bill Amatneek, formerly with the David Grisman Quintet. Also here are champion fiddler Megan Lynch and upancoming guitarist Aaron McCloskey.

What has not changed is Smith’s and Sanders’ vision and their dedication to presenting a wide variety of musical styles offered in packages that often swirl and change and break free from the usual pattern of verse, chorus, solo, and which are liberally punctuated with rhythmic interjections and interesting chord colorings. Contemporary bluegrass, country, country rock, jazz, folk, and gospel—each gets its moment in the sun. “The Same For You” and Smith’s mandolin instrumental, “Jon Seivert’s Blues” are both straight bluegrass, perhaps even traditional bluegrass in feel. From there it gets further out, culminating in the jazzinflected instrumental “Mice On The Stove.”

Smith and Sanders also continue writing lyrics that bounce between introspective psychological examinations and concrete stories, exploring such subjects as talking about “All Things Left Behind,” breaking free “Link By Link” from shackles mental and physical, making a plea that the actions of the young were once “The Same For You,” and detailing the life of an abused woman who relies on the “Kindness Of Strangers.” These combined with more traditional love and loss themes offer quite an array of emotions. Signs Along The Road refuses any one label, except perhaps that of good, evocative music. (Hard Road, P.O. Box 7892, Las Cruces, NM 88006, www.desertnight.com.) BW

Review: The Honey Dewdrops - If The Sun Will Shine

The Honey Dewdrops - If The Sun Will Shine

The Honey Dewdrops - If The Sun Will Shine

THE HONEY DEWDROPS
IF THE SUN WILL SHINE
No Label
No Number

The Honey Dewdrops is the duo of Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, and it’s hard to listen to them and not make comparisons to Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s earlier acoustic recordings. It’s not just the male/female/two guitars format, but the tone of their singing, the gently dark turns which their songs take, and the essences of bluegrass encapsulated in the instrumental breaks which strongly evoke Welch and Rawlings. Still, that’s not a bad influence to have, and repeated listening brings out the components that give this Virginiabased husband/wife duo their own sound.

By going with 11 original numbers, they’re able to stand on the solid foundation of their own musical vision. Their harmonies are sweet and moving, each of their voices standing on its own, but blending to good effect. Their bluegrass roots are a bit more upfront than most folk or oldtime duos, from songs such as “Wandering Boy” and the CD’s sole instrumental “1918” (featuring Parrish on mandolin) to the Tony Rice lick that pops up in “Without Tears.” “Stomping Ground” and “Bluest Blue Eyes” do come off as Welch/Rawlings outtakes, beautiful tracks if perhaps falling short of the timeless quality of the best of the latter’s music. But having one’s inspirations show is not necessarily a surprising thing for a debut recording, and the strong reliance on original material and a spare, live duet sound give ample hope that the Dewdrops will continue to build on their unique strengths. Their talent is such that it’s quite possible that a new band recording in the year 2020 might cite the Honey Dewdrops as a prime influence. (Honey Dewdrops, 7631 Fairview Farm, Scottsville, VA 24590, www.thehoneydewdrops.com.) HK

Review: Laurie Lewis - Blossoms

Laurie Lewis - Blossoms

Laurie Lewis - Blossoms

LAURIE LEWIS
BLOSSOMS
Spruce & Maple Music
SMM2005

If you’ve grown accustomed to the usual bouquet of beautiful bluegrass from Laurie Lewis, then you’ll certainly want to pick the fragrant new flower from her garden of music.

“Blossoms,” however, provides a different kind of offspring from the two-time IBMA Female Vocalist Of The Year. Cultivated for this 14-cut spray of tunes is a cross-pollination of genres from bluegrass, folk, and country. Unlike many CDs that kick off with a driving number, Lewis opts for the a cappella cut, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a tune she has loved since her teenage years when she heard Pete Seeger’s version. The singer/songwriter also showcases her wonderful writing muse on songs like “Chain Of Letter,” “Sirens,” and “Return To The Fire.” Tim O’Brien lends his vocal talents on “The Roughest Road,” a lovely song on the gift of forgiveness. She even solicits the help of Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Click and Clack from NPR’s Car Talk) for a spoken word part on her hip traffic-jammed inspired song “Cool Your Jets.”

Lewis showcases her fiddling chops on two instrumentals, “Sophie’s House” along with Suzy Thompson and the traditional tune, “Beaver Creek.” Bandmates—Craig Smith, Tom Rozum, Todd Phillips, and Scott Hoffman—joined her in the studio, as did a host of other musicians. Thumbs up on this mixed arrangement of songs. Long may they blossom in your CD player! (Spruce & Maple Music, P.O. Box 9417, Berkeley, CA 94709, www.spruceandmaplemusic.com.) BC

Review: Scott Napier - All Out Front

HIGHLIGHT


Scott Napier - All Out Front

Scott Napier - All Out Front

SCOTT NAPIER
ALL OUT FRONT
No Label, No Number

If there’s a young mandolin player who deserves to be out front on today’s bluegrass scene, it’s Scott Napier. This southeastern Kentucky native has been an able sideman to such notables as Larry Sparks, Dale Ann Bradley, and Marty Raybon. Now comes his first solo CD, a swirl of tradition and innovation.

It’s a reviewer’s delight to encounter a musician who makes you put down your note-taking pencil and just listen. Scott Napier has the total package of technical virtuosity, great tone, good taste and just sheer fun with the mandolin. I was hooked from the first track, the bouncy and insinuating original instrumental “Blue Barn.” Another Napier tour de force is “Dash Hound” (check out those effortless triplets followed by shining harmonics and blazing-high position riffs).

Napier has recruited a stellar supporting cast—all of them truly out front—that makes this CD additionally appealing. Michael Cleveland fiddles on most of the tracks, and he’s at his best here; his playing both spirited and nuanced. Bobby Osborne contributes his instrumental “Cherokee Lady.” You can practically see him and Scott grinning, picker to picker, during their mandolin duets.

And there’s pleasing variety. One of the real keepers is a one-minute Napier solo “Intermission Blues” played on the resonator mandolin. He gets such a lonesome, compelling sound from the instrument that you wonder why it’s never caught on in bluegrass. Another original, “Young One,” shows that Napier and company can swing with jazzy, understated elegance. They also put their stamp on the Bill Monroe classic “Bluegrass Stomp.”

There are three vocal tracks, all noteworthy. Dale Ann Bradley beautifully interprets “Life’s Hourglass” (a touching original by Melinda Napier) with Don Rigsby adding harmony. Rigsby returns to sing a real home-in-the-hills lead on “Carbide Light,“ a Scott Napier composition that could pass as a century-old coal miner’s song. Marty Raybon is in equally fine form on the Rodney Crowell number “Long Hard Road.”

I don’t have space to praise all the other excellent musicians here, but special mention must be made of Clay Hess (flatpicking guitar) and Josh McMurray (banjo). They wonderfully compliment Napier’s mandolin stylings, and I hope we’ll hear more collaborations from them. Meanwhile, All Out Front should bring Scott Napier to a wider listenership. He’s earned it. (Scott Napier, P.O. Box 443, Clay City, KY 40312, myspace.com/scottnapiermandolin.) RDS

Review: The Haints - Shout Monah

HIGHLIGHT


The Haints - Shout Monah

The Haints - Shout Monah

THE HAINTS
SHOUT MONAH
No Label, No Number

The Haints is an oldtime trio which came together in far western Canada in 2007. Erynn Marshall, fiddle, banjouke, and vocals, is from Victoria, B.C., but has steeped herself in West Virginia and Kentucky fiddling and has previous recordings both solo and with Chris Coole. She also wrote Music In The Air Somewhere, about fiddling and singing in West Virginia. She now resides in Galax, Va. Pharis Romero, guitar and vocals, is also from British Columbia. Jason Romero (banjo, guitar, banjouke, and vocals) was making a name for himself as a banjo player and maker in Arcata, Cal., when he met Pharis on a trip up north. All the banjos he plays on this recording were made by him. Daniel Lapp joins the band on bass on “Jake’s Got A Bellyache” from the Hammons Family of West Virginia and on harmony fiddle on “Life’s Fortune,” which is a waltz that Erynn wrote for Pharis’ and Jason’s wedding. All three are fine singers, and their voices blend well.

Erynn, who won first place in fiddle at the 2008 Appalachian Stringband Festival in West Virginia, is a fine talent who plays with power and control and always sounds relaxed. Jason is accomplished at both clawhammer and fingerpicking on the banjo.

The CD opens with a fine version of “Knoxville Rag” from the Kentucky duo Burnett and Rutherford. There are nine instrumentals and six songs on the recording. “Lowe Bonnie” is a Jason/Pharis duet from Jimmie Tarlton. Jason leads on banjo with a medley of “Devil’s Dream” from Mike Seeger and “Last Chance” from Hobart Smith and on “Baptist Shout,” performed in a lovely oldtime threefinger-style. Erynn solos on French Carpenter’s haunting “Old Christmas Morning.” She learned “Eadle Alley” from Melvin Wine. Pharis’ clear voice takes the lead on Charlie Poole’s “Milwaukee Blues,” on Land Norris’ “Charming Betsy,” on “When The Good Lord Sets You Free,” from the Carolina Tar Heels, and on Henry Thomas’ song “Bob McKinney.” “Tupelo Blues” comes from the dynamic Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers, and the Haints capture the driving tension in the tune just right. Fans of fiddle banjo duets will enjoy the medley of “Chattanooga” with “Hogs Walking Through the

Pasture” which is done tuned down to F.

Each of the 15 pieces is performed wonderfully, with obvious love and respect for the sources. Lovers of oldtime string band music need this recording in their collections. (Jason Romero, 3600 Telegraph Rd., Cobble Hill, BC, VOR 1L4, Canada, www.thehaints.com.) SAG

Reviews - July 2010

HIGHLIGHT


The Cana Ramblers - No Expectations

The Cana Ramblers - No Expectations

The Cana Ramblers
No Expectations
Cana Mania Records CR09

The Cana Ramblers, from the music-rich North Carolina/Virginia border, feature songwriter Philip Jones, his three talented kids (ages 17 to 23), and Rick Allred, best known as a member of the Country Gentlemen and Summer Wages during the late 1970s and early 1980s. No Expectations, their first album in five years, demonstrates a mature, diverse unit that has packaged the best of ’70s-style bluegrass for the twenty-first century.

The ’70s were when today’s bluegrass world started to take shape, as the bluegrass festivals, publications, and labels that emerged during the ’60s matured. The Woodstock-influenced festivals of the era morphed into the family-style bluegrass festivals of today. Iconic bands—the Seldom Scene, J.D. Crowe & the New South, Johnson Mountain Boys, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver—emerged while the stars of the first generation were entering their fifties.

The Cana Ramblers capture the experimental variety of that era on No Expectations. Just look at the title track: a cover of the New Deal String Band’s cover of a Rolling Stones song, but with innovation in the form of a female lead vocal from Ashley Jones. Turning pop music into bluegrass was a sign of those times just as much as revisiting the classics of bluegrass and country. From the latter, we get “Will You Be Loving Another Man,” “California Cottonfields,” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” Laurie Leigh Jones’ operatic powerhouse of a voice drives “Luxury Liner,” a perfect example of the borrowing from contemporary music that was happening during the ’70s.

That time also brought a rebirth of bluegrass songwriting as folks began to self-identify as such. Philip, who handles rhythm guitar, began writing songs then and composed five of the 16 on this release. His work ranges from a silly love song about materialism in “Things, Things, Things” to the emotionally charged “The Farm.” Laura Leigh provided the lead-off cut, “Heartaches And Teardrops,” while lead guitarist Will Jones composed “Cash’s Last Ride” when he was only 12 years old, after playing on the great man’s last show at the Carter Fold.

The Cana Ramblers deliver a full package of youth and experience, strong picking, well-arranged harmonies, diverse material that’s new and familiar, and four lead singers. Throughout the album, the band provides both the youthful exuberance and the certain lightness-of-being that marked the 1970s—all reinterpreted and updated for today. (Cana Mania Records, 1046 Brushy Fork Rd., Cana, VA 24317, www.canaramblers.com.) AM

Canucky Bluegrass Boys - Standin' Up

Canucky Bluegrass Boys - Standin' Up

Canucky Bluegrass Boys
Standin’ Up

The Canucky Bluegrass Boys are a high-energy band from western Ontario strongly influenced by contemporary southern bluegrass. Formerly known as Grassbackwardz, the five-person Anglophone-First Nations ensemble has evolved from a jam session band into a recording unit that successfully projects the joy they find in playing bluegrass together. Fiddler Don Reed (who’s worked with Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam) and R.J. Nelson (formerly of Lily Creek) on banjo have lifted the three original members to a new level of confidence and competence.

Standin’ Up appropriately offers a wide range of songs from “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” first recorded by African-American string band the Mississippi Sheiks, all the way to Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” arguably the “Rocky Top” of Americana music. The group also covers the Seldom Scene version of “I Know You Rider” as if it were their own, while proving knowledgeable enough to unearth Lynwood Lunsford’s “Molly Rose” and “Leavin,” an early hit for James King. Upright bass player Matt Naveau provides the original composition and title track “Standin’ Up.”

Standin’ Up offers ample evidence as to why the Canucky Bluegrass Boys captured both Most Promising Group and Best Vocal Group at the 2009 Central Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards. While other bands may provide greater depth and subtly, few ensembles strike a better balance between professional skills and communicating the simple joy of playing music together than this group. (Lee Roy, 297 Mountain St. Apt. 3, Sudbury, ON P3B 2T8, Canada, www.canuckybluegrass.com.) AM

David Grindstaff - Here And Now

David Grindstaff - Here And Now

David Grindstaff
Here And Now
No Label
No Number

A graduate of East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program, David Grindstaff plays bass and mandolin. Listeners won’t hear much of either of those talents on his debut recording. His contributions are held to bass on one track and mandolin on two.

What is heard from Grindstaff is his considerable, albeit developing, talent as a singer. He sings lead on all tracks and does so in a warm and mildly resonant lower mid-range that is lyrical and comfortable with a touch of contemporary stylings. His is not an overpowering voice, nor is it one that offers much in the way of bluesy quality, but it does convey quite well the sense and emotion of the song he is singing, be it the wisdom of “The Tinker Man,” the hutzpah of a bootlegger for whom they’ll “Jack Up The Jail,” or the resolve of the soldier who knows “Either Way I’m Going Home.” Of the 12 songs, only two (“Lost And I’ll Never Find The Way” and “The Man In The Middle”) are standards. The remaining ten come from a variety of writers. The tracks offering the best mix of emotion and energy are those already mentioned. “Jack Up The Jail,” with its blistering tempo and bravado lyrics, sounds readymade for the charts.

Backing Grindstaff’s debut are Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford, Hunter Berry, Jim VanCleve, resonator guitarist Josh Swift, banjoists Will Parsons and Haley Stiltner, guitarists Colby Laney and David Yates and bassists David Babb and Andy Blevins. (David Grindstaff, 1433 N. Main St., Marion NC 28752, grindstaff5@charter.net.) BW

Lilly Drumeva - Lovin' You

Lilly Drumeva - Lovin' You

Lilly Drumeva
Lovin’ You
No Label
No Number

Lilly Drumeva divides her latest recording into two segments. The larger segment she recorded in Prague with Monogram, a Czech bluegrass band featuring guitarists/vocalist Jakub Racek, mandolinist Zdenek Jahoda, banjoist Jarda Jahoda, and bassist Pavel Lzicar. The nine songs they record together are predominantly covers of well-known bluegrass tunes. Four of them—“Molly And Tenbrooks,” “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’,” and “I Am A Pilgrim”—are standards. Of them, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” stands out, partially transformed from its usual stomp into something of a wistful lament. The nonstandards are “Nellie Cain,” “If I Needed You,” Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” and Jimmy Newman’s “Cry, Cry Darling.” Drumeva’s original “Turn Away,” a lively tune about leaving England’s rain and wind for the sun and blue skies of the Balkans, rounds out the Prague sessions. All are enjoyable and well-played, though the arrangements, particularly of the standards, are just that—standard.

The smaller Bulgarian segment of the tunes finds Drumeva backed by her regular band, Lilly Of The West, a group currently consisting of guitarist Yasen Vasilev, fiddler Ivan Penchev, bassist Svoboda Bozduganova, and percussionist Borislav Bojadjiev. With these six tracks, the interest comes up a notch. Here, the material is more outside the norm, with only the lush, moody “Tennessee Waltz” having even a remote tie to bluegrass. Instead, there’s a cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ragtime “Lovin’ You,” two intriguing Bulgarian folk tunes (in interesting time signatures) about freedom fighters, a swing treatment of one of Jimmie Rodgers’ lesser heard tunes,“When The Cactus Is In Bloom,” and a straight jazz performance of “Pennies From Heaven.”

Putting the two segments together, Lovin’ You rises above average on the strengths of good singing, good instrumental work, and the interesting material found in the Bulgarian segment. (Lilly Drumeva, Marin Drinov 25/3, Sofia 1504, Bulgaria, www.lilydrumeva.net. ) BW

ON THE EDGE

Red Molly - James

Red Molly - James

Red Molly
James
No Label
No Number

The ladies of Red Molly are extremely talented. Laurie MacAllister (banjo and guitar), Abbie Gardner (resonator guitar, lap steel, and guitar), and Carolann Solebello (guitar) meld together perfectly in beautiful three-part harmonies again on their fourth CD, James.

From the fun and playful to the dark and serious, this 13-track disc covers a lot of ground. Self-produced, the talented trio takes turns on lead vocals throughout. Gardner’s songwriting ability speaks for itself on two cuts, “Jezebel” and “Troubled Mind,” but the ladies also selected songs from well-known writers such as Darrell Scott (“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”), Steve Goodman (“Lookin’ For Trouble”), Nanci Griffith (“Gulf Coast Highway”), and Texas-swing man Bob Wills (“The End Of The Line”). Jake Armerding adds his fiddle and mandolin skills while Mike Weatherly lays down the solid groove on bass and Herb Gardner jams on piano. For the first time, the trio brought a percussionist (Ben Wittman) into the studio.

Red Molly may have tweaked a few things in the studio, but the group doesn’t stray too far from its signature sound. The incredible sibling-like harmonies make this CD a must have for your collection. (Red Molly, 372 7th St. #2, Jersey City, NY 07302, www.redmolly.com.) BC

Hammer & String - The Girl Who Broke My Heart

Hammer & String - The Girl Who Broke My Heart

Hammer & String
The Girl Who Broke My Heart
5-String Productions

Imagine an old-time band with fiddle, banjo, and piano. It’s not hard, as this lineup has existed for decades at different times. Not your typical southern lineup, but one that might have been found in many parts of the country. Old-time music, after all, is not the private domain of the South; it exists in all parts of the country with different traits. This band features Rhys Jones, one of the best of young fiddlers from the Midwest, backed by Joel Wennerstrom on banjo and Cleek Schery on piano and fiddle (on one cut).

Schery’s piano stretches the harmonic settings of the tunes, but stretching out the chords and making use of chord voicings is often used by Celtic bands to add harmonic interest and add drive to the tune. Jones’s fiddle drives straight ahead, full of interesting variations and understated improvisation. The band manages to keep a simple tune like “Citigo” going for much longer than one might think and keeps it interesting for the attentive listener. Wennerstrom’s banjo shadows the fiddle and keeps things percolating along.

As seems is a trend these days, there are no liner notes, so when listening to “Old Man In The Meeting House” one cannot gather if it’s another name for “Glory In The Meeting House” or a very close relative to that tune. The range and order of tunes allows for varied listening even with the format of an all-fiddle-tune recording. This is not truly old-time in the southern sense. It sounds like contra dance music, a dance form similar to square dancing. You could just call it old-time with a few curves thrown in. (Joel Wennerstrom, 205 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205.) RCB

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester - Acoustic Vision: Blockade  Runner

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester - Acoustic Vision: Blockade Runner

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester
Acoustic Vision: Blockade Runner
Bangtown Records
Bang CD 005

This is the third of a trilogy of CDs in a series from Mark and Emory. The music is new age folk combined with the picking prowess of bluegrass. Much of the music is instrumental and on the reflective side. Lester carries the lion’s share of the instrumental load by playing guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, and fiddle. He also sings on several cuts adding depth to the project. He is an expressive singer and does a good job of getting to the emotional core of the material. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Mother Of A Miner’s Child” and the classic “Brown Mountain Light” stand out. Johnson plays some minstrel banjo in his highly-melodic style that contrasts nicely with the brighter sound of his usual banjo.

In these days of waning CD sales, informative liner notes explaining who is playing which instrument are certainly helpful. And, notes adding insight into how this CD is tied to the other CDs in the series would have added value to the project. There is precious little here to make one buy the CD over a potentially less expensive download option in that respect. One note that needs to be made, “Brown County Breakdown” is a Bill Monroe tune and not a traditional tune as stated in the credits.

If you are already a fan of this duo, there is plenty to like here. The music is more folk than bluegrass and is very well done. The picking and singing are tasteful and the programming is first-rate. Through the use of studio techniques, Lester is playing several instruments and Johnson’s banjo is the icing on a substantial cake. (Bangtown Records, P.O. Box 3335, Dunnellon, FL 34430, www.clawgrass.com.) RCB

BOOKS

Vivian Wagner - Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles Of Music

Vivian Wagner - Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles Of Music

Vivian Wagner
Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles Of Music
Kensington Publishing
9780806531229. Softcover, 198 pp. (Kensington Publising Corp., 119 W. 40th St., New York, NY 10018, www.kensingtonbooks.com.)

As a youngster in California, author Vivian Wagner loved playing her violin. When she went off to college, however, she had been discouraged in further efforts by a professor who saw not her passion, but her faulty technique. Defeated, she says, “I put my violin away and didn’t crack open its case for many years.”

Fast forward twenty years. Living now in Ohio with her husband and two kids, Wagner finds herself inexplicably drawn to the fiddle when her son’s violin teacher shows him “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” She starts bringing her own violin to the lessons and in playing fiddle tunes she says, “I felt like I’d found something I hadn’t even known I’d lost.”

Fiddle: One Woman… is the story of Wagner’s journey back to the instrument she had loved as a child. It begins at a bluegrass festival where she meets our own John Rigsby who shows her his fiddle and points her in the direction of its maker, Arthur Connor. She visits Connor in Virginia and begins investigating various fiddle styles including bluegrass, klezmer, Scottish, Cajun, and western swing. She even attends Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp. Along the way, she realizes that her marriage is disintegrating and that her immersion in the world of fiddling has become a metaphor for her life: she was learning to improvise. In the end, she gains the courage to join three of her fellow college professors in their indie rock group, Whisky Beach.

Written in a chatty, first-person style, Fiddle provides an enjoyable, quick read. My only quarrel is with the chapters that are inserted in the middle of the narrative to provide historical background. I found them intrusive and thought they would have worked better in an appendix. If you’ve ever been obsessed with learning a musical instrument (or anything else) you will appreciate one woman’s life-altering odyssey. MHH

Jeff  Troxel - Mel Bay Presents: Flatpicking Up The Neck

Jeff Troxel - Mel Bay Presents: Flatpicking Up The Neck

Jeff Troxel
Mel Bay Presents: Flatpicking Up The Neck
Mel Bay 9780786679386. One accompanying CD, 55 pp., $17.99. (Mel Bay Publications, #4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO 63069, www.melbay.com.)

I’ve heard it attributed to country comedian and banjo player Stringbean that “there’s no money past the fifth fret.” So, if Stringbean is your spiritual guide (as he is mine), you can assume that this book will not make you rich. After working through it, however, I can say that it will make you a better flatpicker.

Jeff Troxel is a 2003 National Flatpicking Champion, columnist for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Berklee College of Music graduate, and a performer, songwriter, and composer. He’s put together a concise, clear, and valuable guide to flatpicking guitar—both up the neck and down. It’s based on the simple, yet powerful, idea that you can play melodies, scales, and arpeggios out of partial chord positions that are easily movable up (and down) the neck of the guitar.

Both the book and accompanying CD follow a coherent path in teaching this concept. Jeff takes you through 25 figures (exercises), before getting to the songs: “The Girl I Left Behind,” “Billy In The Low Ground,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Flowers Of Edinburgh,” “Bill Cheatham,” “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Over The Waterfall.”

If all that territory above the fifth fret seems like a foreign land, then this book is a great road map and guidebook for new or wary travelers. Recommended for intermediate to advanced flatpickers. CVS

James C. Claypool - Images of America: Kentucky's Bluegrass

James C. Claypool - Images of America: Kentucky's Bluegrass

James C. Claypool
Images of America: Kentucky’s Bluegrass
Arcadia Publishing 9780738585611. Two hundred photos, $21.99. (Arcadia Publishing, 420 Wando Park Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464, www.arcadiapublishing.com.)

Bill Monroe called his band the Blue Grass Boys in honor of his home state of Kentucky, a decision that eventually helped name the distinctive style of music he created. Outstanding talents from other states in its formative years were, notably, Lester Flatt (Tennessee), Earl Scruggs (North Carolina), and the Stanley Brothers (Virginia). But as this new picture history by James C. Claypool reminds us, the Blue Grass State has always had a special relation to the music.

In addition to the Father of Bluegrass (Monroe), its Kentuckyborn pioneers and highly influential figures include the Osborne Brothers, Kenny Baker, Art Stamper, Red Allen, the Goins Brothers, Hylo Brown, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush. (By referencing Bush, Claypool rightly notes that Kentucky helped give birth to both bluegrass and newgrass music). Top-level talent continues to be nurtured in the music’s cradle, as witnessed with such current stars as Dale Ann Bradley, Charlie Sizemore, Jason Carter, and Josh Williams.

A real plus is the inclusion of Kentucky natives past and present who found fame in old-time or country music but whose bluegrass ties are very real. So, here, you’ll find welcomed pages with Charlie Monroe, Molly O’Day, the Coon Creek Girls, Jimmie Skinner, Karl & Harty, Dave “Stringbean” Akeman, Keith Whitley, Pam Gadd, and Patty Loveless. And by wisely including some photos and information about prominent non-Kentuckians, Claypool has produced a book that can serve as a concise 127page introduction to bluegrass music’s overall history.

Arcadia Publishing’s Images Of America series typically features historic towns instead of art forms. But the Arcadia format of archival photos with information-rich captions suits Kentucky’s Bluegrass Music well. A number of its images have never been published. Some are gems, such as a snapshot by Jim Peva showing future mandolin star Chris Thile as a youngster enraptured with the playing of an elderly Bill Monroe. And just as Arcadia’s town histories celebrate beloved local landmarks, this book does justice to popular local bands who have done their state proud.

Professor James Claypool has taught and written about Kentucky history, culture, and roots music for some four decades. This enjoyable book benefits from his academic attention to details and his appreciation and enthusiasm as a fan. Among its few shortcomings are some band personnel identification errors, perhaps caused when pictures were accidentally reversed during production. The caption of a great shot with Pee Wee King surprisingly fails to note he’s sharing the stage with famed singing cowboy Gene Autry and early movie music star Eddie Cantor. And although Bill Monroe’s fiddling uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, imparted musical timing and a large repertoire to his young nephew, I’ve never before seen the claim made here that Uncle Pen also taught Bill the mandolin.

These are relatively minor matters. Kentucky’s Bluegrass Music is both a loving tribute and a useful reference, a welcome addition to the growing shelf of books about this American-born and internationally loved sound. RDS

David Grindstaff - Here And Now

David Grindstaff - Here And Now

David Grindstaff - Here And Now

David Grindstaff
Here And Now
No Label
No Number

A graduate of East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program, David Grindstaff plays bass and mandolin. Listeners won’t hear much of either of those talents on his debut recording. His contributions are held to bass on one track and mandolin on two.

What is heard from Grindstaff is his considerable, albeit developing, talent as a singer. He sings lead on all tracks and does so in a warm and mildly resonant lower midrange that is lyrical and comfortable with a touch of contemporary stylings. His is not an overpowering voice, nor is it one that offers much in the way of bluesy quality, but it does convey quite well the sense and emotion of the song he is singing, be it the wisdom of “The Tinker Man,” the hutzpah of a bootlegger for whom they’ll “Jack Up The Jail,” or the resolve of the soldier who knows “Either Way I’m Going Home.” Of the 12 songs, only two (“Lost And I’ll Never Find The Way” and “The Man In The Middle”) are standards. The remaining ten come from a variety of writers. The tracks offering the best mix of emotion and energy are those already mentioned. “Jack Up The Jail,” with its blistering tempo and bravado lyrics, sounds readymade for the charts.

Backing Grindstaff’s debut are Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford, Hunter Berry, Jim VanCleve, resonator guitarist Josh Swift, banjoists Will Parsons and Haley Stiltner, guitarists Colby Laney and David Yates and bassists David Babb and Andy Blevins. (David Grindstaff, 1433 N. Main St., Marion NC 28752, grindstaff5@charter.net.) BW

Lilly Drumeva - Lovin' You

Lilly Drumeva - Lovin' You

Lilly Drumeva – Lovin’ You

Lilly Drumeva
Lovin’ You
No Label
No Number

Lilly Drumeva divides her latest recording into two segments. The larger segment she recorded in Prague with Monogram, a Czech bluegrass band featuring guitarists/vocalist Jakub Racek, mandolinist Zdenek Jahoda, banjoist Jarda Jahoda, and bassist Pavel Lzicar. The nine songs they record together are predominantly covers of well-known bluegrass tunes. Four of them—“Molly And Tenbrooks,” “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’,” and “I Am A Pilgrim”—are standards. Of them, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” stands out, partially transformed from its usual stomp into something of a wistful lament. The nonstandards are “Nellie Cain,” “If I Needed You,” Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” and Jimmy Newman’s “Cry, Cry Darling.” Drumeva’s original “Turn Away,” a lively tune about leaving England’s rain and wind for the sun and blue skies of the Balkans, rounds out the Prague sessions. All are enjoyable and well-played, though the arrangements, particularly of the standards, are just that—standard.

The smaller Bulgarian segment of the tunes finds Drumeva backed by her regular band, Lilly Of The West, a group currently consisting of guitarist Yasen Vasilev, fiddler Ivan Penchev, bassist Svoboda Bozduganova, and percussionist Borislav Bojadjiev. With these six tracks, the interest comes up a notch. Here, the material is more outside the norm, with only the lush, moody “Tennessee Waltz” having even a remote tie to bluegrass. Instead, there’s a cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ragtime “Lovin’ You,” two intriguing Bulgarian folk tunes (in interesting time signatures) about freedom fighters, a swing treatment of one of Jimmie Rodgers’ lesser heard tunes,“When The Cactus Is In Bloom,” and a straight jazz performance of “Pennies From Heaven.”

Putting the two segments together, Lovin’ You rises above average on the strengths of good singing, good instrumental work, and the interesting material found in the Bulgarian segment.  BW

Hammer & String - The Girl Who Broke My Heart

Hammer and String - The Girl Who Broke My Heard

Hammer and String - The Girl Who Broke My Heard

Hammer & String
The Girl Who Broke My Heart
5-String Productions

Imagine an old-time band with fiddle, banjo, and piano. It’s not hard, as this lineup has existed for decades at different times. Not your typical southern lineup, but one that might have been found in many parts of the country. Old-time music, after all, is not the private domain of the South; it exists in all parts of the country with different traits. This band features Rhys Jones, one of the best of young fiddlers from the Midwest, backed by Joel Wennerstrom on banjo and Cleek Schery on piano and fiddle (on one cut).

Schery’s piano stretches the harmonic settings of the tunes, but stretching out the chords and making use of chord voicings is often used by Celtic bands to add harmonic interest and add drive to the tune. Jones’s fiddle drives straight ahead, full of interesting variations and understated improvisation. The band manages to keep a simple tune like “Citigo” going for much longer than one might think and keeps it interesting for the attentive listener. Wennerstrom’s banjo shadows the fiddle and keeps things percolating along.

As seems is a trend these days, there are no liner notes, so when listening to “Old Man In The Meeting House” one cannot gather if it’s another name for “Glory In The Meeting House” or a very close relative to that tune. The range and order of tunes allows for varied listening even with the format of an all-fiddle-tune recording. This is not truly old-time in the southern sense. It sounds like contra dance music, a dance form similar to square dancing. You could just call it old-time with a few curves thrown in. (Joel Wennerstrom, 205 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205.) RCB

Canucky Bluegrass Boys - Standin' Up

Canucky Bluegrass Boys - Standin' Up

Canucky Bluegrass Boys - Standin' Up

Canucky Bluegrass Boys
Standin’ Up

The Canucky Bluegrass Boys are a high-energy band from western Ontario strongly influenced by contemporary southern bluegrass. Formerly known as Grassbackwardz, the five-person Anglophone-First Nations ensemble has evolved from a jam session band into a recording unit that successfully projects the joy they find in playing bluegrass together. Fiddler Don Reed (who’s worked with Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam) and R.J. Nelson (formerly of Lily Creek) on banjo have lifted the three original members to a new level of confidence and competence.

