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 he learned music in a way that most of us these days simply can’t: through active transmission, sitting and listening to the neighbors and, then, having a go himself.

It’s a (sadly) unique approach in our day and age when skill development, whether it’s math or hockey or music, tends to be prized more than having a bit of fun together. Because of that disparity, Seamons and Ben Hunter founded the Rhapsody project, an organization based in Seattle that intends to bring children to music. The goal, Seamons said recently, is “letting kids know that they don’t have to play music off a page … they can play music just by making noise with their instruments.” The project then shines a light on the kind of songs that allow children to do that, ones that are comfortable, familiar, and approachable. The point isn’t to keep perfect time, or to impress an audience with solos, but to exercise the spirit of the songs, and to encourage participation within a distinctly American musical tradition.

While Take Yo Time isn’t entirely derivative of the Rhapsody project, in that it can and will stand on its own, it’s nevertheless emblematic of it. Here Hunter and Seamons present the kinds of songs that invite participation, and they give lots of indications of the various forms participation might take. A hand slapping a knee on “Some of these Days,” a gloriously goofy kazoo on “Jungle Nights in Harlem” a pair of bones on “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” the solo callouts on “Jazz Fiddler” – whether you actually do grab something and play along, the point is made that this is not music for the stage, it’s music for the living room, specifically your living room, not just theirs. The very sympathetic production across the album underscores that idea. For those of us who aren’t able to be in the room with them, this disc is so inviting, so intimate, that you’ll feel like you were.

While the album needn’t be anything more than that, scratch the surface a bit and you’ll see that Hunter and Seamons are quite cunningly surveying the length and breath of American music in the pre-war years, that time when most music was still largely being made at home. They’ve beautifully chosen songs that might easily seem a bit like strange bedfellows. Duke Ellington’s “Jungle Nights in Harlem,” is placed with a Child ballad, Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues,” the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Jazz Fiddler.” The musical styles that Hunter and Seamons adopt beautifully reflect the genres that these pieces represent – the Appalachian fiddle drones on “Tom Dooley,” for example, contrasts the jazz phrasing on “Beaumont Rag” – though, despite those kinds of differences, they bring all of these various musical ideas together and demonstrate not the contrasts, but rather what they have in common. Which is America, after all. It’s not jazz or jug band, it’s not blues or old-time, it’s just songs to learn, to play, to play with, to clap along to. These are our songs to teach, to learn, and to share, if for no other reason that this: because it’s fun.

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 in those books—since he’s never gained fame, he always has to work hard to gain and keep the ear of an audience.

In his book “On Performing” Snider writes that for a performance to work “what you want is a clear, clean, simple unit that keeps moving.” He’s speaking about a set of music, not an individual song. “By clear I mean it should be easy to follow. In vaudeville they used to say ‘Tell ‘em what you’re gonna do. Tell ‘em what you’re doing. And tell ‘em what you did.’”

That doesn’t mean that you have to be simplistic or pandering, but rather you have to meet an audience’s trust with a sense of responsibility. You can take them anywhere you want, but you have to be the guide. That’s how the best performances work.

I’d add that that is also how the best recordings work. Rather than a collection of songs, they take the listener on a little journey. They used to talk about “programming” recordings, which was deciding on the order of songs. Still, even at that point, the songs should have been chosen to compliment each other, provide variety, and to make sense when set together.

And, indeed, these are the kinds of ideas that pop up when listening to the latest release from Jimmy Gaudreu and Moondi Klein, “If I Had a Boat.” Does it make sense? That’s an interesting question it turns out.

Gaudreau and Klein don’t have the same level of name recognition as some of the people they’ve been in bands with, but they’ve been present, in one form or another, though a sizeable portion of bluegrass history. Playing together is a recent thing, though that, too, has been impressive. Their first recording together, 2:10 Train, is gorgeous, including some unusual song choices that, nevertheless, really worked well. They covered a song that Linda Rondstat made famous, “High Sierra,” as well as Tim O’Brien’s “Colleen Malone.” Those were standouts, though the album was consistent: from beginning to end, it made sense. “Evening” was presented as a swing piece, and there’s a very playful take on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time.” Those two might have stuck out a bit from the rest, but they added variety and feel, and it worked.

Since then they’ve toured with Emmylou Harris as the opening band, and made a second album, Home from the Mills, that, if not as fantastic as the first, was nevertheless excellent. There is a care that went into the arrangements, and a delicacy of touch that was unique, to say nothing of how well the two played together. Like the first one, the sources ranged more than a bit. There’s Eric Bogle’s “Leaving Nancy,” Tim O’Brien’s “Rod MacNeil,” Bob Wills’ “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and Alpha Rev’s “New Morning.” You perhaps haven’t heard of Alpha Rev—I hadn’t—and frankly that’s probably a good thing.

Like the first album, “Home From the Mills” worked because it made sense. It reflected the personality of the musicians, but it also was a work that could, more or less, stand alone as a testament to the breadth of North American folk music, and everything there was presented through that lens. “Red Haired Boy” was set next to Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” in order to highlight all the things they have in common, not the differences they share.

This latest recording, If I Had Boat, doesn’t work as well. The personality remains, though they’ve stretched the project too far. “Waltz for Anais” includes a piano that is strikingly conspicuous, and not in a good way, because it jars with all the rest of the things happening both in the song and on the album. It’s far too saccharine to support the mandolin in that piece, and otherwise draws too much attention to itself. “Grassnost” too feels like something from a different album, also because it includes a piano part that plays at being classical, yet only succeeds at being Muzak.

