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

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