Natalie MacMaster, “Sketches”

(For Penguin Eggs Magazine) Natalie MacMaster is one of those artists that is described from time to time as a national treasure. She is that, but she’s a local treasure, too. There’s a video online of her going to play at Glencoe Mills Hall on Cape Breton with Bela Fleck in tow. The music, ofContinue reading “Natalie MacMaster, “Sketches””

Gee’s Bend Quilters, “Boykin, Alabama: Sacred Spirituals of Gee’s Bend”

For Penguin Eggs Everything about this album is an absolute, unqualified, unbridled delight. It’s four women who live in Boykin, Alabama, and take part in a quilting tradition that began in the 19th century. They sing while they quilt, and the songs are polished just as the needles are, through endless passes through the fabricContinue reading “Gee’s Bend Quilters, “Boykin, Alabama: Sacred Spirituals of Gee’s Bend””

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, “If You Can’t Stand the Heat”

For Penguin Eggs Frank Solivan spent much of his youth in Alaska, which perhaps accounts for his range of talents. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a poet. He plays guitar, violin, and mandolin. He writes songs, sings, and is the leader of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, the IBMA band of the year inContinue reading “Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, “If You Can’t Stand the Heat””

Missy Raines, “Royal Traveller”

Women in bluegrass—unfortunately, sadly—get short shrift. Ask about the greats, and you’ll open the floodgates for a lot of testosterone. That said, women have long been doing great work and, while often enough, have actually been acclaimed for it. Much of what we think of as bluegrass guitar—a rhythm with a melody picked within it—isContinue reading “Missy Raines, “Royal Traveller””

David Benedict’s “The Golden Angle”

There is no piece of music, and for that matter no musician, that exists alone. Music, by its very nature, is call and response, each person adding their voice to an ongoing conversation. Some people can see a bit further down the road, or skip a couple rhetorical steps, and those are the people weContinue reading “David Benedict’s “The Golden Angle””

Balsam Range, “Mountain Overture”

It’s easy to wonder about the attraction bluegrass bands have to working with orchestras, but it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be dying anytime soon. Cherryholmes, Daily and Vincent, Michael Cleveland—the cynic might feel that it’s a desire to grant respectability, and what better way to do it than to sit in front ofContinue reading “Balsam Range, “Mountain Overture””

Chris Coole, “The Road to the River”

In the world of magic there are the big stage illusions—cutting a person in half, making an elephant disappear—and there is table magic—cards, coins, cups and balls. The two are both thought of equally as magic, but they are of such different orders as to be different undertakings entirely. But to the connoisseur, the closeContinue reading “Chris Coole, “The Road to the River””

Clay Parker and Jodi James, “The Lonesomest Sound that Can Sound” 

I’m not sure why I love this recording so much. We like to talk in superlatives whenever given a chance, and it’s not the best of anything, or the most skilled, or the most telling. It’s just, well, lovely. The voices are beautiful, the thoughts quietly moving. The playing doesn’t jump out at you, butContinue reading “Clay Parker and Jodi James, “The Lonesomest Sound that Can Sound” “

Brunch with the Lonesome Ace Stringband

(For Penguin Eggs magazine) Chris Coole often comments during shows that the Lonesome Ace Stringband—a trio that includes John Showman (fiddle) and Max Heineman (bass)—formed out of a brunch gig. There’s some tongue-in-cheek in that, though there’s some truth in there as well. The three did actually start playing formally together for a brunch gigContinue reading “Brunch with the Lonesome Ace Stringband”

The Grascals, “Before Breakfast”

(For HVbluegrass.org) Some songs, like Tom T. Hall’s “I Love,” unintentionally demonstrate that there’s a fine line between sincerity and satire. Some people maybe find the song to be a simple presentation of a complex idea. Others, Bob Dylan among them, think of it derisively as the “little baby duck” song:  I love little babyContinue reading “The Grascals, “Before Breakfast””

The Wailin Jennys, “Fifteen”

