THE DEL McCOURY BAND
McCoury Music MCM 0014
It’s fitting that Family Circle is the title of the Del McCoury Band’s most focused effort since 1999’s The Family, an album released at the height of their crossover popularity. Family Circle, which highlights Del’s peerless tenor lead on each of 14 tracks over 45 minutes of music, again shows why the powerful fivepiece music machine is so legendary.
Rob McCoury’s banjo groove underpins perfect harmonies on “Sweet Appalachia,” an album opener that serves as an anthem for the cultural background of bluegrass music. “Barbaric Splendor,” from the set list of New Riders Of The Purple Sage, is a gritty “leather and lace” song that Del somehow pulls off with ease. Del’s voice goes down smooth and hot like the moonshine he’s singing about on Revenuer’s Blues,” cowritten by Ronnie Bowman and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin and harmony vocals), while “Hello Lonely” is a new song that sounds like an oldschool bluegrass number, featuring nimble tradeoffs between Rob’s banjo and Jason Carter’s fiddle. “Delma Blue” is the kind of lonely waltz that Del was born to sing.
Showing that DMB is as versatile as they are powerful, “I’m Justified” is a joyous fourpart harmony gospel celebration of salvation that ranks up there with anything done by more gospeloriented acts over the past few years. “Bad Day For Love” is back in more familiar DMB territory, a bluesy raveup that’s sure to be rock-hard on the live stage, while the Johnny Mercerpenned “I Remember You” is a changeup, one that has Del’s halfyodel neatly matched to the sentimentality of a 1940s movie soundtrack.
Del turns wickedly mean on Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” followed by a western interlude of the Alaska ballad “White Pass Railroad” and Mark Knopfler’s “Prairie Wedding.” “Honey Hurry Home,” “Mexico’s Daughter,” and a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Break Up” are three tasty treats that leave you wanting more of this great recording. (McCoury Music, P.O. Box 625, Goodletsville, TN 37070, www.mccourymusic.com.) AKH
HONI DEATON AND DREAM
THE OTHER SIDE
C And L Entertainment
When you’ve got a bandleader with the vocal talents of Honi Deaton, an album should showcase that voice. Nelson McSwain, who produced The Other Side along with Honi Deaton & Dream, understands that concept. Honi’s lead vocals stand out on every song, supported ably by her husband Jeff on mandolin, Josh Brooks on banjo, and Wade Power on guitar. (Note: personnel are not listed on the CD.) Each musician brings a powerful set of chops to the recording, but no one gets in the way of Honi’s singing with heavyhanded backup. And the harmony vocals are as tight as you could want.
The Other Side is a good example of today’s modern bluegrass. The recording features acoustic instruments exclusively (no fiddle), and the well arranged songs, six cowritten by Honi, have a strong Americana flavor. The band even moves into hard rock territory with the Guns ’N Roses number “Sweet Child Of Mine.” This might not be everyone’s cuppa tea, but it is well done and with Honi singing, you can actually understand the words! On the other hand, “Georgia On My Mind” and “How Great The Art,” which undoubtedly bring down the house at a live show, don’t quite measure up to the classic versions by Ray Charles and Kate Smith. Honi shines more brightly on her own song, “I Wish You Were Still In Love With Me,” a slow tearjerker whose heartbreaking title says it all. “Roadkill On The Highway Of Love” by Honi and Jeff is the most harddriving (no pun intended!) number on the disc. Unfortunately, though the concept is clever, the imagery is a bit too graphic for a love song. I kept thinking of armadillos.
In spite of a few misses, the original material, tight harmonies, impressive instrumentation, and strong lead vocals on this recording make for some well performed twenty-first century bluegrass. (C&L Entertainment, P.O. Box 691505, Charlotte, NC 28227, www.candlentertainment.com.) MHH
DARIN & BROOKE ALDRIDGE
This young and recently wed duo from North Carolina hit the ground running with “I Thought I’d Seen It All,” the plaintive yet energetic and uplifting opening track on their new CD. And over the course of the ensuing 11 tracks, their charm, inspiration, and vocal prowess never let up.