Standin’ Up appropriately offers a wide range of songs from “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” first recorded by AfricanAmerican string band the Mississippi Sheiks, all the way to Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” arguably the “Rocky Top” of Americana music. The group also covers the Seldom Scene version of “I Know You Rider” as if it were their own, while proving knowledgeable enough to unearth Lynwood Lunsford’s “Molly Rose” and “Leavin,” an early hit for James King. Upright bass player Matt Naveau provides the original composition and title track “Standin’ Up.”

Standin’ Up offers ample evidence as to why the Canucky Bluegrass Boys captured both Most Promising Group and Best Vocal Group at the 2009 Central Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards. While other bands may provide greater depth and subtly, few ensembles strike a better balance between professional skills and communicating the simple joy of playing music together than this group. (Lee Roy, 297 Mountain St. Apt. 3, Sudbury, ON P3B 2T8, Canada, www.canuckybluegrass.com.) AM

The Cana Ramblers - No Expectations

The Cana Ramblers - No Expectations

The Cana Ramblers - No Expectations

The Cana Ramblers
No Expectations
Cana Mania Records CR09

The Cana Ramblers, from the music-rich North Carolina/Virginia border, feature songwriter Philip Jones, his three talented kids (ages 17 to 23), and Rick Allred, best known as a member of the Country Gentlemen and Summer Wages during the late 1970s and early 1980s. No Expectations, their first album in five years, demonstrates a mature, diverse unit that has packaged the best of ’70s-style bluegrass for the twenty-first century.

The ’70s were when today’s bluegrass world started to take shape, as the bluegrass festivals, publications, and labels that emerged during the ’60s matured. The Woodstock-influenced festivals of the era morphed into the family-style bluegrass festivals of today. Iconic bands—the Seldom Scene, J.D. Crowe & the New South, Johnson Mountain Boys, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver—emerged while the stars of the first generation were entering their fifties.

The Cana Ramblers capture the experimental variety of that era on No Expectations. Just look at the title track: a cover of the New Deal String Band’s cover of a Rolling Stones song, but with innovation in the form of a female lead vocal from Ashley Jones. Turning pop music into bluegrass was a sign of those times just as much as revisiting the classics of bluegrass and country. From the latter, we get “Will You Be Loving Another Man,” “California Cottonfields,” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” Laurie Leigh Jones’ operatic powerhouse of a voice drives “Luxury Liner,” a perfect example of the borrowing from contemporary music that was happening during the ’70s.

That time also brought a rebirth of bluegrass songwriting as folks began to selfidentify as such. Philip, who handles rhythm guitar, began writing songs then and composed five of the 16 on this release. His work ranges from a silly love song about materialism in “Things, Things, Things” to the emotionally charged “The Farm.” Laura Leigh provided the lead-off cut, “Heartaches And Teardrops,” while lead guitarist Will Jones composed “Cash’s Last Ride” when he was only 12 years old, after playing on the great man’s last show at the Carter Fold.

The Cana Ramblers deliver a full package of youth and experience, strong picking, well-arranged harmonies, diverse material that’s new and familiar, and four lead singers. Throughout the album, the band provides both the youthful exuberance and the certain lightness-of-being that marked the 1970s—all reinterpreted and updated for today. (Cana Mania Records, 1046 Brushy Fork Rd., Cana, VA 24317, www.canaramblers.com.) AM

Red Molly - James

Red Molly - James

Red Molly - James

Red Molly
James
No Label
No Number

The ladies of Red Molly are extremely talented. Laurie MacAllister (banjo and guitar), Abbie Gardner (resonator guitar, lap steel, and guitar), and Carolann Solebello (guitar) meld together perfectly in beautiful three-part harmonies again on their fourth CD, James.

From the fun and playful to the dark and serious, this 13-track disc covers a lot of ground. Self-produced, the talented trio takes turns on lead vocals throughout. Gardner’s songwriting ability speaks for itself on two cuts, “Jezebel” and “Troubled Mind,” but the ladies also selected songs from well-known writers such as Darrell Scott (“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”), Steve Goodman (“Lookin’ For Trouble”), Nanci Griffith (“Gulf Coast Highway”), and Texas-swing man Bob Wills (“The End Of The Line”). Jake Armerding adds his fiddle and mandolin skills while Mike Weatherly lays down the solid groove on bass and Herb Gardner jams on piano. For the first time, the trio brought a percussionist (Ben Wittman) into the studio.

Red Molly may have tweaked a few things in the studio, but the group doesn’t stray too far from its signature sound. The incredible sibling-like harmonies make this CD a must have for your collection. (Red Molly, 372 7th St. #2, Jersey City, NY 07302, www.redmolly.com.) BC

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester - Acoustic Vision: Blockade Runner

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester - Acoustic Vision: Blockade Runner

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester - Acoustic Vision: Blockade Runner

Mark Johnson & Emory Lester
Acoustic Vision: Blockade Runner
Bangtown Records
Bang CD 005

This is the third of a trilogy of CDs in a series from Mark and Emory. The music is new age folk combined with the picking prowess of bluegrass. Much of the music is instrumental and on the reflective side. Lester carries the lion’s share of the instrumental load by playing guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, and fiddle. He also sings on several cuts adding depth to the project. He is an expressive singer and does a good job of getting to the emotional core of the material. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Mother Of A Miner’s Child” and the classic “Brown Mountain Light” stand out. Johnson plays some minstrel banjo in his highly-melodic style that contrasts nicely with the brighter sound of his usual banjo.

In these days of waning CD sales, informative liner notes explaining who is playing which instrument are certainly helpful. And, notes adding insight into how this CD is tied to the other CDs in the series would have added value to the project. There is precious little here to make one buy the CD over a potentially less expensive download option in that respect. One note that needs to be made, “Brown County Breakdown” is a Bill Monroe tune and not a traditional tune as stated in the credits.

If you are already a fan of this duo, there is plenty to like here. The music is more folk than bluegrass and is very well done. The picking and singing are tasteful and the programming is first-rate. Through the use of studio techniques, Lester is playing several instruments and Johnson’s banjo is the icing on a substantial cake. (Bangtown Records, P.O. Box 3335, Dunnellon, FL 34430, www.clawgrass.com.) RCB

Vivian Wagner - Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles Of Music

Vivian Wagner - Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles Of Music

Vivian Wagner - Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles Of Music

Kensington Publishing
9780806531229. Softcover, 198 pp. (Kensington Publising Corp., 119 W. 40th St., New York, NY 10018, www.kensingtonbooks.com.)

As a youngster in California, author Vivian Wagner loved playing her violin. When she went off to college, however, she had been discouraged in further efforts by a professor who saw not her passion, but her faulty technique. Defeated, she says, “I put my violin away and didn’t crack open its case for many years.”

Fast forward twenty years. Living now in Ohio with her husband and two kids, Wagner finds herself inexplicably drawn to the fiddle when her son’s violin teacher shows him “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” She starts bringing her own violin to the lessons and in playing fiddle tunes she says, “I felt like I’d found something I hadn’t even known I’d lost.”

Fiddle: One Woman… is the story of Wagner’s journey back to the instrument she had loved as a child. It begins at a bluegrass festival where she meets our own John Rigsby who shows her his fiddle and points her in the direction of its maker, Arthur Connor. She visits Connor in Virginia and begins investigating various fiddle styles including bluegrass, klezmer, Scottish, Cajun, and western swing. She even attends Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp. Along the way, she realizes that her marriage is disintegrating and that her immersion in the world of fiddling has become a metaphor for her life: she was learning to improvise. In the end, she gains the courage to join three of her fellow college professors in their indie rock group, Whisky Beach.

Written in a chatty, first-person style, Fiddle provides an enjoyable, quick read. My only quarrel is with the chapters that are inserted in the middle of the narrative to provide historical background. I found them intrusive and thought they would have worked better in an appendix. If you’ve ever been obsessed with learning a musical instrument (or anything else) you will appreciate one woman’s life-altering odyssey. MHH

James C. Claypool - Images Of America: Kentucky's Bluegrass Music

James C. Claypool - Images Of America: Kentucky's Bluegrass Music

James C. Claypool - Images Of America: Kentucky's Bluegrass Music

James C. Claypool
Images of America: Kentucky’s Bluegrass
Arcadia Publishing 9780738585611. Two hundred photos, $21.99. (Arcadia Publishing, 420 Wando Park Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464, www.arcadiapublishing.com.)

Bill Monroe called his band the Blue Grass Boys in honor of his home state of Kentucky, a decision that eventually helped name the distinctive style of music he created. Outstanding talents from other states in its formative years were, notably, Lester Flatt (Tennessee), Earl Scruggs (North Carolina), and the Stanley Brothers (Virginia). But as this new picture history by James C. Claypool reminds us, the Blue Grass State has always had a special relation to the music.

In addition to the Father of Bluegrass (Monroe), its Kentuckyborn pioneers and highly influential figures include the Osborne Brothers, Kenny Baker, Art Stamper, Red Allen, the Goins Brothers, Hylo Brown, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush. (By referencing Bush, Claypool rightly notes that Kentucky helped give birth to both bluegrass and newgrass music). Top-level talent continues to be nurtured in the music’s cradle, as witnessed with such current stars as Dale Ann Bradley, Charlie Sizemore, Jason Carter, and Josh Williams.

A real plus is the inclusion of Kentucky natives past and present who found fame in old-time or country music but whose bluegrass ties are very real. So, here, you’ll find welcomed pages with Charlie Monroe, Molly O’Day, the Coon Creek Girls, Jimmie Skinner, Karl & Harty, Dave “Stringbean” Akeman, Keith Whitley, Pam Gadd, and Patty Loveless. And by wisely including some photos and information about prominent nonKentuckians, Claypool has produced a book that can serve as a concise 127page introduction to bluegrass music’s overall history.

Arcadia Publishing’s Images Of America series typically features historic towns instead of art forms. But the Arcadia format of archival photos with informationrich captions suits Kentucky’s Bluegrass Music well. A number of its images have never been published. Some are gems, such as a snapshot by Jim Peva showing future mandolin star Chris Thile as a youngster enraptured with the playing of an elderly Bill Monroe. And just as Arcadia’s town histories celebrate beloved local landmarks, this book does justice to popular local bands who have done their state proud.

Professor James Claypool has taught and written about Kentucky history, culture, and roots music for some four decades. This enjoyable book benefits from his academic attention to details and his appreciation and enthusiasm as a fan. Among its few shortcomings are some band personnel identification errors, perhaps caused when pictures were accidently reversed during production. The caption of a great shot with Pee Wee King surprisingly fails to note he’s sharing the stage with famed singing cowboy Gene Autry and early movie music star Eddie Cantor. And although Bill Monroe’s fiddling uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, imparted musical timing and a large repertoire to his young nephew, I’ve never before seen the claim made here that Uncle Pen also taught Bill the mandolin.

These are relatively minor matters. Kentucky’s Bluegrass Music is both a loving tribute and a useful reference, a welcome addition to the growing shelf of books about this Americanborn and internationally loved sound. RDS

Jeff Troxel - Flatpicking Up The Neck

Jeff Troxel - Flatpicking Up The Neck

Jeff Troxel - Flatpicking Up The Neck

Jeff Troxel
Mel Bay Presents: Flatpicking Up The Neck
Mel Bay 9780786679386. One accompanying CD, 55 pp., $17.99. (Mel Bay Publications, #4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO 63069, www.melbay.com.)

I’ve heard it attributed to country comedian and banjo player Stringbean that “there’s no money past the fifth fret.” So, if Stringbean is your spiritual guide (as he is mine), you can assume that this book will not make you rich. After working through it, however, I can say that it will make you a better flatpicker.

Jeff Troxel is a 2003 National Flatpicking Champion, columnist for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Berklee College of Music graduate, and a performer, songwriter, and composer. He’s put together a concise, clear, and valuable guide to flatpicking guitar—both up the neck and down. It’s based on the simple, yet powerful, idea that you can play melodies, scales, and arpeggios out of partial chord positions that are easily movable up (and down) the neck of the guitar.

Both the book and accompanying CD follow a coherent path in teaching this concept. Jeff takes you through 25 figures (exercises), before getting to the songs: “The Girl I Left Behind,” “Billy In The Low Ground,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Flowers Of Edinburgh,” “Bill Cheatham,” “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Over The Waterfall.”

If all that territory above the fifth fret seems like a foreign land, then this book is a great road map and guidebook for new or wary travelers. Recommended for intermediate to advanced flatpickers. CVS

Reviews - August 2010

HIGHLIGHT


The Infamous Stringdusters - Things That Fly

The Infamous Stringdusters - Things That Fly

THE INFAMOUS STRINGDUSTERS
THINGS THAT FLY

Sugar Hill 4059

On their third outing, the Infamous Stringdusters have released, by far, their richest and most musically satisfying CD. Covering a broad, cinematic sweep of themes and emotions ranging from poverty, death and loss, finding true love and following the true path in life, the band displays a mesmerizing blend of great songwriting, wonderful singing, and highly creative musical arrangement. Over 13 gorgeous tracks crafted with expert care by the band and coproducer Gary Pacoza, Things That Fly reveals a band at the height of its creative powers, able to blend such disparate influences as Irish rockers U2 on “In God’s Country” with the straight from the still bluegrass sensibilities of Jody Stecher’s classic “17 Cents,” all the while making it seem natural and unaffected.

In a recent interview, mandolinist Jesse Cobb said the band’s goal with this project was to create a sweeping statement that freed them from previous stylistic boundaries, and that’s just what they’ve achieved here. It won’t please hard-core traditionalists; the band lacks a clear vocal identity, with multiple vocalists taking turns as the lead voice. Lovers of classic bluegrass lead and harmony singing won’t find much here to enjoy. And the production here is often drenched in reverb, such as the coda of “You Can’t Stop The Changes,” or adds keyboards or even some percussion to certain tracks to emphasize the rock influenced rhythms.

But perhaps no modern bluegrass band is more skilled in crafting catchy, progressive bluegrass songs that deliver memorable melodies and powerful lyrics. Just listen to originals such as “Those Who’ve Gone On,” “All The Same,” “Taking A Chance On The Truth,” or “It’ll Be Alright” to hear what classic modern bluegrass should sound like. The ’Dusters are the cutting edge of progressive bluegrass these days, creative and inventive without straying so far over the line that their music cannot stand alongside previous innovators in the genre. It’s not for everyone, but audiences willing to accept the creative power and unique voice of the band will find Things That Fly enormously rewarding. This is a band bursting with creative ideas, creating instant classic modern tunes and arrangements that push forward the boundaries of bluegrass and progressive acoustic music. Highly recommended. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, www.sugarhillrecords.com.) DJM

Donna Ulisse - Holy Waters

Donna Ulisse - Holy Waters

DONNA ULISSE
HOLY WATERS

Hadley Music Group
HMG1005

Holy Waters is singer/songwriter Donna Ulisse’s third release since moving, in 2007, to the bluegrass genre from the country genre. As the name implies, it is a gospel recording, one that includes 13 tracks, of which Ulisse wrote or cowrote 12. Carter Stanley’s moving “Who Will Sing For Me?” is the one cover and a good one. The support is spare, as would befit a Stanley tune and as dictated by the lyrics, but Ulisse has chosen to give it a wash of contemporary production that fills all the empty space. In doing so, she has managed to recast a classic and still make it easily the most memorable track on the entire recording.

“Caney Creek To Canaan Land,” “To My Soul I Do,” and “My Jesus” make approaches to the level of Carter’s song, but do not match it. They settle at a just a notch below. “Caney Creek…,” with its abrupt attentionfreezing stop at the front of the chorus, opens the album with a strong beat and a good message. “To My Soul I Do,” a couple tracks later, is a slow, modal tune that finds Ulisse’s vocals paired with solo banjo in the opening. Full band support gradually enters, building in intesity, before releasing to a nice fade of fiddle and banjo, keeping in step with the old-time flavor of the tune. Closing the recording is “My Jesus,” a slow, graceful song on which Ulisse’s vocals are reminiscent of Dolly Parton.

Holy Waters is a likeable album of well-written gospel, supported by a strong cast of Keith Sewell, Andy Leftwich, Scott Vestal, Byron House, and Rob Ickes. Having some additional songs that stay in the ear, as does the Stanley tune, would have made it even better. (Hadley Music Group, 1029 17th Ave., Nashville TN 37212, www.hadleymusicgroup.com.) BW

Audie Blaylock and Redline - Cryin Heart Blues

Audie Blaylock and Redline - Cryin' Heart Blues

AUDIE BLAYLOCK AND REDLINE
CRYIN’ HEART BLUES

Rural Rhythm
1060

There’s a masterful, assured energy on Cryin’ Heart Blues that jumps right out at you on the title track/opener of this 13-song collection.

Texas-born Audie Blaylock, four-time IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year and alumnus of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, produced his most recent release. And he and his support ensemble, Redline (Evan Ward, banjo/vocals; Patrick McAvinue, fiddle/mandolin/vocals; and Matt Wallace, bass/vocals), imbue these tracks with irresistible mainstream bluegrass artistry and confidence throughout.

Whether these guys are unlimbering their formidable talents on a Carter Stanley classic (“Let’s Part The Best Of Friends”), an old Jimmy Martin gospel staple (“Pray The Clouds Away”), a contemporary honky-tonker (Keith Stegall’s “Matches”) or a reprise of a ’50s Ray Price country hit (“Talk To Your Heart”), the result is first-rate.

If artistry and authenticity still really are bywords, then Cryin’ Heart Blues assures Blaylock’s place among the leading ranks of bluegrass’s headliners. (Rural Rhythm Records, Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BA

Statement - Around The Corner

Statement - Around The Corner

STATEMENT
AROUND THE CORNER

Mountain Fever Records
MFR 1000201

Statement is a young gospel bluegrass band that comes out with a no-holds-barred approach to witness through bluegrass music. Vocalist Ashlee Blankenship sets the stage with her fine vocal on the opening cut, “What A Beautiful Day,” and the boys follow with instruments at the ready. There is fine picking from every one here: Josh Blankenship on mandolin, Trent Cox on guitar, Jimmy Creed on bass, and Josh Underwood on banjo. Vocals are shared.

A first-rate production by Sammy Shelor and Mark Hodges, this project is a platform for the band to express their faith and present some of their songs. The two Joshes wrote six of the fourteen tracks. Additionally, they draw from Albert Brumley for “He Set Me Free” (which shares the same melody as “I Saw The Light”). They also include the old classics “Stand Up For Jesus” and “I Surrender All.” They do a fine job on their original material, which shows much promise for the future.

The vocals and picking throughout are first-class. This young band will please all fans of bluegrass gospel—a well-produced and performed recording project. This is highly recommended for fans of hot picking and solid gospel singing in the bluegrass mold. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 34280, www.mountainfever.com.) RCB

Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac - Take Off

Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac - Take Off

DARREN BEACHLEY & LEGENDS OF THE POTOMAC
TAKE OFF

Patuxent Music
PXCD 210

For decades, the greater Washington, D.C., region has been an incubator for great bluegrass and newgrass bands, both long-lived (Seldom Scene) and ephemeral (Chesapeake). Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac is the latest supergroup to emerge from this ever-shifting constellation, and its name pays homage to the region’s glorious tradition.

Though this band is fresh to the scene, the faces in it certainly aren’t. All five members of Legends—Beachley, tenor vocals/guitar; Mike Auldridge, resonator guitar/pedal steel guitar/vocals; Norman Wright, mandolin/vocals; Mark Delaney, banjo/guitar; and Tom Gray, acoustic bass—are veterans of acclaimed ensembles from whose shadows Legends Of The Potomac has emerged. Not surprisingly, there’s a strong sense of continuity in the music, as well. The rich, impeccable harmonies, the clean, spacious production, and imaginative song choices conjure up immediate and positive comparisons with formative bands like the Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen.

These 14 tracks include blasts from the distant and not so distant past, such as the Louvin Brothers’ “You’ll Forget” and “Leavin’ And Sayin’ Goodbye” (a ’70s Faron Young “countrypolitan” hit). But, there is also a healthy offering of noteworthy new material, including a pair of ballads, “Other Side Of Lonely” and “Love Don’t Know,” penned by Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis.

Most satisfying is “Tall Weeds And Rust,” a powerful and timely ballad about losing an ancestral forty acres to suburban sprawl and blight. Cowritten by Don Rigsby, Tom T. Hall, and Dixie Hall, it features a fine guest vocal from Tom T. with stellar backing from this exceedingly accomplished new bluegrass supergroup. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) BA

Jeni & Billy - Longing For Heaven

Jeni & Billy - Longing For Heaven

JENI & BILLY
LONGING FOR HEAVEN

Jewell Ridge Records
005

Duet partners Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp have brought impressive measures of inspiration, artistry, and austerity in this minimalist collection of old-time ballads, heartsongs, and spirituals.

The focus of Jeni & Billy’s fourth CD, as heard on the lovely Sacred Harp classic title tune, is otherworldly affairs. A standout in this category, along with the title song, is their original, “Father Will You Meet Me In Heaven,” a powerful elegy for Johnny Cash’s older brother, Jack, who was killed in a gruesome childhood accident. The duo’s rendition of “On A Hill Lone And Gray,” inspired by Ralph Stanley, is also heartfelt and moving.

Hankins is the soulful wellspring of this collaboration. Born and raised in Virginia coal country, she brings a writer’s and singer’s finely nuanced ear to the cadences and imagery of her native Appalachia. You can hear this gift on “The Ballad Of Sally Kincaid” and “Cecil Roberts’ Hand.” These originals and others stand proud alongside covers of traditionals such as “Single Girl” and “I Saw A Man At The Close Of The Day.”

Kemp, a gifted multi-instrumentalist with an impressive list of studio and road credentials, also does some of the writing. But his major contribution is framing these songs with austere and subtle acoustic arrangements built on various combinations of guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, harmonica, and occasional fiddle from Shad Cobb. (Jewell Ridge Records, 2126 Yank Rd., Mt. Gilead, NC 27306) BA

Sweet Potato Pie - Journey Called Life

Sweet Potato Pie - Journey Called Life

SWEET POTATO PIE
JOURNEY CALLED LIFE

Mountain Fever Records
MFR 100330

On their Web site, the “Pies” say this about their music: “The Pie has created a new musical style called ‘sweetgrass,’ which includes elements of country, classical, blues and bluegrass.” It’s an apt description of the rich vocals and clean picking that these women bring to their music. Opening with an a cappella version of “My Lord What A Morning,” the second track is another gem, the original “Lift Me Up” from Sonya Stead (their guitar player who wrote six of the numbers on this project). Missy Pyne contributed two numbers, and banjo picker Crystal Richardson contributed one. They draw some material from sources as diverse as A.P. Carter and Curtis Mayfield.

The full vocals prevail throughout and tasteful instrumental work showcases the singing. There is definitely a smooth, contemporary edge to their music. The music here is spiritual with a theme that is Christian, without being overly didactic. Their songs tell stories with morals. Whether they are singing their hearts out or picking in support of each other, the Pies gives it their heartfelt best. This is a fine release that should spread the good word about these ladies and their fine music. (Mountain Fever Studios, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.) RCB

The Grascals - The Famous Lefty Flynn's

The Grascals - The Famous Lefty Flynn's

THE GRASCALS
THE FAMOUS LEFTY FLYNN’S

Rounder Records
11661-0641-2

Ah, those rascals the Grascals! They burst onto the scene five years ago with their Nashville-style of bluegrass—crowd-pleasing in-your-face energy, a big rousing sound driven as much by soaring vocals as searing instrumentals, a repertoire largely drawn from their own writing and that of contemporary country songsmiths, but staunchly acoustic and never more than a bluesy inflection away from traditional roots. Now comes their fourth album, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s. If anything, this talented six-some seems on track to being even hotter, fulfilling the promise shown by their past IBMA Emerging Artist and Entertainer Of The Year awards.

The two most recent additions (fiddler Jeremy Abshire and banjo picker Kristin Scott Benson) finally make their recording debuts with the group. They fit so well with Grascal charter members Terry Eldredge (guitar and vocals), Jamie Johnson (guitar and vocals), Danny Roberts (mandolin), and Terry Smith (bass and vocals), it seems as if they’ve been picking together since childhood. It’s clear this latest lineup is another winner right from the kickoff track “Last Train To Clarksville,” a rocking, swaying, wildly successful bluegrass rendering of the hit by The Monkees.

It’s not just about heat and flash, though. There’s plenty of warmth and light here, too. After years of sidemen’s experience with the likes of the Osborne Brothers, Larry Stephenson, Dolly Parton, and Jimmy Martin, and as the leaders of their own ensembles, the Grascals know when to ratchet it up to another level, and also when to glide it to another plane. The title track, the instrumental “Blue Rock Slide,” and the gospel numbers “Satan And Grandma” and “Give Me Jesus” are all the more affecting and enjoyable for their simplicity and restraint.

The Grascals’ connection to the Osborne Brothers is especially strong: Eldredge and Smith were Osborne sidemen; Benson backed the Osborne-influenced Larry Stephenson; Bobby Osborne guested in concert with the original lineup; and Sonny Osborne contributes liner notes here. But, the Grascals are not mere imitators. The Osborne influence adds gloriously to their general sound and to the success of this album. They’ve recorded two Osborne classics here — the rip sawing “Son Of A Sawmill Man” and the strutting “Up This Hill and Down” – an act as courageous as it was appreciative. Two-time IBMA Banjo Player Of The Year, Kristin ably fills the Chief’s banjo picks, and Johnson just nails the lead vocals.

The arrangements of the Johnson/Smith/Roberts song “My Baby’s Waiting On The Other Side” and Jeremy Montgomery Parsons’ “Out Comes The Sun” echo with the keening, top tenor-driven Osborne Brothers sound while perfectly suiting these superb originals.

Rounding out things is guest vocalist Hank Williams, Jr., on “Blue And Lonesome” (called here “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”), a song written by his father Hank, Sr., for good friend Bill Monroe during a package tour (which, sadly, they only sang informally backstage and never recorded together). Hank, Jr., channels his lonesome side in a solid performance. (Rounder Records Corp., One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) RDS

Nu-Blu - Nights

Nu-Blu - Nights

NU-BLU
NIGHTS

No Label
RS0002

Along about the seventh track, NuBlu hits a foursong run that lifts this album to a higher level. Until that point, the music is pleasant but ordinary, though not without its moments.

One of those moments is on Nanci Griffith’s “Spin On A Red Brick Floor,” a light, airy tune with a bouyant pulse. Griffith is a master of tuneful, conversational lyricwriting, and this one shows that well. Hearing the words was a little difficult, as lead singer/bassist Carolyn Routh’s voice was mixed a bit too far into the instrumental backing, but on a whole this is the best song on the CD. “How Do I Move On,” written by Routh and her singer/guitarist husband Daniel, is another good moment.

That’s two out of six. The other four in the first-half are as stated before—pleasant but ordinary. Fortunately, “In And Out Of Love,” “River Of Love,” “Red Haired Boy,” and “Old Black Suit” follow in short order. “In And Out…” (also by the Rouths) provides lyricism and pulse almost equal to Griffith’s. Then follows the positive message of “River…” and its revival feel, layed over an oldtime dance beat. This leads nicely to “Red Haired Boy.” You’d think there’d be little that could make this old standard fresh, but mandolinist Kendall Gales and banjoist Levi Austin find new twists that revamp the melody. The foursong run ends with a gently lilting review of a marriage that an everpresent “Old Black Suit” witnesses: Life and death has touched that old black suit. Such a wonderful image.

This is the debut release and a solid first effort for the North Carolinabased NuBlu. (Nu-Blu Bluegrass Artists, P.O. Box 681, Siler City, NC 27344, www.nublu.com.) BW

The Old Time Band - Down By The Brazos

The Old Time Band - Down By The Brazos

THE OLD TIME BAND
DOWN BY THE BRAZOS

Hen Cackle Records
HC506

Peter Feldmann, mandolin and guitar, and Wayne Shrubsall, banjo and guitar, may not be household names across the nation, but these two gentlemen have been on the scene in various capacities with numerous groups in the southwest and California. Fiddler Bruce Thompson has been in a band with Shrubsall for thirty years and now is also in this group. They blend a great respect for the traditional American songbook with a strong disregard for categorization of this same music. In this 14-track project, we are treated to blues, cowboy songs, bluegrass, and old-time fiddle tunes.

The depth of knowledge is evident as these men play and sing with conviction. They play “Katy Hill” in an old-time style, except there is no guitar, and the fiddle, clawhammer banjo, and mandolin all take breaks. The absence of bottom end makes the tune float along very nicely. Then they tackle “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” the old Flatt & Scruggs favorite. Their spirit is very good and similar to the original version. They opened up a favorite old blues, “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing,” that comes off, well, if not as ribald as some of the older versions.

They visit repertoires of many of the old-time greats such as the Delmore Brothers, Grandpa Jones, and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. The trio medley of “Robinson County”/“Mississippi Sawyer”/“Oklahoma Rooster” not only covers a lot of geography, it demonstrates Thompson’s fine fiddling.

Feldmann, who handles the bulk of the leads, is unpretentious as a singer in the old folk-singer tradition. The depth of material is bound to please, as there are blues and humorous songs side by side by side by side in this entertaining project. There is a high level of musicianship, the picking solid, but not showy. The material is cherry-picked from the wealth of older recordings, reflecting the eclectic tastes of this trio. (Hen Cackled Records, P.O. Box 614, Los Olivos, CA 93441, www.hencacklerecords.com.) RCB

Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg - Farewell Trion

Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg - Farewell Trion

CHRIS COOLE & IVAN ROSENBERG
FAREWELL TRION

VoleOTone Records
VOT 2139

Nearly a lifetime ago, Folkways released an album called Persistence And Change In The Blue Ridge. That describes this project very well. The music predates our time. The delivery and sensitivity with which the music is performed is contemporary. Great music persists and survives the changes in interpretation. It not only survives, it blooms.

Who would think that an album based upon clawhammer banjo and resonator guitar would work so well? Chris Coole is the primary banjo player. He is an accomplished player and his understated approach is richer for it. By taking it back, deep into the mountains, he breathes new life into the old evergreen, “John Hardy,” making it something appealing and new. The intertwining of the resonator guitar and banjo is compelling in its sonority. On an original tune, “Carolyn Sanaskol,” John Reischman adds his fine mandolin playing to the duo.

With the exception of one other original, the material is traditional. Skipping intermediary sources, they bypass the Carter Family and go to the Carters’ source, Leslie Riddle, for “Cannonball Blues.” Coole’s fingerpicked guitar is derived from Riddle’s fine version of this song. Coole’s lead vocals get to the core of the songs and add much to this fine project; the vocals are refined with the right amount of edge.

There is a wide variety of music here and Rosenberg’s reading of “In The Garden” on resonator guitar captures the feel of Brother Oswald at his best, then proceeds to take it to a new place altogether in his masterful touch with the old hymn.

Strong material, rich vocals, and highly accomplished musicianship place this project at the top of the list. The careful juxtaposition of the old and new bring a depth to the performances that only comes with a true knowledge of the genre. When a CD keeps working its way to the number one spot in your listening priorities, it has to have that special something. This humble recording does. (Chris Coole, 540 Quebec Ave., Toronto, ON, M6P 2V7, Canada, www.chriscoole.com.) RCB

DVD

Sierra Hull - Secrets, Songs, & Tunes

Sierra Hull - Secrets, Songs, & Tunes

AcuTab, No Number.
Two DVDs and tab booklet, $50.
AcuTab Publications, P.O. Box 21061, Roanoke, VA 24018

Since she burst onto the bluegrass scene as a child, Sierra Hull has generated the kind of buzz previously seen around mandolin players such as Chris Thile, Sam Bush, and her hero, Adam Steffey. With the release of her first instructional DVD, Secrets, Songs & Tunes, Sierra Hull now takes a big step forward in developing her reputation as one of the best mandolin players on the scene today. This excellent twoDVD set with a companion notation/TAB booklet stands firmly alongside previous AcuTab projects as the best in the industry for production values, teaching value, and pure entertainment.

Sierra demonstrates no sense of nerves as she calmly answers questions from John Lawless and thoughtfully demonstrates key elements to her solos, intros, and outros to her Secrets CD. She talks in detail about her left-hand technique on chop chords and how her diminutive right-hand size led her to begin using her ring finger to post up to keep her heel from muting the strings. Right-hand technique, stringskipping, and pick direction, including a great discussion about how she will practice using an upstroke instead of a downstroke to start key phrases and licks to give her a different tone and to improve her technique, offer lots of fascinating insight here.

The DVDs are divided into easily understood sections, with Lawless interviewing Hull first about the cut, followed by her playing through each section and explaining the fingerings and other key concepts. These sections will be especially valuable to the beginning player who needs to understand basic concepts such as hammerons, slides, and Hull’s masterful righthand techniques.

Each tune is followed by a split view two camera shot in standard and slow time. This is where the advanced player will grab key techniques and learn material most quickly. Finally, she follows up with a full band performance of each piece, backed by bluegrass stars Ron Block, Barry Bales, and Kenny Smith.