The Wailin Jennys is one of those groups that causes lots of people to fall all over themselves with praise. And they’re absolutely right to. Truly, you can’t say enough good things about them. It starts here: “One Voice.” Their latest release will cause lots of praise too, just as it should. When I heardContinue reading “The Wailin Jennys, “Fifteen””

Andy Hall and Roosevelt Collier, “Let the Steel Play”

Remember Josh Graves? How about Tut Taylor? Or Paul Franklin? For anyone other than guitar geeks the names conjure something like memories, if not quite formed enough to warrant the term. They are all steel guitar players, meaning they played guitars with a piece of steel. Slide players. Which means that they were side players,Continue reading “Andy Hall and Roosevelt Collier, “Let the Steel Play””

Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, “Echo in the Valley”

One of the delightful moments is this recording is in the 5th track, when both segue into a lovely take on Bela Fleck’s “Big Country.” It’s a tune he’s presented himself a lot, most notably within the “Live from the Quick” release. It’s not as challenging as some of the things he does, which makesContinue reading “Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, “Echo in the Valley””

Volume Five, “Milestones”

When people who are really into wine talk about wine they don’t tend to speak in generalities, but rather a whole range of specifics. They talk about the hints of this and that, the various notes of such and such. Seeing people talk about these things on TV, it seems it’s not just descriptors. TheyContinue reading “Volume Five, “Milestones””

Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, “Penny’s Farm”

You’ll be forgiven if you groan a bit when you see the track listing of this new release from Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, “Penny’s Farm.” Like right there. Did you breathe out a bit, an almost imperceptible sigh, just then when I typed “Penny’s Farm”? Did you have flashbacks of John Cohen talking aboutContinue reading “Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, “Penny’s Farm””

Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life”

This is a brilliant release in all kinds of ways. Musicianship, arrangement, recording. Each one of those is wonderfully on display. It’s there in the details, such as the strings entering on “Only in My Mind,” and then the pizzicato, or the way she sings the word “Barcelona.” There are harmonies added to isolated phrasesContinue reading “Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life””

Sam Bush’s, “Storyman”

(Published by Hudson Valley Bluegrass) Sam Bush is such a perennial of Americana music, from first gaining lots of attention with Newgrass Revival, going on to be the King of Telluride, and he’s just kept on going. Through it all, subtle is not something that anyone might readily claim of him, what with his mulletContinue reading “Sam Bush’s, “Storyman””

Arnie Naiman’s, “My Lucky Stars”

Published in Penguin Eggs, Issue #71, Fall 2016 You’ve got to love this album, and I’ll tell you why. Look at the liner notes. Each song lists the people that join Naiman, adding their stuff to his. Chris Coole’s there pretty much on every one. Love that. Naiman is credited on every track, less becauseContinue reading “Arnie Naiman’s, “My Lucky Stars””

Dave Pomfret’s, A Devil’s Urge

I’m forever being impressed with the level, variety, and quality of music coming out of Hamilton. The city doesn’t have the reputation of Cape Breton or Nashville, New Orleans or Muscle Shoals, and one reason might be because there isn’t just one genre of music being produced, but so many. So, too, that the bluesContinue reading “Dave Pomfret’s, A Devil’s Urge”

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, “Live at Southern Ground”

  This isn’t a live album in the way that you think: it’s live in the sense of two musicians playing together, no overdubs or added tracks. There’s less audience noise than you’d expect from a live album, as in none at all. There’s more effect than we’d expect to hear on a live album,Continue reading “Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, “Live at Southern Ground””

Joe Ely, “Panhandle Rambler”

  The panhandle of the title is the Texan one, not the Floridian, and the album comprises a something of a tour of the writers and the styles that we associate with the singer/songwriter culture of Texas. All but two of the songs are written by Ely, though they reference many others, including Roy Orbison,Continue reading “Joe Ely, “Panhandle Rambler””

Sierra Hull’s “Weighted Mind”

Innovation has long been an important part of the musical endeavour, and it’s often the first person to happen upon a new idea—rather than the people who refine it—that remains foremost in our minds. That’s certainly true in bluegrass, and Bill Monroe will remain the king of the genre even when a majority of theContinue reading “Sierra Hull’s “Weighted Mind””

The Steep Canyon Rangers, “Radio”