To put it simply, there’s little not to love here. The songs, including one written by Darin and several by Nashville veteran Jerry Salley (who also contributes background vocals and produced this fine album) are memorable, and the instrumental picking is masterful. If these two sound like they know what they’re doing, it’s because they do. Brooke previously recorded a wellreceived solo gospel album for Pinecastle Records and Darin is a former member of the Country Gentlemen and has performed occasionally with Blue Highway.
Nearly always front and center in the mix is Brooke’s lovely, disarmingly powerful voice, which imbues everything she sings with amazing emotional and spiritual immediacy. Most of the time Darin’s softer tenor (he sort of sounds like a younger, less imposing Vince Gill) is overshadowed by his wife’s daunting vocals; but in harmony, their voices meld with seamless beauty. (Mountain Home Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.)
JIMMY MARTIN, JR.
A TRIBUTE TO MY DAD
Given the size of his father’s catalog and the number of songs that fall in the “greatest hits” category, choosing which 11 songs to include here was probably difficult and it most likely boiled down to which songs meant the most to Martin, Jr.
The songs chosen create a balanced mix of roughly five fast, three medium, and three slow songs. Two of the tracks, “Big Country” and “Sweet Dixie,” are instrumentals. All three of the slow songs are in threequarter time. The selections are representative of the elder Martin’s golden age, spanning from his 1958 single “Ocean Of Diamonds” to “Future On Ice” recorded in 1970. Included are covers of “Sunnyside Of The Mountain,” “Hold Whatcha Got,” “Freeborn Man,” and “You Don’t Know My Mind.” Two songs, “Little Maggie” and “Doin’ My Time” (both arguably less associated with Martin, Sr.), are also covered.
All tunes are performed in ’60s era Sunny Mountain Boy style with evenhanded and crisp banjo from Derek Dillman, Monroe style mandolin from Ronnie Prevette, and classic fiddle lines from Ward Stout and Brian Arrowood. Hints of the originals appear here and there, most notably the rolling banjo and mandolin figure that opens “Hold Whatcha Got,” but there is little or no direct re-creation.
Vocally, the two Martins are quite different, both in timbre and phrasing. Where Martin, Sr., had a pointed tenor quality and a somewhat frantic attack, Martin, Jr., chooses his punctuations more sparingly. He tends to drop to lower pitches where his father would have soared, and he has a thicker, more resonant sound. He sings well throughout, but is at his best on the slow tunes and really hits his stride on “It Takes One To Know One.” The Martin mood is captured here; exactly what a tribute should do. (Jimmy Martin, Jr., 4531 Chandler Rd., Hermitage TN 37076.) BW
SEVEN OR ELEVEN
The greater Washington, D.C., area was once heralded as the mecca of bluegrass. Great bands including the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, as well as artist Buzz Busby called the area home. You could go to car lots and see Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, or Charlie Moore perform. The clubs that booked bluegrass were legendary, and the range of music styles was exciting. Bluegrass was on tv and drive-time radio. The region surrounding the greater D.C.-area is still rife with bluegrass in all sorts of places. Great pickers, bands, and events still happen frequently. The Patuxent Partners are long-standing members of this community and their style reflects the great diversity that has always marked the music that’s indigenous to the area.
Opening with a strong honky-tonk number with mandolin and banjo playing twin lines, they move into Buzz Busby’s “Where Will This End?,” nailing the three-part harmony. Tearing into the original instrumental “Kildare,” Tom Mindte’s mandolin goes over the top in some sort of virtuosic ecstasy. John Braunschwyler’s banjo shines throughout with a full tone and inventive licks and fills. Jack Leiderman is a fiddler’s fiddler. His take on the Kenny Baker standard “Washington County” stands up to the bench mark set by that legendary master. Leiderman’s soulful introduction to Mindte’s “From The Gutter To The Grave” forebodes the sorry plight of the drunkard, a theme long held forth in the bluegrass canon.