Given the thoroughly professional level of lighting, sound, and video, and the keen cooperation between Lawless and Hull in presenting the material clearly, there’s almost nothing here to criticize. One failure is the lack of detailed chord charts, which on tunes such as “Smashville” (when she goes through a detailed explanation of how she chose the chord voicings) pose a serious drawback to a beginning player who may have no idea how to play the chords she’s naming. But that’s a minor quibble. Secrets, Songs & Tunes will delight anyone who enjoys precise, melodic bluegrass mandolin and wants to incorporate some of her special magic into their own playing. Highly recommended. DJM

Donna Ulisse - Holy Waters

Donna Ulisse - Holy Waters

Donna Ulisse - Holy Waters

DONNA ULISSE
HOLY WATERS

Hadley Music Group
HMG1005

Holy Waters is singer/songwriter Donna Ulisse’s third release since moving, in 2007, to the bluegrass genre from the country genre. As the name implies, it is a gospel recording, one that includes 13 tracks, of which Ulisse wrote or cowrote 12. Carter Stanley’s moving “Who Will Sing For Me?” is the one cover and a good one. The support is spare, as would befit a Stanley tune and as dictated by the lyrics, but Ulisse has chosen to give it a wash of contemporary production that fills all the empty space. In doing so, she has managed to recast a classic and still make it easily the most memorable track on the entire recording.

“Caney Creek To Canaan Land,” “To My Soul I Do,” and “My Jesus” make approaches to the level of Carter’s song, but do not match it. They settle at a just a notch below. “Caney Creek…,” with its abrupt attentionfreezing stop at the front of the chorus, opens the album with a strong beat and a good message. “To My Soul I Do,” a couple tracks later, is a slow, modal tune that finds Ulisse’s vocals paired with solo banjo in the opening. Full band support gradually enters, building in intesity, before releasing to a nice fade of fiddle and banjo, keeping in step with the old-time flavor of the tune. Closing the recording is “My Jesus,” a slow, graceful song on which Ulisse’s vocals are reminiscent of Dolly Parton.

Holy Waters is a likeable album of well-written gospel, supported by a strong cast of Keith Sewell, Andy Leftwich, Scott Vestal, Byron House, and Rob Ickes. Having some additional songs that stay in the ear, as does the Stanley tune, would have made it even better. (Hadley Music Group, 1029 17th Ave., Nashville TN 37212, www.hadleymusicgroup.com.) BW

Audie Blaylock And Redline - Cryin' Heart Blues

Audie Blaylock and Redline - Cryin Heart Blues

Audie Blaylock and Redline - Cryin' Heart Blues

AUDIE BLAYLOCK AND REDLINE
CRYIN’ HEART BLUES

Rural Rhythm
1060

There’s a masterful, assured energy on Cryin’ Heart Blues that jumps right out at you on the title track/opener of this 13-song collection.

Texas-born Audie Blaylock, four-time IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year and alumnus of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, produced his most recent release. And he and his support ensemble, Redline (Evan Ward, banjo/vocals; Patrick McAvinue, fiddle/mandolin/vocals; and Matt Wallace, bass/vocals), imbue these tracks with irresistible mainstream bluegrass artistry and confidence throughout.

Whether these guys are unlimbering their formidable talents on a Carter Stanley classic (“Let’s Part The Best Of Friends”), an old Jimmy Martin gospel staple (“Pray The Clouds Away”), a contemporary honky-tonker (Keith Stegall’s “Matches”) or a reprise of a ’50s Ray Price country hit (“Talk To Your Heart”), the result is first-rate.

If artistry and authenticity still really are bywords, then Cryin’ Heart Blues assures Blaylock’s place among the leading ranks of bluegrass’s headliners. (Rural Rhythm Records, Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BA

Statement - Around The Corner

Statement - Around The Corner

Statement - Around The Corner

STATEMENT
AROUND THE CORNER

Mountain Fever Records
MFR 1000201

Statement is a young gospel bluegrass band that comes out with a no-holds-barred approach to witness through bluegrass music. Vocalist Ashlee Blankenship sets the stage with her fine vocal on the opening cut, “What A Beautiful Day,” and the boys follow with instruments at the ready. There is fine picking from every one here: Josh Blankenship on mandolin, Trent Cox on guitar, Jimmy Creed on bass, and Josh Underwood on banjo. Vocals are shared.

A first-rate production by Sammy Shelor and Mark Hodges, this project is a platform for the band to express their faith and present some of their songs. The two Joshes wrote six of the fourteen tracks. Additionally, they draw from Albert Brumley for “He Set Me Free” (which shares the same melody as “I Saw The Light”). They also include the old classics “Stand Up For Jesus” and “I Surrender All.” They do a fine job on their original material, which shows much promise for the future.

The vocals and picking throughout are first-class. This young band will please all fans of bluegrass gospel—a well-produced and performed recording project. This is highly recommended for fans of hot picking and solid gospel singing in the bluegrass mold. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 34280, www.mountainfever.com.) RCB

Nate Grower

Nate Grower

Nate Grower

NATE GROWER

Patuxent Music
CD193

The first thing you hear is the clean guitar run from Jordan Tice, setting a progressive bluegrass tone to this recording. Then Grower’s fiddle comes in and you realize that Tom Mindte of Patuxent Music has found yet another stellar young talent. Grower grew up in Western New York where he became engrossed in learning the fiddle. He picked up enough classical training to give him great tone and intonation. His grasp of the fiddle is obvious from the first track, an original tune.

The settings are very progressive. Tice’s arrangement of the traditional West Virginia tune, “Big Sciota” starts out a tad sweet, but takes on a life of its own so that it comes to life as the players explore the depth that’s inherent in the tune. Grower goes on to explore bluegrass classics such as “Fire On The Mountain,” which features a killer mandolin/fiddle duet with Danny Knicely, and a powerhouse break by the best-kept banjo secret in the nation’s capitol, Mike Mumford. Another great old West Virginia favorite via Jenes Cottrell, is “The Cherry River Line,” featuring an overdubbed Mark Schatz on clawhammer banjo and bass. The arrangement is old-time on overdrive, but is not Grower’s best work.

Perhaps the most impressive cut is “Kansas City Kitty,” where Grower struts his swinging improvisational skills with aplomb. Throughout the project, Grower shows himself to be one of the younger folks to keep your eye on. His chops are real, and his tone and timing nearly impeccable. His reading of “Leon Kenningtron Waltz” is a thing of wonder. He acquits himself well, playing lead as well as backup. He has strong original material and is surrounded by talented, experienced players. The end result is one of the most satisfying fiddle projects in some time. While he dabbles in old-time and swing, Grower is first and foremost a bluegrass fiddler and, as that, is one to watch.(Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB

The Infamous Stringdusters - Things That Fly

The Infamous Stringdusters - Things That Fly

The Infamous Stringdusters - Things That Fly

THE INFAMOUS STRINGDUSTERS
THINGS THAT FLY

Sugar Hill 4059

On their third outing, the Infamous Stringdusters have released, by far, their richest and most musically satisfying CD. Covering a broad, cinematic sweep of themes and emotions ranging from poverty, death and loss, finding true love and following the true path in life, the band displays a mesmerizing blend of great songwriting, wonderful singing, and highly creative musical arrangement. Over 13 gorgeous tracks crafted with expert care by the band and coproducer Gary Pacoza, Things That Fly reveals a band at the height of its creative powers, able to blend such disparate influences as Irish rockers U2 on “In God’s Country” with the straight from the still bluegrass sensibilities of Jody Stecher’s classic “17 Cents,” all the while making it seem natural and unaffected.

In a recent interview, mandolinist Jesse Cobb said the band’s goal with this project was to create a sweeping statement that freed them from previous stylistic boundaries, and that’s just what they’ve achieved here. It won’t please hard-core traditionalists; the band lacks a clear vocal identity, with multiple vocalists taking turns as the lead voice. Lovers of classic bluegrass lead and harmony singing won’t find much here to enjoy. And the production here is often drenched in reverb, such as the coda of “You Can’t Stop The Changes,” or adds keyboards or even some percussion to certain tracks to emphasize the rock influenced rhythms.

But perhaps no modern bluegrass band is more skilled in crafting catchy, progressive bluegrass songs that deliver memorable melodies and powerful lyrics. Just listen to originals such as “Those Who’ve Gone On,” “All The Same,” “Taking A Chance On The Truth,” or “It’ll Be Alright” to hear what classic modern bluegrass should sound like. The ’Dusters are the cutting edge of progressive bluegrass these days, creative and inventive without straying so far over the line that their music cannot stand alongside previous innovators in the genre. It’s not for everyone, but audiences willing to accept the creative power and unique voice of the band will find Things That Fly enormously rewarding. This is a band bursting with creative ideas, creating instant classic modern tunes and arrangements that push forward the boundaries of bluegrass and progressive acoustic music. Highly recommended. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. 120897,

Nashville, TN 37212, www.sugarhillrecords.com.) DJM

Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg - Farewell Trion

Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg - Farewell Trion

Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg - Farewell Trion

CHRIS COOLE & IVAN ROSENBERG
FAREWELL TRION

VoleOTone Records
VOT 2139

Nearly a lifetime ago, Folkways released an album called Persistence And Change In The Blue Ridge. That describes this project very well. The music predates our time. The delivery and sensitivity with which the music is performed is contemporary. Great music persists and survives the changes in interpretation. It not only survives, it blooms.

Who would think that an album based upon clawhammer banjo and resonator guitar would work so well? Chris Coole is the primary banjo player. He is an accomplished player and his understated approach is richer for it. By taking it back, deep into the mountains, he breathes new life into the old evergreen, “John Hardy,” making it something appealing and new. The intertwining of the resonator guitar and banjo is compelling in its sonority. On an original tune, “Carolyn Sanaskol,” John Reischman adds his fine mandolin playing to the duo.

With the exception of one other original, the material is traditional. Skipping intermediary sources, they bypass the Carter Family and go to the Carters’ source, Leslie Riddle, for “Cannonball Blues.” Coole’s fingerpicked guitar is derived from Riddle’s fine version of this song. Coole’s lead vocals get to the core of the songs and add much to this fine project; the vocals are refined with the right amount of edge.

There is a wide variety of music here and Rosenberg’s reading of “In The Garden” on resonator guitar captures the feel of Brother Oswald at his best, then proceeds to take it to a new place altogether in his masterful touch with the old hymn.

Strong material, rich vocals, and highly accomplished musicianship place this project at the top of the list. The careful juxtaposition of the old and new bring a depth to the performances that only comes with a true knowledge of the genre. When a CD keeps working its way to the number one spot in your listening priorities, it has to have that special something. This humble recording does. (Chris Coole, 540 Quebec Ave., Toronto, ON, M6P 2V7, Canada, www.chriscoole.com.) RCB

Sierra Hull - Secrets, Songs & Tunes

Sierra Hull - Secrets, Songs, & Tunes

Sierra Hull - Secrets, Songs, & Tunes

AcuTab, No Number.
Two DVDs and tab booklet, $50.
AcuTab Publications, P.O. Box 21061, Roanoke, VA 24018

Since she burst onto the bluegrass scene as a child, Sierra Hull has generated the kind of buzz previously seen around mandolin players such as Chris Thile, Sam Bush, and her hero, Adam Steffey. With the release of her first instructional DVD, Secrets, Songs & Tunes, Sierra Hull now takes a big step forward in developing her reputation as one of the best mandolin players on the scene today. This excellent twoDVD set with a companion notation/TAB booklet stands firmly alongside previous AcuTab projects as the best in the industry for production values, teaching value, and pure entertainment.

Sierra demonstrates no sense of nerves as she calmly answers questions from John Lawless and thoughtfully demonstrates key elements to her solos, intros, and outros to her Secrets CD. She talks in detail about her left-hand technique on chop chords and how her diminutive right-hand size led her to begin using her ring finger to post up to keep her heel from muting the strings. Right-hand technique, stringskipping, and pick direction, including a great discussion about how she will practice using an upstroke instead of a downstroke to start key phrases and licks to give her a different tone and to improve her technique, offer lots of fascinating insight here.

The DVDs are divided into easily understood sections, with Lawless interviewing Hull first about the cut, followed by her playing through each section and explaining the fingerings and other key concepts. These sections will be especially valuable to the beginning player who needs to understand basic concepts such as hammerons, slides, and Hull’s masterful righthand techniques.

Each tune is followed by a splitview twocamera shot in standard and slow time. This is where the advanced player will grab key techniques and learn material most quickly. Finally, she follows up with a full band performance of each piece, backed by bluegrass stars Ron Block, Barry Bales, and Kenny Smith.

Given the thoroughly professional level of lighting, sound, and video, and the keen cooperation between Lawless and Hull in presenting the material clearly, there’s almost nothing here to criticize. One failure is the lack of detailed chord charts, which on tunes such as “Smashville” (when she goes through a detailed explanation of how she chose the chord voicings) pose a serious drawback to a beginning player who may have no idea how to play the chords she’s naming. But that’s a minor quibble. Secrets, Songs & Tunes will delight anyone who enjoys precise, melodic bluegrass mandolin and wants to incorporate some of her special magic into their own playing. Highly recommended. DJM

Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac - Take Off

Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac - Take Off

Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac - Take Off

DARREN BEACHLEY & LEGENDS OF THE POTOMAC
TAKE OFF

Patuxent Music
PXCD 210

For decades, the greater Washington, D.C., region has been an incubator for great bluegrass and newgrass bands, both long-lived (Seldom Scene) and ephemeral (Chesapeake). Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac is the latest supergroup to emerge from this ever-shifting constellation, and its name pays homage to the region’s glorious tradition.

Though this band is fresh to the scene, the faces in it certainly aren’t. All five members of Legends—Beachley, tenor vocals/guitar; Mike Auldridge, resonator guitar/pedal steel guitar/vocals; Norman Wright, mandolin/vocals; Mark Delaney, banjo/guitar; and Tom Gray, acoustic bass—are veterans of acclaimed ensembles from whose shadows Legends Of The Potomac has emerged. Not surprisingly, there’s a strong sense of continuity in the music, as well. The rich, impeccable harmonies, the clean, spacious production, and imaginative song choices conjure up immediate and positive comparisons with formative bands like the Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen.

These 14 tracks include blasts from the distant and not so distant past, such as the Louvin Brothers’ “You’ll Forget” and “Leavin’ And Sayin’ Goodbye” (a ’70s Faron Young “countrypolitan” hit). But, there is also a healthy offering of noteworthy new material, including a pair of ballads, “Other Side Of Lonely” and “Love Don’t Know,” penned by Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis.

Most satisfying is “Tall Weeds And Rust,” a powerful and timely ballad about losing an ancestral forty acres to suburban sprawl and blight. Cowritten by Don Rigsby, Tom T. Hall, and Dixie Hall, it features a fine guest vocal from Tom T. with stellar backing from this exceedingly accomplished new bluegrass supergroup. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) BA

Jeni & Billy - Longing For Heaven

Jeni & Billy - Longing For Heaven

Jeni & Billy - Longing For Heaven

JENI & BILLY
LONGING FOR HEAVEN

Jewell Ridge Records
005

Duet partners Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp have brought impressive measures of inspiration, artistry, and austerity in this minimalist collection of old-time ballads, heartsongs, and spirituals.

The focus of Jeni & Billy’s fourth CD, as heard on the lovely Sacred Harp classic title tune, is otherworldly affairs. A standout in this category, along with the title song, is their original, “Father Will You Meet Me In Heaven,” a powerful elegy for Johnny Cash’s older brother, Jack, who was killed in a gruesome childhood accident. The duo’s rendition of “On A Hill Lone And Gray,” inspired by Ralph Stanley, is also heartfelt and moving.

Hankins is the soulful wellspring of this collaboration. Born and raised in Virginia coal country, she brings a writer’s and singer’s finely nuanced ear to the cadences and imagery of her native Appalachia. You can hear this gift on “The Ballad Of Sally Kincaid” and “Cecil Roberts’ Hand.” These originals and others stand proud alongside covers of traditionals such as “Single Girl” and “I Saw A Man At The Close Of The Day.”

Kemp, a gifted multi-instrumentalist with an impressive list of studio and road credentials, also does some of the writing. But his major contribution is framing these songs with austere and subtle acoustic arrangements built on various combinations of guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, harmonica, and occasional fiddle from Shad Cobb. (Jewell Ridge Records, 2126 Yank Rd., Mt. Gilead, NC 27306) BA

Sweet Potato Pie - Journey Called Life

Sweet Potato Pie - Journey Called Life

Sweet Potato Pie - Journey Called Life

SWEET POTATO PIE
JOURNEY CALLED LIFE

Mountain Fever Records
MFR 100330

On their Web site, the “Pies” say this about their music: “The Pie has created a new musical style called ‘sweetgrass,’ which includes elements of country, classical, blues and bluegrass.” It’s an apt description of the rich vocals and clean picking that these women bring to their music. Opening with an a cappella version of “My Lord What A Morning,” the second track is another gem, the original “Lift Me Up” from Sonya Stead (their guitar player who wrote six of the numbers on this project). Missy Pyne contributed two numbers, and banjo picker Crystal Richardson contributed one. They draw some material from sources as diverse as A.P. Carter and Curtis Mayfield.

The full vocals prevail throughout and tasteful instrumental work showcases the singing. There is definitely a smooth, contemporary edge to their music. The music here is spiritual with a theme that is Christian, without being overly didactic. Their songs tell stories with morals. Whether they are singing their hearts out or picking in support of each other, the Pies gives it their heartfelt best. This is a fine release that should spread the good word about these ladies and their fine music. (Mountain Fever Studios, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.) RCB

The Grascals - The Famous Lefty Flynn's

The Grascals - The Famous Lefty Flynn's

The Grascals - The Famous Lefty Flynn's

THE GRASCALS
THE FAMOUS LEFTY FLYNN’S

Rounder Records
11661-0641-2

Ah, those rascals the Grascals! They burst onto the scene five years ago with their Nashville-style of bluegrass—crowd-pleasing in-your-face energy, a big rousing sound driven as much by soaring vocals as searing instrumentals, a repertoire largely drawn from their own writing and that of contemporary country songsmiths, but staunchly acoustic and never more than a bluesy inflection away from traditional roots. Now comes their fourth album, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s. If anything, this talented six-some seems on track to being even hotter, fulfilling the promise shown by their past IBMA Emerging Artist and Entertainer Of The Year awards.

The two most recent additions (fiddler Jeremy Abshire and banjo picker Kristin Scott Benson) finally make their recording debuts with the group. They fit so well with Grascal charter members Terry Eldredge (guitar and vocals), Jamie Johnson (guitar and vocals), Danny Roberts (mandolin), and Terry Smith (bass and vocals), it seems as if they’ve been picking together since childhood. It’s clear this latest lineup is another winner right from the kickoff track “Last Train To Clarksville,” a rocking, swaying, wildly successful bluegrass rendering of the hit by The Monkees.

It’s not just about heat and flash, though. There’s plenty of warmth and light here, too. After years of sidemen’s experience with the likes of the Osborne Brothers, Larry Stephenson, Dolly Parton, and Jimmy Martin, and as the leaders of their own ensembles, the Grascals know when to ratchet it up to another level, and also when to glide it to another plane. The title track, the instrumental “Blue Rock Slide,” and the gospel numbers “Satan And Grandma” and “Give Me Jesus” are all the more affecting and enjoyable for their simplicity and restraint.

The Grascals’ connection to the Osborne Brothers is especially strong: Eldredge and Smith were Osborne sidemen; Benson backed the Osborne-influenced Larry Stephenson; Bobby Osborne guested in concert with the original lineup; and Sonny Osborne contributes liner notes here. But, the Grascals are not mere imitators. The Osborne influence adds gloriously to their general sound and to the success of this album. They’ve recorded two Osborne classics here — the rip sawing “Son Of A Sawmill Man” and the strutting “Up This Hill and Down” – an act as courageous as it was appreciative. Two-time IBMA Banjo Player Of The Year, Kristin ably fills the Chief’s banjo picks, and Johnson just nails the lead vocals.

The arrangements of the Johnson/Smith/Roberts song “My Baby’s Waiting On The Other Side” and Jeremy Montgomery Parsons’ “Out Comes The Sun” echo with the keening, top tenor-driven Osborne Brothers sound while perfectly suiting these superb originals.

Rounding out things is guest vocalist Hank Williams, Jr., on “Blue And Lonesome” (called here “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”), a song written by his father Hank, Sr., for good friend Bill Monroe during a package tour (which, sadly, they only sang informally backstage and never recorded together). Hank, Jr., channels his lonesome side in a solid performance. (Rounder Records Corp., One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) RDS

Nu Blu - Nights

Nu-Blu - Nights

Nu-Blu - Nights

NU-BLU
NIGHTS

No Label
RS0002

Along about the seventh track, NuBlu hits a foursong run that lifts this album to a higher level. Until that point, the music is pleasant but ordinary, though not without its moments.

One of those moments is on Nanci Griffith’s “Spin On A Red Brick Floor,” a light, airy tune with a bouyant pulse. Griffith is a master of tuneful, conversational lyricwriting, and this one shows that well. Hearing the words was a little difficult, as lead singer/bassist Carolyn Routh’s voice was mixed a bit too far into the instrumental backing, but on a whole this is the best song on the CD. “How Do I Move On,” written by Routh and her singer/guitarist husband Daniel, is another good moment.

That’s two out of six. The other four in the first-half are as stated before—pleasant but ordinary. Fortunately, “In And Out Of Love,” “River Of Love,” “Red Haired Boy,” and “Old Black Suit” follow in short order. “In And Out…” (also by the Rouths) provides lyricism and pulse almost equal to Griffith’s. Then follows the positive message of “River…” and its revival feel, layed over an oldtime dance beat. This leads nicely to “Red Haired Boy.” You’d think there’d be little that could make this old standard fresh, but mandolinist Kendall Gales and banjoist Levi Austin find new twists that revamp the melody. The foursong run ends with a gently lilting review of a marriage that an everpresent “Old Black Suit” witnesses: Life and death has touched that old black suit. Such a wonderful image.

This is the debut release and a solid first effort for the North Carolinabased NuBlu. (Nu-Blu Bluegrass Artists, P.O. Box 681, Siler City, NC 27344, www.nublu.com.) BW

The Old Time Band - Down By The Brazos

The Old Time Band - Down By The Brazos

The Old Time Band - Down By The Brazos

THE OLD TIME BAND
DOWN BY THE BRAZOS

Hen Cackle Records
HC506

Peter Feldmann, mandolin and guitar, and Wayne Shrubsall, banjo and guitar, may not be household names across the nation, but these two gentlemen have been on the scene in various capacities with numerous groups in the southwest and California. Fiddler Bruce Thompson has been in a band with Shrubsall for thirty years and now is also in this group. They blend a great respect for the traditional American songbook with a strong disregard for categorization of this same music. In this 14-track project, we are treated to blues, cowboy songs, bluegrass, and old-time fiddle tunes.

The depth of knowledge is evident as these men play and sing with conviction. They play “Katy Hill” in an old-time style, except there is no guitar, and the fiddle, clawhammer banjo, and mandolin all take breaks. The absence of bottom end makes the tune float along very nicely. Then they tackle “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” the old Flatt & Scruggs favorite. Their spirit is very good and similar to the original version. They opened up a favorite old blues, “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing,” that comes off, well, if not as ribald as some of the older versions.

They visit repertoires of many of the old-time greats such as the Delmore Brothers, Grandpa Jones, and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. The trio medley of “Robinson County”/“Mississippi Sawyer”/“Oklahoma Rooster” not only covers a lot of geography, it demonstrates Thompson’s fine fiddling.

Feldmann, who handles the bulk of the leads, is unpretentious as a singer in the old folk-singer tradition. The depth of material is bound to please, as there are blues and humorous songs side by side by side by side in this entertaining project. There is a high level of musicianship, the picking solid, but not showy. The material is cherry-picked from the wealth of older recordings, reflecting the eclectic tastes of this trio. (Hen Cackled Records, P.O. Box 614, Los Olivos, CA 93441, www.hencacklerecords.com.) RCB

Reviews - September 2010

HIGHLIGHTS


Don Rigsby & Midnight Call - The Voice of GodDON RIGSBY & MIDNIGHT CALL
THE VOICE OF GOD

Rebel Records CD1831

Presenting a program of mature, thoughtful gospel music, Don Rigsby touches a variety of the styles within that genre. The first two tracks are quartets, the second is a cappella, each comparing favorably with anything ever recorded. A Tom T. Hall entry comes next, “Then Y’Ain’t,” which calls out the pious for their shortcomings. The writing on this project is very good. Larry Cordle wrote the title song, and Skip Ewing wrote the interesting “Gospel According To Luke,” a story that has been told before, but rarely better in song. “I Am An Orphan Child” is like the song associated with Gillian Welch, but different, with writer credits to both Welch and Rigsby.

This project has the feel of a more contemporary Christian recording. Rigsby is not afraid to step away from the bluegrass mold. “Mary Magdalene” has a folky edge to the arrangement, lending power to Rigsby’s duet with Beth Castle, telling a wellknown story from a new angle. His reading of Phil Wiggins’ “Forgiveness” is pure gospel blues; Rory Block’s fine slide guitar and vocals take it down a sacred alley. The stark solo vocal “The Lord Will Provide” shows the immense power of Rigsby’s vocals.

Paul Craft’s ironic “Charged With Being A Christian,” with its Travis-style guitar from Dale Vanderpool, is another standout in a field of strong material. The great vocals and the arrangements that set up each song do not necessarily follow the strict bluegrass format. One of the greatest accomplishments a musician can attain is to produce an album that is a complete statement. Rigsby has done that with this project.

The backup musicians include the late Gerald Evans in what might be among his final work. His fiddling is not to be missed. Rigsby plays a wide range of instruments on this project himself. The bedrock of the band, Dale Vanderpool, Robert Maynard, and Clyde Marshall on banjo, bass, and guitar, respectively, all shine throughout the project.This album goes well beyond the obvious and explores the diversity that is modern gospel music. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA, 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RCB


John Hartford String Band - Memories Of JohnJOHN HARTFORD STRINGBAND
MEMORIES OF JOHN
Red Clay Records 745392

Although John Hartford toured primarily as a solo song and dance man for much of his career, his later years featured the extraordinary support of the John Hartford Stringband. A decade after the great man’s passing, Chris Sharp reassembled bandmates Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Mark Schatz, and Matt Combs to pay tribute to a unique American music treasure who looked straight down the barrel of pop music and TV success and decided that he preferred Flatt & Scruggs and Ed Haley. That he loved both equally allowed him to navigate seamlessly between oldtime and bluegrass.

Memories Of John captures that fluid recognition that it is all string band music, whether the bluegrass of “Love Grown Cold” or the Ohio Valley fiddle music of the kickoff track, “Three Forks Of Sandy.” The material delights of this album come from three basic areas. The first consists of two demos that John recorded more than forty years ago. Mark and Eileen Schatz worked “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” into a finished track, while the closing “Fade Out” appears just as Hartford left it.

The second and perhaps most intriguing set consists of previously unreleased Hartford compositions, most intended for a Hartford Stringband project that he did not live to record. All three were well worth the wait, especially the delightful “Madison Tennessee” and live favorite “Homer The Roamer.”

The remaining ten selections include a Schatz’ tribute poem “For John,” two Ed Haley tunes, the classic “Lorena” sung by Tim O’Brien, and renditions of six Hartford originals. Most of the latter feature John’s friends joining the Stringband. O’Brien sings and Alison Brown plays John’s banjo on a version of “M.I.S.I.P.” that stays close to the original. Alan O’Bryant brings his unmistakable voice to “Delta Queen Waltz,” the same song he sang at John’s funeral. Béla Fleck delivers a captivating personal interpretation of John’s banjo style on “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” And if that’s not enough, the album and several tracks start with John’s instructions to the band, all from previous rehearsal tapes.

The John Hartford String Band has succeeded in creating in just one package an excellent new John Hartford album, a wonderful tribute to John and his music, and a real world demonstration that bluegrass and oldtime don’t have to be an either/or proposition. (Red Clay Records, 916 19th Ave South; Nashville, TN 37212, www.redclayrecords.com.) AM


Nora Jane Struthers

NORA JANE STRUTHERS
Blue Pig Music BPM 1111

Remember the name Nora Jane Struthers, because you’ll probably be hearing it in the near future in conjunction with bluegrass awards for best emerging artist and top female vocalist. Her selftitled debut CD is, simply put, a marvel that combines brilliant songcraft, a sultry yet honey-hued voice, and an inspired sense of personal musical style.

Blessed with a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between Sarah Jarosz and Laurie Lewis, Struthers immediately enters the front ranks of female bluegrass vocalists with this release. She can sing a mournful murder ballad in the first person on “Willie,” belt out a bluegrass wailer on “Greenbrier County,” warble a dazzling western tune on “Cowgirl Yodel #3,” and murmur a gentle lullaby on the traditional “Say Darlin’ Say”—all with equal ease and aplomb.

Backed by Nashville stars Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien, Brent Truitt, Stuart Duncan, Shawn Lane, and Scott Vestal, she easily avoids the trap of sounding like an overproduced commercial project. Buoyed by her confidence in singing her own songs, she soars and enthralls instead of sounding like the studio band is overpowering her. Writing with a clear-eyed traditional sensibility typically seen only in writers of the caliber of Gillian Welch and Tim O’Brien, her songs sound immediately like pre-modern classics that ache for other artists to pick them up and include in their own repertoire. What was that name again? Nora Jane Struthers. Once you hear this CD, there’s no way you’ll forget it. Highly recommended. (Blue Pig Music, P.O. Box 68159, Nashville, TN 37206, www.norajanestruthers.com.) DJM

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie - SouthernBILL EMERSON AND SWEET DIXIE
SOUTHERN
Rural Rhythm
RHY1053

Bill Emerson established his bluegrass cred a long time ago, going back to his days with the Country Gentlemen and a memorable stint with Jimmy Martin. On his new album Southern, backed by his band Sweet Dixie, Emerson is in fine form once again with a solid collection of traditional bluegrass.
What I like about Southern, first and foremost, is the song selection. There are tunes written by Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Pete Goble, Carl Jackson, Tim Stafford, Hazel Dickens, and Chris Hillman, just to name a few. Stepping up with most of the lead vocals is the familiar voice of Tom Adams, who also plays the majority of guitar. Bassist Teri Chism sings lead on three cuts including “I Can’t Find Your Love Anymore” and “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain.” The rest of the band includes Emerson on banjo and Wayne Lanham on mandolin. Sharing the fiddle duties are guests Rickie Simpkins and Frank Solivan with John Miller adding rhythm and lead guitar on two cuts.
The highlights for me on this album are songs about the rural roots of the music, something that contemporary bluegrass is moving away from in these modern times. The best examples include an old school country music take on Vince Gill’s “Life In The Old Farm Town,” Cartwright’s song about the rural life left behind called “Old Coal Town,” and a good old West Virginia song written by Pete Goble titled “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo.” The album ends with two originals—a wonderful instrumental written by Janet Davis called “Grandma’s Tattoos” that features Davis in a duet on banjo with Emerson and the Tom Adams-penned gospel number, “The Lord Will Light The Way.” (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DH

Dirty River - Graveyard Train

DIRTY RIVER
GRAVEYARD TRAIN
No Label
No Number

Local and regional bluegrass bands often feel tension between the desire to attract an audience by playing familiar cover songs and the creative impulse to come up with a fresh and identifiable sound. Lean too far toward the former and the band winds up undistinguished, lacking any real identity, while straying too far the other direction can lead the band away from the general bluegrass audience. Dirty River, based in the Washington, D.C., area, has done a fine job of balancing those conflicting pressures on Graveyard Train.

The band reflects the progressive tradition of bluegrass music in the Washington area forged by the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Cliff Waldron, and many others. Graveyard Train features a nicely balanced mix of original tunes, along with the familiar bluegrass classics “Deep Elem Blues” and “Cherokee Shuffle” and some tunes imported from outside the genre, but adapted well to bluegrass. The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” is a bit of a novelty, but Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” makes a dandy, harddriving bluegrass tune.

Five of the fourteen songs are original material from bandmembers Billy Park and Evan Sands, and resonator guitar player Michael Barton also contributes a couple of nice instrumentals. The material is topnotch and well-suited to the band’s style. While the band doesn’t feature the strongest of vocals (lead singers on individual tracks are not identified), the skillful performances reflect a lot of intelligent consideration to arrangements and delivery.

Dirty River is a band that bears watching in the future and Graveyard Train is a strong debut recording well worth making an effort to track down. (Dirty River, 531 Brent Rd., Rockville, MD 20850, www.dirtyriverdc.com.) AWIII

The Earl Brothers

THE EARL BROTHERS
Big Hen Music
0004#

One thing the Earl Brothers had going for them on their previous (2006) release was their dedication to the stark musical sound and stark world view offered by the traditional bands of the ’40s and ’50s, and that dedication hasn’t changed with this album. The Stanley Brothers, circa their time on WCYB in Bristol, come instantly to mind when this disc plays. Several of the tracks here sound as if they could have come from those long ago sessions—almost.

Banjoist Robert Earl Davis, who wrote and sings lead on 11 of the 12 songs, has a different vocal sound than Carter or Ralph. There’s more of Dwight Yoakam in his sound and delivery. “Walk In The Light,” a gospel number in 3/4 time, comes the closest to the Stanley sound of that time. Tremelo mandolin from Larry Hughes starts and the song lopes easily into lyrics written in that older, declaritive, firstperson style. “Troubles” and “Going Back Home” (also both in 3/4 time), “Cold And Lonesome,” and the modal “Thinking Of You” are also fine, wellcrafted songs that match well with songs of that period.

