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

HIGHLIGHT


Steep Canyon Rangers - Deep In The Shade

Steep Canyon Rangers - Deep In The Shade

STEEP CANYON RANGERS
DEEP IN THE SHADE

Rebel Records REBCD1834

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

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

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

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

Barry Scott & Second Wind - In God's Time

Barry Scott & Second Wind - In God's Time

BARRY SCOTT & SECOND WIND
IN GOD’S TIME

Rebel Records
REBCD1826

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Godlesky & Buncombe Turnpike - Ditch Diggin' Blues

Tom Godlesky & Buncombe Turnpike - Ditch Diggin' Blues

TOM GODLESKI & BUNCOMBE TURNPIKE
DITCH DIGGIN’ BLUES

No Label
No Number

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

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

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

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

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers - Clouds of Dust

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers - Cloud of Dust

CHRIS JONES & THE NIGHT DRIVERS
CLOUD OF DUST

GSM Records
102 2009

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

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

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

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

The Hagar's Mountain Boys - Forever Yours

The Hagar's Mountain Boys - Forever Yours

THE HAGAR’S MOUNTAIN BOYS
FOREVER YOURS

No Label
No Number

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

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

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

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

Keith Sewell - The Way of a Wanderer

Keith Sewell - The Way of a Wanderer

KEITH SEWELL
THE WAY OF A WANDERER

Rubber Dog Records
RDR2009

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

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

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

ON THE EDGE


Emmitt Nershi Band - New Country Blues

Emmitt Nershi Band - New Country Blues

EMMITT NERSHI BAND
NEW COUNTRY BLUES

SCI Fidelity Records
SCIFI1122

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

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

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

Acousticure - Bluegrass Van

Acousticure - Bluegrass Van

ACOUSTICURE
BLUEGRASS VAN

Gryllus Records GCD 073

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

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

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

INSTRUCTIONAL DVD


Jim Van Cleve - Become a More Complete Fiddler

Jim Van Cleve - Become a More Complete Fiddler

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

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

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

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

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

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