There are some other head scratchers here, including the title track, which is a cover of a Lyle Lovett song released in 1987. It’s bizarre, lyrically, which may have worked for Lovett, but it doesn’t work for Gaudreau and Klein. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Did She Mention my Name” is a nice enough song, but the version here makes you want to dig out Tony Rice’s. The vocal harmonies are strained and distracting.

Those diversions are unfortunate because there are some real highlights in here. “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” may not be a song that you feel you need to hear again, but you do, it turns out, as the version here is as beautiful as it is fresh and surprising. “One More Night” is the Bob Dylan song from Nashville Skyline, and it works well, as does the first track here, “I’m Always on a Mountain.” There are some other lovely moments in here as well.

As a whole, however, this album feels less like a journey than it does a tour of Gaudreau and Klein’s sock drawers. Each piece comes with its own intention, and I suspect the only thing that unites them is that they like them, have fun playing them, or are amused by them. The piano is an idea that they had in isolation, and the same is true of “Grassnost.” If I’m wrong, it’s only because the performers haven’t done their job: at the end of the album, I have now idea what they intended to do, what they were doing, and what they did. It’s just songs.

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 hands might be entirely unremarkable. The albums they made became essential expressions of the time and, on stage or on CD, they grabbed your attention and kept it.

And then it began to dissolve. There were regrettable personnel changes, and when Havey left it felt like she took the point of the band with her. The group slowly receded from view. When at last their website noted an indefinite hiatus, it was easy to assume that it had vanished for good.

Which makes the release of this new album, “Beyond the Blue,” such a welcome and surprising event. There is a new lineup, though the twin suns of the Duhks universe — Havey and Leonard Podolak — are very happily back together again. The ensemble is still finding its legs, it should be said, and this album isn’t as consistently authoritative or confident as some of the earlier material. At times the arrangements, such as “Burn” and “Suffer No Fools,” rely too heavily on repetition and inflection to carry the piece. The song “Burn” in particular comes off as weak, as far as content and sentiment goes, which is that a lover wants his ex to, as the title suggests, burn. (Ho hum. Yes, I remember high school too.)

The production across the album feels rushed and uneven, as with the snare drum and horns on “These Dreams.” On the other end of the spectrum, the production of “Je Pense á Toi” is wonderful, especially around the use of the percussion instruments to create a very lovely feel behind the layered vocals.

Still, the high points handily outnumber the low. The title track, “Beyond the Blue,” is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. “Je Pense á Toi” is stated and reprised, both tracks becoming highlights, as does “Lazy John.” If the use of horns and drums feels tentative elsewhere, the band makes up for it spades on “Just One Step Away.”

If there are a few soft spots here and there, the band has nevertheless revived its ability to command attention. This album grabs you, takes you on a journey, and when it’s over, it seems that the energy has gone out of the room. And it has.

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, or write songs, and those are the things that general audiences tend to focus on. In performance, likewise, he also doesn’t move around, like Leahy or Sythian. His band, Flamekeeper, does all the singing and moving, and even some of the songwriting. Apparently nobody thinks too much about wardrobe.

But if you need to know why the world needs more Michael Cleveland, listen to the one solo track on this album, “Jack O Diamonds.” It’s an old-time standard that, when set beside any other recording (such as one by Bruce Molsky) demonstrates exactly what Cleveland is up to. He takes the piece entirely out of the old-time context, quoting phrases from bluegrass while also giving a few nods to jazz here and there. He adjusts the chord accompaniment, dropping a tone here, adding a minor there. He’s playing in the truest sense of the word, and as with any kind of play, there’s some humour in there, too.

And, indeed, that’s what he’s doing in all the other pieces on this album. They, too, are full of nods and winks, a masterful presentation that includes a wonderful sense of empathy and joy. The players he has with him are truly excellent, and it’s clear that they are there entirely because Cleveland is. That, precisely, is why this recording should demand your attention. These people are excited about it, and with very good reason.

The album ends with “The Orange Blossom Special,” a piece that Cleveland has been playing since he was a child. There is video of him at perhaps 12 years of age playing it with Doc Watson, and it’s a moment that I think of whenever I see Cleveland. They are backstage at the IBMA and, afterword, Watson asks if he has been blind since birth. Cleveland says “yeah, but I don’t think of it too much. You know, there are some things I can’t do, but I’m going to make do with what I can do.” Good lord, does he ever.

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. 2.) is true to the time of the early 60s as well, when collection was key, as north eastern college students fanned out across the country reel to reel recording units in hand looking to find lost legends.

It’s a gutsy move on Watson’s part, as he’s walking a fine line between insight and mockery. Indeed, Watson plays a caricature, a singing cowboy, a rambler thick with the dust of America. He’s got tendons that stick out when he sings, and sometimes his face turns red with effort. Even that term “folk singer”—in the folk revival period, that was apparently a term that people could use simply, like “car mechanic” or “postal worker.” It meant what it said. And then it changed. The term folk singer became earnest, and then it became laughable. That Watson uses it here brings up all of the contradictions of the period, and his desire to deal with them head on.

In other hands, it wouldn’t work. Watson is convincing because he’s using the persona in order to say something about the music and about our time. That’s what comes through in this recording. It’s not the 60s, and it’s not the west or the dust bowl, and that’s his point. The anachronism is meaningful.

It also works because he is so convincing, so deft and compelling as a performer, that at his best he is nothing short of mesmerizing. He’s in that film, Another Day Another Time, and just as we’re entranced watching him bob up and down through a performance of “Midnight Special” the other performers with him, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, look like kids at a fun fair, smiling with the shear joy of being involved in this thing.