What has changed most about the band since that first recording is the confidence in which it is presented. The band has tightened its chops, and Davis has honed his singing and songwriting. The solos of fiddler Tom Lucas and banjoist Davis remain basic and have an ensemble quality about them. When the band now offers their music, they’re no longer searching for technique and feeling. They’ve found it. (Earl Brothers, 72 Belcher St., San Francisco, CA 94114, www.earlbrothers.com.) BW

The High 48s - Up North

THE HIGH 48S
UP NORTH
No Label
No Number

Judging from the contents of their third release, the High 48s won the 2008 Rocky Grass band competition with a combination of confident picking and lots of original songs, especially for a somewhat traditional sounding band. Their energy and atavistic attire brings to mind the Johnson Mountain Boys of thirty years ago. Three decades of removal from bluegrass music’s early days, however, means the High 48s have a more progressive neotrad sound than the JMB. The 75 percent original material also distinguishes the Minnesota quintet.

Fiddler Eric Christopher provides two tunes and banjo player Anthony Ihrig composed “Darrington” in tribute to the bluegrass hometown of the northwest. The tune features guests Mike Compton and Randy Kohrs whose bubbly breaks resolve the tension between Ihrig’s modern take and Christopher’s traditional response. Compton also plays on Christopher’s “Little Odessa.” Bassman Rich Casey and Johnson’s brother, Chad, on mandolin complete the band.

All three covers receive excellent treatment. They include a slower tempo version of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” and “Paul and Silas” from the Stanleys, along with “Dirty Old Town” from “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” composer Ewan McColl. Guitarist Derek Johnson offers five solid compositions. “Easy To Get Lost,” “The Cliffs Of Red Wing,” and especially the fine uptempo bluegrass song “Shoes,” are quite good, if not extraordinarily original. The other pair are limited from a bit too much DNA still remaining from songs that most likely influenced them. You can still hear melodic traces of “Two Highways” in the family tree of the title track and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” in “Sad Lonesome Eyes.”

Christopher, who also fiddles with the James King Band, proves clearly the instrumental star of a tight and expressive band. Ihrig provides a worthy counterpart above a reliable rhythm section. It is always refreshing to hear a bluegrass band whose vocals aren’t exclusively trios and quartets. The High 48s may go too far the other way. Derek Johnson is a good lead singer, but they take too little advantage of the sibling duet. “Paul & Silas” is a happy exception and a model for building a distinctive vocal sound on the duet. The High 48s have areas for improvement, but certainly should be playing much more outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (The High 48s, 701 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102, www.thehigh48s.com.) AM

Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Bluegrass II

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY
BUCKAROO BLUE GRASS II: RIDING SONG
Rural Rhythm
RHY 1056

Buckaroo Blue Grass II: Riding Song is the followon to Michael Martin Murphey’s 2009 release that featured acoustic versions of some of his most familiar hits. Like the earlier effort, this album recreates bluegrassinfluenced arrangements of familiar originals. Murphey, who wrote all but one of the twelve cuts, has assembled a stellar collection of bluegrass musicians to join him here, and the result is a rich, satisfying sound, bluegrass in essence, but with a decidedly country feel.

Harddriving cuts such as “Blue Sky Riding Song” and “Running Blood,” powered by Charlie Cushman on banjo and Andy Leftwich on fiddle, ought to satisfy any bluegrass fan, but there is also some coloring outside of the lines on the swingy “Rollin’ Nowhere” and the decidedly newgrassy “Renegade.” Perhaps the strongest cut—at least in strict bluegrass terms—is “Running Gun,” powered by some killer lead guitar by Audie Blaylock but, oddly enough, also the only tune here that Murphey didn’t write. All in all, the songs translate well to a more acoustic sound—better than we might have expected from familiarity with the original versions. That’s not surprising considering the high level of talent contributed by Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Andy Hall, Pat Flynn, Troy Engle, and Ronnie McCoury.

Worthy of special attention is the version of Murphey’s megahit “Wildfire” performed as a duet with the fabulous Carrie Hassler. The laidback pace feels much like the original, but with Hassler’s powerful voice complementing Murphey’s softer delivery, there’s an emotional edge that makes it the highlight of a strong recording. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AWIII

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio - Just A Little Closer Home

PAUL WILLIAMS & THE VICTORY TRIO
JUST A LITTLE CLOSER HOME
Rebel Records
REBCD1835

Mandolinist/singer Paul Williams didn’t compose “Living The Right Life Now,” the opening song on his great new CD Just A Little Closer Home, but it could be almost biographical.

Williams was a key member of Jimmy Martin’s landmark Sunny Mountain Boys band in the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with a talented young banjo player named J.D. Crowe). But, by 1963, he had wearied of secular music. Then, in 1995, he reemerged as a superlative performer of bluegrass gospel. His album Old Ways And New Paths was nominated in 2000 for a Grammy award in the category of Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel. His latest release is a beautifully realized collection that should attract a wide audience.

Williams’ voice remains astonishingly pure, like that of a church choir boy. His backing group, the Victory Trio, has expanded and its members are all fine: Don Moneyhun (low tenor and lead vocals; guitar), Adam Winstead (baritone vocals; rhythm guitar), Jerry Keys (bass vocals; banjo), and Susie Keys (acoustic bass), plus guest artist Kevin Jackson (fiddle). Williams himself deserves praise for a clean mandolin style that is as engaging and enjoyable as his singing.

Williams wrote the Jimmy Martin gospel classics “I Like To Hear Them Preach It” and “Prayer Bells Of Heaven.” Although he didn’t write any of the songs on Just A Little Closer Home, he still has a golden ear for material. Among the many standout tracks on this album include Moneyhun’s “I’ve Been Set Free,” Key’s “There’s Still Time,” and the inspirational “Someone Made The Sandals Jesus Wore” by Tom T. and Dixie Hall.

Paul Williams could lay claim to being one of the greatest bluegrass gospel performers of all time. Being a modest man, he probably wouldn’t say that. But, I will, because it’s true. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RDS

Snyder Family Band - Comin' On Strong

SNYDER FAMILY BAND
COMIN’ ON STRONG
Mountain Roads
MMR 1009

The Snyder Family Band is Bud Snyder (father) on bass, 10yearold Samantha on fiddle, and 14 yea rold Zeb on guitar. Zeb plays banjo on Samantha’s original song, “The Great Civil War.” Samantha also wrote the gospel tune “What Will You Say.” Bud’s wife, Laine, sings harmony vocals on some cuts. Samantha’s fiddling and Zeb’s guitar playing both have a progressive feel with lots of swing. Both demonstrate complete command of their instruments and play fluidly. Samantha sings lead very well for someone so young, but the harmonies are stronger than her solos. “Heaven’s Bright Shore” and Tim May’s “King Of Babylon” both have lovely harmony singing.

The CD opens with the traditional Texas fiddle tune, “Cattle In The Cane,” followed by Charlie Bowman’s “East Tennessee Blues.” Samantha’s fiddle and Zeb’s guitar are also featured on “Faded Love,” “Red Haired Boy,” “Star Of The County Down,” and “Bill Cheatham.” Zeb really shines on “Steel Guitar Rag.”

Samantha and Zeb already display lots of talent. Based on this very promising second recording, the bluegrass community can look forward to lots of great entertainment from these young virtuosos. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) SAG

The Special Consensus - 35

SPECIAL CONSENSUS
35
Compass Records
745412

Can it really be 35 years since Special Consensus emerged as one of the best new progressive bands on the bluegrass scene? Time flies as fast as Special Consensus charter member and banjo picker Greg Cahill’s three finger rolls. Now, the band’s music and history are celebrated by the album 35.

The Chicago based Special Consensus has always merged elements of mainstream bluegrass with the blues, swing, and country to present a refreshing sound. Cahill, a bright and inventive picker, as well as a versatile vocalist, has remained its touchstone.

This new CD is enjoyable and well-conceived. Half the tracks are new recordings with the band’s current lineup: Cahill, Ryan Thomas (guitar and vocals), Rick Faris (mandolin and vocals), and David Thomas (bass and vocals). Cahill does well keeping up with these youngsters, as evidenced on his instrumental “Danny’s Dance.” Faris, Roberts, and Thomas also contribute great original songs on the CD’s first half.

The other tracks are taken from now outofprint Special Consensus albums from 1983 to 1998. It’s worthwhile to find how many superb musicians have been part of this outfit. (One outstanding example is the Chicago musician Don Stiernberg who contributed a sturdy mandolin break in 1991 to the song “Fourteen Carat Mind” and then went on to become one of the most enjoyable acoustic jazz mandolinists ever.)

The music here is consistently fine, both vocally and instrumentally. The creative emphasis on original material is noteworthy. It’s been a very fine 35 years. If you’ve never picked up a Special Consensus album, their new collection 35 is definitely the place to start. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212 www.compassrecords.com.) RDS

ON THE EDGE

Becky Schlegel - Dandelion

BECKY SCHLEGEL
DANDELION
Lilly Ray Music
LRR 901

Years ago, Becky Schlegel was featured at a songwriter’s showcase, and hearing her songs in a spare duo setting left a lasting impression. After a few albums in a bluegrass context, her latest release Dandelion is a departure into a differently textured Americana sound with only light and subtle bluegrass influences. And, you know? It suits her voice and her songs perfectly.

While banjos take a prominent role in more uptempo songs such as “Colorado Line” and “Don’t Leave It Up To Me,” her plaintive voice is complemented by the gentler settings of “The Way You Are” and “If I Were A Poet,” while Randy Kohrs’ tasty resonator guitar work is nicely interwoven with pedal steel and light percussion. Touches of electric instrumentation enhance the moods of “Nowhere Bound” and the title track without sacrificing either song’s intimacy.

The bluegrass world is understandably protective about having its homegrown talent move beyond its stylistic boundaries, and this CD may represent more of an experiment than a career transition. But it’s hard to deny that Becky Schlegel’s songs and voice are wellserved by the arrangements and instrumentation here. Talent like hers deserves to be heard, and Dandelion could take this Minnesota-native to national recognition. (Lilly Ray Records, P.O. Box 41004, Nashville, TN 37204, www.lillyraymusic.com.) HK

Cherry Holmes IV - Common Threads

CHERRYHOLMES IV
COMMON THREADS
Skaggs Family Records
69890220212

On their latest release, the Cherryholmes completely leave behind their origins as a uniquely talented bluegrass family-band act and step into new musical forms that may best be called alt.grass. Recalling some of the sophisticated sonic forms and modern lyric and melodic approaches pioneered by modern bluegrass bands like Infamous Stringdusters and Cadillac Sky, the Cherryholmes under the eye of producer Ben Issacs have crafted a decidedly daring and bold statement here.

The band explores some highly personal territory on the topics of love, betrayal, and deception through the dark moody songs penned by Cia Cherryholmes, who shows here that she’s becoming a leader in modern country songcraft. Her sultry “Just You” could easily break out as a major country hit. As always, the band relies heavily on contemporary gospel forms for some of its most rousing material, including the hard-driving “Standing” and the deep, groovepowered “Changed In A Moment.” And, it wouldn’t be a Cherryholmes project without highpowered instrumental work from Skip on guitar, Cia on banjo, and the soaring twin fiddles of Molly and B.J., especially on the closing track “Tattoo Of A Smudge.”

It’s certainly been a long road for this band, from cutesy and “How’d those kids do that?” to the mature statement presented here. Whether longtime fans will come along for the ride is yet to be seen, but it’s certain from Common Threads that the Cherryholmes won’t be resting on their much deserved laurels anytime soon. (Skaggs Family Records, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.) DJM

The Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays

THE FAREWELL DRIFTERS
YELLOW TAG MONDAYS
Heart Squeeze Records
HS2K101

It’s been a difficult process writing this review of the Farewell Drifters’ “national debut” album, because I can’t stop playing the first three tracks. “Love We Left Behind” starts the disc with a gentle twin guitar attack from lead vocalist Zach Bevill and lead guitarist Clayton Britt followed up by gorgeous, soaring harmonies along with tasty fiddle from Christian Sedelmyer and tasteful backing banjo from guest Trevor Brandt.

“Everyone Is Talking” is more reliant on Brandt’s swinging rhythm while showcasing Bevill’s confident, engaging vocals and more great harmonies. (Mandolinist Joshua Britt and bassist Dean Marold are also credited with vocal backup, but there’s not a trackbytrack breakdown of who sings what.) The third track is a stunning arrangement of the Beatles’ “For No One” that sounds like a collaboration between Simon & Garfunkel and the early Seldom Scene.

That should be enough to grab you, especially since the rest of this inventive 14track, 44minute effort follows in the same vein, with the band’s 13 original compositions reflecting additional influences like Brian Wilson, the Byrds, John Hartford, and Nickel Creek. There’s even some great bluegrass here in the tracks “Virginia Bell,” “Somewhere Down The Road,” and the instrumental “I’ve Got Your Heart In My Hand, And I’m Gonna Squeeze.” (Farewell Drifters, 1145 Fernbank Dr., Madison, TN 37115, www.thefarewelldrifters.com.) AKH

John Cowan - The Massenburg Sessions

JOHN COWAN
THE MASSENBURG SESSIONS
E1 Music
E1ECD2304

This thirteentrack, fiftyminute CD takes it’s name from producer and engineer George Massenburg (Randy Newman, Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt) with whom Cowan resolved to cut this album “live, front to back, with no overdubs and no headphones.” Cowan further spices up the pot by inviting Mike Bub, Del, Rob, and Ronnie McCoury, Maura O’Connell, Darrell Scott, John Randall Stewart, and Reese Wynans to join members of his regular band from the past few years, namely Jeff Autry (guitar, vocals), Luke Bulla (fiddle), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Tony Wray (banjo), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Shad Cobb (fiddle).

As one might expect, the star ends up being Cowan’s untamed voice that soars high on material as diverse as the traditional bluegrass of “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” (with the McCourys), the progressive grass of “My Time In The Desert,” the folk balladry of “Lakes Of Ponchartrain” (with O’Connell), and the a cappella gospel workout “Jesus Gave Me Water.”

Massenburg’s presence, along with that of Cowan’s regular band, pays off, as each of these tracks of varying styles does indeed sound crisp, fresh, and urgent. (E1 Music, 22 Harbor Park Dr., Port Washington, NY 11050, www.e1entertainment.com.) AKH

DVD

Various Artist - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Music Festival

VARIOUS ARTISTS
JUBILEE: BEST OF RENFRO VALLEY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
KET Ed. TV
No Number

Jubilee, produced by Kentucky Educational Television (KET), is one of the country’s finest music series, and since 1996 has presented a range of artists from J.D. Crowe to Roger McGuinn. This DVD (surprisingly hard to find online) is a special episode filmed at the 2008 Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival. Featured artists are Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley, the Grascals, Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition, and a few regional acts: Burchett, Morgan & 5ivespeed, the All American Bluegrass Band, Fast Lane, and the Cumberland Gap Connection.

This production is all about the music and is professionally shot with multiple cameras. The crew has extensive experience and knows when to cut to a solo or when to frame a trio. That’s a welcome change from the usual television fare where the crew doesn’t have a clue about the dynamics of a bluegrass band. What you won’t get here is any sense of the festival itself. It’s all focused on the main stage. For most bluegrass fans, that won’t matter. The show is edited by removing all betweensong talk, so all you get are the performances. Some viewers may prefer getting the full set, including stage banter, rather than just the songs, but you might appreciate not hearing the sometimes lame stage talk between songs.

All the main acts are in good form with Rhonda serving her usual high energy show (good to see Kenny Ingram on banjo). The show is a time capsule from 2008 and would be a valuable addition to any bluegrass video collection, but not essential. (KET Duplication Services, 600 Cooper Dr., Lexington, KY 40502, e-mail: shop@ket.org.) CVS

MAKE UP YOUR OWN BANJO SOLOS (2): WHAT TO PLAY WHEN IT’S YOUR TURN TO ‘TAKE IT!’ KEYS OF D, C, F, AND G (UP THE NECK)
TAUGHT BY PETE WERNICK
Homespun DVDWERS022.

One DVD, 1 hr 55 mins, $29.95. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespuntapes.com.)

This second DVD in Pete Wernick’s Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos series on Homespun concentrates on playing in the keys of C, D, E, F, and G—the last primarily up the neck. Songs include “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (D), “As I Went Down To The Valley To Pray” (D), “Angeline The Baker” (D), “Colleen Malone” (D or E), “Country Blues” (D), “New River Train” (C), “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” (C Tuning), “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (F), and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (G, up the neck).

Pete is one of the most influential banjo players and teachers of the past twenty years. His teaching style is personable and accessible and this is essentially a twohour private lesson with Pete on playing in the C and D positions and up the neck in G. What I appreciate most about Pete’s teaching is that he starts with the basic chord structure and melody of a song and emphasizes singing along with the melody. He then teaches soloing out of C and D chord positions and how to reach notes in the melody at various points along the neck.

There is a tremendous amount of information here—enough licks to satisfy people looking for those, and, more importantly, great direction on soloing by finding the melody and placing notes around it in virtually any key. The DVD also contains two computer files: a .PDF tab book of all the solos on the DVD and a Word document written by Pete on using and making your own playalong practice recordings. Both of these items add tremendous value to the video.

The two volumes in this series are well worth having as part of your library of banjo instruction material and a great place for a beginner to start on his or her jamming journey. Highly recommended for beginning to intermediate banjo players. CVS

Review: Pete Wernick - Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos 2

MAKE UP YOUR OWN BANJO SOLOS (2): WHAT TO PLAY WHEN IT’S YOUR TURN TO ‘TAKE IT!’ KEYS OF D, C, F, AND G (UP THE NECK)
TAUGHT BY PETE WERNICK
Homespun DVDWERS022.

One DVD, 1 hr 55 mins, $29.95. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespuntapes.com.)

This second DVD in Pete Wernick’s Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos series on Homespun concentrates on playing in the keys of C, D, E, F, and G—the last primarily up the neck. Songs include “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (D), “As I Went Down To The Valley To Pray” (D), “Angeline The Baker” (D), “Colleen Malone” (D or E), “Country Blues” (D), “New River Train” (C), “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” (C Tuning), “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (F), and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (G, up the neck).

Pete is one of the most influential banjo players and teachers of the past twenty years. His teaching style is personable and accessible and this is essentially a twohour private lesson with Pete on playing in the C and D positions and up the neck in G. What I appreciate most about Pete’s teaching is that he starts with the basic chord structure and melody of a song and emphasizes singing along with the melody. He then teaches soloing out of C and D chord positions and how to reach notes in the melody at various points along the neck.

There is a tremendous amount of information here—enough licks to satisfy people looking for those, and, more importantly, great direction on soloing by finding the melody and placing notes around it in virtually any key. The DVD also contains two computer files: a .PDF tab book of all the solos on the DVD and a Word document written by Pete on using and making your own playalong practice recordings. Both of these items add tremendous value to the video.

The two volumes in this series are well worth having as part of your library of banjo instruction material and a great place for a beginner to start on his or her jamming journey. Highly recommended for beginning to intermediate banjo players. CVS

Review: Don Rigsby & Midnight Call - The Voice Of God

Don Rigsby & Midnight Call - The Voice of GodDON RIGSBY & MIDNIGHT CALL
THE VOICE OF GOD

Rebel Records CD1831

Presenting a program of mature, thoughtful gospel music, Don Rigsby touches a variety of the styles within that genre. The first two tracks are quartets, the second is a cappella, each comparing favorably with anything ever recorded. A Tom T. Hall entry comes next, “Then Y’Ain’t,” which calls out the pious for their shortcomings. The writing on this project is very good. Larry Cordle wrote the title song, and Skip Ewing wrote the interesting “Gospel According To Luke,” a story that has been told before, but rarely better in song. “I Am An Orphan Child” is like the song associated with Gillian Welch, but different, with writer credits to both Welch and Rigsby.

This project has the feel of a more contemporary Christian recording. Rigsby is not afraid to step away from the bluegrass mold. “Mary Magdalene” has a folky edge to the arrangement, lending power to Rigsby’s duet with Beth Castle, telling a wellknown story from a new angle. His reading of Phil Wiggins’ “Forgiveness” is pure gospel blues; Rory Block’s fine slide guitar and vocals take it down a sacred alley. The stark solo vocal “The Lord Will Provide” shows the immense power of Rigsby’s vocals.

Paul Craft’s ironic “Charged With Being A Christian,” with its Travis-style guitar from Dale Vanderpool, is another standout in a field of strong material. The great vocals and the arrangements that set up each song do not necessarily follow the strict bluegrass format. One of the greatest accomplishments a musician can attain is to produce an album that is a complete statement. Rigsby has done that with this project.

The backup musicians include the late Gerald Evans in what might be among his final work. His fiddling is not to be missed. Rigsby plays a wide range of instruments on this project himself. The bedrock of the band, Dale Vanderpool, Robert Maynard, and Clyde Marshall on banjo, bass, and guitar, respectively, all shine throughout the project.This album goes well beyond the obvious and explores the diversity that is modern gospel music. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA, 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RCB

Review: John Hartford String Band - Memories Of John

John Hartford String Band - Memories Of JohnJOHN HARTFORD STRINGBAND
MEMORIES OF JOHN
Red Clay Records 745392

Although John Hartford toured primarily as a solo song and dance man for much of his career, his later years featured the extraordinary support of the John Hartford Stringband. A decade after the great man’s passing, Chris Sharp reassembled bandmates Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Mark Schatz, and Matt Combs to pay tribute to a unique American music treasure who looked straight down the barrel of pop music and TV success and decided that he preferred Flatt & Scruggs and Ed Haley. That he loved both equally allowed him to navigate seamlessly between oldtime and bluegrass.

Memories Of John captures that fluid recognition that it is all string band music, whether the bluegrass of “Love Grown Cold” or the Ohio Valley fiddle music of the kickoff track, “Three Forks Of Sandy.” The material delights of this album come from three basic areas. The first consists of two demos that John recorded more than forty years ago. Mark and Eileen Schatz worked “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” into a finished track, while the closing “Fade Out” appears just as Hartford left it.

The second and perhaps most intriguing set consists of previously unreleased Hartford compositions, most intended for a Hartford Stringband project that he did not live to record. All three were well worth the wait, especially the delightful “Madison Tennessee” and live favorite “Homer The Roamer.”

The remaining ten selections include a Schatz’ tribute poem “For John,” two Ed Haley tunes, the classic “Lorena” sung by Tim O’Brien, and renditions of six Hartford originals. Most of the latter feature John’s friends joining the Stringband. O’Brien sings and Alison Brown plays John’s banjo on a version of “M.I.S.I.P.” that stays close to the original. Alan O’Bryant brings his unmistakable voice to “Delta Queen Waltz,” the same song he sang at John’s funeral. Béla Fleck delivers a captivating personal interpretation of John’s banjo style on “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” And if that’s not enough, the album and several tracks start with John’s instructions to the band, all from previous rehearsal tapes.

The John Hartford String Band has succeeded in creating in just one package an excellent new John Hartford album, a wonderful tribute to John and his music, and a real world demonstration that bluegrass and oldtime don’t have to be an either/or proposition. (Red Clay Records, 916 19th Ave South; Nashville, TN 37212, www.redclayrecords.com.) AM

Review: Nora Jane Struthers

Nora Jane Struthers

NORA JANE STRUTHERS
Blue Pig Music BPM 1111

Remember the name Nora Jane Struthers, because you’ll probably be hearing it in the near future in conjunction with bluegrass awards for best emerging artist and top female vocalist. Her selftitled debut CD is, simply put, a marvel that combines brilliant songcraft, a sultry yet honey-hued voice, and an inspired sense of personal musical style.

Blessed with a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between Sarah Jarosz and Laurie Lewis, Struthers immediately enters the front ranks of female bluegrass vocalists with this release. She can sing a mournful murder ballad in the first person on “Willie,” belt out a bluegrass wailer on “Greenbrier County,” warble a dazzling western tune on “Cowgirl Yodel #3,” and murmur a gentle lullaby on the traditional “Say Darlin’ Say”—all with equal ease and aplomb.

Backed by Nashville stars Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien, Brent Truitt, Stuart Duncan, Shawn Lane, and Scott Vestal, she easily avoids the trap of sounding like an overproduced commercial project. Buoyed by her confidence in singing her own songs, she soars and enthralls instead of sounding like the studio band is overpowering her. Writing with a clear-eyed traditional sensibility typically seen only in writers of the caliber of Gillian Welch and Tim O’Brien, her songs sound immediately like pre-modern classics that ache for other artists to pick them up and include in their own repertoire. What was that name again? Nora Jane Struthers. Once you hear this CD, there’s no way you’ll forget it. Highly recommended. (Blue Pig Music, P.O. Box 68159, Nashville, TN 37206, www.norajanestruthers.com.) DJM

Review: Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie - Southern

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie - SouthernBILL EMERSON AND SWEET DIXIE
SOUTHERN
Rural Rhythm
RHY1053

Bill Emerson established his bluegrass cred a long time ago, going back to his days with the Country Gentlemen and a memorable stint with Jimmy Martin. On his new album Southern, backed by his band Sweet Dixie, Emerson is in fine form once again with a solid collection of traditional bluegrass.
What I like about Southern, first and foremost, is the song selection. There are tunes written by Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Pete Goble, Carl Jackson, Tim Stafford, Hazel Dickens, and Chris Hillman, just to name a few. Stepping up with most of the lead vocals is the familiar voice of Tom Adams, who also plays the majority of guitar. Bassist Teri Chism sings lead on three cuts including “I Can’t Find Your Love Anymore” and “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain.” The rest of the band includes Emerson on banjo and Wayne Lanham on mandolin. Sharing the fiddle duties are guests Rickie Simpkins and Frank Solivan with John Miller adding rhythm and lead guitar on two cuts.
The highlights for me on this album are songs about the rural roots of the music, something that contemporary bluegrass is moving away from in these modern times. The best examples include an old school country music take on Vince Gill’s “Life In The Old Farm Town,” Cartwright’s song about the rural life left behind called “Old Coal Town,” and a good old West Virginia song written by Pete Goble titled “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo.” The album ends with two originals—a wonderful instrumental written by Janet Davis called “Grandma’s Tattoos” that features Davis in a duet on banjo with Emerson and the Tom Adams-penned gospel number, “The Lord Will Light The Way.” (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DH

Review: Dirty River - Graveyard Train

Dirty River - Graveyard Train

DIRTY RIVER
GRAVEYARD TRAIN
No Label
No Number

Local and regional bluegrass bands often feel tension between the desire to attract an audience by playing familiar cover songs and the creative impulse to come up with a fresh and identifiable sound. Lean too far toward the former and the band winds up undistinguished, lacking any real identity, while straying too far the other direction can lead the band away from the general bluegrass audience. Dirty River, based in the Washington, D.C., area, has done a fine job of balancing those conflicting pressures on Graveyard Train.

The band reflects the progressive tradition of bluegrass music in the Washington area forged by the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Cliff Waldron, and many others. Graveyard Train features a nicely balanced mix of original tunes, along with the familiar bluegrass classics “Deep Elem Blues” and “Cherokee Shuffle” and some tunes imported from outside the genre, but adapted well to bluegrass. The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” is a bit of a novelty, but Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” makes a dandy, harddriving bluegrass tune.

Five of the fourteen songs are original material from bandmembers Billy Park and Evan Sands, and resonator guitar player Michael Barton also contributes a couple of nice instrumentals. The material is topnotch and well-suited to the band’s style. While the band doesn’t feature the strongest of vocals (lead singers on individual tracks are not identified), the skillful performances reflect a lot of intelligent consideration to arrangements and delivery.

Dirty River is a band that bears watching in the future and Graveyard Train is a strong debut recording well worth making an effort to track down. (Dirty River, 531 Brent Rd., Rockville, MD 20850, www.dirtyriverdc.com.) AWIII

Review: The Earl Brothers

The Earl Brothers

THE EARL BROTHERS
Big Hen Music
0004#

One thing the Earl Brothers had going for them on their previous (2006) release was their dedication to the stark musical sound and stark world view offered by the traditional bands of the ’40s and ’50s, and that dedication hasn’t changed with this album. The Stanley Brothers, circa their time on WCYB in Bristol, come instantly to mind when this disc plays. Several of the tracks here sound as if they could have come from those long ago sessions—almost.

Banjoist Robert Earl Davis, who wrote and sings lead on 11 of the 12 songs, has a different vocal sound than Carter or Ralph. There’s more of Dwight Yoakam in his sound and delivery. “Walk In The Light,” a gospel number in 3/4 time, comes the closest to the Stanley sound of that time. Tremelo mandolin from Larry Hughes starts and the song lopes easily into lyrics written in that older, declaritive, firstperson style. “Troubles” and “Going Back Home” (also both in 3/4 time), “Cold And Lonesome,” and the modal “Thinking Of You” are also fine, wellcrafted songs that match well with songs of that period.

What has changed most about the band since that first recording is the confidence in which it is presented. The band has tightened its chops, and Davis has honed his singing and songwriting. The solos of fiddler Tom Lucas and banjoist Davis remain basic and have an ensemble quality about them. When the band now offers their music, they’re no longer searching for technique and feeling. They’ve found it. (Earl Brothers, 72 Belcher St., San Francisco, CA 94114, www.earlbrothers.com.) BW

Review: The High 48s - Up North

The High 48s - Up North

THE HIGH 48S
UP NORTH
No Label
No Number

Judging from the contents of their third release, the High 48s won the 2008 Rocky Grass band competition with a combination of confident picking and lots of original songs, especially for a somewhat traditional sounding band. Their energy and atavistic attire brings to mind the Johnson Mountain Boys of thirty years ago. Three decades of removal from bluegrass music’s early days, however, means the High 48s have a more progressive neotrad sound than the JMB. The 75 percent original material also distinguishes the Minnesota quintet.

Fiddler Eric Christopher provides two tunes and banjo player Anthony Ihrig composed “Darrington” in tribute to the bluegrass hometown of the northwest. The tune features guests Mike Compton and Randy Kohrs whose bubbly breaks resolve the tension between Ihrig’s modern take and Christopher’s traditional response. Compton also plays on Christopher’s “Little Odessa.” Bassman Rich Casey and Johnson’s brother, Chad, on mandolin complete the band.

All three covers receive excellent treatment. They include a slower tempo version of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” and “Paul and Silas” from the Stanleys, along with “Dirty Old Town” from “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” composer Ewan McColl. Guitarist Derek Johnson offers five solid compositions. “Easy To Get Lost,” “The Cliffs Of Red Wing,” and especially the fine uptempo bluegrass song “Shoes,” are quite good, if not extraordinarily original. The other pair are limited from a bit too much DNA still remaining from songs that most likely influenced them. You can still hear melodic traces of “Two Highways” in the family tree of the title track and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” in “Sad Lonesome Eyes.”

Christopher, who also fiddles with the James King Band, proves clearly the instrumental star of a tight and expressive band. Ihrig provides a worthy counterpart above a reliable rhythm section. It is always refreshing to hear a bluegrass band whose vocals aren’t exclusively trios and quartets. The High 48s may go too far the other way. Derek Johnson is a good lead singer, but they take too little advantage of the sibling duet. “Paul & Silas” is a happy exception and a model for building a distinctive vocal sound on the duet. The High 48s have areas for improvement, but certainly should be playing much more outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (The High 48s, 701 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102, www.thehigh48s.com.) AM

Review: Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Bluegrass II: Riding Song

Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Bluegrass II

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY
BUCKAROO BLUE GRASS II: RIDING SONG
Rural Rhythm
RHY 1056

Buckaroo Blue Grass II: Riding Song is the followon to Michael Martin Murphey’s 2009 release that featured acoustic versions of some of his most familiar hits. Like the earlier effort, this album recreates bluegrassinfluenced arrangements of familiar originals. Murphey, who wrote all but one of the twelve cuts, has assembled a stellar collection of bluegrass musicians to join him here, and the result is a rich, satisfying sound, bluegrass in essence, but with a decidedly country feel.

Harddriving cuts such as “Blue Sky Riding Song” and “Running Blood,” powered by Charlie Cushman on banjo and Andy Leftwich on fiddle, ought to satisfy any bluegrass fan, but there is also some coloring outside of the lines on the swingy “Rollin’ Nowhere” and the decidedly newgrassy “Renegade.” Perhaps the strongest cut—at least in strict bluegrass terms—is “Running Gun,” powered by some killer lead guitar by Audie Blaylock but, oddly enough, also the only tune here that Murphey didn’t write. All in all, the songs translate well to a more acoustic sound—better than we might have expected from familiarity with the original versions. That’s not surprising considering the high level of talent contributed by Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Andy Hall, Pat Flynn, Troy Engle, and Ronnie McCoury.

Worthy of special attention is the version of Murphey’s megahit “Wildfire” performed as a duet with the fabulous Carrie Hassler. The laidback pace feels much like the original, but with Hassler’s powerful voice complementing Murphey’s softer delivery, there’s an emotional edge that makes it the highlight of a strong recording. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AWIII

Review: Paul Williams & The Victory Trio - Just A Little Closer Home

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio - Just A Little Closer Home

PAUL WILLIAMS & THE VICTORY TRIO
JUST A LITTLE CLOSER HOME
Rebel Records
REBCD1835

Mandolinist/singer Paul Williams didn’t compose “Living The Right Life Now,” the opening song on his great new CD Just A Little Closer Home, but it could be almost biographical.

