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

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