Watson’s album begins with “Midnight Special,” in a more restrained version. He then goes on to present songs in as sparse a presentation as you’d expect to see at a Greenwich Village coffee shop just prior to the folk boom: one voice, a strained vocal, a banjo or a guitar for accompaniment. Bare as bare can be. And, while it was common then, it’s a presentation that is certainly less common now. In world of rich production values, the string sounds as on “Bring it With You When You Come,” or the tap of the banjo head as on “Stewball” reek of honesty. In some cases, as with “Mother Earth” the meaning is more clearly layered—when he sings “it doesn’t matter what you’re worth/ when it all ends up you have to go back to Mother Earth” it’s about what it meant then, but also what it means now, as in our relationship to our environment. Elsewhere the relationship between now and when these songs were written are less obvious, as perhaps with “Mexican Cowboy” but it creeps in nevertheless. He’s singing these songs because they mean something immediate to us today.

His voice varies from field holler to introspection, from plaintive to ballsy, and all of it works in the way that Pete Seeger worked: one man, a song, and an unwavering confidence in an ability to deliver a message about something important. It’s an album that demands your attention, though you also have to give it your attention. Because it sits so apart from our context, and is so quiet, headphones won’t go amiss. But it’s worth it. This is one of the most important and interesting and enjoyable recordings that we’ll see this year.

A room of their own

Published in Penguin Eggs, issue #63, Autumn 2014

73608782f50eb6af17bb69bdcd662692_LIf you’ve never lived in Toronto, it’s safe to say that you’ve never heard of the Tranzac Club. Then again, that’s safe to say even if you have lived in Toronto. It began life in 1931 as the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club (TRANZAC) to support Australian and New Zealand Culture in Toronto. It did that, and a lot else, too. In the 1970s it became home to Friends of Fiddlers Green, a folk music club, and soon became a venue for seemingly anyone who needed a place to play. Today it’s as much a fixture of the city as the pigeons roosting on the head of King Edward VII in Queen’s Park.

And, still, it makes no sense at all. It’s hard to describe the building, screened by trees just off Queen Street West. The entry is papered with photocopies shilling fringe theatre and Reg Hartt film festivals. The tables don’t match, and the bar is real wood only because, when it was made, they all were. The rooms are set about like a warren—the Tiki Room, the Main Hall, The Southern Cross Lounge—with the larger one in the back for bigger things, like fringe theatre, and the Zine Library, and the Chris Langan Branch of the Ceoltóiri Éireann Traditional Music Weekend.

It’s dark, the floor creaks, and there’s no cover and no food that I recall beyond the bags of chips hanging on a rack behind the bar. And yet, I’m not sure if you could find a place in Canada that has had as large an impact in the world of roots, folk, and acoustic music. We often make statements like that, but I honestly don’t feel I’m knitting anything here. Quietly, and for decades, the Tranzac has provided a focal point for a range of musicians that are as improbable as they are delightful.

I was living in Toronto in the early 00s and then, as now, they had music every night of the week. Lit only by a few incandescent bulbs, Wednesday night was Gypsy Jazz night, typically with four or five guys playing petit bouche guitars, expertly, and singing in French or Roma or whatever it was. It was mind-boggling. I had no idea where you could get a petit bouche, let alone find someone to play one with. But there they were.

Thursday, as now, was bluegrass night. Some nights, snow flying outside the window behind the band, I’d be the only one there aside from the bartender and the band. I didn’t know of any of the players, not then, but I do now. Chances are good that you do as well. Doug Paisley sang and played guitar, Andrew Collins played mandolin, and Marc Roy played guitar and fiddle and mandolin. At the time, none had made any recordings, though all of them have now. Roy has been named the Central Canadian Bluegrass Guitar Player of the year five times, mandolin player of the year once, and two years ago was inducted into their hall of fame. Collins was named mandolin player of the year five times, and went on to form the Creeking Tree String Quartet. Today Doug Paisley is known for his songwriting, as on his newest release, Strong Feelings which is out this year. He’s been reviewed by Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones called him “a quiet wonder.”

At the Tranzac, though, it was different. “It was just exciting,” says Andrew Collins. “It was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just focused on the playing, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. … It was all just friends who had a mutual interest.”

One night Paisley noted over the mic that Roy had turned 19 that week and was now legally allowed into bars. That he was so young was the least of it. Roy was astonishing in every way: beautiful rhythm, blistering runs, and an otherworldly confidence. I approached him on a few occasions, though it seemed that he didn’t really speak. He’d mumble something, look at the floor or to the left, as if expecting something.

As impressed as I was, I didn’t realize how good they really were. In Canada, bluegrass has all the gravity of a secret handshake; it’s just not a musical language that we understand, nor is it one that we typically have much access to.

“In retrospect,” says Collins, “the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people, we were their starting point.”

I, frankly, was one of them. Over time I began to recognize some of the other people who came in to watch from time to time, and so many of them were musicians themselves. Chris Coole, Chris Quinn, John Showman, Dan Whitely, Max Heinemann—after sets at the raucous Silver Dollar, where bluegrass was accepted as a novelty more than as something to be honestly appreciated, they came to the Tranzac, perhaps sitting in, perhaps not. It was quieter, and if the audience was smaller, it nevertheless was less oiled and more knowledgeable. It was perhaps the one place in town where bluegrass, consistently, was not a joke.

At the heart of it, these were young people making music—they weren’t trying to advance a career, or sell tickets and recordings, and the stress that comes from music as a life, rather than an activity, hadn’t yet set in. “There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love,” admits Collins, something he would learn all too well in time. It was different. There weren’t the fireworks of Collins’ Creaking Tree Quartet, or the need to be unique within a crowded singer-songwriter market. It wasn’t Appalachia, or a job. It wasn’t a festival, or a contest, or a project. It was just music. And, tucked away in Toronto, they were free.

Is there such a thing as a perfect album?