Williams was a key member of Jimmy Martin’s landmark Sunny Mountain Boys band in the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with a talented young banjo player named J.D. Crowe). But, by 1963, he had wearied of secular music. Then, in 1995, he reemerged as a superlative performer of bluegrass gospel. His album Old Ways And New Paths was nominated in 2000 for a Grammy award in the category of Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel. His latest release is a beautifully realized collection that should attract a wide audience.

Williams’ voice remains astonishingly pure, like that of a church choir boy. His backing group, the Victory Trio, has expanded and its members are all fine: Don Moneyhun (low tenor and lead vocals; guitar), Adam Winstead (baritone vocals; rhythm guitar), Jerry Keys (bass vocals; banjo), and Susie Keys (acoustic bass), plus guest artist Kevin Jackson (fiddle). Williams himself deserves praise for a clean mandolin style that is as engaging and enjoyable as his singing.

Williams wrote the Jimmy Martin gospel classics “I Like To Hear Them Preach It” and “Prayer Bells Of Heaven.” Although he didn’t write any of the songs on Just A Little Closer Home, he still has a golden ear for material. Among the many standout tracks on this album include Moneyhun’s “I’ve Been Set Free,” Key’s “There’s Still Time,” and the inspirational “Someone Made The Sandals Jesus Wore” by Tom T. and Dixie Hall.

Paul Williams could lay claim to being one of the greatest bluegrass gospel performers of all time. Being a modest man, he probably wouldn’t say that. But, I will, because it’s true. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RDS

Review: Snyder Family Band - Comin' On Strong

Snyder Family Band - Comin' On Strong

SNYDER FAMILY BAND
COMIN’ ON STRONG
Mountain Roads
MMR 1009

The Snyder Family Band is Bud Snyder (father) on bass, 10yearold Samantha on fiddle, and 14 yea rold Zeb on guitar. Zeb plays banjo on Samantha’s original song, “The Great Civil War.” Samantha also wrote the gospel tune “What Will You Say.” Bud’s wife, Laine, sings harmony vocals on some cuts. Samantha’s fiddling and Zeb’s guitar playing both have a progressive feel with lots of swing. Both demonstrate complete command of their instruments and play fluidly. Samantha sings lead very well for someone so young, but the harmonies are stronger than her solos. “Heaven’s Bright Shore” and Tim May’s “King Of Babylon” both have lovely harmony singing.

The CD opens with the traditional Texas fiddle tune, “Cattle In The Cane,” followed by Charlie Bowman’s “East Tennessee Blues.” Samantha’s fiddle and Zeb’s guitar are also featured on “Faded Love,” “Red Haired Boy,” “Star Of The County Down,” and “Bill Cheatham.” Zeb really shines on “Steel Guitar Rag.”

Samantha and Zeb already display lots of talent. Based on this very promising second recording, the bluegrass community can look forward to lots of great entertainment from these young virtuosos. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) SAG

Review: The Special Consensus - 35

The Special Consensus - 35

THE SPECIAL CONSENSUS
35
Compass Records
745412

Can it really be 35 years since Special Consensus emerged as one of the best new progressive bands on the bluegrass scene? Time flies as fast as Special Consensus charter member and banjo picker Greg Cahill’s three finger rolls. Now, the band’s music and history are celebrated by the album 35.

The Chicago based Special Consensus has always merged elements of mainstream bluegrass with the blues, swing, and country to present a refreshing sound. Cahill, a bright and inventive picker, as well as a versatile vocalist, has remained its touchstone.

This new CD is enjoyable and well-conceived. Half the tracks are new recordings with the band’s current lineup: Cahill, Ryan Thomas (guitar and vocals), Rick Faris (mandolin and vocals), and David Thomas (bass and vocals). Cahill does well keeping up with these youngsters, as evidenced on his instrumental “Danny’s Dance.” Faris, Roberts, and Thomas also contribute great original songs on the CD’s first half.

The other tracks are taken from now outofprint Special Consensus albums from 1983 to 1998. It’s worthwhile to find how many superb musicians have been part of this outfit. (One outstanding example is the Chicago musician Don Stiernberg who contributed a sturdy mandolin break in 1991 to the song “Fourteen Carat Mind” and then went on to become one of the most enjoyable acoustic jazz mandolinists ever.)

The music here is consistently fine, both vocally and instrumentally. The creative emphasis on original material is noteworthy. It’s been a very fine 35 years. If you’ve never picked up a Special Consensus album, their new collection 35 is definitely the place to start. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212 www.compassrecords.com.) RDS

Review: Becky Schlegel - Dandelion

Becky Schlegel - Dandelion
BECKY SCHLEGEL
DANDELION
Lilly Ray Music
LRR 901

Years ago, Becky Schlegel was featured at a songwriter’s showcase, and hearing her songs in a spare duo setting left a lasting impression. After a few albums in a bluegrass context, her latest release Dandelion is a departure into a differently textured Americana sound with only light and subtle bluegrass influences. And, you know? It suits her voice and her songs perfectly.

While banjos take a prominent role in more uptempo songs such as “Colorado Line” and “Don’t Leave It Up To Me,” her plaintive voice is complemented by the gentler settings of “The Way You Are” and “If I Were A Poet,” while Randy Kohrs’ tasty resonator guitar work is nicely interwoven with pedal steel and light percussion. Touches of electric instrumentation enhance the moods of “Nowhere Bound” and the title track without sacrificing either song’s intimacy.

The bluegrass world is understandably protective about having its homegrown talent move beyond its stylistic boundaries, and this CD may represent more of an experiment than a career transition. But it’s hard to deny that Becky Schlegel’s songs and voice are wellserved by the arrangements and instrumentation here. Talent like hers deserves to be heard, and Dandelion could take this Minnesota-native to national recognition. (Lilly Ray Records, P.O. Box 41004, Nashville, TN 37204, www.lillyraymusic.com.) HK

Review: Cherryholmes IV - Common Threads

Cherry Holmes IV - Common Threads

CHERRYHOLMES IV
COMMON THREADS
Skaggs Family Records
69890220212

On their latest release, the Cherryholmes completely leave behind their origins as a uniquely talented bluegrass family-band act and step into new musical forms that may best be called alt.grass. Recalling some of the sophisticated sonic forms and modern lyric and melodic approaches pioneered by modern bluegrass bands like Infamous Stringdusters and Cadillac Sky, the Cherryholmes under the eye of producer Ben Issacs have crafted a decidedly daring and bold statement here.

The band explores some highly personal territory on the topics of love, betrayal, and deception through the dark moody songs penned by Cia Cherryholmes, who shows here that she’s becoming a leader in modern country songcraft. Her sultry “Just You” could easily break out as a major country hit. As always, the band relies heavily on contemporary gospel forms for some of its most rousing material, including the hard-driving “Standing” and the deep, groovepowered “Changed In A Moment.” And, it wouldn’t be a Cherryholmes project without highpowered instrumental work from Skip on guitar, Cia on banjo, and the soaring twin fiddles of Molly and B.J., especially on the closing track “Tattoo Of A Smudge.”

It’s certainly been a long road for this band, from cutesy and “How’d those kids do that?” to the mature statement presented here. Whether longtime fans will come along for the ride is yet to be seen, but it’s certain from Common Threads that the Cherryholmes won’t be resting on their much deserved laurels anytime soon. (Skaggs Family Records, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.) DJM

Review: The Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays

The Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays

THE FAREWELL DRIFTERS
YELLOW TAG MONDAYS
Heart Squeeze Records
HS2K101

It’s been a difficult process writing this review of the Farewell Drifters’ “national debut” album, because I can’t stop playing the first three tracks. “Love We Left Behind” starts the disc with a gentle twin guitar attack from lead vocalist Zach Bevill and lead guitarist Clayton Britt followed up by gorgeous, soaring harmonies along with tasty fiddle from Christian Sedelmyer and tasteful backing banjo from guest Trevor Brandt.

“Everyone Is Talking” is more reliant on Brandt’s swinging rhythm while showcasing Bevill’s confident, engaging vocals and more great harmonies. (Mandolinist Joshua Britt and bassist Dean Marold are also credited with vocal backup, but there’s not a trackbytrack breakdown of who sings what.) The third track is a stunning arrangement of the Beatles’ “For No One” that sounds like a collaboration between Simon & Garfunkel and the early Seldom Scene.

That should be enough to grab you, especially since the rest of this inventive 14track, 44minute effort follows in the same vein, with the band’s 13 original compositions reflecting additional influences like Brian Wilson, the Byrds, John Hartford, and Nickel Creek. There’s even some great bluegrass here in the tracks “Virginia Bell,” “Somewhere Down The Road,” and the instrumental “I’ve Got Your Heart In My Hand, And I’m Gonna Squeeze.” (Farewell Drifters, 1145 Fernbank Dr., Madison, TN 37115, www.thefarewelldrifters.com.) AKH

Review: John Cowan - The Massenburg Sessions

John Cowan - The Massenburg Sessions

JOHN COWAN
THE MASSENBURG SESSIONS
E1 Music
E1ECD2304

This thirteentrack, fiftyminute CD takes it’s name from producer and engineer George Massenburg (Randy Newman, Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt) with whom Cowan resolved to cut this album “live, front to back, with no overdubs and no headphones.” Cowan further spices up the pot by inviting Mike Bub, Del, Rob, and Ronnie McCoury, Maura O’Connell, Darrell Scott, John Randall Stewart, and Reese Wynans to join members of his regular band from the past few years, namely Jeff Autry (guitar, vocals), Luke Bulla (fiddle), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Tony Wray (banjo), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Shad Cobb (fiddle).

As one might expect, the star ends up being Cowan’s untamed voice that soars high on material as diverse as the traditional bluegrass of “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” (with the McCourys), the progressive grass of “My Time In The Desert,” the folk balladry of “Lakes Of Ponchartrain” (with O’Connell), and the a cappella gospel workout “Jesus Gave Me Water.”

Massenburg’s presence, along with that of Cowan’s regular band, pays off, as each of these tracks of varying styles does indeed sound crisp, fresh, and urgent. (E1 Music, 22 Harbor Park Dr., Port Washington, NY 11050, www.e1entertainment.com.) AKH

Review: Various Artists - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival

Various Artist - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Music Festival

VARIOUS ARTISTS
JUBILEE: BEST OF RENFRO VALLEY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
KET Ed. TV
No Number

Jubilee, produced by Kentucky Educational Television (KET), is one of the country’s finest music series, and since 1996 has presented a range of artists from J.D. Crowe to Roger McGuinn. This DVD (surprisingly hard to find online) is a special episode filmed at the 2008 Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival. Featured artists are Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley, the Grascals, Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition, and a few regional acts: Burchett, Morgan & 5ivespeed, the All American Bluegrass Band, Fast Lane, and the Cumberland Gap Connection.

This production is all about the music and is professionally shot with multiple cameras. The crew has extensive experience and knows when to cut to a solo or when to frame a trio. That’s a welcome change from the usual television fare where the crew doesn’t have a clue about the dynamics of a bluegrass band. What you won’t get here is any sense of the festival itself. It’s all focused on the main stage. For most bluegrass fans, that won’t matter. The show is edited by removing all betweensong talk, so all you get are the performances. Some viewers may prefer getting the full set, including stage banter, rather than just the songs, but you might appreciate not hearing the sometimes lame stage talk between songs.

All the main acts are in good form with Rhonda serving her usual high energy show (good to see Kenny Ingram on banjo). The show is a time capsule from 2008 and would be a valuable addition to any bluegrass video collection, but not essential. (KET Duplication Services, 600 Cooper Dr., Lexington, KY 40502, e-mail: shop@ket.org.) CVS

Reviews - October 2010

HIGHLIGHT


Dierks Bentley - Up On The RidgeDIERKS BENTLEY
UP ON THE RIDGE
Capitol Records 509996 85410 2 6

After making his mark as a successful pop country artist, Dierks Bentley is taking a risk with his much anticipated Up On The Ridge. But, great music awaits, as it turns out to be a strong statement by a mature and confident artist. Bentley’s love and respect for bluegrass music is well known, and he confirms it in perhaps the best recording of his career.

The opening title track is pretty much the only hint of the featherweight pop that’s formed much of the foundation of Bentley’s success. But with that out of the way, the album embarks on a well crafted journey through a landscape of music gems. Bentley and producer Jon Randall draw from the best known names in bluegrass and country music. Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Rob Ickes, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, and more lend their immense talents.

Highlights are many: a delightfully wry “You’re Dead To Me,” co-written by Tim O’Brien, Randall, and Bentley; the quietly romantic “Draw Me A Map”; and the wrenching “Down In The Mine” are just a few. He gets solid contributions from country hard-ballers Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson on “Bad Angel” and the mighty Kris Kristofferson on “Bottom Of The Bottle.” But, the real genius is best found on the cuts with the Punch Brothers (Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelney, Chris Eldridge, and Paul Kowert), supplying some serious bluegrass punch. One is an immensely powerful rendering of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” on which Bentley’s world-weary baritone is perfectly complemented by Thile, who has developed into a mature and expressive singer. Del McCoury provides some passionate and hair-raising vocals on U2’s “In The Name Of Love.” And, both Bentley and the Punch Brothers throw down their bluegrass bona fides with a smokin’ version of “Roving Gambler,” breathing fire into a well-worn, perhaps even overdone classic tune.

Ultimately, Up On The Ridge is more country music than by-the-book bluegrass, but worthy of special attention to bluegrass lovers. It’s what we wish country music was still like, but, in most cases, no longer is. Mostly acoustic with profoundly good songwriting, tasteful production and strongly bluegrass-influenced, all wrapped into in a modern, forward looking package, this is an important recording for listeners and for Dierks Bentley. If it reflects his genuine vision for his music, let’s have more like it…please. (Capitol Records, 3322 West End Ave., 11th Fl., Nashville, TN 37203, www.capitolnashville.com.) AWIII


McCormick Brothers - Somewhere In Time

THE McCORMICK BROTHERS
SOMEWHERE IN TIME
Stonewall SWM2008001

It was 1954 when I first heard a McCormick Brothers recording, “Red Hen Boogie,” a Louvin Brothers creation that the McCormicks masterfully brought to life. Soon, an instrumental titled “The Mad Banjo” hit the market, and I was hooked. The tune received considerable airplay in my home turf of northern Virginia; one local DJ even adopted it as his show theme. In those days, the McCormick Brothers consisted of Kelly (mandolin), Lloyd (guitar), and Haskell (banjo), and over the next decade they continued to release strong titles for the Hickory label. Younger brother, William, joined as bass player and, even later, another brother, Gerald, joined.

In their heyday, the McCormick Brothers were a force to be reckoned with. Their songs were topnotch, but many folks focused on their instrumentals featuring the brilliant banjo work of Haskell. By the end of the 1950s, rock’n’roll was seriously impacting traditional music. Still, the McCormicks survived for many years hosting a popular and heavily attended weekly square dance in Gallatin, Tenn. After several attempts at releasing LPs in the 1960s, their recording career began to wind down, and they eventually faded into undeserved obscurity—all except Haskell, who worked a tour with Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass.

Sadly, band pioneers Lloyd and Kelly have passed away. But, now, Haskell and his younger brothers William and Gerald have revitalized the band, releasing this excellent album. Second generation family members show up, and some guests appear, too, most notably Michael Cleveland on fiddle and mandolin.

Here we have the updated McCormick sound. The set of 17 titles (and one bonus track) opens with a new tune (at least to me) “Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You,” one of the set’s highlights. There are also fine versions of the gospel favorite “Camping In Canaan’s Land,” a banjo/fiddle duet, “Old Joe Clark,” and “You Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You,” another tune I’d not heard. The boys offer a pleasing mix of new pieces and familiar ones, all powerful performances including a fine new version of “Red Hen Boogie.” It’s great to have the McCormick Brothers back. Recommended. (Stonewall Records, 110 River Rd., Hendersonville, TN 37075, www.stonewallrecords.com.) WVS

Blaine Johnson - The Old Crow Road

BLAINE JOHNSON
THE OLD CROW ROAD

No Label
No Number

This is the third solo CD for this 13 year old banjo picker from Beaver, W.Va. He sounds as if he’s been playing for years. And, he has—four years as a matter of fact. He has a good grasp of Scruggs-style banjo and the melodic-style and he aptly demonstrates it on a dozen standard bluegrass instrumentals. His touch is remarkable as he plays with a sureness that belies his age. His teacher, Brandon Green, plays most of the rhythm instruments, some mandolin, and reso guitar. Daniel Boner plays fiddle, and Alex Hibbitts plays some mighty fine mandolin on the tracks Green doesn’t play.

On “Wayfaring Stranger,” Johnson plays fingerstyle guitar. Otherwise, he tears up the banjo parts, adding a little something of his own to pieces by famous forbearer Earl Scruggs— “Randy Lynn Rag,” “Nashville Skyline Rag,” and “Ground Speed.”

The picking throughout this project is accomplished and makes for good listening. The recording quality is good enough, although overall, the final mix lacks real representation of the lead instruments. This is a worthy project by a promising young talent that we no doubt will hear much more from in the future. (Blaine Johnson, P.O. Box 732, Beaver, WV 25813, myspace.com/blainebanjoboy.) RCB

The Bluegrass Brothers - So LongTHE BLUEGRASS BROTHERS
SO LONG
No Label
BGB006

The Brothers hail from Virginia and play a solid traditional style of bluegrass. The inclusion of original material here adds interest to the program. Their vocals reflect the life they sing about, and the lonesome mountain sound predominates. As this band grows, they continue to absorb influences from the strong body of traditional bluegrass that they are definitely a part of today. They, in turn, use this to refine their sound.

Brandon Farley drives the sound with his banjo, adding tasteful backup and just the right amount of punch. Billy Hurt, Jr., plays some fine fiddle with sweet-moving double-stops and sharp leads. Victor Dowdy plays bass and sings with his two sons, Donald on mandolin and Steve on guitar. They all are accomplished musicians who know the genre and feel their music deeply.

The material is all robust with five songs coming from Steve or Victor Dowdy, one each from Jimmy Martin (“Home Run Man”), Reno & Smiley (“Wall Around Your Heart”), and Vern Gosdin (“If Your [sic] Going To Do Me Wrong, Do Me Right”). Two tracks are from the pen of Mike Dillard, one of which is the heart wrenching “Little Jenny.”

This group is getting better with each release and growing to be a presence on the current bluegrass scene. We can look for more good things to come from this band. (Bluegrass Brothers, 3441 Rusty Road, Salem, VA 24153, www.thebluegrassbrothers.com.) RCB

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Light On My Feet, Ready To FlyDOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER
LIGHT ON MY FEET, READY TO FLY
Horizon Records
HR 12762

When it comes to a Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver release, one can always be assured of a solid, well-produced project with expert instrumentation, exciting arrangements, and classic, bone chilling harmonies. This project is no exception. His band has been known as the “school of bluegrass” with new and old members coming and going over the years. But, Doyle’s standards are high, and he consistently strives for a sound and quality that remains fast, despite the changes.

Doyle’s focus is gospel music and he sticks pretty close to the bluegrass sound that produces this particular brand of southern gospel. He picks his songs carefully, and on this project he includes songs from Corey Hensley, Carl Story, Jerry Salley, Conrad Cook, Dee Gaskin, and Thomas Porter. This band edition of Quicksilver includes Corey Hensley on guitar, Jason Leek on bass, Dale Perry on banjo, Josh Swift on resonator guitar, and Jason Barie on fiddle.

The title cut was written by guitarist Hensley who also contributes “The Hammer Of Sin.” There is a great rendition of Carl Story’s “It’s A Mighty Hard Road To Travel.” Other highlights include Lance Carpenter’s “He Will Remember Me” and the medley “Ship Of Zion”/“Is That The Old Ship Of Zion.” Fans of gospel music and of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver will thoroughly enjoy this release. (Horizon Records, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.) BF

Greg Brooks - Heroes & FriendsGREG BROOKS
HEROES & FRIENDS
No Label
No Number

Greg Brooks is a North Georgia fiddler, who has managed to corral a large assortment of friends and cut this recording that’s dedicated to two of his fiddling heroes, Robert “Allen” Sisson and Tommy Magness. Magness might be the better known of the two fiddlers for most folks as he played with Roy Hall, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff and is known as one of the primary transitional fiddlers from old-time to the more bluesy and jazz-influenced bluegrass fiddlers. Sisson recorded “Katy Hill” in 1925.

Among all of these friends are the makings of several bands. The only constant is the fiddling of Greg Brooks. He fiddles with full band on the more bluegrass numbers, and on some of the older tunes associated with Sisson, he plays with just guitar backup. Brooks’ style relies heavily on saw strokes, but at times he erupts into hot triple fiddle passages that reveal his bluegrass strengths. Through this program of fifteen tunes and one song (“Molly And Tinbrooks [sic]”) Brooks plays some mighty satisfying fiddle.

Andy Ruff plays some fine resonator guitar especially on the duet “Lonesome Indian.” They do this again with “Katy Hill.” Eat your hearts out banjo pickers, the latter is one hot duet. The inclusion of the very fine “Rocky Road To Dublin” is an example of a tune that shares that name. There are eight tunes listed under that title on the Fiddler’s Companion Web site. Ruff’s resonator guitar work on this tune and the others is highly expressive and melodically accurate—no easy task.

There are extensive liner notes that tell the story of this recording project and of some of the accidents that should have, but did not, end Brooks’ fiddling days. There are photographs of many of the players, along with information about them.

This is a project of love and remembrance for two fiddlers now gone. The only tune that may have been included, but wasn’t, is “Polecat Blues,” a tune held in high esteem by many North Carolina fiddlers who have fond memories of Magness’ recording with Roy Hall. (Greg Brooks, 4233 Mineral Bluff Hwy., Mineral Bluff, GA 30559.) RCB

The Hillbenders - Down To My Last DollarTHE HILLBENDERS
DOWN TO MY LAST DOLLAR
No Label
No Number

The Hillbenders, based in Springfield, Mo., debut here with 11 band originals and two covers all played in a bright, melodic contemporary bluegrass-style that contains hints of country, country-rock, swing, and, in the vocal harmonies are reminiscent of New Grass Revival. Taken as a whole, there is a slight imbalance in favor of medium-fast tempos, giving a straightthrough listening a certain relentlessness. Taken songbysong, the majority of the tracks offer strong tunes and intriguing arrangements.

The band—guitarist/vocalist Jim Rea, bassist/vocalist Gary Rea, mandolinist/vocalist Nolan Lawrence, banjoist Mark Cassidy, and reso guitarist Chad Graves—recently won Silver Dollar City’s 2010 National Single Mic Championship. That may explain their partiality to quick tempos. It may also explains their fondness for split solos and for the way they group those solos. In the uptempo “Another Day, Another Dollar,” for example, the instrumental section that divides the song’s two-verse choruse is grouped into short solos that change players and instruments 12 times. That would obviously translate well on a single mic and makes a nice variant here.

Whatever the reasoning behind what they do, they do it well. Jim Rea’s opening song, “Highway Gambler,” with its tale of losing it all by taking the whiskey train, and with its soaring emphatic chorus should prove a favorite. The poptinged melody of “Take Me Away” is equally captivating, as is the rhythmicallyworded chorus of Jim Rea’s “Done Wrong Love Song.” Among the slower and medium songs, Cassidy’s “Hard Wakin’ Up” is played in a classic country swing tempo, while another Jim Rea song, “Easier On Me,” recalls the slow country rock tunes of Gram Parsons.

Hard luck seems to be a common theme throughout this debut. What is also a common theme is the high quality of the music and performance. (The Hillbenders, 319 S. Hampton, Springfield, MO 65806, www.hillbenders.com.) BW

J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams - Old Friends Get TogetherJ.D. CROWE, DOYLE LAWSON, AND PAUL WILLIAMS
OLD FRIENDS GET TOGETHER
Mountain Home
MH12922

The career paths of these three bluegrass legends have crossed numerous times over the past half century. This time, they’ve crossed paths for a cause: to record a robust, traditional gospel tribute to the late great Jimmy Martin, who had a profound influence on all three of these men. Doyle Lawson, who like Crowe and Williams served a stint in Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys many moons ago, says in his heartfelt liner notes: “We wanted to do a CD of songs that we had sung with Jimmy on stage and on records. This was a labor of love and an appreciation for a man and his music.”

Quite a few of the titles here (“Prayer Bells Of Heaven,” “Stormy Waters,” “This World Is Not My Home”) are stalwart bluegrass gospel standards. The trio also reprises a pair of Martin’s original spirituals: “Voice Of My Savior” and “Give Me Your Hand.” This powerhouse harmony trio (Crowe on baritone vocals, Lawson on lead vocals, and Williams on lead and tenor vocals on various tracks) is backed at various times by Cia Cherryholmes (high harmony vocals), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony vocals), Ben Isaacs (bass and bass vocals), Ron Stewart (fiddle), and Harry Stinson (snare drum).

Each and every one of these 12 tracks is imbued with precise and powerful harmonies and an earnest, soulful spirit of collaboration and sense of tradition. The vocal performances flow so seamlessly and resonate with such confidence and conviction that it makes it easy to imagine these three masters, whose careers have taken such different paths over the years, have actually been singing together forever. (Mountain Home Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.) BA

Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin - ReturnJODY STECHER AND KATE BRISLIN
RETURN
No Label
No Number

Two albums ago, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin recorded the songs of Utah Phillips. That was in 1997. Their next release in 2000 was a tribute to the Carter Family. Now, after a ten-year hiatus, they have returned with a recording aptly-named Return, on which they mix guitar and vocal duets with banjo/guitar/vocal duets and with mandolin/guitar duets, and on which they include a Utah Phillips song “Old Buddy Goodnight” and a Carter Family song, “Somebody’s Boy.”

The recording evokes an evening of playing and singing on the back porch. To be sure, there are moments in which Stecher and Brislin let go and the music approaches a rambunctious level. “Boat’s Up A River” shows a touch of it in the snap of the strings on Stecher’s nylonstrung banjo or in almost shouted lines of the melody. Brislin’s cover of “Somebody’s Boy” veers to that level in the chorus, and there is an inherent intensity that comes naturally to the blues tune “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” and in the gospel song “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand.”

Generally, though, the mood is relaxed and convivial. Gentle performances taken at slow and slow/medium dominate almost exclusively, be it the parlor-esque optimism of the orphan in “Every Bush And Tree,” the stately grace of Hazel Dickens’ description of her sister’s hard life in “Old Calloused Hands,” the ethereal quality and elegant guitar solos (Stecher’s) in “Fine Horseman,” the 1897 gospel classic “Beautiful,” or the 3/4-time tale of a love’s departure in “Rivers Of Texas.” Even the two mostly instrumental mandolin/guitar medleys of “Gunboat”/“Back Step Cindy” and “The Rainy Day”/“Pretty Little Widow”—while somewhat lively and danceable—are far more flowing than rollicking.

All told, high marks all around. So sit back, relax and enjoy. (Kate Brislin, c/o Leland et al, 199 Fremont St. #2100, San Francisco, CA 94105, www.jodyandkate.com.) BW

Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice - Heartaches and DreamsJUNIOR SISK AND RAMBLER’S CHOICE
HEARTACHES AND DREAMS
Rebel Records
REBCD1837

For the most part, Junior Sisk avoids recording bluegrass standards. I say “for the most part” because he did record “Dust On The Bible” on his debut release, Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge, and that tune has seen its share of covers. On this his second release, Heartaches And Dreams, the “for the most part” disappears. It might be argued that such tunes as the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers’ “You Broke Your Promise” from the early ’50s or Clyde Pitts’ “The Laugh’s On Me” from the mid’60s are widely remembered, but you can’t really call them standards.

To go with them, Sisk has revived a couple of minor classics and given them the same rich, traditional sound he brings to all his work. The first of these is Larry McPeak’s slow, countrytinged “Humble Man.” The other two are gospel tunes: the vibrant and stomping 1950s Dottie Swan composition “Let The Light Shine Down” and Pearlie Mullins’ “The Lowest Valley.” Of the three, “The Lowest Valley” (to which Sisk brings a wonderful vibrato on the held notes of the verse) may be on its way to becoming a standard. Already recorded by the Isaacs and by Ralph Stanley, Sisk’s excellent cover may be all it needs to reach such status.

The rest of the songs are of more contemporary vintage. Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “Train Without A Track” opens the album with the necessary rush. It and “Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore” will probably never be standards, but they’re good workmanlike songs and both wellpresented. One that does have classic status potential is the swing/honkytonk “A Black Hearse Following Me.” With its catchy refrain …running with a wide open throttle, a longnecked bottle and a…, along with its cautiontothewind attitude and fine twin instrumental lines, it certainly brings a smile to the face. But, then, so will this album in general. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) BW

Kathy Kallick Band - Between The Hollow and The HighriseKATHY KALLICK BAND
BETWEEN THE HOLLOW AND THE HIGHRISE
Live Oak Records
540

It’s a challenge and a litmus test for any artist to sequence his or her original songs alongside familiar classics by the likes of Carter Stanley and the Louvin Brothers on a CD. Bay Area veteran musician Kathy Kallick passes this test with flying colors on her 15th recording.

Between The Hollow And The HighRise (the title reflects a recurring theme in Kallick’s originals) opens with “Where Is My Little Cabin Home,” the introspective and compelling lament of a uneasy urban dweller without an old homeplace to seek refuge and renewal. “Whistle Stop Town” is, in Kallick’s words, a “folk/pop/Americana (storysong) played on bluegrass instruments.” It dramatizes the plight of a smalltown refugee struggling to come to grips with the troubled, misplaced past that put her on the run in the first place.

Kallick’s delightful humor shines through on “My House” (…shame it ain’t perfect/but it’s home) and her politically barbed update of a traditional tune titled “New White House Blues.” Thrown in for good measure are spirited reprisals of Carter Stanley’s “Lonesome Night,” Josh Graves’ “Come Walk With Me,” and the traditional gospel ode, “There Is A Higher Power.” Also featured are several fine instrumentals on which Kallick and her band—Tom Bekeny (mandolin, vocals), Dan Booth (acoustic bass, vocals), Greg Booth (reso guitar and banjo), and Annie Staninec (fiddle)—showcase their formidable instrumental prowess. (Live Oak Records, P.O. Box 21344, Oakland, CA 94620, www.kathykallick.com.) BA

Remington Ryde - Grandpa Was My GuideREMINGTON RYDE
GRANDPA WAS MY GUIDE
No Label
G167V0210

In their sixth recording, Pennsylvania’s Remington Ryde covers Charlie Moore’s tale of impending murder with “Her Last Breath.” A more ominous song can scarce be named. The danger with such songs is that making the song believable and not campy or corny requires a storyteller’s sense of timing and emphasis. Charlie Moore certainly had that sense, and so, too, does Remington Ryde and its principle lead singer Ryan Frankhauser

“Her Last Breath” is chillingly believable and a standout track on an album full of good songs performed in a straight, traditional style. Seven of the thirteen tracks are originals. One of those is Billy Cox’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep”-style banjo instrumental, “Shady Maple Quickstep,” while the other six were penned by Frankhauser. His “Itty Bitty Teenie Weenie Sorta Kinda Broken Heart” has a clever chorus of rapid wordsmithing that counters the bemoaning of loss and leaves you wondering if the sufferer is all that suffering. At other times, he gives us the extreme sadness of a mother’s plea for “One More Day” with her dying child, the ache of lost love in “I’m Half The Man,” and the title tune, an ode to his grandfather.

Frankhauser’s songs don’t quite match the band’s covers of the Charlie Moore tune and Pete Goble’s “Silence and Pain.” Those have a classic quality difficult to match. Still, this is a recording of good songs played with attention to and love of tradition and underscores why Remington Ryde is a popular band in the midAtlantic region. (Ryan Frankhauser, 4648 U.S. Hwy. 522 N., McClure, PA 17841, www.remingtonryde.com.) BW

Thea Wescott - Cromwell…And Other RoadsTHEA WESCOTT
CROMWELL…AND OTHER ROADS
No Label
BWP113009CD

Thea Wescott has been a veteran of the music scene in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and although she has only been associated with bluegrass for a relatively short period, she has certainly proved to be a fast learner. Cromwell…And Other Roads is her latest venture, and for a supporting cast, she’s amassed a who’s who of bluegrass pickers including Bryan Sutton (guitar), Rob Ickes (resonator guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Dale Ann Bradley (vocals), Steve Gulley (vocals), and others.

With the exception of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold,” the other nine selections were penned by Thea, spinning tales of dark hollows, moonshine, mountain roads, family, and home. The kickoff song, “Diggin’ Ol’ Albert’s Grave,” is about a woman and an acquaintance who helped to bury her husband to defray the expense of a funeral. “The Miller’s Daughter” is an eerie tale that deals with forgiveness, while “The Mustard Seed” is about growing up in southern California. Other noted entries include “Alice,” “Blackberry Wine,” and “Santa Ana Wind.”