Drawing from a wide range of well-known songwriters, the material is all first rate without being overdone. The playing by all members is accomplished, and the vocals are solid. They get to the core of the song, as in Scotty Stoneman’s “Heartaches Keep On Coming.” This is a band to watch. They’ll be attracting more attention if they continue to present such fine bluegrass. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB
Most of the time, you’ll find Lee Watson singing, songwriting, and playing guitar for the Canadian group, the Breakmen. But, as with all singer/songwriters, the time eventually comes for a first solo album. Watson’s time has come.
There are 11 songs and all are Watson originals. Providing the instrumental and harmony support are some of the West and Northwest’s finest players, including Ivan Rosenberg on resonator guitar, Julie Elkins on banjo, David Thompson on bass, Greg Spatz on fiddle, and Ben Winship on mandolin.
Over the years, I’ve been impressed by dozens of good singers in bluegrass. Watson puts them all in a new perspective. He is a truly fine vocalist with a lyrical mid-range and an array of abilities. Control, phrasing, inflection, emotion—he brings a high degree of skill to each strength. Listen to the power, clarity, and fullness of expression he brings to the slow country plea of “To The End Of The World.” It doesn’t get much better.
As a songwriter, his tunes expand on classic bluegrass and country melodic motives and, as such, seem instantly comfortable. Consider the hint of “Ashes Of Love” in the opening title track. You’re pulled right in and you remain. Of his lyrics, on the other hand, it can be said that while he stays with standard themes and images, he does offer several fine turns of phrase. His line about selling a fiddle to a blind man in exchange for true sight is but one example. My favorite, however, is “That Rooster He’s The Devil” in which Satan stalks the night in the form of a fowl, his …beak blowing steam. It’s one of the highlights of a debut album full of good songs made all the better by the artist’s truly fine vocals. (Lee Watson, 217 N. 51 St., Seattle, WA 98103, www.leewatsonmusic.com ) BW
For many, Etta Baker was a name on an old LP of Appalachian instrumentals found in the cheapo bins for decades on various labels. That LP was reissued many times over and her One Dime Blues was heard by folks who had no idea who she was. She lived in relative obscurity in Morganton, N.C., where she played mostly guitar. Over the years, several people encouraged her banjo playing, and this CD displays her two-finger take on what she remembered of her father’s clawhammer playing.
Recorded in nearly a half-dozen sessions, the quality of this recording is rich and full, an aural treat. Playing a less than stellar instrument, Baker draws a full and satisfying tone from the banjo in an object lesson on how less can really be more. Her precise and clean picking lays out the melody with no unnecessary fanfare. Wayne Martin’s fiddle snakes along, catching every melodic twist and turn in these understated but exciting tunes. David Holt’s slide guitar on “John Henry” is the perfect foil for Baker’s direct banjo.
It is to the credit of the Music Maker Foundation that they sought to release this project and do so with such high production values. The consistency of the sound throughout the range of sessions that make up this recording is amazing. Although some tunes are repeated, the versions bring something different to the ear each time. “Love Somebody,” (commonly known as “Soldier’s Joy”) is an original take on an old evergreen. The last two cuts are from 1955 and feature Boone Reid playing clawhammer banjo.
At the start of the disc, we hear Etta Baker stating that she tries to capture what she heard her father and those before him play on the banjo. This is an important look backwards into banjo history by someone who grew up and lived in the tradition. We are richer for having this valuable project available. (Music Maker Relief Foundation, P.O. Box 1358, Hillborough, NC 27278, www.musicmaker.org.) RCB
Where have you been Josh Williams? Nine years after his debut CD and six years after the second, finally comes release number three. And, Down Home proves to be worth the wait.