1979192_10152705885365744_217085881_o(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 are about as perfect as you could imagine a children’s book to be. There might be other examples, too: Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, (1658), Citizen Kane, “Jabberwocky,” the albums Louis Armstrong made with Ella Fitzgerald.

What puts them in the running, were we to play this game, are the things that they share: the artifice is less apparent than the message, the picture transcends the brush strokes. They are economical, powerful without shouting, made with care and skill though the stories come forward, not the storytellers. They avoid clichés, and offer more than you get at first glance without demanding or requiring study. They affect us, they feel close to us, they display dignity even when winking an eye. And if there are any faults, we willingly choose to overlook them in a visceral appreciation of what they have to offer.

This is all very grand, I realize, but I’d say that the latest release from Red June, titled Ancient Dreams, does all those things. The skill is clear, the musicianship is deft, the vocal harmonies are fresh and atypical. It’s a quiet album, for the most part, and the songs are allowed to speak for themselves. And it’s remarkably rich. “I Saw You In August” is a study in arranging, complex and delicately crafted to allow the focus to shift around the story that’s being told. It’s brilliant, actually. In fact, the whole album is, and for the same reasons.

Is it a perfect album? I know that it sounds ridiculous, but frankly I’d venture that it is. If I’m wrong, I’d be interested to know why. I really would.

Williams, Crowe, Lawson, “Standing Tall and Tough”

(for HVBA) In the liner notes to Standing Tall and Tough, Paul Williams notes “How amazing is it that three guys on Medicare can still be onstage performing this great American music called bluegrass?” It’s a comment, at least on the face of it, on the fact that they’re still standing, or some variant of that, and able to play remarkably well. But  while he may not have intended it that way, it’s also a comment on the audience: isn’t it great that there are still so many people who want to see them up there on stage, or to hear them in recording? Williams and Crowe have been playing professionally for more than 60 years, and Lawson isn’t all that far behind them. All three got their start with Jimmy Martin, and that commonality is one of the things that has brought them together over the years.

Indeed, what Williams’ comment underscores is one of the great things about bluegrass music, namely that it has a memory. Pop musicians from the 1950s, even those with long careers, aren’t revered in the same way, and certainly it’s hard to think of any who remain relevant to the music being made today. The same is true of actors, or even artists. Mickey Roonie was little more than a footnote or a curiosity at the end of his life, and younger audiences, despite Roonie’s footprint in film, had no idea who he was. The woman who cuts my hair has no idea who James Taylor is. We may go to a retrospective of pop artists—the ones who really commanded fine art in the 50s and 60s—and it is viewed only retrospectively, not as something that remains vital today.

In bluegrass, it’s nice that that kind of thing doesn’t really happen, or doesn’t have to happen. We want to hear these guys precisely because they are relevant, just as they have remained so throughout their career. What is particularly true of these three, as this recording shows in spades, is that they have retained their skills to command their instruments, to interpret a song, and to speak directly through the music to their audiences. They are revered not only for the things that they’ve done, but also for the things that they continue to do. Not all performers are as lucky to remain so close to the top of their games, but these guys are still there. And that, more than anything else, is why they still attract audiences today. These guys are masters, are recognized as such, and that’s what draws us. They aren’t being wheeled out to accept the applause, rather this album finds them doing all the things they’ve built their careers on: writing, arranging, playing, and interpreting. Yes, they began with some of the first generation of bluegrass players, and that’s kind of neat to think about, but their playing, their voices, and their ability to tell stories is why we continue to lend an ear.

Should you doubt it, this new recording will dispel that doubt. They are, all three, front and centre throughout. The material isn’t as blistering, perhaps, as some of the recordings they’ve made, but in a sense, that’s kind of nice. They include three songs that, while co-written with Paul Williams, Jimmy Martin made memorable. Also here are two Louvin Brothers’ songs, “Do You Live What You Preach” and Insured Beyond the Grave,” which are great songs but also great choices for these three, as they are so delightfully able to present, and play with, the Louvin’s harmonies. They don’t just do it, they do it effortlessly and masterfully.

“Blue Memories” is a song that Paul Williams started in 1959, but never completed. For this recording, Lawson wrote a second verse, and it’s kind of neat to think that the song took 55 years to complete, and that we hear it on this recording for the first time, inclusive of two verses that were written more than half a century apart.

But, again, none of that kind of thing really matters. This album finds them, per the title, standing tall and tough, still doing it, and still showing us why they’ve been so important to the music throughout their long career

Michael Barnett’s “One Song Romance”

Michael Barnett is a fiddler who, while young, has done a lot. He’s a prodigy, more or less, becoming a sought after teacher and session musician at a very young age. He was a member of the David Grisman Sextet, and otherwise has turned the ear of a who’s who of acoustic music. The album is packed with some of them, including Aoife O’Donovan, David Grier, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Noam Pikelny, Maeve Gilchrist, Chris Eldridge … there is enough talent here to make your head spin.

But this album presents another side of Barnett that, until now, hasn’t been apparent: his songwriting. It’s repetitive, quirky, and entirely uninteresting. “Dig, Dig, Dig” is a lovely swing piece, though the words are nonsense, and not in the good way. “Jabberwocky” is nonsense in the good way—it sounds like nothing, at least at face value, yet for whatever reason is full of inescapable meaning. It’s charming, moving jibberish. “Dig, Dig, Dig” on the other hand, is really jibberish. It’s about a shovel digging into a person’s brain, and finding sombreros and “silly things, like Belgian waffles.” You can imagine some twenty somethings sitting around giggling about this stuff, but are Belgian waffles silly? Not really. The lyric is a string of non sequiturs simply for the sake of it. The vocal harmonies aren’t great either. The piece would have worked brilliantly and delightfully as an instrumental. Too bad he didn’t leave it at that.