Thea’s dynamic vocals take the listener on a wonderful adventure to exciting places and times. Cromwell…And Other Roads is contemporary bluegrass at its best. Thea Wescott is an artist to be reckoned with. (Timberland Ridge Music, P.O. Box 1125, Gig Harbor, WA 98335, www.timberlandridge.com.) LM

Tim Martin - Bluegrass FiddleTIM MARTIN
BLUEGRASS FIDDLE
Patuxuent Music
CD208

This the latest of many new recordings coming out of the Rockville, Md., label responsible for exposing fine talent to the larger world. Martin is an accomplished fiddler and an active composer of fiddle tunes. This program consists of 16 originals backed by a strong supporting cast.

Jeremy Stephens plays guitar, David McLaughlin, formerly of the Johnson Mountain Boys, plays mandolin and Marshall Wilborn is on bass. Label mate, Jessie Baker, supplies the banjo. All of the musicians do a fine job on the material. Martin acquits himself well, displaying a highly-developed prowess on the fiddle.

A program of all original material often sounds like something you may have heard somewhere else, but it isn’t. There are rags and a wide variety of fiddle tunes, marches, a waltz, with most sounding almost traditional, except they are a little different. It would have been nice to hear Martin cut down on one or two traditional tunes and really rip. He does rip and tear, but it would be fun to hear him tear up on a standard or two. Standout cuts include “Prillman’s Switch,” “Viscosity Breakdown,” and “Popsicle Polka.” You have to love those titles.

This is a fine, well-played set, well recorded in the manner that marks all of the Patuxent releases. Recommended to fiddle fans and fans of strong bluegrass fiddling. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB

BLUEGRASS BARITONE SINGING
FEATURING RONNIE BOWMAN
Dark Shadow, No Number. One CD, $15.

BLUEGRASS TENOR SINGING
FEATURING RUSSELL MOORE
Dark Shadow, No Number. One CD, $15, both CDs $25.

(Dark Shadow Recording, P.O. Box 52, Joelton, TN 37080, www.darkshadowrecording.com.)

Stephen Mougin, singer/guitarist in the Sam Bush Band and respected producer and recording engineer, has put together two must-have CDs that match the talents of Russell Moore and Ronnie Bowman with multi-track recording technology to teach exactly how professional bluegrass artists treat harmony singing.

Each CD has five songs (“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” “Mr. Engineer,” “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” “My Little Georgia Rose,” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”) with four tracks dedicated to each song. Track one is a full mix of the entire song with all three vocal parts (lead, tenor, and baritone). Track two is the chorus repeated four times with lead vocal only. Track three is the chorus repeated four times with either the tenor or baritone part alone. And track four is the entire song again with either the tenor or baritone part missing so that you can sing along.

The band is Mougin on guitar, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Megan Lynch on fiddle, Ned Luberecki on banjo, and Daniel Hardin on bass. This driving ensemble could easily be signed to a record deal and it’s worth the price of the CD just to hear the band. But, this is all about the singing. To be able to hear how Ronnie Bowman and Russell Moore sing baritone and tenor, respectively, makes these CDs essential for anyone who sings harmony in a band or at jams. Whether you are new to singing or have been singing harmony all your life, I guarantee you haven’t been singing like Mougin, Bowman, and Moore. And, although these CDs do not have “lead singing” in their titles, Stephen Mougin’s voice is one of the best around, and you can learn a lot just by listening to him phrase his lines with subtle runs, dips, dives, and beautifully sustained notes.

What all three of these guys have in common is off-the-charts tone that is the essence of the bluegrass trio sound. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the subtleties and power of bluegrass harmony singing. Get both of them. CVS

ON THE EDGE

Cadillac Sky - Letters In The Deep

CADILLAC SKY
LETTERS IN THE DEEP
Dualtone Records
803020150720

This is not your mama’s bluegrass. In fact, I think it’s safe to say Cadillac Sky left behind most of the sounds of bluegrass for their third full-length CD, Letters In The Deep. The 17-cut disc is a compilation of creative, original sounds that swing across the music continuum. Most tracks were penned by bandmembers David “Mayhem” Mayfield (guitar), Matt Menefee (banjo), “ThrillaFiddla” Ross Holmes (fiddle), and Andy “Panda” Moritz (bass).

Trying to find the best words to describe this CD is as difficult as relaying the beauty of a wonderful work of art. Producer Dan Auerbach of the rock group, the Black Keys, captured the band’s latest boundary-busting musical explorations with a handsoff approach. A personal thumbs up for the cuts: “Hangman,” “Break My Heart Again,” and “Bathsheeba.” You won’t have to search through many of the tracks to find several that will fit your fancy. (Dualtone Music Group, Inc., 203 N. 11th St., Ste. B, Nashville, TN 37206, www.dualtone.com.) BC

Monogram - Hit The Road

MONOGRAM
HIT THE ROAD
No Label
No Number

As we all struggle to learn the finer points of playing and singing bluegrass, while listening to the older masters and their original recordings, it’s useful to remember the challenges faced by those international pickers for whom English is a second language and bluegrass culture is an ocean away. But, more and more fine bands, such as the quartet Monogram from the Czech Republic, are making some amazing recordings.

Singing in slightly accented English and writing an impressive array of mostly original material, Monogram has assembled an excellent new album. They’re eclectic and modern, with folky, funky, and modern influences emerging upon occasion, but they can also handle harddriving songs like the CD’s title track.

Instrumentally, they’re impeccable. While the three instrumental tracks allow banjoist Jaromir Jahoda, mandolinist Zdenek Jahoda, and guitarist Jakub Racek to stretch out and show off their considerable chops, each song also displays a thoughtful and imaginative approach to arrangement. Racek is the lead singer, but the whole band, including bassist Pavel Lzicar, contributes very tight and smooth harmonies. The band has been together for well over a decade, and it’s clear from their polish and attention to detail that these folks are committed to their music.

Aside from their cover of “Carried Away” (a hit for George Strait), their originals cover a wide and ambitious range, thematically and stylistically. There’s an occasional lapse into cliché that strikes a false note, particularly on “Whatever I Do.” But mostly, songs such as “Cure For You” and “Nelly And John” tell moving stories very effectively.

Monogram has some good original music that deserves international recognition. It would be beneficial to bluegrass music for them to get exposure to a broader audience. (U Sparty 12, Prague 7, 170 00, Czech Republic, www.monogram.cz.) HK

Review: Dierks Bentley - Up On The Ridge

HIGHLIGHT


Dierks Bentley - Up On The RidgeDIERKS BENTLEY
UP ON THE RIDGE
Capitol Records 509996 85410 2 6

After making his mark as a successful pop country artist, Dierks Bentley is taking a risk with his much anticipated Up On The Ridge. But, great music awaits, as it turns out to be a strong statement by a mature and confident artist. Bentley’s love and respect for bluegrass music is well known, and he confirms it in perhaps the best recording of his career.

The opening title track is pretty much the only hint of the featherweight pop that’s formed much of the foundation of Bentley’s success. But with that out of the way, the album embarks on a well crafted journey through a landscape of music gems. Bentley and producer Jon Randall draw from the best known names in bluegrass and country music. Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Rob Ickes, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, and more lend their immense talents.

Highlights are many: a delightfully wry “You’re Dead To Me,” co-written by Tim O’Brien, Randall, and Bentley; the quietly romantic “Draw Me A Map”; and the wrenching “Down In The Mine” are just a few. He gets solid contributions from country hard-ballers Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson on “Bad Angel” and the mighty Kris Kristofferson on “Bottom Of The Bottle.” But, the real genius is best found on the cuts with the Punch Brothers (Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelney, Chris Eldridge, and Paul Kowert), supplying some serious bluegrass punch. One is an immensely powerful rendering of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” on which Bentley’s world-weary baritone is perfectly complemented by Thile, who has developed into a mature and expressive singer. Del McCoury provides some passionate and hair-raising vocals on U2’s “In The Name Of Love.” And, both Bentley and the Punch Brothers throw down their bluegrass bona fides with a smokin’ version of “Roving Gambler,” breathing fire into a well-worn, perhaps even overdone classic tune.

Ultimately, Up On The Ridge is more country music than by-the-book bluegrass, but worthy of special attention to bluegrass lovers. It’s what we wish country music was still like, but, in most cases, no longer is. Mostly acoustic with profoundly good songwriting, tasteful production and strongly bluegrass-influenced, all wrapped into in a modern, forward looking package, this is an important recording for listeners and for Dierks Bentley. If it reflects his genuine vision for his music, let’s have more like it…please. (Capitol Records, 3322 West End Ave., 11th Fl., Nashville, TN 37203, www.capitolnashville.com.) AWIII

Review: The McCormick Brothers - Somewhere In Time

HIGHLIGHT


McCormick Brothers - Somewhere In Time

THE McCORMICK BROTHERS
SOMEWHERE IN TIME
Stonewall SWM2008001

It was 1954 when I first heard a McCormick Brothers recording, “Red Hen Boogie,” a Louvin Brothers creation that the McCormicks masterfully brought to life. Soon, an instrumental titled “The Mad Banjo” hit the market, and I was hooked. The tune received considerable airplay in my home turf of northern Virginia; one local DJ even adopted it as his show theme. In those days, the McCormick Brothers consisted of Kelly (mandolin), Lloyd (guitar), and Haskell (banjo), and over the next decade they continued to release strong titles for the Hickory label. Younger brother, William, joined as bass player and, even later, another brother, Gerald, joined.

In their heyday, the McCormick Brothers were a force to be reckoned with. Their songs were topnotch, but many folks focused on their instrumentals featuring the brilliant banjo work of Haskell. By the end of the 1950s, rock’n’roll was seriously impacting traditional music. Still, the McCormicks survived for many years hosting a popular and heavily attended weekly square dance in Gallatin, Tenn. After several attempts at releasing LPs in the 1960s, their recording career began to wind down, and they eventually faded into undeserved obscurity—all except Haskell, who worked a tour with Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass.

Sadly, band pioneers Lloyd and Kelly have passed away. But, now, Haskell and his younger brothers William and Gerald have revitalized the band, releasing this excellent album. Second generation family members show up, and some guests appear, too, most notably Michael Cleveland on fiddle and mandolin.

Here we have the updated McCormick sound. The set of 17 titles (and one bonus track) opens with a new tune (at least to me) “Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You,” one of the set’s highlights. There are also fine versions of the gospel favorite “Camping In Canaan’s Land,” a banjo/fiddle duet, “Old Joe Clark,” and “You Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You,” another tune I’d not heard. The boys offer a pleasing mix of new pieces and familiar ones, all powerful performances including a fine new version of “Red Hen Boogie.” It’s great to have the McCormick Brothers back. Recommended. (Stonewall Records, 110 River Rd., Hendersonville, TN 37075, www.stonewallrecords.com.) WVS

Review: Blaine Johnson - The Old Crow Roadview

Blaine Johnson - The Old Crow Road

BLAINE JOHNSON
THE OLD CROW ROAD

No Label
No Number

This is the third solo CD for this 13 year old banjo picker from Beaver, W.Va. He sounds as if he’s been playing for years. And, he has—four years as a matter of fact. He has a good grasp of Scruggs-style banjo and the melodic-style and he aptly demonstrates it on a dozen standard bluegrass instrumentals. His touch is remarkable as he plays with a sureness that belies his age. His teacher, Brandon Green, plays most of the rhythm instruments, some mandolin, and reso guitar. Daniel Boner plays fiddle, and Alex Hibbitts plays some mighty fine mandolin on the tracks Green doesn’t play.

On “Wayfaring Stranger,” Johnson plays fingerstyle guitar. Otherwise, he tears up the banjo parts, adding a little something of his own to pieces by famous forbearer Earl Scruggs— “Randy Lynn Rag,” “Nashville Skyline Rag,” and “Ground Speed.”

The picking throughout this project is accomplished and makes for good listening. The recording quality is good enough, although overall, the final mix lacks real representation of the lead instruments. This is a worthy project by a promising young talent that we no doubt will hear much more from in the future. (Blaine Johnson, P.O. Box 732, Beaver, WV 25813, myspace.com/blainebanjoboy.) RCB

Review: The Bluegrass Brothers - So Long

The Bluegrass Brothers - So LongTHE BLUEGRASS BROTHERS
SO LONG
No Label
BGB006

The Brothers hail from Virginia and play a solid traditional style of bluegrass. The inclusion of original material here adds interest to the program. Their vocals reflect the life they sing about, and the lonesome mountain sound predominates. As this band grows, they continue to absorb influences from the strong body of traditional bluegrass that they are definitely a part of today. They, in turn, use this to refine their sound.

Brandon Farley drives the sound with his banjo, adding tasteful backup and just the right amount of punch. Billy Hurt, Jr., plays some fine fiddle with sweet-moving double-stops and sharp leads. Victor Dowdy plays bass and sings with his two sons, Donald on mandolin and Steve on guitar. They all are accomplished musicians who know the genre and feel their music deeply.

The material is all robust with five songs coming from Steve or Victor Dowdy, one each from Jimmy Martin (“Home Run Man”), Reno & Smiley (“Wall Around Your Heart”), and Vern Gosdin (“If Your [sic] Going To Do Me Wrong, Do Me Right”). Two tracks are from the pen of Mike Dillard, one of which is the heart wrenching “Little Jenny.”

This group is getting better with each release and growing to be a presence on the current bluegrass scene. We can look for more good things to come from this band. (Bluegrass Brothers, 3441 Rusty Road, Salem, VA 24153, www.thebluegrassbrothers.com.) RCB

Review: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Light On My Feet, Ready To Fly

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Light On My Feet, Ready To FlyDOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER
LIGHT ON MY FEET, READY TO FLY
Horizon Records
HR 12762

When it comes to a Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver release, one can always be assured of a solid, well-produced project with expert instrumentation, exciting arrangements, and classic, bone chilling harmonies. This project is no exception. His band has been known as the “school of bluegrass” with new and old members coming and going over the years. But, Doyle’s standards are high, and he consistently strives for a sound and quality that remains fast, despite the changes.

Doyle’s focus is gospel music and he sticks pretty close to the bluegrass sound that produces this particular brand of southern gospel. He picks his songs carefully, and on this project he includes songs from Corey Hensley, Carl Story, Jerry Salley, Conrad Cook, Dee Gaskin, and Thomas Porter. This band edition of Quicksilver includes Corey Hensley on guitar, Jason Leek on bass, Dale Perry on banjo, Josh Swift on resonator guitar, and Jason Barie on fiddle.

The title cut was written by guitarist Hensley who also contributes “The Hammer Of Sin.” There is a great rendition of Carl Story’s “It’s A Mighty Hard Road To Travel.” Other highlights include Lance Carpenter’s “He Will Remember Me” and the medley “Ship Of Zion”/“Is That The Old Ship Of Zion.” Fans of gospel music and of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver will thoroughly enjoy this release. (Horizon Records, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.) BF

Review: Greg Brooks - Heroes & Friends

Greg Brooks - Heroes & FriendsGREG BROOKS
HEROES & FRIENDS
No Label
No Number

Greg Brooks is a North Georgia fiddler, who has managed to corral a large assortment of friends and cut this recording that’s dedicated to two of his fiddling heroes, Robert “Allen” Sisson and Tommy Magness. Magness might be the better known of the two fiddlers for most folks as he played with Roy Hall, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff and is known as one of the primary transitional fiddlers from old-time to the more bluesy and jazz-influenced bluegrass fiddlers. Sisson recorded “Katy Hill” in 1925.

Among all of these friends are the makings of several bands. The only constant is the fiddling of Greg Brooks. He fiddles with full band on the more bluegrass numbers, and on some of the older tunes associated with Sisson, he plays with just guitar backup. Brooks’ style relies heavily on saw strokes, but at times he erupts into hot triple fiddle passages that reveal his bluegrass strengths. Through this program of fifteen tunes and one song (“Molly And Tinbrooks [sic]”) Brooks plays some mighty satisfying fiddle.

Andy Ruff plays some fine resonator guitar especially on the duet “Lonesome Indian.” They do this again with “Katy Hill.” Eat your hearts out banjo pickers, the latter is one hot duet. The inclusion of the very fine “Rocky Road To Dublin” is an example of a tune that shares that name. There are eight tunes listed under that title on the Fiddler’s Companion Web site. Ruff’s resonator guitar work on this tune and the others is highly expressive and melodically accurate—no easy task.

There are extensive liner notes that tell the story of this recording project and of some of the accidents that should have, but did not, end Brooks’ fiddling days. There are photographs of many of the players, along with information about them.

This is a project of love and remembrance for two fiddlers now gone. The only tune that may have been included, but wasn’t, is “Polecat Blues,” a tune held in high esteem by many North Carolina fiddlers who have fond memories of Magness’ recording with Roy Hall. (Greg Brooks, 4233 Mineral Bluff Hwy., Mineral Bluff, GA 30559.) RCB

Review: The Hillbenders - Down To My Last Dollar

The Hillbenders - Down To My Last DollarTHE HILLBENDERS
DOWN TO MY LAST DOLLAR
No Label
No Number

The Hillbenders, based in Springfield, Mo., debut here with 11 band originals and two covers all played in a bright, melodic contemporary bluegrass-style that contains hints of country, country-rock, swing, and, in the vocal harmonies are reminiscent of New Grass Revival. Taken as a whole, there is a slight imbalance in favor of medium-fast tempos, giving a straight-through listening a certain relentlessness. Taken songbysong, the majority of the tracks offer strong tunes and intriguing arrangements.

The band—guitarist/vocalist Jim Rea, bassist/vocalist Gary Rea, mandolinist/vocalist Nolan Lawrence, banjoist Mark Cassidy, and reso guitarist Chad Graves—recently won Silver Dollar City’s 2010 National Single Mic Championship. That may explain their partiality to quick tempos. It may also explains their fondness for split solos and for the way they group those solos. In the uptempo “Another Day, Another Dollar,” for example, the instrumental section that divides the song’s two-verse choruse is grouped into short solos that change players and instruments 12 times. That would obviously translate well on a single mic and makes a nice variant here.

Whatever the reasoning behind what they do, they do it well. Jim Rea’s opening song, “Highway Gambler,” with its tale of losing it all by taking the whiskey train, and with its soaring emphatic chorus should prove a favorite. The poptinged melody of “Take Me Away” is equally captivating, as is the rhythmicallyworded chorus of Jim Rea’s “Done Wrong Love Song.” Among the slower and medium songs, Cassidy’s “Hard Wakin’ Up” is played in a classic country swing tempo, while another Jim Rea song, “Easier On Me,” recalls the slow country rock tunes of Gram Parsons.

Hard luck seems to be a common theme throughout this debut. What is also a common theme is the high quality of the music and performance. (The Hillbenders, 319 S. Hampton, Springfield, MO 65806, www.hillbenders.com.) BW

Review: J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams - Old Friends Get Together

J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams - Old Friends Get TogetherJ.D. CROWE, DOYLE LAWSON, AND PAUL WILLIAMS
OLD FRIENDS GET TOGETHER
Mountain Home
MH12922

The career paths of these three bluegrass legends have crossed numerous times over the past half century. This time, they’ve crossed paths for a cause: to record a robust, traditional gospel tribute to the late great Jimmy Martin, who had a profound influence on all three of these men. Doyle Lawson, who like Crowe and Williams served a stint in Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys many moons ago, says in his heartfelt liner notes: “We wanted to do a CD of songs that we had sung with Jimmy on stage and on records. This was a labor of love and an appreciation for a man and his music.”

Quite a few of the titles here (“Prayer Bells Of Heaven,” “Stormy Waters,” “This World Is Not My Home”) are stalwart bluegrass gospel standards. The trio also reprises a pair of Martin’s original spirituals: “Voice Of My Savior” and “Give Me Your Hand.” This powerhouse harmony trio (Crowe on baritone vocals, Lawson on lead vocals, and Williams on lead and tenor vocals on various tracks) is backed at various times by Cia Cherryholmes (high harmony vocals), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony vocals), Ben Isaacs (bass and bass vocals), Ron Stewart (fiddle), and Harry Stinson (snare drum).

Each and every one of these 12 tracks is imbued with precise and powerful harmonies and an earnest, soulful spirit of collaboration and sense of tradition. The vocal performances flow so seamlessly and resonate with such confidence and conviction that it makes it easy to imagine these three masters, whose careers have taken such different paths over the years, have actually been singing together forever. (Mountain Home Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.) BA

Review: Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin - Return

Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin - ReturnJODY STECHER AND KATE BRISLIN
RETURN
No Label
No Number

Two albums ago, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin recorded the songs of Utah Phillips. That was in 1997. Their next release in 2000 was a tribute to the Carter Family. Now, after a ten-year hiatus, they have returned with a recording aptly-named Return, on which they mix guitar and vocal duets with banjo/guitar/vocal duets and with mandolin/guitar duets, and on which they include a Utah Phillips song “Old Buddy Goodnight” and a Carter Family song, “Somebody’s Boy.”

The recording evokes an evening of playing and singing on the back porch. To be sure, there are moments in which Stecher and Brislin let go and the music approaches a rambunctious level. “Boat’s Up A River” shows a touch of it in the snap of the strings on Stecher’s nylonstrung banjo or in almost shouted lines of the melody. Brislin’s cover of “Somebody’s Boy” veers to that level in the chorus, and there is an inherent intensity that comes naturally to the blues tune “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” and in the gospel song “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand.”

Generally, though, the mood is relaxed and convivial. Gentle performances taken at slow and slow/medium dominate almost exclusively, be it the parlor-esque optimism of the orphan in “Every Bush And Tree,” the stately grace of Hazel Dickens’ description of her sister’s hard life in “Old Calloused Hands,” the ethereal quality and elegant guitar solos (Stecher’s) in “Fine Horseman,” the 1897 gospel classic “Beautiful,” or the 3/4-time tale of a love’s departure in “Rivers Of Texas.” Even the two mostly instrumental mandolin/guitar medleys of “Gunboat”/“Back Step Cindy” and “The Rainy Day”/“Pretty Little Widow”—while somewhat lively and danceable—are far more flowing than rollicking.

All told, high marks all around. So sit back, relax and enjoy. (Kate Brislin, c/o Leland et al, 199 Fremont St. #2100, San Francisco, CA 94105, www.jodyandkate.com.) BW

Review: Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice - Heartaches and Dreams

Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice - Heartaches and DreamsJUNIOR SISK AND RAMBLER’S CHOICE
HEARTACHES AND DREAMS
Rebel Records
REBCD1837

For the most part, Junior Sisk avoids recording bluegrass standards. I say “for the most part” because he did record “Dust On The Bible” on his debut release, Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge, and that tune has seen its share of covers. On this his second release, Heartaches And Dreams, the “for the most part” disappears. It might be argued that such tunes as the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers’ “You Broke Your Promise” from the early ’50s or Clyde Pitts’ “The Laugh’s On Me” from the mid’60s are widely remembered, but you can’t really call them standards.

To go with them, Sisk has revived a couple of minor classics and given them the same rich, traditional sound he brings to all his work. The first of these is Larry McPeak’s slow, countrytinged “Humble Man.” The other two are gospel tunes: the vibrant and stomping 1950s Dottie Swan composition “Let The Light Shine Down” and Pearlie Mullins’ “The Lowest Valley.” Of the three, “The Lowest Valley” (to which Sisk brings a wonderful vibrato on the held notes of the verse) may be on its way to becoming a standard. Already recorded by the Isaacs and by Ralph Stanley, Sisk’s excellent cover may be all it needs to reach such status.

The rest of the songs are of more contemporary vintage. Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “Train Without A Track” opens the album with the necessary rush. It and “Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore” will probably never be standards, but they’re good workmanlike songs and both wellpresented. One that does have classic status potential is the swing/honkytonk “A Black Hearse Following Me.” With its catchy refrain …running with a wide open throttle, a longnecked bottle and a…, along with its cautiontothewind attitude and fine twin instrumental lines, it certainly brings a smile to the face. But, then, so will this album in general. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) BW

Review: Kathy Kallick Band - Between The Hollow and The Highrise

Kathy Kallick Band - Between The Hollow and The HighriseKATHY KALLICK BAND
BETWEEN THE HOLLOW AND THE HIGHRISE
Live Oak Records
540

It’s a challenge and a litmus test for any artist to sequence his or her original songs alongside familiar classics by the likes of Carter Stanley and the Louvin Brothers on a CD. Bay Area veteran musician Kathy Kallick passes this test with flying colors on her 15th recording.

Between The Hollow And The HighRise (the title reflects a recurring theme in Kallick’s originals) opens with “Where Is My Little Cabin Home,” the introspective and compelling lament of a uneasy urban dweller without an old homeplace to seek refuge and renewal. “Whistle Stop Town” is, in Kallick’s words, a “folk/pop/Americana (storysong) played on bluegrass instruments.” It dramatizes the plight of a smalltown refugee struggling to come to grips with the troubled, misplaced past that put her on the run in the first place.

Kallick’s delightful humor shines through on “My House” (…shame it ain’t perfect/but it’s home) and her politically barbed update of a traditional tune titled “New White House Blues.” Thrown in for good measure are spirited reprisals of Carter Stanley’s “Lonesome Night,” Josh Graves’ “Come Walk With Me,” and the traditional gospel ode, “There Is A Higher Power.” Also featured are several fine instrumentals on which Kallick and her band—Tom Bekeny (mandolin, vocals), Dan Booth (acoustic bass, vocals), Greg Booth (reso guitar and banjo), and Annie Staninec (fiddle)—showcase their formidable instrumental prowess. (Live Oak Records, P.O. Box 21344, Oakland, CA 94620, www.kathykallick.com.) BA

Review: Remington Ryde - Grandpa Was My Guide

Remington Ryde - Grandpa Was My GuideREMINGTON RYDE
GRANDPA WAS MY GUIDE
No Label
G167V0210

In their sixth recording, Pennsylvania’s Remington Ryde covers Charlie Moore’s tale of impending murder with “Her Last Breath.” A more ominous song can scarce be named. The danger with such songs is that making the song believable and not campy or corny requires a storyteller’s sense of timing and emphasis. Charlie Moore certainly had that sense, and so, too, does Remington Ryde and its principle lead singer Ryan Frankhauser

“Her Last Breath” is chillingly believable and a standout track on an album full of good songs performed in a straight, traditional style. Seven of the thirteen tracks are originals. One of those is Billy Cox’s “Clinch Mountain Backstep”-style banjo instrumental, “Shady Maple Quickstep,” while the other six were penned by Frankhauser. His “Itty Bitty Teenie Weenie Sorta Kinda Broken Heart” has a clever chorus of rapid wordsmithing that counters the bemoaning of loss and leaves you wondering if the sufferer is all that suffering. At other times, he gives us the extreme sadness of a mother’s plea for “One More Day” with her dying child, the ache of lost love in “I’m Half The Man,” and the title tune, an ode to his grandfather.

Frankhauser’s songs don’t quite match the band’s covers of the Charlie Moore tune and Pete Goble’s “Silence and Pain.” Those have a classic quality difficult to match. Still, this is a recording of good songs played with attention to and love of tradition and underscores why Remington Ryde is a popular band in the midAtlantic region. (Ryan Frankhauser, 4648 U.S. Hwy. 522 N., McClure, PA 17841, www.remingtonryde.com.) BW

Review: Thea Wescott - Cromwell…And Other Roads

Thea Wescott - Cromwell…And Other RoadsTHEA WESCOTT
CROMWELL…AND OTHER ROADS
No Label
BWP113009CD

Thea Wescott has been a veteran of the music scene in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and although she has only been associated with bluegrass for a relatively short period, she has certainly proved to be a fast learner. Cromwell…And Other Roads is her latest venture, and for a supporting cast, she’s amassed a who’s who of bluegrass pickers including Bryan Sutton (guitar), Rob Ickes (resonator guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Dale Ann Bradley (vocals), Steve Gulley (vocals), and others.

With the exception of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold,” the other nine selections were penned by Thea, spinning tales of dark hollows, moonshine, mountain roads, family, and home. The kickoff song, “Diggin’ Ol’ Albert’s Grave,” is about a woman and an acquaintance who helped to bury her husband to defray the expense of a funeral. “The Miller’s Daughter” is an eerie tale that deals with forgiveness, while “The Mustard Seed” is about growing up in southern California. Other noted entries include “Alice,” “Blackberry Wine,” and “Santa Ana Wind.”

Thea’s dynamic vocals take the listener on a wonderful adventure to exciting places and times. Cromwell…And Other Roads is contemporary bluegrass at its best. Thea Wescott is an artist to be reckoned with. (Timberland Ridge Music, P.O. Box 1125, Gig Harbor, WA 98335, www.timberlandridge.com.) LM

Review: Tim Martin - Bluegrass Fiddle

Tim Martin - Bluegrass FiddleTIM MARTIN
BLUEGRASS FIDDLE
Patuxuent Music
CD208

This the latest of many new recordings coming out of the Rockville, Md., label responsible for exposing fine talent to the larger world. Martin is an accomplished fiddler and an active composer of fiddle tunes. This program consists of 16 originals backed by a strong supporting cast.

Jeremy Stephens plays guitar, David McLaughlin, formerly of the Johnson Mountain Boys, plays mandolin and Marshall Wilborn is on bass. Label mate, Jessie Baker, supplies the banjo. All of the musicians do a fine job on the material. Martin acquits himself well, displaying a highly-developed prowess on the fiddle.

A program of all original material often sounds like something you may have heard somewhere else, but it isn’t. There are rags and a wide variety of fiddle tunes, marches, a waltz, with most sounding almost traditional, except they are a little different. It would have been nice to hear Martin cut down on one or two traditional tunes and really rip. He does rip and tear, but it would be fun to hear him tear up on a standard or two. Standout cuts include “Prillman’s Switch,” “Viscosity Breakdown,” and “Popsicle Polka.” You have to love those titles.

This is a fine, well-played set, well recorded in the manner that marks all of the Patuxent releases. Recommended to fiddle fans and fans of strong bluegrass fiddling. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB

Review: Bluegrass Baritone Singing featuring Ronnie Bowman / Bluegrass Tenor Singing featuring Russell Moore

BLUEGRASS BARITONE SINGING
FEATURING RONNIE BOWMAN
Dark Shadow, No Number. One CD, $15.

BLUEGRASS TENOR SINGING
FEATURING RUSSELL MOORE
Dark Shadow, No Number. One CD, $15, both CDs $25.

(Dark Shadow Recording, P.O. Box 52, Joelton, TN 37080, www.darkshadowrecording.com.)

Stephen Mougin, singer/guitarist in the Sam Bush Band and respected producer and recording engineer, has put together two must-have CDs that match the talents of Russell Moore and Ronnie Bowman with multi-track recording technology to teach exactly how professional bluegrass artists treat harmony singing.

Each CD has five songs (“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” “Mr. Engineer,” “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” “My Little Georgia Rose,” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”) with four tracks dedicated to each song. Track one is a full mix of the entire song with all three vocal parts (lead, tenor, and baritone). Track two is the chorus repeated four times with lead vocal only. Track three is the chorus repeated four times with either the tenor or baritone part alone. And track four is the entire song again with either the tenor or baritone part missing so that you can sing along.

The band is Mougin on guitar, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Megan Lynch on fiddle, Ned Luberecki on banjo, and Daniel Hardin on bass. This driving ensemble could easily be signed to a record deal and it’s worth the price of the CD just to hear the band. But, this is all about the singing. To be able to hear how Ronnie Bowman and Russell Moore sing baritone and tenor, respectively, makes these CDs essential for anyone who sings harmony in a band or at jams. Whether you are new to singing or have been singing harmony all your life, I guarantee you haven’t been singing like Mougin, Bowman, and Moore. And, although these CDs do not have “lead singing” in their titles, Stephen Mougin’s voice is one of the best around, and you can learn a lot just by listening to him phrase his lines with subtle runs, dips, dives, and beautifully sustained notes.

What all three of these guys have in common is off-the-charts tone that is the essence of the bluegrass trio sound. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the subtleties and power of bluegrass harmony singing. Get both of them. CVS

Review: Cadillac Sky - Letters In The Deep

Cadillac Sky - Letters In The Deep

CADILLAC SKY
LETTERS IN THE DEEP
Dualtone Records
803020150720

This is not your mama’s bluegrass. In fact, I think it’s safe to say Cadillac Sky left behind most of the sounds of bluegrass for their third full-length CD, Letters In The Deep. The 17-cut disc is a compilation of creative, original sounds that swing across the music continuum. Most tracks were penned by bandmembers David “Mayhem” Mayfield (guitar), Matt Menefee (banjo), “ThrillaFiddla” Ross Holmes (fiddle), and Andy “Panda” Moritz (bass).

Trying to find the best words to describe this CD is as difficult as relaying the beauty of a wonderful work of art. Producer Dan Auerbach of the rock group, the Black Keys, captured the band’s latest boundary-busting musical explorations with a handsoff approach. A personal thumbs up for the cuts: “Hangman,” “Break My Heart Again,” and “Bathsheeba.” You won’t have to search through many of the tracks to find several that will fit your fancy. (Dualtone Music Group, Inc., 203 N. 11th St., Ste. B, Nashville, TN 37206, www.dualtone.com.) BC

Review: Monogram - Hit The Road

Monogram - Hit The Road

MONOGRAM
HIT THE ROAD
No Label
No Number

As we all struggle to learn the finer points of playing and singing bluegrass, while listening to the older masters and their original recordings, it’s useful to remember the challenges faced by those international pickers for whom English is a second language and bluegrass culture is an ocean away. But, more and more fine bands, such as the quartet Monogram from the Czech Republic, are making some amazing recordings.