No, it’s not strictly a bluegrass recording. You know that from the cymbal splash behind the banjo kickoff in the opener, “Lonesome Feeling.” Drums continue through the track and on five others, as well. Pedal steel is used on three. Sometimes the result is straight country, as on the ode to the joys of an old picture album, “Kodak, 1955,” or as on the Carl Jackson penned title cut. Other times, the result is a country/bluegrass hybrid that adds a fresh twist to an old standard such as “Lonesome Feeling” or gives a bouyancy to Jimmy Martin’s “The Last Song” or to “Polka On The Banjo.” The best of these hybrids is “Streets Of Bakersfield.” Though it lacks a bit of the sauciness and energy of the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakam version, Williams nails the bitterness that is the heart of the song.
The rest of the recording (about half) is bluegrass. The first of these, “Blue Railroad Train,” is a nod to one of Williams’ heroes, Tony Rice, with Rice playing the lead guitar and Williams handling the vocals, even using a few Rice vocal inflections in tribute. Williams then lets fly a brilliant performance of “Cherokee Shuffle,” on which he plays guitar, mandolin, and banjo, all in an authoritative display of melody and variation. A few tracks later, Tom T. Hall’s “We’ll Burn That Bridge” crackles with life, getting a boost from Aaron McDaris on banjo and Darrin Vincent and Jamie Dailey on harmony vocals. It’s one of 12 great songs that bring us full circle to the opening question.
Where have you been Josh Williams? Honing his craft behind this vibrant recording—that’s where. (Pinecastle Records, P.O. Box 753, Columbus NC 28722, www.pinecastle.com.) BW
Rural Rhythm Records
As a resonator guitarist, Randy Kohrs isn’t the likeliest of bandleaders, but with passionate lead vocals matching his significant instrumental skills, Quicksand is evidence that Kohrs is comfortable at the helm.
An assertive break at the beginning of “Devil Of The Trail” kicks off the 13track/43minute disc and captures the adventurous nature of this disc. Most of the tunes feature percussion, which takes it out of the “strictly bluegrass” category, but tracks such as “Time And Time Again” (a high octane number with great instrumental teamwork between Kohrs and Aaron Ramsey on mandolin) are highly listenable. So are Webb Pierce’s honky tonk “It’s Been So Long,” the lyrical “Cumberland,” and the driving “More About John Henry” (a Tom T. Hall track with rock’n’roll-style backing vocals).
The percussion is more fitting on the more modern country sounding tracks; the alcohol soaked trilogy of “Die On The Vine,” “Quicksand,” and “This Must Be The Bottom,” the spooky guy in the woods ballad “The Ghost Of Jack McCline,” the nostalgic “Sunday Clothes,” and “Truman’s Vision” (a protest of eminent domain).
Kohrs’ performance and production win big when he takes the biggest risks, namely on the juke joint blues of “Down Around Clarksville” and the gospel shouter “If You Think It’s Hot Here.” Both feature Kohrs’ bluesy voice at its best, accented by sharp mandolin from Adam Steffey. They are truly stunning tracks that show what can happen when a bluegrass or acoustic artist is willing to step past the confines of the prevailing Nashville sound. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AKH
BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND
THE WATKINS FAMILY
HEAVEN’S WORTH WAITING FOR
Watkins Family Music
Bluegrass, gospel, and country music blend together for this beautiful new collection of songs from the Watkins Family. With the loss of dearly departed patriarch, Don, the family faithfully moves forward with its ministry of music. Mother, Judy (vocals), and children, Todd (guitar, resonator guitar, and bass), Shanon (bass and fiddle), and Lorie (banjo, mandolin, and guitar), share their splendid harmonies in this 11-track mixture of ballad and up-tempo songs.
Nominated Best Contemporary and Traditional Bluegrass Gospel Group by SPBGMA, the Watkins Family is equally adept with hard-driving bluegrass as well as with the piano-laced number “To Know You More.” Familiar names in bluegrass circles, Stuart Duncan (fiddle, cello, and mandolin) and Bryan Sutton (guitar, mandolin, and banjo) are two of the musicians enlisted for the project. Dr. Jerry Falwell introduces “Sometimes You Gotta Rock The Boat” to the backdrop of stormy sound effects.