Elsewhere, too, the writing is cringeworthy. Tim O’Brien provides the lead vocal on two of the tracks here, “Little Darlin’” and “Change Her Mind.” It jars particularly because O’Brien is such an expert writer, though here is singing the kind of lyric that you’d find scrawled on a high-school student’s binder. I imagine O’Brien would defend the writing—what else could he do now that it’s out there—but it’s hard not to feel a bit embarrassed for him. Barnett sings, too, and has a nice voice, though there is more to writing than simply saying things. “It Wasn’t Meant to be That Way,” finds him on lead vocal morning the loss of puppy love as if it were the romance of the century.

The best pieces are the instrumental ones, such that we wish the entire album was instrumental. Though, even there, not all the instrumental tracks are equally successful. “Hopped the Train to Hudson” is a lot of flash, yet never really roots itself. “Raindrops and Puddles” is a chance for Barnett to channel Eric Satie, but only really makes you want to go find some Satie. “Bottom of the Barrel” on the other hand is a delightful swing piece, easily a stand-out here.

Ultimately, however, this album is alienating. We find ourselves in a room full of people who know each other and yet we are left to stand in the corner trying to make sense of all the in jokes. It’s Barnett’s first album, and no doubt he’s a very important and impressive presence in the world of acoustic music. But, to really hear what he can do, it would have been preferable to hear his interpretation of other peoples pieces, some standards included, and leave the writing for later. He’s trying to sound wise, and fails.

Mike Scott’s, “The Old Country Church”

(HVBA) Mike Scott is one of those guys who has a thousand-watt smile—his album covers look like ads for dental work—and always seem to be selling something. Indeed, what he is selling is himself and his ability to do so is prodigious. There are a lot of great banjo players out there, though of course you don’t have to be great to make good music, you just have to elbow your way in front of an audience. Scott is one of those banjo players, and more power to him.

His recent release, The Old Country Church, is less of interest because of Scott’s presence than it is all the other people on there: Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, Aubrey Haynie, Tim Stafford, Ben Isaacs, and Bryan Sutton. That sounds like a dig, but I don’t intend it that way. He’s assembled an A-list and has them play naturally, not intending to produce show stoppers, but rather to make music that draws the listener to it. They all turn in—no surprises here—beautiful performances. They cover a baker’s dozen of gospel classics, all staying close to the tradition, with none of the tracks sticking its head above the rest. “Where the Roses Never Fade” has a really nice entry, Aubrey Haynie coming in with a very delicate and sympathetic fiddle part; they pick up the pace on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” without feeing the need to burn down the barn.

Taken together, it’s just really nice music like the CDs that Cracker Barrel used to make. These days Cracker Barrel seem to do more reissues and best-of collections than anything else, but they used to make instrumental albums that were arranged and produced by Mark Howard: Flat Top Box, Bluegrass Railroad, Bluegrass Highway, Old Time Barn Dance, Front Porch Gathering. I can almost hear the eyes rolling, but that’s only if you haven’t heard these CDs—they all had an absolute A-list of performers on there, such as David Grier, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, and indeed most of the guys that appear on this latest Mike Scott recording. Because their names weren’t on the front cover, perhaps, or just because they were straight studio sessions, everything was toned down a bit, which was lovely. They were really, honestly great recordings. They also were wonderful to play along with—the keys were very accessible, as was the speed and the arrangements.

This latest Mike Scott CD is much the same: a very nice instrumental tour, expertly done, through a handful of chestnuts. It won’t knock your socks off, and that’s one of the good things about it. The melodies are straight up, passed around, and put down. It’s the kind of stuff that you can pick along to and get a bit lost within. Or nap to. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Music has many, many uses.

Larry Sparks’ “Lonesome and Then Some”

One of the great things about bluegrass is that it has a memory. People who played then are celebrated now, and the music that was made then is still relevant now. And people like Larry Sparks provide some proof of that. His first real gig was playing guitar for Ralph Stanley in 1966 after the passing of Carter. Just think of that. The Stanley Brothers are in the first generation of bluegrass, and to some extent formed what bluegrass is today. And Larry Sparks was there, more or less, and here he is, fifty years later, still doing it, and still turning ears.

Lonesome and Then Some …  is of course a play on the name of Larry’s band, the Lonesome Ramblers—the music here includes the Lonesome Ramblers who are joined by a number of guest musicians. Those musicians are telling, too: he could have filled the album with younger people, or more famous people, but he didn’t. He invited Curly Seckler to sing tenor on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” joined on the track by Bobby Osborne. Just think of that—a new track, recorded this year,  includes principle musicians from the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs. You don’t need to know that—it’s a great song all on it’s own—but there is something great about all that other stuff going on.

Another lovely moment—and there are lots of them on this disc—is Judy Marshall, Alison Krauss, and Sparks trading lead and harmony vocals on “Going up Home to Live in Green Pastures.” It’s just great music, and all egos appear to have been left at the door. We know the song—Emmylou Harris included it on her fantastic Roses in the Snow—but this new recording is haunting.

Indeed, that’s how the entire album is constructed. As music it stands on its own, but dig a bit deeper, and it’s rich with memory. Ralph Stanley sings on “Loving you Too Well” and the album ends with an unreleased recording of Sparks with Bill Monroe on “In the Pines.” The track opens with with Monroe, speaking away from the mic saying that “Larry Sparks is ready!” They sing it as a duet, and if you feel you never need to hear “In the Pines” again as long as you live, you’re wrong. You need to hear this one.

Lonesome and Then Some …  is billed as a 50th anniversary celebration of Sparks’ career, and for him that’s what it is. For us it’s a thoughtful, graceful, dignified tour through an approach to making music that defines bluegrass itself. As such, it’s a celebration of a lot more than just Sparks himself.