Singing in slightly accented English and writing an impressive array of mostly original material, Monogram has assembled an excellent new album. They’re eclectic and modern, with folky, funky, and modern influences emerging upon occasion, but they can also handle harddriving songs like the CD’s title track.

Instrumentally, they’re impeccable. While the three instrumental tracks allow banjoist Jaromir Jahoda, mandolinist Zdenek Jahoda, and guitarist Jakub Racek to stretch out and show off their considerable chops, each song also displays a thoughtful and imaginative approach to arrangement. Racek is the lead singer, but the whole band, including bassist Pavel Lzicar, contributes very tight and smooth harmonies. The band has been together for well over a decade, and it’s clear from their polish and attention to detail that these folks are committed to their music.

Aside from their cover of “Carried Away” (a hit for George Strait), their originals cover a wide and ambitious range, thematically and stylistically. There’s an occasional lapse into cliché that strikes a false note, particularly on “Whatever I Do.” But mostly, songs such as “Cure For You” and “Nelly And John” tell moving stories very effectively.

Monogram has some good original music that deserves international recognition. It would be beneficial to bluegrass music for them to get exposure to a broader audience. (U Sparty 12, Prague 7, 170 00, Czech Republic, www.monogram.cz.) HK

Reviews - November 2010

HIGHLIGHT


Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story - Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright - Introduction by Ricky SkaggsSTILL INSIDE: THE TONY RICE STORY
BY TIM STAFFORD & CAROLINE WRIGHT

Word of Mouth Press 9780578051130.
Hardcover, 315 pp., photos, $24.99.
(Word of Mouth Press, 406 Shelby St., Kingsport, TN 37660, www.wordofmouthpress.us.)

Simply put, this is the most thorough, fascinating biography of a musician I have ever read. Authors Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright have written a rich, informative, entertaining account of the life and music of Tony Rice, the most influential and widely—if not wildly—imitated guitarist in bluegrass history. The structure of the book is unique. Each chapter includes an introduction to an era of Tony’s life, a firstperson narrative created from interviews of Tony covering those years, along with brief quotes from musicians, friends, and fans. The last are not gratuitous, but lend another angle in illuminating a very complex personality. I found myself skipping around and reading different sections out of order, but this worked well. The sections are clearly presented and the more than a hundred photographs capture some important moments in Tony’s life and bluegrass history. I found the last two chapters especially interesting: one on Tony’s life offstage and another on the famous 1935 D28 guitar once owned by Clarence White. The book includes a complete timeline of Tony’s life and career, an exhaustive discography, and a thorough bibliography. They could easily have titled the book The Complete Tony Rice.

There is so much here that stays with you, but especially Tony’s own words. What comes across is an open, honest person who cares about connecting with others musically and personally. That came as a surprise since, in the past, Tony has had an aura of mystery and sometimes seclusion. Several myths are dispelled here, but what is mostly illustrated is the spiritual relationship Tony has with music. It manifests itself in a degree of attention to detail that is mindboggling. But besides the exquisite tone, timing, and touch, there is passion that drives the technique.

Nothing is swept under the rug here. His failures as well as his successes are discussed. This book is one of the few biographies of a musician that gets at the heart of where life and art intersect. Stafford and Wright have left their egos at the door and present Tony in his own terms. A wonderful book and essential reading for anyone interested in the life of a complex, influential musician. CVS

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road - Carolina HurricaneLORRAINE JORDAN & CAROLINA ROAD
CAROLINA HURRICANE
Rural Rhythm
RHY-1062

Veteran IBMA awardwinning, North Carolina singer/bandleader Lorraine Jordan and her band Carolina Road come through with flying colors on their first release for Rural Rhythm Records.

Jordan’s traditional-style CD is powered with firstclass picking, imaginative song choices, and Jordan’s lowkey, but compelling vocal performances. The singer and her gifted ensemble serve up rousing versions of timeless gems by Bill Monroe (“Stay Away From Me”), Ernest Tubb (“You Won’t Ever Forget Me”), Hank Bowman (“You Don’t Know The Blues”), and Don Robertson (“Born To Be With You”).

This solid collection is rounded out with the commanding title tune (penned by Louisa Branscomb), a pair of lovely ballads by Paula Breedlove (“Carolina Blue” and “No Smokey Mountains”), and a couple of Jordan’s own fine originals, the lovely “Carolina Memories” and her elegant theme song “Lady Of Tradition.” (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BA

Tyler Grant - Tyler Grant's Flatpicking Up The NeckTYLER GRANT
TYLER GRANT’S FLATPICKING: UP THE NECK
Grant Central Records
GCR1001

Instrumental bluegrass albums have a long history, with many of the biggest names having produced at least one such record during their careers. Flatpicking guitar, which entered the bluegrass world long after banjo, fiddle, and mandolin emerged as lead instruments, has followed a similar path, with musicians ranging from Norman Blake, Clarence White, Dan Crary, Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, David Grier, Cody Kilby, Steve Kaufman, and many more producing outstanding albums of instrumental bluegrass. Tyler Grant, a former National Flatpicking Guitar Champion of the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kans., has emerged in recent years as one of the brightest talents on guitar, producing everything from brilliantly orchestrated guitar-contest pieces to memorable original instrumental tunes to some great instructional materials.

On his latest release Up The Neck, Grant says he wanted to produce an album focused solely on his guitar playing. That’s a big task for any guitarist, but Grant backs up his objective over 14 instrumental tunes, several of which are his compositions. For listeners interested in hearing the intricate, highly-arranged contest-tune style of guitar, Grant obliges with gorgeous renditions of “Forked Deer,” “Beaumont Rag,” and “I Don’t Love Nobody.” He stretches his musical boundaries on his broadly themed originals “Springtime Flatpicking,” “Hippie Guitar,” and “Cache La Poudre.” And, he is joined by fellow flatpicking icon Bill Nershi (who also engineered the project) for a sweet guitar duet on “President Garfield’s Hornpipe.” Infamous Stringdusters banjo ace Chris Pandolfi also sits in on a tune named in Chris’s honor.

Up The Neck is filled with inventive, well-executed flatpicking guitar music ranging from the traditional to the progressive ends of the musical spectrum. Grant is a skilled and talented player who has crafted an enjoyable and highly entertaining CD that will please not only hardcore guitar fans, but many bluegrass lovers who enjoy the instrumental side of our music. In my book, Up The Neck gets a definite thumbs up! (Grant Central Records, P.O. Box 1931, Lyons, CO 80540, www.tylergrant.org.) DJM

Ned Crisp and Bottomline - Taking The Back Roads HomeNED CRISP AND BOTTOMLINE
TAKING THE BACK ROADS HOME
Blue Circle Records
BCR025

With “Danville Prison Grave,” this album starts slow. That its tempo is slow is not a problem. Starting an album with a slow song is no crime, and there are several songs included here that could have filled the bill, such as their fine cover of Tim O’Brien’s “Wishin’ Hard” or their equally fine rendering of guitarist Brandon Adams’ “Please Go Slow.” Tempo aside, what makes “Danville…” a slow opener is a modal melody and a set of words that sound both shopworn and like any number of similarlythemed songs. Compared to Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes,” a song also about prison life that comes later on the CD, it is no contest. If a prison song was what they wanted to use for an opener, “Stripes” would have been a better choice.

Fortunately, over the next four songs the band moves through three tunes that cry out for attention, deservedly so, beginning with Adams’ lilting and airy “Yesterday’s Gone” and soon followed by their vocalonly cover of the traditional spiritual “Angels Watching Over Me,” followed in turn by the album’s lone instrumental, “Hillbilly Water Park.” The latter two, for differing reasons, merit comment. “Angels…” is one of those feelgood gospel singalong songs that lifts the spirits, and the band gives it an especially bouyant reading. “Hillbilly…” succeeds on a solid drive, on the nice interplay among the soloists and on the work of mandolinist Zach Rambo. Throughout the recording, it is his mandolin work that garners the highest praise.

The album then drifts a spell, then closes well with the aforementioned run of “I Got Stripes,” “Wishin’ Hard,” and “Please Go Slow.” A brief slow start to get past, but once past, this album rewards with solid overall playing, some standout mandolin, and quite a few toprate songs. (Blue Circle Records P.O. Box 681286, Franklin, TN 37068, www.bluecirclerecords.com.) BW

Rich In Tradition - Black Mountain SpecialRICH IN TRADITION
BLACK MOUNTAIN SPECIAL
Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR1010

Following an album of wellknown standards, one of gospel songs, and one in tribute to the songs of Cullen Galyean, Rich In Tradition has released its most balanced recording to date. Starting the CD off on the right footing is their cover of Cullen Galyean’s love song to a train, “Black Mountain Special.” Immediately, the listener should be drawn to the song’s irresistable drive and to the fragments of the melody of “Bound To Ride” blended into the verses. Underscoring its appeal is a performance that showcases what make this such a fine regional band.

Black Mountain Special is one of four songs included here that are tied either specifically or vaguely to a subtheme of railroading. Of the four, the other standout tune is the cover of the Gussie Davis/Harry Neal 1898 sentimental song, “Red And Green Signal Lights,” in which an engineer learns of his ill daughter’s status by noting whether his wife hangs a red (she’s passed away) or green (she’s getting better) lantern as he steams past their trackside home. The band’s trio harmonies are of special note, rising above what is an album of good vocals.

Of equal interest are two nonrailroad band originals. One is bassist Brad Hiatt’s smooth, melodic take on a guy who can’t see why he can’t be the “Only One Calling You Baby.” In it can be heard a touch of the Dillard’s in their “Decade Waltz” period, and it provides a nice contrast to the more traditional sounds found throughout the album. The second is Greg Jones’ slow, country “Lost, Heartbroke And Lonesome,” a tune that creates interest with a nice shuffle and a nifty twist to a standard chord progression. Throw in an excellent cover of the gospel song “Let’s All Go Down To The River,” a couple of solid originals and some wellplayed standards, and this recording has much to recommend. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) BW

ON THE EDGE

Andrew and Noah VannNorstrand - All The Good SummersANDREW AND NOAH VanNORSTRAND
ALL THE GOOD SUMMERS
Great Bear Records
GBR CD005

This CD of contemporary acoustic/alternative folk music from brothers Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand showcases the siblings’ creative energies at their best. The multi-talented performers do it all on All The Good Summers, a blend of oldtime country and bluegrass, swing and jazz, Celtic and contra, and alternative folk-rock. The VanNorstrands wrote the music and lyrics, produced the CD, and put their fingers into overdrive on a variety of instruments. Andrew (vocals, fiddle, acoustic and electric guitars, octave mandolin, banjo) and Noah (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, tenor guitars, acoustic guitar, and percussion) also brought in Noah’s wife Kailyn on vocals, Dana Billings and CV Abdallah on drums, Rachel Bell on accordion, Kevin Dorsey on acoustic and electric bass, and Pete Sutherland on piano, keyboards, and pump organ.

Love permeates this album with “bye-bye” love (“Faded To A Dream” and “You Are The One In My Dreams”), just missed love (“Love And Winter”), and love separated by class distinction (“Elinor”). Kudos to the guys on their magnificent instrumentals including “The Wasp’s Goggles,” “Lady Pole (Or A Night At LostHope),” and “A Song For Reverend PD Midget III.” They wrap up the 11track disc with “Where Should I Go”—a song that my five-year-old shouted for “again!” and “again!” It’s just the accolade any musician wants to hear. (Great Bear Records, 1509 Co. Route 57, Fulton, NY 13069, www.andrewandnoah.com.) BC

DVD

BARRY BALES
A SOLID FOUNDATION TO ACOUSTIC BASS
AcuTab, No Number. Includes tab booklet, $35. (AcuTab Publications, P.O. Box 21061, Roanoke, VA 24018, www.acutab.com.)

The newest in AcuTab’s series of artist-focused DVDs, and their first acoustic bass instructional product, is Barry Bales’ A Solid Foundation To Acoustic Bass. This two-hour and twenty-minute disc is presented much like a bass workshop—AcuTab founder John Lawless leads Bales through a discussion of his playing techniques and philosophies—a format which lends itself nicely to watching the entire disc straight through. The eight songs they touch on are demonstrated by Bales (front and center for a nice change), and topnotch backing band: Adam Steffey on mandolin, Jim Mills on banjo, and Kenny Smith on guitar.

Bales, long-time member of Alison Krauss + Union Station, as well as the Dan Tyminski Band, covers a lot of territory here, talking about everything from basic left-hand position and right-hand attack to subtle “ghost notes,” from an unadorned one-five pattern on “Fireball Mail” through a constantly-walking western-swing-type bass line on “East Tennessee Blues.” He stresses listening deeply to a lot of music and consciously trying to develop your ear. And he sums up his advice to all bassists: “Be solid. Be confident in your playing. Have fun with it.”

The information on this DVD is so wide ranging that almost any bass player will come away with new and useful knowledge. Those who will benefit most, however, are those who have been playing for a while, already have a firm grasp on the basics, and are looking to hone their technique and kick their game up to the next level. CAH

Review: Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story - Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright

HIGHLIGHT


Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story - Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright - Introduction by Ricky SkaggsSTILL INSIDE: THE TONY RICE STORY
BY TIM STAFFORD & CAROLINE WRIGHT

Word of Mouth Press 9780578051130.
Hardcover, 315 pp., photos, $24.99.
(Word of Mouth Press, 406 Shelby St., Kingsport, TN 37660, www.wordofmouthpress.us.)

Simply put, this is the most thorough, fascinating biography of a musician I have ever read. Authors Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright have written a rich, informative, entertaining account of the life and music of Tony Rice, the most influential and widely—if not wildly—imitated guitarist in bluegrass history. The structure of the book is unique. Each chapter includes an introduction to an era of Tony’s life, a firstperson narrative created from interviews of Tony covering those years, along with brief quotes from musicians, friends, and fans. The last are not gratuitous, but lend another angle in illuminating a very complex personality. I found myself skipping around and reading different sections out of order, but this worked well. The sections are clearly presented and the more than a hundred photographs capture some important moments in Tony’s life and bluegrass history. I found the last two chapters especially interesting: one on Tony’s life offstage and another on the famous 1935 D28 guitar once owned by Clarence White. The book includes a complete timeline of Tony’s life and career, an exhaustive discography, and a thorough bibliography. They could easily have titled the book The Complete Tony Rice.

There is so much here that stays with you, but especially Tony’s own words. What comes across is an open, honest person who cares about connecting with others musically and personally. That came as a surprise since, in the past, Tony has had an aura of mystery and sometimes seclusion. Several myths are dispelled here, but what is mostly illustrated is the spiritual relationship Tony has with music. It manifests itself in a degree of attention to detail that is mindboggling. But besides the exquisite tone, timing, and touch, there is passion that drives the technique.

Nothing is swept under the rug here. His failures as well as his successes are discussed. This book is one of the few biographies of a musician that gets at the heart of where life and art intersect. Stafford and Wright have left their egos at the door and present Tony in his own terms. A wonderful book and essential reading for anyone interested in the life of a complex, influential musician. CVS

Review: Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road - Carolina Hurricane

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road - Carolina HurricaneLORRAINE JORDAN & CAROLINA ROAD
CAROLINA HURRICANE
Rural Rhythm
RHY-1062

Veteran IBMA award winning, North Carolina singer/bandleader Lorraine Jordan and her band Carolina Road come through with flying colors on their first release for Rural Rhythm Records.

Jordan’s traditional-style CD is powered with first class picking, imaginative song choices, and Jordan’s lowkey, but compelling vocal performances. The singer and her gifted ensemble serve up rousing versions of timeless gems by Bill Monroe (“Stay Away From Me”), Ernest Tubb (“You Won’t Ever Forget Me”), Hank Bowman (“You Don’t Know The Blues”), and Don Robertson (“Born To Be With You”).

This solid collection is rounded out with the commanding title tune (penned by Louisa Branscomb), a pair of lovely ballads by Paula Breedlove (“Carolina Blue” and “No Smokey Mountains”), and a couple of Jordan’s own fine originals, the lovely “Carolina Memories” and her elegant theme song “Lady Of Tradition.” (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BA

Review: Tyler Grant - Tyler Grant's Flatpicking Up The Neck

Tyler Grant - Tyler Grant's Flatpicking Up The NeckTYLER GRANT
TYLER GRANT’S FLATPICKING: UP THE NECK
Grant Central Records
GCR1001

Instrumental bluegrass albums have a long history, with many of the biggest names having produced at least one such record during their careers. Flatpicking guitar, which entered the bluegrass world long after banjo, fiddle, and mandolin emerged as lead instruments, has followed a similar path, with musicians ranging from Norman Blake, Clarence White, Dan Crary, Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, David Grier, Cody Kilby, Steve Kaufman, and many more producing outstanding albums of instrumental bluegrass. Tyler Grant, a former National Flatpicking Guitar Champion of the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kans., has emerged in recent years as one of the brightest talents on guitar, producing everything from brilliantly orchestrated guitar-contest pieces to memorable original instrumental tunes to some great instructional materials.

On his latest release Up The Neck, Grant says he wanted to produce an album focused solely on his guitar playing. That’s a big task for any guitarist, but Grant backs up his objective over 14 instrumental tunes, several of which are his compositions. For listeners interested in hearing the intricate, highly-arranged contest-tune style of guitar, Grant obliges with gorgeous renditions of “Forked Deer,” “Beaumont Rag,” and “I Don’t Love Nobody.” He stretches his musical boundaries on his broadly themed originals “Springtime Flatpicking,” “Hippie Guitar,” and “Cache La Poudre.” And, he is joined by fellow flatpicking icon Bill Nershi (who also engineered the project) for a sweet guitar duet on “President Garfield’s Hornpipe.” Infamous Stringdusters banjo ace Chris Pandolfi also sits in on a tune named in Chris’s honor.

Up The Neck is filled with inventive, well-executed flatpicking guitar music ranging from the traditional to the progressive ends of the musical spectrum. Grant is a skilled and talented player who has crafted an enjoyable and highly entertaining CD that will please not only hardcore guitar fans, but many bluegrass lovers who enjoy the instrumental side of our music. In my book, Up The Neck gets a definite thumbs up! (Grant Central Records, P.O. Box 1931, Lyons, CO 80540, www.tylergrant.org.) DJM

Review: Ned Crisp and Bottomline - Taking The Back Roads Home

Ned Crisp and Bottomline - Taking The Back Roads HomeNED CRISP AND BOTTOMLINE
TAKING THE BACK ROADS HOME
Blue Circle Records
BCR025

With “Danville Prison Grave,” this album starts slow. That its tempo is slow is not a problem. Starting an album with a slow song is no crime, and there are several songs included here that could have filled the bill, such as their fine cover of Tim O’Brien’s “Wishin’ Hard” or their equally fine rendering of guitarist Brandon Adams’ “Please Go Slow.” Tempo aside, what makes “Danville…” a slow opener is a modal melody and a set of words that sound both shopworn and like any number of similarlythemed songs. Compared to Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes,” a song also about prison life that comes later on the CD, it is no contest. If a prison song was what they wanted to use for an opener, “Stripes” would have been a better choice.

Fortunately, over the next four songs the band moves through three tunes that cry out for attention, deservedly so, beginning with Adams’ lilting and airy “Yesterday’s Gone” and soon followed by their vocalonly cover of the traditional spiritual “Angels Watching Over Me,” followed in turn by the album’s lone instrumental, “Hillbilly Water Park.” The latter two, for differing reasons, merit comment. “Angels…” is one of those feel-good gospel singalong songs that lifts the spirits, and the band gives it an especially bouyant reading. “Hillbilly…” succeeds on a solid drive, on the nice interplay among the soloists and on the work of mandolinist Zach Rambo. Throughout the recording, it is his mandolin work that garners the highest praise.

The album then drifts a spell, then closes well with the aforementioned run of “I Got Stripes,” “Wishin’ Hard,” and “Please Go Slow.” A brief slow start to get past, but once past, this album rewards with solid overall playing, some standout mandolin, and quite a few toprate songs. (Blue Circle Records P.O. Box 681286, Franklin, TN 37068, www.bluecirclerecords.com.) BW

Review: Rich In Tradition - Black Mountain Special

Rich In Tradition - Black Mountain SpecialRICH IN TRADITION
BLACK MOUNTAIN SPECIAL
Mountain Roads Recordings
MRR1010

Following an album of wellknown standards, one of gospel songs, and one in tribute to the songs of Cullen Galyean, Rich In Tradition has released its most balanced recording to date. Starting the CD off on the right footing is their cover of Cullen Galyean’s love song to a train, “Black Mountain Special.” Immediately, the listener should be drawn to the song’s irresistable drive and to the fragments of the melody of “Bound To Ride” blended into the verses. Underscoring its appeal is a performance that showcases what make this such a fine regional band.

Black Mountain Special is one of four songs included here that are tied either specifically or vaguely to a subtheme of railroading. Of the four, the other standout tune is the cover of the Gussie Davis/Harry Neal 1898 sentimental song, “Red And Green Signal Lights,” in which an engineer learns of his ill daughter’s status by noting whether his wife hangs a red (she’s passed away) or green (she’s getting better) lantern as he steams past their trackside home. The band’s trio harmonies are of special note, rising above what is an album of good vocals.

Of equal interest are two nonrailroad band originals. One is bassist Brad Hiatt’s smooth, melodic take on a guy who can’t see why he can’t be the “Only One Calling You Baby.” In it can be heard a touch of the Dillard’s in their “Decade Waltz” period, and it provides a nice contrast to the more traditional sounds found throughout the album. The second is Greg Jones’ slow, country “Lost, Heartbroke And Lonesome,” a tune that creates interest with a nice shuffle and a nifty twist to a standard chord progression. Throw in an excellent cover of the gospel song “Let’s All Go Down To The River,” a couple of solid originals and some wellplayed standards, and this recording has much to recommend. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) BW

Review: Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand

ON THE EDGE

Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand - All The Good SummersANDREW AND NOAH VanNORSTRAND
ALL THE GOOD SUMMERS
Great Bear Records
GBR CD005

This CD of contemporary acoustic/alternative folk music from brothers Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand showcases the siblings’ creative energies at their best. The multi-talented performers do it all on All The Good Summers, a blend of oldtime country and bluegrass, swing and jazz, Celtic and contra, and alternative folk-rock. The VanNorstrands wrote the music and lyrics, produced the CD, and put their fingers into overdrive on a variety of instruments. Andrew (vocals, fiddle, acoustic and electric guitars, octave mandolin, banjo) and Noah (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, tenor guitars, acoustic guitar, and percussion) also brought in Noah’s wife Kailyn on vocals, Dana Billings and CV Abdallah on drums, Rachel Bell on accordion, Kevin Dorsey on acoustic and electric bass, and Pete Sutherland on piano, keyboards, and pump organ.

Love permeates this album with “bye-bye” love (“Faded To A Dream” and “You Are The One In My Dreams”), just missed love (“Love And Winter”), and love separated by class distinction (“Elinor”). Kudos to the guys on their magnificent instrumentals including “The Wasp’s Goggles,” “Lady Pole (Or A Night At LostHope),” and “A Song For Reverend PD Midget III.” They wrap up the 11track disc with “Where Should I Go”—a song that my five-year-old shouted for “again!” and “again!” It’s just the accolade any musician wants to hear. (Great Bear Records, 1509 Co. Route 57, Fulton, NY 13069, www.andrewandnoah.com.) BC

Reviews - December 2010

HIGHLIGHT


Bluegrass Unlimitied - Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy

PETER ROWAN BLUEGRASS BAND
LEGACY
Compass Record Group 7 4543 2

You can’t really say Legacy is Peter Rowan’s homecoming to traditional bluegrass since he never really completely left tradition behind. Diverted from it, yes—even for long spells. But, the ancient tones were always beneath the surface. It’s better to say this recording contains a body of work that is more thoroughly grounded in the tradition than anything he’s done in a long time, and it’s arguably among the finest bluegrass recordings made in a decade…perhaps in the last 25 years…maybe longer. It is that good.

A few particulars: thirteen tracks; ten of them Rowan originals; one traditional tune; one Stanley tune; and one Jody Stecher original instrumental. In addition to Stecher on mandolin and vocals, Keith Little is on banjo and vocals, and Paul Knight plays bass—a group of guys who truly understand the form and subtleties of the traditional style.

What should strike the listener right away is the songwriting. “Jailer, Jailer” is a blues-based, Monroe/Dylan hybrid that uses jail as a metaphor for traps we get ourselves in. Interestingly, it ends with Rowan pleading not to be set free. “Father, Mother” is a beautiful, slow lament on death and comes cloaked in a Jimmie Rodgers-like sentimentalism. It’s a song that could easily veer into the maudlin or corny, but Rowan is too fine a writer for that, and the performance is so pure it never becomes anything less than believable. The same could be said for “Turn The Other Cheek” and its admonition to treat our fellow man well, and for “God’s Own Child,” with its intense personal expression of faith, its call and response vocals, and the contributions of guest vocalists Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs. All four could stand with the classics of traditional bluegrass.

Other fine songs include the mountain blues public domain tune, “Catfish,” sung to perfection by Stecher, the Stanley gospel tune, “Let Me Walk By Your Side,” with Keith Little handling the lead, and the old-time Rowan original, “The Raven.” In the latter, Rowan writes in a bit of Poe and even references his own “Midnight Moonlight.”

One final note. Not all the tunes here work solely within traditional bounds. “So Good,” “The Night Prayer,” and “Don’t Ask Me Why,” fine songs all, are more in keeping with the pop-influenced style of the ’70s. And, he can’t resist ending on what sounds like a traditional mountain song, “Across The Rolling Hills,” only the hills are the Himalayas and the ride out is a Buddhist mantra. In a sense, part of the legacy he is reflecting is his own. (Compass Records Group, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) BW

Bluegrass Unlimited - Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

FRANK SOLIVAN & DIRTY KITCHEN
Fiddlemon Music 13003

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen have certainly ranked among the “buzz” bluegrass bands of 2010. Fittingly, their eponymous CD presents a razor sharp, confident quartet influenced by a broad range of the last four decades of bluegrass music development.

Veteran Mike Munford’s crackling banjo draws the listener in from the kickoff of the driving lead track, “Driftin’ Apart,” one of six songs that Solivan wrote or co-wrote. Mike’s banjo work quickly meets its counterpoint in some killer resonator guitar playing by Blue Highway’s Rob Ickes, one of four special guests. “Driftin’ Apart” defines one of the band’s primary approaches: the fast modern bluegrass song. This approach repeats on several of the recording’s top tracks including Ginger Boatwright’s “Runaway Ramp,” Munford’s instrumental “Line Drive,” and another of Frank’s songs, “Tarred And Feathered,” with John Cowan on tenor.

Mandolinist and lead singer Solivan began winning fiddle contests and playing with Doug Dillard and Ginger while also playing first chair violin with the University of Alaska Symphony. The U.S. Navy Band Country Current brought him east and allowed him to become well-enough known to now front his own unit. The band also includes Stephan Custodi on standup bass and guitarist Lincoln Meyers. Solivan’s songwriting often proves standout. He writes songs that clearly are bluegrass, yet deal with contemporary themes.

The second cut on the album, John Stewart’s “July You’re A Woman,” jumps back in time to the hippiegrass of forty years ago, while Solivan’s “Together We’ll Fly” reminds me of some of the best West Coast bluegrass of the ’80s and ’90s. Another fine song from Frank, “Left Out In The Cold,” is a ripped-from-the-headlines ballad of the kind Blue Highway does so well. “Paul & Silas” from the Stanleys concludes the album with a rich a capella quartet.

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen announce their arrival with authority. Their debut delivers lots of strong original material and outstanding variety without every falling into musical dilettantism. (Fiddlemon Music, 6625 Cornell Dr., Alexandria, VA 22307, www.dirtykitchenband.com.) AM

Bluegrass Unlimited - Keller & The Keels - Thief

Keller & The Keels - Thief

KELLER & THE KEELS
THIEF
Sci Fidelity Records SCIFI 1139

When I first received Thief, the second set of cover songs recorded by Keller Williams and Larry and Jenny Keel, I fully expected my review to end up in the “On The Edge” section of this magazine. Williams’ music floats on the quirky yet inventive side of the jam band scene, and The Keels have always had an open mind about their Virginia ’grass. This trio’s first album together was called Grass and it was good, but uneven. Thief, on the other hand, flows wonderfully throughout with great arrangements and expanded musicality.

The unusual cover-song choices here will seem odd at first glance. But, the positive approach and upbeat grooves makes this CD fit in the “regular” review category just fine. Williams handles most of the lead vocals, while all three keep their acoustic instruments humming throughout. Larry Keel’s leads are excellent, especially in the case of rollicking and infectious versions of Patterson Hood’s “Uncle Disney” and Ryan Adams’ “Cold Roses.” Both Keels sing harmony and Jenny’s bass playing is as solid as ever. Other covers include “Switch And The Spur” by The Raconteurs, “Get It While You Can” by Danny Barnes, Cracker’s “Teen Angst,” “Bath Of Fire” by Presidents Of The United States Of America, the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains Of The Moon,” and Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Wind’s On Fire.” Even when the trio takes on the Amy Winehouse song “Rehab,” it isn’t done in a gimmicky way, but instead rocks right along.

Larry shares the lead vocals with Keller on two Kris Kristofferson songs, “Don’t Cuss The Fiddle” and “The Year 2003 Minus 25,” which open and close the album. If this album was too quirky, it wouldn’t hold up to multiple listenings. This fun effort, however, will stay in the mix for a long while. (SCI Fidelity Records, 2060 Broadway St., Ste. 225, Boulder, CO 80302, www.scifidelity.com.) DH

Bluegrass Unlimited - New Outlook - Prepare To Believe

New Outlook - Prepare To Believe

NEW OUTLOOK
PREPARE TO BELIEVE
No Label, No Number

This is a pleasing mix of new-country songs and original material. New Outlook is anchored by the Ohio-based team of bassist Lori Lyn and banjo player Brad Lambert, both powerful vocalists. Right from the opening version of the country hit “Somebody’s Knocking” and continuing through “Wish You Were Someone I Loved” and “Love’s Not Everything,” New Outlook knocks on the door of an enjoyable CD.

Especially impressive is how Lyn and Lambert have melded their sidemen into a well-arranged, flowing ensemble. There’s been a lot of thought and care put into this music. Their original material especially shows such creativity, as witness the standout tracks “Bullet Through The Heart” and the bluesy “Baby, Look Out.”

This is a group that can bring out the best in other people’s material, but also create their own songs with style. This is an impressive recording from the band. They’re bound to go further in the future. (New Outlook, 102 E. Benton Apt. #1, Wapak, OH 45895, www.newoutlookbluegrass.com.) RDS

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Old Time Bluegrass Singers - Plastic Heart

The Old Time Bluegrass Singers - Plastic Heart

THE OLD TIME BLUEGRASS SINGERS
PLASTIC HEART
Open Road Records OR-017

The Old Time Bluegrass Singers are bluegrass pioneer Herb Applin on mandolin, Lillian Fraker on bass, Terry McGill on banjo, Dick Bowden on guitar, and Robert Fraker on guitar. All contribute vocals. Applin was designated a pioneer by the IBMM (International Bluegrass Music Museum) for his work with the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover, and Joe Val, all strong roots of bluegrass in New England.

This band grows from those roots and moves in its own direction. One song each come from Joe Val (“Meet Me By My Old Kentucky Home”) and Don Stover (“I’ll Be Myself Again”). The remainder are from a wide range of sources ranging from The Louvins’ “From Mother’s Arms To Korea” to Ramona Jones’ “Banjo Am The Instrument For Me.” They like clever lyrics, vocal duets and trios, and good songs. The title cut was a favorite of Joe Val’s. They also like hardcore traditional bluegrass such as the Stanley Brothers’ “I’m Only Human.” There are three gospel numbers, “They Can Only Fill One Grave,” “I Know My Lord’s Gonna Lead Me Out,” and “Stone Was Rolled Away.” The one instrumental is a fine and inventive banjo rendition of “Casey Jones.” While this is not material original to this band, these are also not songs commonly heard in bluegrass, though these arrangements demonstrate that they can and should be.

I recommend this CD for excellent singing, great playing, and tight band arrangements which are faithful both to traditional bluegrass and song presentation. Take note. This is how it should be done.(Open Road Records, P.O. Box 271, Lanesboro, MA 01237, e-mail: otbgsingers@gmail.com.) SAG

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Oly Mountain Boys

The Oly Mountain Boys

THE OLY MOUNTAIN BOYS
No Label, No Number

The Oly Mountain Boys have been working the circuit around the Olympia, Wash., area since the band formed in 2008. The band consists of guitarist/vocalist Chris Rutledge, banjoist/vocalist Tye Menser, mandolinist Derek McSwain, bassist/reso-guitarist/vocalist Phil Post, and fiddler Josh Grice. This is their debut.