Since they began, there has been a goofy quality to the Steep Canyon Rangers, though in a good way. They were five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, and good chops out to have some fun. When they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wifeContinue reading “The Steep Canyon Rangers, “Radio””

The Steeldrivers, “The Muscle Shoals Recordings”

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is the place that musicians have travelled to when they wanted to change, to sound different. Aretha Franklin went to Muscle Shoals as an unknown pop singer who had recently been released from a recording contract. When she came back, she was Aretha Franklin, the one that we know today. The recordingContinue reading “The Steeldrivers, “The Muscle Shoals Recordings””

Alive! In Concert! with Dailey and Vincent!

(for HVBA) It’s hard to be a Dailey and Vincent fan because they can be so unabashedly shameless. Where other bluegrass musicians grew up wanting to be like Bill, or Earl, or Doc, these guys grew up wanting to be the Statler Brothers. When I first saw them live I was turned off pretty muchContinue reading “Alive! In Concert! with Dailey and Vincent!”

The Honey Dewdrops’ “Tangled Country”

(Penguin Eggs, issue #66) The Honey Dewdrops (Laura Wortman and Kagey Parris) have been around for a while now, perhaps flying a bit below the radar. In that time, Laura’s cut her hair, Kagey’s grown his beard, and they’ve otherwise built their skills, their confidence, their attention to detail, and this year might just beContinue reading “The Honey Dewdrops’ “Tangled Country””

Le vent du nord

(For Sing Out! magazine) I suspect that the Quebecois band Le Vent du Nord is unfamiliar to many in the English-speaking world. Which is too bad, because they are exceptionally skilled, exceptionally experienced, and exceptionally entertaining. Since they formed in 2002, the band has been breathing new life into the traditional music of Quebec, oftenContinue reading “Le vent du nord”

Being there: Norman Blake on a new recording and a long career

(published in Penguin Eggs magazine, issue #65) “It’s kind of a downer if you listen to the words,” says Norman Blake about his new album, titled Wood, Wire and Words. He’s having a bit of fun—he laughed as he said that—and when pressed he admits that it’s just that, throughout his career, he’s been lessContinue reading “Being there: Norman Blake on a new recording and a long career”

Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, “The Travelling Kind”

by Glen Herbert   (For KDHX radio) There’s a scene in the first season of Nashville where Rayna James approaches a young rock producer to make her next album. She’s only written one song toward the project, but nevertheless, she’s more interested in her sound. She gets drunk, cuts a track at the hipster’s studio,Continue reading “Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, “The Travelling Kind””

Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways

Update: Since I posted the review below, Jeff Place, an archivist at Smithsonian Folkways, was in touch to note that I’m confusing the Library of Congress Collections with those of the Smithsonian. “All the Lomax etc collections are at LOC, I drew from the much smaller Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian, which is really FolkwaysContinue reading “Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways”

Jayme Stone and The Lomax Project

(For Sing Out!) There is a recording of John Hartford in the studio giving direction to the musicians he’s gathered there. Whatever the song they were prepping – it may have been “Madison Tennessee” – he says, “this is not going to be a showstopper. I want to do this like it was ‘Brushy ForkContinue reading “Jayme Stone and The Lomax Project”

Baltic Crossing, The Tune Machine

This disc is an absolute, unbridled joy. Five musicians—two Finns, two Danes and one Brit—use the instruments and music of Scandinavia to, as far as I can tell, have about the best possible time you can ever think of having. A fair amount of traditional music, including jigs, polkas, fiddle tunes—there’s even a Schottische inContinue reading “Baltic Crossing, The Tune Machine”

Interview with Sarah Jarosz

(KDHX) When she was 16, Sarah Jarosz came into the acoustic-music scene seemingly fully formed. She has continued to demand and hold our attention ever since. On her latest album, “Build Me Up from Bones,” Jarosz’s material is less guarded, and therefore more adult, though her writing and her delivery have always been astonishing, and not only becauseContinue reading “Interview with Sarah Jarosz”