Nickel Creek’s “A Dotted Line”

(for KDHX)

After seven years apart, Nickel Creek is back with “A Dotted Line.” As in the early part of their career together, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are doing things that no one else is doing while serving an audience that is interested in picking up the Nickel Creek story where it left off.

Nickel Creek tends to get dubbed as a “bluegrass” band, though they don’t play much bluegrass, if any. Rather, in their career together, they have been interested in taking their instruments into new territory, and (either consciously or unconsciously) exploring the boundaries between genres, including pop, classical and bluegrass. They’ve done traditional songs, as with “The Fox” on their first release, though they also range across the musical landscape, such as Thile’s setting for Robert Burn’s poem, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” which was also on that debut album. It’s still hard to believe that three musicians who were so young at the time could create something so confident, interesting, and beautiful.

Despite the hiatus, their release this year, titled “A Dotted Line,” picks things up exactly where the band left off. The range of material is broad. The beautiful ballad “21st of May” sounds like something that Norman Blake might have written in the ’80s. The arrangement stays close to the traditional form that the song is set within, though it’s also clear that they’re not putting on a costume but rather playing in a style that they know intimately and clearly adore. With “Elephant in the Corn” and “Elsie” the trio moves further along the spectrum but still within the typical string-band territory and delivering careful, stunning performances.

That said, this is also a band that relates to pop music as intelligently and impressively as they do traditional forms. You’ll hear nods to the Beatles on “A Dotted Line,” as in the slurred vocal harmonies on “Rest of My Life” and “Where Is Love Now.” They engage with pop music on its own terms, honestly and convincingly taking up the energy and rebellion of youth, as in “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” That said, “Hayloft” is the true barb in this collection. It’s a cover of a Mother Mother tune. I hate, it, but even then it’s hard to fault the mastery that they bring to it. It may be off putting, but it’s still interesting.

This album, rightly, will get a lot of attention. You just don’t see this kind of skill very often, including technical skill as well as interpretive skill, courage and confidence. As players, the three are entirely sympathetic to one another, and their ability to play as an ensemble is remarkable.

You also don’t often come across albums that weren’t made in order to advance a career, or make money, or market a tour (though it probably will do all of those things). The album demonstrates, were we ever to doubt it (and I did) that Nickel Creek remains a grouping that offers each of the players some musical opportunities that they simply can’t get elsewhere. For us, the result is interesting, challenging, enjoyable, and a great way to spend the better part of an hour.

Interview with Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers

I reached Eric by phone while he was on the road travelling south for a few dates in Florida. I asked him about his (relatively) new Henderson guitar, brother duets, and life on the road. Always gracious, Eric is as delightful off stage as he is on it.

GH: How did you get turned on to bluegrass? Was it from your father?

EG: Yeah, my dad listened to it on the radio. Had a few bluegrass records, not a lot of them. I think the reason we ended up in bluegrass was because I just started playing the banjo, and Leigh started playing the guitar. I got turned onto Flatt and Scruggs, and then he did. And I think just the fact that we were playing bluegrass instruments lead us into the field. We liked classic country just as much, but Leigh once said that, you know, the banjo is what drove us into bluegrass. I never really thought of it like that. But, anyway, we got hooked on it early—in our teens or pre-teens—and we listened to a lot of different first generation bluegrass artists and then got into the more progressives styles as well. But cutting our teeth on the traditional stuff has informed our music more than anything.

Some people want to take the music further, and others want to stay closer to the tradition. It seems that your latest release is consciously sticking a bit closer to the roots than the branches.

Well, I honestly don’t feel that there was any kind of design when we made that record. We weren’t making a statement about tradition or anything, but on the spectrum we probably lean more to the traditional end of things. I find myself listening to all kinds of music and I think there is room for it al. But, my favorite bluegrass has moss on it. The older stuff is what I like the most. I don’t think there is anything out there today that does it for me like that sound.

There are performers and writers that seem to feel that that there is only value in doing things that haven’t been done before.

I’d like to think that, with our writing, we’re doing things that haven’t been done before. Maybe not groundbreaking in some people’s view, but I’d like to think that we’re adding to it in our own way. I’d like to think that. [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s true or not, but we take pride in our songwriting and in finding strong material. And I think doing that is helping us carve out our niche in the music.

But I also think that we have our own sound, and we have a band that we’re really proud of. All the guys really trying to serve the song, and no egos. There’s not a lot of look at me stuff, it’s look at the song stuff. I like that.

You’re harmonies are fantastic. What is it about brothers singing harmony? There seems to be something special there.

Leigh and I have talked a lot about that quite a bit. You learn to talk at close to the same time, from the same people. Perhaps it’s just they way you pronounce things, or the timbre of your voices. It’s hard for people who aren’t siblings to get that close a blend. Some people do, but being siblings gives you a leg up.

Certainly, it seems to, as with the Louvins, the Everlys, the Carters …

I love the Louvins. They’re my favorite duet, and I think Leigh would say the same thing. We’re actually working real hard right now at that stuff, going through material from all kind of brother duets because we want to do a tribute record where we go back to songs by the Louvins, Everlys, Delmores, the Monroes—all kinds of different brothers throughout country and bluegrass history. I think it would be a fun record to make, and every time we mention it, people seem excited about it. It would be a bit of a departure for us to devote a whole album to that kind of thing. We hope to record it this spring and then it would be out in early 2015. It’s something we’ve been kicking around for ten years or more, and now just seems to be the right time to do it.

Of the covers you’ve been doing from the stage these days, which are the ones that are really working well?