The accompanying press notes state that the group has a strong affinity for the Stanley and Monroe styles, but for this recording, they’re blending in folk-rock and Americana. That proves to be a good move. A lighter, folkier brand of bluegrass seems to work better for them than the hard-driving traditional sound. At least that’s the impression you get after hearing their reasonable if somewhat average versions of “Hello City Limits” or “Are You Missing Me.”

Part of the reason the folkier approach works better is that the band’s sole lead singer, Tye Menser, has a softer, lighter vocal timbre. Where “Are You Missing Me” lacks a bit of the necessary fire, a tune such as their cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” is quite good. The matching of Menser’s voice to the right material makes the song one of the album highlights.

Several other highlights are among the six originals that Menser contributed here. “Dreams Along The Way” is a medium-tempo glimpse at a life gone horribly wrong, while “Six Hours” recalls those folk ballads in which a phrase or word group, in this case “six hours,” becomes almost a mantra.

The other highlight of the recording is the mandolin work of Derek McSwain. His leads had a nice, full rhythmic feel and a good sound throughout the album, particularly on his own “Oly Mountain Waltz.” (Tye Menser, 3142 Yew Trail Dr. NW, Olympia, WA 98502, myspace.com/olymountainboys.) BW

Review: Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy

HIGHLIGHT


Bluegrass Unlimitied - Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Legacy

PETER ROWAN BLUEGRASS BAND
LEGACY
Compass Record Group 7 4543 2

You can’t really say Legacy is Peter Rowan’s homecoming to traditional bluegrass since he never really completely left tradition behind. Diverted from it, yes—even for long spells. But, the ancient tones were always beneath the surface. It’s better to say this recording contains a body of work that is more thoroughly grounded in the tradition than anything he’s done in a long time, and it’s arguably among the finest bluegrass recordings made in a decade…perhaps in the last 25 years…maybe longer. It is that good.

A few particulars: thirteen tracks; ten of them Rowan originals; one traditional tune; one Stanley tune; and one Jody Stecher original instrumental. In addition to Stecher on mandolin and vocals, Keith Little is on banjo and vocals, and Paul Knight plays bass—a group of guys who truly understand the form and subtleties of the traditional style.

What should strike the listener right away is the songwriting. “Jailer, Jailer” is a blues-based, Monroe/Dylan hybrid that uses jail as a metaphor for traps we get ourselves in. Interestingly, it ends with Rowan pleading not to be set free. “Father, Mother” is a beautiful, slow lament on death and comes cloaked in a Jimmie Rodgers-like sentimentalism. It’s a song that could easily veer into the maudlin or corny, but Rowan is too fine a writer for that, and the performance is so pure it never becomes anything less than believable. The same could be said for “Turn The Other Cheek” and its admonition to treat our fellow man well, and for “God’s Own Child,” with its intense personal expression of faith, its call and response vocals, and the contributions of guest vocalists Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs. All four could stand with the classics of traditional bluegrass.

Other fine songs include the mountain blues public domain tune, “Catfish,” sung to perfection by Stecher, the Stanley gospel tune, “Let Me Walk By Your Side,” with Keith Little handling the lead, and the old-time Rowan original, “The Raven.” In the latter, Rowan writes in a bit of Poe and even references his own “Midnight Moonlight.”

One final note. Not all the tunes here work solely within traditional bounds. “So Good,” “The Night Prayer,” and “Don’t Ask Me Why,” fine songs all, are more in keeping with the pop-influenced style of the ’70s. And, he can’t resist ending on what sounds like a traditional mountain song, “Across The Rolling Hills,” only the hills are the Himalayas and the ride out is a Buddhist mantra. In a sense, part of the legacy he is reflecting is his own. (Compass Records Group, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.) BW

Review: Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

Bluegrass Unlimited - Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

FRANK SOLIVAN & DIRTY KITCHEN
Fiddlemon Music 13003

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen have certainly ranked among the “buzz” bluegrass bands of 2010. Fittingly, their eponymous CD presents a razor sharp, confident quartet influenced by a broad range of the last four decades of bluegrass music development.

Veteran Mike Munford’s crackling banjo draws the listener in from the kickoff of the driving lead track, “Driftin’ Apart,” one of six songs that Solivan wrote or co-wrote. Mike’s banjo work quickly meets its counterpoint in some killer resonator guitar playing by Blue Highway’s Rob Ickes, one of four special guests. “Driftin’ Apart” defines one of the band’s primary approaches: the fast modern bluegrass song. This approach repeats on several of the recording’s top tracks including Ginger Boatwright’s “Runaway Ramp,” Munford’s instrumental “Line Drive,” and another of Frank’s songs, “Tarred And Feathered,” with John Cowan on tenor.

Mandolinist and lead singer Solivan began winning fiddle contests and playing with Doug Dillard and Ginger while also playing first chair violin with the University of Alaska Symphony. The U.S. Navy Band Country Current brought him east and allowed him to become well-enough known to now front his own unit. The band also includes Stephan Custodi on standup bass and guitarist Lincoln Meyers. Solivan’s songwriting often proves standout. He writes songs that clearly are bluegrass, yet deal with contemporary themes.

The second cut on the album, John Stewart’s “July You’re A Woman,” jumps back in time to the hippiegrass of forty years ago, while Solivan’s “Together We’ll Fly” reminds me of some of the best West Coast bluegrass of the ’80s and ’90s. Another fine song from Frank, “Left Out In The Cold,” is a ripped-from-the-headlines ballad of the kind Blue Highway does so well. “Paul & Silas” from the Stanleys concludes the album with a rich a capella quartet.

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen announce their arrival with authority. Their debut delivers lots of strong original material and outstanding variety without every falling into musical dilettantism. (Fiddlemon Music, 6625 Cornell Dr., Alexandria, VA 22307, www.dirtykitchenband.com.) AM

Review: Keller & The Keels - Thief

Bluegrass Unlimited - Keller & The Keels - Thief

Keller & The Keels - Thief

KELLER & THE KEELS
THIEF
Sci Fidelity Records SCIFI 1139

When I first received Thief, the second set of cover songs recorded by Keller Williams and Larry and Jenny Keel, I fully expected my review to end up in the “On The Edge” section of this magazine. Williams’ music floats on the quirky yet inventive side of the jam band scene, and The Keels have always had an open mind about their Virginia ’grass. This trio’s first album together was called Grass and it was good, but uneven. Thief, on the other hand, flows wonderfully throughout with great arrangements and expanded musicality.

The unusual cover-song choices here will seem odd at first glance. But, the positive approach and upbeat grooves makes this CD fit in the “regular” review category just fine. Williams handles most of the lead vocals, while all three keep their acoustic instruments humming throughout. Larry Keel’s leads are excellent, especially in the case of rollicking and infectious versions of Patterson Hood’s “Uncle Disney” and Ryan Adams’ “Cold Roses.” Both Keels sing harmony and Jenny’s bass playing is as solid as ever. Other covers include “Switch And The Spur” by The Raconteurs, “Get It While You Can” by Danny Barnes, Cracker’s “Teen Angst,” “Bath Of Fire” by Presidents Of The United States Of America, the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains Of The Moon,” and Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Wind’s On Fire.” Even when the trio takes on the Amy Winehouse song “Rehab,” it isn’t done in a gimmicky way, but instead rocks right along.

Larry shares the lead vocals with Keller on two Kris Kristofferson songs, “Don’t Cuss The Fiddle” and “The Year 2003 Minus 25,” which open and close the album. If this album was too quirky, it wouldn’t hold up to multiple listenings. This fun effort, however, will stay in the mix for a long while. (SCI Fidelity Records, 2060 Broadway St., Ste. 225, Boulder, CO 80302, www.scifidelity.com.) DH

Review: New Outlook - Prepare To Believe

Bluegrass Unlimited - New Outlook - Prepare To Believe

New Outlook - Prepare To Believe

NEW OUTLOOK
PREPARE TO BELIEVE
No Label, No Number

This is a pleasing mix of new-country songs and original material. New Outlook is anchored by the Ohio-based team of bassist Lori Lyn and banjo player Brad Lambert, both powerful vocalists. Right from the opening version of the country hit “Somebody’s Knocking” and continuing through “Wish You Were Someone I Loved” and “Love’s Not Everything,” New Outlook knocks on the door of an enjoyable CD.

Especially impressive is how Lyn and Lambert have melded their sidemen into a well-arranged, flowing ensemble. There’s been a lot of thought and care put into this music. Their original material especially shows such creativity, as witness the standout tracks “Bullet Through The Heart” and the bluesy “Baby, Look Out.”

This is a group that can bring out the best in other people’s material, but also create their own songs with style. This is an impressive recording from the band. They’re bound to go further in the future. (New Outlook, 102 E. Benton Apt. #1, Wapak, OH 45895, www.newoutlookbluegrass.com.) RDS

Review: The Old Time Bluegrass Singers - Plastic Heart

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Old Time Bluegrass Singers - Plastic Heart

The Old Time Bluegrass Singers - Plastic Heart

THE OLD TIME BLUEGRASS SINGERS
PLASTIC HEART
Open Road Records OR-017

The Old Time Bluegrass Singers are bluegrass pioneer Herb Applin on mandolin, Lillian Fraker on bass, Terry McGill on banjo, Dick Bowden on guitar, and Robert Fraker on guitar. All contribute vocals. Applin was designated a pioneer by the IBMM (International Bluegrass Music Museum) for his work with the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover, and Joe Val, all strong roots of bluegrass in New England.

This band grows from those roots and moves in its own direction. One song each come from Joe Val (“Meet Me By My Old Kentucky Home”) and Don Stover (“I’ll Be Myself Again”). The remainder are from a wide range of sources ranging from The Louvins’ “From Mother’s Arms To Korea” to Ramona Jones’ “Banjo Am The Instrument For Me.” They like clever lyrics, vocal duets and trios, and good songs. The title cut was a favorite of Joe Val’s. They also like hardcore traditional bluegrass such as the Stanley Brothers’ “I’m Only Human.” There are three gospel numbers, “They Can Only Fill One Grave,” “I Know My Lord’s Gonna Lead Me Out,” and “Stone Was Rolled Away.” The one instrumental is a fine and inventive banjo rendition of “Casey Jones.” While this is not material original to this band, these are also not songs commonly heard in bluegrass, though these arrangements demonstrate that they can and should be.

I recommend this CD for excellent singing, great playing, and tight band arrangements which are faithful both to traditional bluegrass and song presentation. Take note. This is how it should be done.(Open Road Records, P.O. Box 271, Lanesboro, MA 01237, e-mail: otbgsingers@gmail.com.) SAG

Review: The Oly Mountain Boys

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Oly Mountain Boys

The Oly Mountain Boys

THE OLY MOUNTAIN BOYS
No Label, No Number

The Oly Mountain Boys have been working the circuit around the Olympia, Wash., area since the band formed in 2008. The band consists of guitarist/vocalist Chris Rutledge, banjoist/vocalist Tye Menser, mandolinist Derek McSwain, bassist/reso-guitarist/vocalist Phil Post, and fiddler Josh Grice. This is their debut.

The accompanying press notes state that the group has a strong affinity for the Stanley and Monroe styles, but for this recording, they’re blending in folk-rock and Americana. That proves to be a good move. A lighter, folkier brand of bluegrass seems to work better for them than the hard-driving traditional sound. At least that’s the impression you get after hearing their reasonable if somewhat average versions of “Hello City Limits” or “Are You Missing Me.”

Part of the reason the folkier approach works better is that the band’s sole lead singer, Tye Menser, has a softer, lighter vocal timbre. Where “Are You Missing Me” lacks a bit of the necessary fire, a tune such as their cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” is quite good. The matching of Menser’s voice to the right material makes the song one of the album highlights.

Several other highlights are among the six originals that Menser contributed here. “Dreams Along The Way” is a medium-tempo glimpse at a life gone horribly wrong, while “Six Hours” recalls those folk ballads in which a phrase or word group, in this case “six hours,” becomes almost a mantra.

The other highlight of the recording is the mandolin work of Derek McSwain. His leads had a nice, full rhythmic feel and a good sound throughout the album, particularly on his own “Oly Mountain Waltz.” (Tye Menser, 3142 Yew Trail Dr. NW, Olympia, WA 98502, myspace.com/olymountainboys.) BW

Reviews - January 2011

HIGHLIGHT


Bluegrass Unlimited - Tim O'Brien - Chicken & EggTIM O’BRIEN
CHICKEN & EGG
Howdy Skies Records HSCD 1005

Superstar Tim O’Brien has had one of the most amazing music careers. A founding member of Hot Rize, his place in bluegrass music is secure, and his individual achievements include such standout releases as the brilliant Odd Man In, his stellar take on Bob Dylan with Red On Blonde, his Celticinfused The Crossing, and his brilliant performance with Robert Redford in Out Of Africa (oh wait, that might have been Meryl Streep). Anyway, it’s hard to think of a performer in the last thirty years who’s been more influential or delivered more great performances than Tim (Ms. Streep notwithstanding).

On his new release, Chicken & Egg, he follows his musical muse hither and yon, ranging from folk, Celtic, bluegrass, and modern acoustic across a style that embraces his entire musical span. Filling the role vacated by his friend, the late John Hartford, Tim provides his own take on contemporary mores and issues on tunes such as “You Ate The Apple,” “Workin’,” and “No Way To Stop The Flow.” Great wit, wisdom, and wordplay dominate.

Taking a serious turn, Tim renders the haunting “Letter In The Mail,” coauthored with John Hadley as a somber take on the passages in life. In a similar vein, “Mother Mary” written with Dixie Chick Martie Maguire focuses on the pain of loss and the difficulty of recovery.

As always, Tim surrounds himself with some of the world’s top musicians. Bryan Sutton, Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scott, Abigail Washburn, Mike Bub, Sarah Jarosz, Charlie Cushman, just to name a few, fill out a super list of fine players. Great music all around here, as expected. Chicken & Egg displays virtually every facet of Tim O’Brien’s musical persona. Filled with brilliant original tunes, Tim’s languid and lustrous vocal delivery backed by a host of great musicians with topnotch material, this is one of the year’s best releases. And next summer, look for Tim to star in the blockbuster sequel, Raging Bull II (wait, I think that might be Robert DeNiro). Better just buy Chicken & Egg and enjoy it to be safe. (Howdy Skies Records, P.O. Box 120215, Nashville, TN 37212, www.timobrien.net.) DJM


Bluegrass Unlimited - Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford - Dogwood WinterSTEVE GULLEY AND TIM STAFFORD
DOGWOOD WINTER
Rural Rhythm RHY1066

Singer/bassist Steve Gulley and singer/guitarist Tim Stafford are veteran bluegrass heavy hitters—between them, their resumes include, among other bands and their own solo albums, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Blue Highway, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Grasstowne. Beyond performing, they’re stellar composers with songs covered by a who’s who of artists.

They easily could have made a duo album constructed as a “best of” selection of original wellknown songs, but nope. What makes Dogwood Winter particularly exciting is that virtually (all but one) all of the tracks are fresh, newlyrecorded material, with not a dog (sorry) among them, all cowritten by the pair.

Though a few tracks might invite a quibble, this is pretty straightahead ’grass, even if one of the best songs is an exception, the plaintive “Nebraska Sky,” sporting a piano and percussion. But the two openers, “Why Ask Why?,” and the ripping “Just Along For The Ride,” establishes these guys as monster bluegrass men. By the time the third cut’s over, a darkhued “Land Of Milk And Honey,” even the most pious bluegrasser might cut them some slack and overlook their indiscretions. And “How Did That Turn Into My Problem?” contains one of the best putdowns bitterly bursting from bluegrass: “You’re still the best mistake I never made.”

The remaining songs contain similar bits of delightful moments embedded in melodies that start to sound familiar by the second hearing. Mandolinist Adam Steffey, banjoist/fiddler Ron Stewart and resonator guitarist/fiddler Justin Moses complete the studio band with power, precision and creative sensitivity. Michael Alvey and Mark Laws are the piano/percussion ringers, while none other than Dale Ann Bradley, among the greatest of bluegrass divas, provides some ultrahigh lonesome harmonies. Simply put, Dogwood Winter is contemporary bluegrass at its best. (Rural Rhythm, Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DR

Bluegrass Unlimited - Ashleigh Caudill - Fruit Of The VineASHLEIGH CAUDILL
FRUIT OF THE VINE
No Label
AC0002

Usually promo quotes on album covers must be taken in context. In the case of Ashleigh Caudill’s new recording, they prove true. Ashleigh Caudill, as Claire Lynch writes, does indeed “have an undeniable gift for songwriting.”

While the themes of her 12 originals are the basic themes of poor but happy, hard times, wishing for love, working toward the promised land, murder, death and the joys of being in love, what raises them to a superior level is her creativity at blending contemporary touches with older traditional forms and rhythms. The insistent 3/4 pulse of “Toil & Shame,” for example, has a chorus that calls to mind the old folk tune “Wind And Rain,” but also has a short interlude that makes me think of The Band. “Fruit Of The Vine,” the title song, uses clawhammer banjo and mixes the oldtimey image of wishing to be an apple on a tree with the contemporary wordplay of “vying with the fruit of the vine,” while “Pluckin’ The Hen” is an original happy go lucky fiddle tune with words and is reminiscent of “Down The Road” or “Cumberland Gap.” Perhaps the most impressive example of her use of older forms is the ballad “William White.” Many have written murder ballads in bluegrass of late, but most of them sound forced. “William White” doesn’t suffer that fate. Caudill cloaks her tale in archaic form and language structure, making it sound like she found a lost notebook from Cecil Sharp.

All four of those are highlights, but there are many others, including the religious anthem “Row By Row,” the quickpaced, joie de vivre of “Saturday Afternoon Man” and the lilting and pensive waltz of “Sad Song.” Caudill renders them all in a voice that is smooth and light, at times skipping and playful, at times drifting and soulful. Such vocal skills and good arranging and good backing work go with her fine songwriting skills and result in an exceptional album. (Ashleigh Caudill, 426 Deaverview Rd., Asheville, NC 28806, www.ashleighcaudill.com.) BW

Bluegrass Unlimited - Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge - Original Cast RecordingVARIOUS ARTISTS
ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING: GOLDEN BOY OF THE BLUE RIDGE
Great White Wax
GWW201001

The American South inherited much of its musical and cultural traditions from the British Isles. So, it’s really not surprising that J.M. Synge’s classic 1907 play The Playboy Of The Western World, set in a small Irish village, has been adapted with great success by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel as the new musical Golden Boy Of The Blue Ridge, set in the backwoods of Virginia.

The shared plot involves a handsome young stranger who wanders in from the night claiming to be a fugitive who has killed his father in self-defense. He captivates the townsfolk (especially the women) and becomes a local celebrity. But the surprise arrival of a second stranger causes an upheaval that tumbles into the dramatic climax.

The original New York off Broadway production was entertaining, witty, and compelling, impressions all reinforced by this original cast recording. The opening number “Way Out Back And Beyond” sets the mood, conveying the hardscrabble poverty and sense of isolation that have long haunted Appalachia. The songs (all with music and lyrics by Mills) are quite good and at times amusing, hair-raising, or poignant. Best of all, each number advances the musical’s plot, which is easy to follow on the CD. The singers and backup musicians are outstanding, energetically rising to the challenging material.

The mountain influenced music is played on guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic bass, with “A Wanted Man” and “Sixes And Sevens” coming closest to being straightahead oldtime bluegrass numbers. However, the songs are structured predominately in Broadway-musical style, with shifting modulations, accidentals, and counterpointing, competing duets. So, I’d recommend this recording to listeners who enoy an adventure outside traditional bounds. If you do, chances are you’ll be rewarded by Golden Boy Of The Blue Ridge. (Tumble Dry Music, 300 W. 43rd St., Ste. 302, New York, N.Y 10036, www.tumbledrymusic.com.) RDS

Bluegrass Unlimited - The Bluegrass RegulatorsTHE BLUEGRASS REGULATORS
No Label
No Number

Teenage brother duo Jake and Luke Dewhirst took top prizes at the 2009 Rockygrass guitar and banjo contests, respectively, and now they make up half of the Washington based Bluegrass Regulators, along with Josh Adkins (bass, lead and tenor vocals) and Martin Stevens (fiddle, mandolin, lead and tenor vocals).

This 12track, 39minute effort features a few well written band originals, including easyrolling love songs “Kill Me With Your Smile” and “Look Again” alongside snappy instrumentals “Piggy Goes Splat,” “Red House,” and “Haymaker.”

Traditional tunes “Be Thou My Vision” and “Black As A Crow” get strippeddown arrangements that add variety, which also comes with cover versions of Vince Gill’s “Girl” and Chris Jones’ “Uphill Climb.”

Another solid original is the gospel pewstomper “Well Done,” which closes the album with panache.

Though the vocals on this project are clearly youthful and a bit tentative, the picking is tasteful and impressive throughout, signaling a bright and creative future for this unit and their fans. (The Bluegrass Regulators, 13812 32nd Ave., NW, Gig Harbor, WA 98332, www.myspace.com/regulatorbluegrass.) AKH

Bluegrass Unlimited - Common Strings - Somewhere In GloryCOMMON STRINGS
SOMEWHERE IN GLORY
Rural Rhythm
RHYC2002

This second release from Common Strings, the husband and wife duo of Darron (mandolin and harmony) and Vanessa Nichols (lead vocals and one track on guitar), finds the couple shifting from the mostly secular subjects of their debut to an album of gospel songs. Backing them are Sammy Shelor (banjo), Brandon Rickman (guitar), Jimmy Creed (bass), Mike Hartgrove (fiddle), Dale Anne Bradley (harmony), and Steve Gulley (harmony).

What places this album above other wellsung, wellplayed gospel recordings is the attention given to the song choices. Coproducers Shelor and the Nichols could have followed convention and covered a few standards and used some filler. Instead, they went deeper into the repertoire for seven public domain gems and one Albert Brumley tune that are, if not obscure, certainly underrecorded in bluegrass. Only Brumley’s “Prettiest Flowers” comes close to being a standard.

Opening the recording is “When The Redeemed Are Gathering In,” a hymn long ago recorded by Ernest Stoneman and later by the Brown’s Ferry Four, but rarely since in bluegrass. Here it gets a nice medium bounce and some excellent harmony. A few tracks later is the modaltinged “Preachin’ By The Roadside” given an oldtime feel with clawhammer banjo and no bass. Next is the uptempo “Nothing But The Blood” followed by “Twilight Is Fading.” The latter is Vanessa and her guitar, and the effect is pure Carter Family (although they never covered it). Another tune given an oldtime reading is “The Message Of His Coming.” The 3/4 time “Paul’s Ministry” is a wonderful piece of songwriting once covered by Kitty Wells.

The album ends with Vanessa singing “The Revelation,” backed only by the hypnotic and mournful fiddling of Mike Hartgrove. Mix in three originals that sound like they were written in the ’40s, most particularly the classic country of Wayne King’s “Beyond The Mist Of Blue,” and you have an album guaranteed to lift the spirits. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040 Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BW

Bluegrass Unlimited - Darrell Webb Band - BloodlineDARRELL WEBB BAND
BLOODLINE
Rural Rhythm RHY1064

As Adam Steffey reminds us in the liner notes he wrote for the Darrell Webb Band’s new album, Webb first turned heads back in the 1990s as a youthful, fresh faced singer/multiinstrumentalist (mandolin and guitar) in the Lonesome River Band.

On Bloodline, Webb and his own topdrawer band (Jeremy Arrowood on tenor vocals and upright bass, Asa Gravley on guitar and harmony vocals, Tyler Kirkpatrick on resonator guitar, and Chris Wade on banjo) come out fullthrottle on a stalwart collection of tunes penned by Jim and Jack Anglin, Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Randall Hylton, Jerry Douglas, and various other country and bluegrass master scribes. Selections range from slowburning, heartwrenching ballads (“Kings Of Orebank”) to fastpaced pickin’ fests (“Poor Ramblin’ Boy” and “Big Black Train.”) The doomladen “Miner’s Hell” and the stern gospel ode “If You Don’t Believe The Bible” are also standouts.

Slow or fast, heartfelt or hellbent, ampedup or dampeddown, Webb and his redhot support team bring delightful assurance and conviction to all these emotional extremes. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BA

Bluegrass Unlimited - Susan Brown and FriendsSUSAN BROWN AND FRIENDS
No Label
SBAF0001

Within the first four tracks of the debut recording from Abingdon, Va. based Susan Brown And Friends, the band lays out its strengths and all but demands the listener hang around until the last fading note. All four tracks are covers. “Jolene,” the Dolly Parton hit, establishes that the band has leanings toward the contemporary end of the bluegrass spectrum and that principal lead singer Susan Brown has a silky voice, reminiscent at times of Claire Lynch. It’s kind of breathy, but in a compelling way. Norman Blake’s “Last Train From Poor Valley,” sung with great feeling here by guitarist Claiborne Woodall, shows that the band can bring that contemporary sound to a more traditionalsounding tune and succeed in making you hear this version instead of the original. They next cover “Marie Laveau” and reveal a grittier, funkier side of the band, one they should explore more fully on future albums.

From there to the end, band originals alternate with covers that include “Early Morning Rain,” a rhythmic, slightly jazzy “Wichita Lineman,” “How About You,” “Ready For The Times,” and an a cappella lament over the degrading of the environment, “The Wood Thrush’s Song.” All of them are, as with the opening four tracks, worthy of many repeated plays. Among the originals, on the other hand, mandolinist Mike Brown had one wellabove average and one above average tune. “When It Rains” with its exploration of love and aging and change, is a tightlywritten, first-class piece with its good melody, fine lyrics, and nice arrangement. His other original, “Coal Town,” was a solid effort, as well.

Reso-guitarist/harmony singer Joe Dinkins and bassist Dave Reimer round out the band with good playing on what is an enjoyable debut of contemporary bluegrass. (Mike Brown, 16413 Old Timber Rd., Abingdon, VA 24120, myspace.com/susanbrownandfriends.) BW

Bluegrass Unlimited - Look To The Light - Songs Of Faith From The Pen Of Rick LangVARIOUS ARTISTS
LOOK TO THE LIGHT
SONGS OF FAITH FROM THE PEN OF RICK LANG

Rural Rhythm Christian
RHYC2004

This could well be the recorded event of the year. This gathering of musicians is very impressive. Singers; Russell Moore, Junior Sisk, Jeff Parker, Barry Scott and Dale Ann Bradley are backed by some of the best contemporary pickers including Jesse Brock, Ron Stewart, Michael Cleveland and Wyatt Rice. For anyone who follows the gospel aspects of bluegrass or is just aware of the better songwriters, the material here is top shelf. There are some great performances here as well. Russell Moore’s reading of “How Far Will I Fall” is spot on and Dale Ann Bradley, although relegated to only harmony vocals, shines on each she appears on. If there were a down side to this recording, it would have been nice to hear her sing a lead on at least one number.

Coproduced by Jesse Brock and John Miller, the project is polished to a deep sheen. The 14 cuts glimmer under their careful work. It should be no surprise that Junior Sisk digs deep to come up with his reading of “I’ve Been Redeemed.” Jeff Parker’s reading of “The Good Samaritan” is perhaps the closest to old-time singing and shouting. The brother duet on “His Loving Care,” by Junior Sisk and John Miller is another standout cut.

This is a fine recording of contemporary Christian songs from one of the best songwriters working today. Every performance is worthy of mention. If you like Rick’s songs or are a fan of gospel music, this is a don’t miss recording. (Rural Rhythm Records, Box 660040, Dept D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) RCB

Review: Tim O'Brien - Chicken & Egg

HIGHLIGHT


Bluegrass Unlimited - Tim O'Brien - Chicken & EggTIM O’BRIEN
CHICKEN & EGG
Howdy Skies Records HSCD 1005

Superstar Tim O’Brien has had one of the most amazing music careers. A founding member of Hot Rize, his place in bluegrass music is secure, and his individual achievements include such standout releases as the brilliant Odd Man In, his stellar take on Bob Dylan with Red On Blonde, his Celticinfused The Crossing, and his brilliant performance with Robert Redford in Out Of Africa (oh wait, that might have been Meryl Streep). Anyway, it’s hard to think of a performer in the last thirty years who’s been more influential or delivered more great performances than Tim (Ms. Streep notwithstanding).

On his new release, Chicken & Egg, he follows his musical muse hither and yon, ranging from folk, Celtic, bluegrass, and modern acoustic across a style that embraces his entire musical span. Filling the role vacated by his friend, the late John Hartford, Tim provides his own take on contemporary mores and issues on tunes such as “You Ate The Apple,” “Workin’,” and “No Way To Stop The Flow.” Great wit, wisdom, and wordplay dominate.

Taking a serious turn, Tim renders the haunting “Letter In The Mail,” coauthored with John Hadley as a somber take on the passages in life. In a similar vein, “Mother Mary” written with Dixie Chick Martie Maguire focuses on the pain of loss and the difficulty of recovery.

As always, Tim surrounds himself with some of the world’s top musicians. Bryan Sutton, Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scott, Abigail Washburn, Mike Bub, Sarah Jarosz, Charlie Cushman, just to name a few, fill out a super list of fine players. Great music all around here, as expected. Chicken & Egg displays virtually every facet of Tim O’Brien’s musical persona. Filled with brilliant original tunes, Tim’s languid and lustrous vocal delivery backed by a host of great musicians with topnotch material, this is one of the year’s best releases. And next summer, look for Tim to star in the blockbuster sequel, Raging Bull II (wait, I think that might be Robert DeNiro). Better just buy Chicken & Egg and enjoy it to be safe. (Howdy Skies Records, P.O. Box 120215, Nashville, TN 37212, www.timobrien.net.) DJM

Review: Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford - Dogwood Winter

HIGHLIGHT


Bluegrass Unlimited - Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford - Dogwood WinterSTEVE GULLEY AND TIM STAFFORD
DOGWOOD WINTER
Rural Rhythm RHY1066

Singer/bassist Steve Gulley and singer/guitarist Tim Stafford are veteran bluegrass heavy hitters—between them, their resumes include, among other bands and their own solo albums, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Blue Highway, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Grasstowne. Beyond performing, they’re stellar composers with songs covered by a who’s who of artists.

They easily could have made a duo album constructed as a “best of” selection of original wellknown songs, but nope. What makes Dogwood Winter particularly exciting is that virtually (all but one) all of the tracks are fresh, newlyrecorded material, with not a dog (sorry) among them, all cowritten by the pair.

Though a few tracks might invite a quibble, this is pretty straightahead ’grass, even if one of the best songs is an exception, the plaintive “Nebraska Sky,” sporting a piano and percussion. But the two openers, “Why Ask Why?,” and the ripping “Just Along For The Ride,” establishes these guys as monster bluegrass men. By the time the third cut’s over, a darkhued “Land Of Milk And Honey,” even the most pious bluegrasser might cut them some slack and overlook their indiscretions. And “How Did That Turn Into My Problem?” contains one of the best putdowns bitterly bursting from bluegrass: “You’re still the best mistake I never made.”

The remaining songs contain similar bits of delightful moments embedded in melodies that start to sound familiar by the second hearing. Mandolinist Adam Steffey, banjoist/fiddler Ron Stewart and resonator guitarist/fiddler Justin Moses complete the studio band with power, precision and creative sensitivity. Michael Alvey and Mark Laws are the piano/percussion ringers, while none other than Dale Ann Bradley, among the greatest of bluegrass divas, provides some ultrahigh lonesome harmonies. Simply put, Dogwood Winter is contemporary bluegrass at its best. (Rural Rhythm, Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DR

Review: Ashleigh Caudill - Fruit Of The Vine

Bluegrass Unlimited - Ashleigh Caudill - Fruit Of The VineASHLEIGH CAUDILL
FRUIT OF THE VINE
No Label
AC0002

Usually promo quotes on album covers must be taken in context. In the case of Ashleigh Caudill’s new recording, they prove true. Ashleigh Caudill, as Claire Lynch writes, does indeed “have an undeniable gift for songwriting.”

While the themes of her 12 originals are the basic themes of poor but happy, hard times, wishing for love, working toward the promised land, murder, death and the joys of being in love, what raises them to a superior level is her creativity at blending contemporary touches with older traditional forms and rhythms. The insistent 3/4 pulse of “Toil & Shame,” for example, has a chorus that calls to mind the old folk tune “Wind And Rain,” but also has a short interlude that makes me think of The Band. “Fruit Of The Vine,” the title song, uses clawhammer banjo and mixes the oldtimey image of wishing to be an apple on a tree with the contemporary wordplay of “vying with the fruit of the vine,” while “Pluckin’ The Hen” is an original happy go lucky fiddle tune with words and is reminiscent of “Down The Road” or “Cumberland Gap.” Perhaps the most impressive example of her use of older forms is the ballad “William White.” Many have written murder ballads in bluegrass of late, but most of them sound forced. “William White” doesn’t suffer that fate. Caudill cloaks her tale in archaic form and language structure, making it sound like she found a lost notebook from Cecil Sharp.

All four of those are highlights, but there are many others, including the religious anthem “Row By Row,” the quickpaced, joie de vivre of “Saturday Afternoon Man” and the lilting and pensive waltz of “Sad Song.” Caudill renders them all in a voice that is smooth and light, at times skipping and playful, at times drifting and soulful. Such vocal skills and g