Mac Wiseman, Songs from my Mother’s Hand

(For HVBA) This is the first thing that anyone will know about this album, so I’ll get it out of the way: Mac Wiseman is 89 years old. He’s old, even for bluegrass. In pop music terms, he’s ancient. There aren’t any pop musicians that we’ll be listening to when they are 89. Age canContinue reading “Mac Wiseman, Songs from my Mother’s Hand”

Writing about music

“It’s about us. Art doesn’t change, we do.” –Peter Schjeldahl Whenever we think of critical writing about music, from capsule album reviews on up, it’s hard not to recall that quote—apparently it remains a mystery as to who said it first—that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The suggestion is that the valueContinue reading “Writing about music”

Silent Bear’s “The Green Lion”

I once heard someone saying that, given the ubiquity of 70s ranch-style housing, Frank Lloyd Wright had a lot to answer for. He was the source, and a very affective one, of a revisioning of domestic architecture. And while his prairie homes look as lively and affective today as they did when they were made,Continue reading “Silent Bear’s “The Green Lion””

The Tao of Peter Rowan

If you are a glass-half-empty kind of person, then this new documentary of Peter Rowan, titled The Tao of Peter Rowan, will seem like  a half-empty glass. The photography and sound are at times a bit south of polished, the lighting of some of the shots—such as the interview segments with Ricky Skaggs—could and shouldContinue reading “The Tao of Peter Rowan”

Discovering Peter, Paul, and Mary

(for KDHX) I suspect that there are lots of things that the average person doesn’t know about Peter, Paul, and Mary. We think of them, if we think of them at all, as earnest and goofy, perhaps due to the persona of the most visible of the three these days, Peter Yarrow. On stage heContinue reading “Discovering Peter, Paul, and Mary”

Fleck and Washburn

(for Sing Out!) When I first heard that Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married I thought it was a joke, though that was in part because of the source of the news. The “Bluegrass Intelligencer,” a satire web magazine, ran the story under the headline “Strategic marriage will consolidate power within single banjo sovereignty:Continue reading “Fleck and Washburn”

Seamons and Hunter, “Take Yo Time”

(For Sing Out! magazine) For anyone who has learned to play an instrument in the usual way – lessons, scales, exercises, practice, recitals – Joe Seamons can make you feel like you’ve missed something. He grew up in a rural setting in the Pacific Northwest in a log cabin that his parents built. There heContinue reading “Seamons and Hunter, “Take Yo Time””

Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein, “If I had a Boat”

Bob Snider is a musician you’ve never heard of, though nevertheless he has spent his life in music, playing in the streets of Toronto and in folk clubs across Canada. He’s also written two books on performing and songwriting, and they draw from his long experience reaching audiences. There is a lot of wisdom inContinue reading “Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein, “If I had a Boat””

The Duhks, “Beyond the Blue”

(KDHX) When the Duhks first came on the scene in 2001 they were, right off the mark, as challenging as they were entertaining, and as infectious as they were affecting. Jessee Havey’s voice was the band in a nutshell: soulful, though not typically so, and able to add depth to material that in other handsContinue reading “The Duhks, “Beyond the Blue””

Michael Cleveland, “On Down the Line”

(KDHX) Sometimes fiddle players can be hard to get a handle on, if only because it’s a kind of music making that we are less familiar with than, say, guitar. On this album as on all the albums Cleveland has made, it may not be obvious why he gets lead billing: he doesn’t sing, orContinue reading “Michael Cleveland, “On Down the Line””

Willie Watson, Folksinger

(Penguin Eggs issue #63) The jacket design of Willie Watson’s “Folk Singer Vol. 1” is pure pre-folk-boom camp: he’s got a pipe, and the presentation is sparse to look like a Lomax field recording from the period. “Vol. 1”(I actually think it’s a feint here, and I’ll be surprised if there is ever a Vol.Continue reading “Willie Watson, Folksinger”

Is there such a thing as a perfect album?

(Penguin Eggs issue #63) Is there such a thing as a perfect album? Of course we don’t think of art in those terms, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. There are works of art that feel perfect, such as Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Greg Foley’s Thank You Bear, two children’s books that areContinue reading “Is there such a thing as a perfect album?”