We’ve been doing “Childish Love” by the Louvin Brothers. I think that’s beautiful. And, you know, “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everlys—it’s instantly recognizable and people just love it. We’ve been doing “Long Time Gone” by the York Brothers. The Everlys recorded it too, but the York Brothers wrote it. “You’re Running Wild” is going over very well. We’ve added some songs to the show just recently, but we’ve got a bunch of others that we’re just getting ready to work up.

But we agonize over these decisions [around song choice]. I don’t know if people realize that, but we really do. We want every song to have its own space, and on a record I don’t want two songs that are similar. I want them all to have their own little spot.

You’re playing a Henderson guitar. How long have you had that?

I’ve had it for about two years. Leigh’s playing one as well and they’re a matched pair, made out of the same batch of wood. It’ll be two years this summer since we got them, and they’re just getting better all the time. And they were great to begin with.  We’re very fortunate to have that.

Did you have to visit Wayne Henderson all the time, and take him donuts and stuff.

[Laughs] You know all about that, huh? Yeah, we made some visits. We had a friend that just went through that. He had to find out what pie he liked. But Wayne’s so cool. I’ve never seen a more humble or more talented guy. He’s just so humble! But it would be good to be Wayne, you know? We played his festival, and just to see how much people respect him when he walks into a crowd. He just has a way about him. I feel really lucky to know him. He’s a joyful guy. Happy to be alive, and to have found what he’s really great at. And he really is.

You guys are on the road a lot, for a lot of years, and I just wonder if it gets tiresome? There’s that Claire Lynch song, “Hills of Alabam” where she sings “tomorrow brings another town/and we’ll be on our way/we’ll hit the road and have a song/and then we’ll have nothing to say/for hours on end.” Have you ever gotten to that point? Do you ever run out of things to say?

Oh, yeah, sometimes. But most times we marvel at the fact that we still have things to say. Lots of times we’ll drop Leigh off in the Albany area and then Mike and I have got three more hours until we’re home. That’s usually how our trip ends. And we still find things to talk about. Some of them are pretty foolish. [Laughs] But there are times when there’s nothing to say, but that’s when you read, or listen to music, or think. But that is a great song. [Lynch] recorded that one at least twice, and I love both of them.

 

A dissapointing disc from Volume 5

I saw Volume 5 at Merlefest and was immediately struck that I hadn’t of heard them before. Great musicians, very nice presentation, and some great story songs and ballads—a very complete package all around.

But (you could sense this coming, couldn’t you) this album, The Day We Learn to Fly is a bit of a departure for them in that it’s their first release of entirely gospel songs. All the things I appreciated of the band when I saw them live are here. “Nothing But the Water” is a great a cappella piece showcasing the vocal strength of the group. The production is crystalline, as is the playing and the arrangements.

Where it falls short, at least in terms of a secular audience, is the songwriting. Gospel is, of course, a component of bluegrass music. But can we judge gospel songs in the same way we do secular songs? “Tennessee Stud,” for example, tells a story; there is movement and drama, and that’s one of the reasons that its been recorded so many times. It’s just a great song.

I think there are lots of gospel songs that are great in exactly the same way. “O Death” by Ralph Stanley found a huge audience, and I’d say it’s because of the strength of the song, not the level of devotion within the audience. Some people, no doubt, approached it from a place of belief. Others, I’m certain, didn’t, and nevertheless were moved by the song and by the performance.

Indeed, Ralph Stanley is one of those musicians who stands as an example of how great gospel songwriting can be, and he also demonstrates that the division between gospel and secular doesn’t require a different approach to the music. There is drama, movement, and the songs work unto themselves. The songs are less about the product—a communion with God—than it is the process, the rocky road that leads a person there. For me, I’m more interested in the sins than I am the forgiveness.

Not so for Volume 5. In “Miracle Today” we hear that the narrator’s life has gone astray. But what did he do? His life is full of blame, apparently, but he doesn’t tell us why. And without it, there goes the drama, the real dimension of the story. The same is true of “Until I Found the Lord.” This guy has troubles, that’s plain, but good Lord, what the heck did he do? We never find out, though that’s what the song, if it were really to work on its own, needs to be about. The only glimpse of any real storytelling is “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.”

Elsewhere is the typical stick-to-the-straight-and-narrow admonishment, as in “Color Between the Lines” and “Get Down and Pray.” Also are a few cliché statements of how great it will be to die, as in “The Day We Learn to Fly” and “When We are Called to Meet Him.” I suppose there is someone who likes listening to this kind of stuff, but it’s not me. A friend of mine who is a minister complains at times that religion in North America is a mile wide and an inch deep. The writing here supports that claim.

“White Wave Chapel” from I Draw Slow

There is an interesting moment in a recent interview with Dave Holden, guitarist of the Irish band I Draw Slow, when he notes that in America their music is described as Irish, and in Ireland, it’s American. The problem might simply be in knowing too much; the band may be from Ireland, but this is American music, drawing from the folk traditions of Appalachia. But, unlike a lot of old-time bands, the genre is a starting point, a beginning rather than and end.

“White Wave Chapel,” is a collection — like the two albums before it — that presents all new songs. That’s not something you’ll typically find from old-time groups from the U.S., where there is a tendency to stay closer to the roots than to the branches, and where the music tends not to reach too far beyond the boundaries of the genre.

It’s too bad, in a sense. The genre is very much alive, and even the hardest traditionalists aren’t CD players, but real musicians making real music in order to communicate with their audiences. In the worst examples there is a studied earnestness within the genre, the music presented not as something that is alive and fun, but as something that is good for you. It’s more bran than popcorn.

