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


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


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


Lucks Dumpy Toad Records

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?


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


Pinecastle Records

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


Rural Rhythm

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


Ampersand Records

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


No Label

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


Sugar Hill

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


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


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