Iron Horse - Small Town Christmas

Iron Horse - Small Town Christmas


B Sharp

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, RCB

Palmer Divide - Shenandoah Train

Palmer Divide - Shenandoah Train


No Label

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, BW

Lou Reid and Carolina - My Own Set Of Rules

Lou Reid and Carolina - My Own Set Of Rules


Rural Rhythm

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, BW

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, BW

Southern Rail - On The Road From Appomattox

Southern Rail - On The Road From Appomattox


Railway Records

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, MHH

Amanda & Scott Anderson - Another Day

Amanda & Scott Anderson - Another Day



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, HK

Brandon Rickman - Young Man, Old Soul

Brandon Rickman - Young Man, Old Soul


Rural Rhythm Records

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, AKH

Joel Mabus - No Worries Now…

Joel Mabus - No Worries Now…


Fossil Records

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, BC

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, DR