While the entire CD is a non-stop blessing of listening pleasure, thumbs up from me go to “She’s Working On Her Testimony” and “What Love Has Grown.” (Watkins Family, P.O. Box 294, Eastonlice, GA 30538, www.watkinsfamilymusic.com.) BC
I HEAR A VOICE CALLING: A BLUEGRASS MEMOIR
BY GENE LOWINGER
University of Illinois Press 9780252076633.
Index, 144 pp., 75 b&w photos, $19.95. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL 61820, www.press.uillinois.edu.)
With I Hear A Voice Calling, Gene Lowinger becomes the first fiddler to share the challenges and excitement that came with being one of Bill Monroe’s elect, a Blue Grass Boy. Often introduced by Monroe as the “Jewish boy from New York City,” Gene worked with Bill for only six months, June 1965 through January 1966, before turning in his notice and leaving “an environment in which I felt isolated and alien.” Still, he counts Bill Monroe as his first mentor and clearly loves the man who “showed me that it is okay to dream.”
After leaving Nashville, Gene went back to New York where he studied violin, became an orchestra player, and wrote Bluegrass Fiddling, one of the earliest fiddle instruction books. When a freak accident (a dancer fell on him) made it impossible for him to play, he worked as a computer analyst for ten years before discovering photography. Almost inevitably, this passion led him to photograph Monroe who invited him on stage to play and then admonished him to “practice, shave, and get a haircut!” This fortunate event led Gene (healed from his deteriorating disc and pinched nerve) back to the fiddle and to the “epiphany” that became this book.
Photos of Monroe, most taken in 1993, constitute a major portion of this work. As a Blue Grass Boy, Gene was granted inside access and many of his shots capture the private and playful side of his former boss. There are also some 1960s pictures of Gene with his own band, the New York Ramblers, which included the amazing lineup of David Grisman, Jody Stecher, and Winnie Winston.
As Gene says, working for Bill Monroe was the “beginning of a spiritual journey that would lay out the path for the rest of my life.” He would find other mentors along the way, but what he learned from Monroe, “to be doggedly tenacious in pursuing my vision,” would stand him in good stead no matter what his quest.
Gene joins Bob Black and Butch Robins in providing glimpses into the rarefied world of the Blue Grass Boys. Like his fellow musicians, he too offers personal insights into the enigmatic personality of the man who hired them, the man who said, “I take you boys into the band with me to teach you how to play the music right.” I Hear A Voice Calling is a welcome addition to the growing list of bluegrass memoirs. MHH
HANDS IN HARMONY: TRADITIONAL CRAFTS AND MUSIC IN APPALACHIA
BY TIM BARNWELL
W.W. Norton & Co. 9780393068153.
Hardback, 188 pages, b&w photographs, $49.95. (W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110, www.wwnorton.com.)
Hands In Harmony, by photographer Tim Barnwell, has three elements: pictures, words, and music. Seventy nine black and white portraits depict artists—from old time musicians and singers to carvers and potters—who are dedicated to carrying on traditions passed down from previous generations. Next come oral histories gleaned from interviews the author conducted. A 22-track CD in the back cover contains some examples of their playing. Each section succeeds on its own, but I wish the pictures and words were better integrated. Why not put the stories right next to the pictures so we wouldn’t have to flip back and forth?
The portraits beautifully capture the characters of the people pictured. My favorites were Ralph Stanley with grandson Ralph III on this knee, Ralph II posing with his Washington Redskins pool table, and Kenny Baker with his fiddle and a hint of a smile. Some famous personalities (Bill Monroe, Doc Watson) are mixed in with lesser known folks (Obray Ramsey, Leesa Sutton).
The stories in the oral history section really let the personalities shine through. When available, a Web site is included so that you can get more information or, in some cases, actually make purchases. Your enjoyment of the accompanying CD will be directly proportional to your appreciation for oldtime music, but it’s a great introduction to these performers. The track listing gives personnel credits, but does not list the pages where you can find the matching picture and story, leaving the reader to search through the entire book to find them. CAH