But the thing is, old-time music, even back in the day, was social music, played for one reason only: to have fun. It’s dance music, party music. The best performers within the genre approach the music in that vein. A few years ago, the Reeltime Travellers wowed audiences with their energy and their verve. They did lots of standards, but they also did lots of shouting and moving. As well, they used the music as a springboard to new material and new ideas, as in the song “Little Bird of Heaven” was as much of a “hit” as you ever get in old-time music.

In any case, I think the comparison is a good one, because the musicians of I Draw Slow, too, have reached new audiences with their energy, their verve, their creativity and their professionalism. Their song “Goldmine” is what got them noticed last year, bringing them to the States for the first time, in part because of the stunningly beautiful — and exceptionally professional — video that they created for the song. Last year, all the members still had day jobs when they came for their summer tour in the U.S. Through their debut spotlight at the IBMAs, they caught some ears, including those of Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck, who later joined them on stage at various events.

This year, I Draw Slow is back for another tour in the U.S., and if you have an opportunity to see them, you should take it. This is a captivating, exciting, energetic group with some fantastic songs to present, both from their earlier releases and this recent one. Their writing is skilled, rich and wonderfully mature. As in “Valentine” (for which the band did a video starring Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones”) they write about the complexities of adult life. There are no answers here, just edges and ideas.

Given its experience over the past year, the band has also gained a confidence that really fills out the package. You may have a chance to see the band this summer as it will be back in the States for a series of dates. Barring that, the album is a delight. No doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from I Draw Slow, or at least we can hope.

Marah presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania

(for Penguin Eggs magazine) Were you to hold a copy of this CD in your hands this is what you’d be thinking: What the $#$*% is this? And you’d be warranted in that thought. I’ll venture a provisional and entirely gracious answer: it’s a dog’s breakfast.

If there is any interest in this recording at all, it will come from a consideration of how many things someone can do wrong at one time, such as drinking during a recording session, recording in a barn, putting a mic in front of a kid who can’t sing, or not being able to play the instrument that you are holding in your hands. When it comes to Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, that’s not an exhaustive list, but it gets us started.

You’ll think I’m joking, but the notes that come with this CD are so small as to require a magnifying glass. Which, if you have one to hand, you can learn that (I’ll cut through all the self-congratulatory prose; you’re welcome) David Bielanko in the great state of PA found a book titled Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania at a garage sale that included some song lyrics from the 1800s. Lost gems!? Maybe, if there was actually music with them, or a suggestion of a melody, or if precisely anyone other than Bielanko had come across the book. He made up chords, melodies, noises. He bought beer, friends, and that one mic. He wrote the miniscule notes. And the result is truly impossible to turn off quick enough. It’s like electronic warfare. If you approach this recording expecting something abysmal, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Bryan Sutton Steps Out

What does it mean to sound like yourself? It’s not as easy as you might think.

A review of Bryan Sutton’s, Into My Own.

(For HVBA) I was once in the audience at a guitar workshop given by Bryan Sutton and Jack Lawrence, and it was as delightful as it was geeky. Sutton talked about how he, as a tween, would travel to festivals and record all of Jack Lawrence’s sets onto cassette tape. There is a photo of this in the liner notes to Sutton’s “Not Too Far From the Tree” and it’s as geeky as it sounds. He even held up a Radio Shack mic, one of the ones with the little switch on the side. At home he would play the tapes over and over again, learning Lawrence’s solos note for note. Lawrence told a similar story of how his mother says that he went into his bedroom at 13 and didn’t come out until he was 18. Seemingly for the duration he played Doc Watson records, moving the record with his hand over the solos, slowing them down in order to better hear the sequence of notes. “You could hold the records up to a light and see where all the solos were,” he said, the vinyl having been worn down by so many passes of the needle.

It’s true that for so many young musicians the goal is, at least initially, to sound like someone else. There are some players coming up today who are excellent, but who still betray that desire. Zeb Snyder, and excellent young guitar player from the Snyder Family Band and who Adam Steffey featured on his last recording, clearly has spent his time trying to play like Tony Rice—he’s still young, and he’s still doing it.

Sutton’s latest release, “Into My Own,” recognizes the weight of that experience, especially when you grow up and want to make music that is truly your own. Of this recording, he has said that he intended to make an album that only he could make. And while I can understand what he’s saying, I’m also a bit dismayed that he doesn’t see how unique and wonderful some of his earlier recordings have been. They’re aren’t many—and a new solo release from Sutton is an event unto itself—all of which nicely describe the arc of his career. The titles of the albums themselves tell the story. “Ready to Go” is the recording that any guitar debutante might make, at least one who was already of the Nashville A-list, having recorded with Dolly Parton and toured as a member of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. “Bluegrass Guitar” is almost a volume 2 of the first recording. Next was the breathtaking “Not Too Far From the Tree” which is as much a document as it is a wonderful recording; Sutton duets with his heroes, including Doc Watson in what would be Watson’s last studio recording. Sutton is gracious and supportive, as in his duet with the cross-picking legend George Shuffler. To my mind, it’s as important a recorded document as is Rice and Grisman’s “Tone Poems”—delightful to listen to, and it rewards a very close listening, contrasting styles of presentation, solo, and accompaniment. It’s a who’s who of some of the best flat-pickers, well, ever.

This latest record follows the arc in that, here, he’s not supporting others, or stating a claim so much as stepping into a space that, as he says, is more distinctly his own.

And he sings. (If this album were made during the 60s, I imagine it would have been titled “Sutton Sings!”) For Sutton, it’s a big leap. He’s taking risks—well, at least that one—that he hasn’t really taken before. Does it work? For the most part it does, though it’s hard not to feel that it’s a bit of a trial run. “That’s Where I Belong” works very nicely, and perhaps works better than any of the other vocals on the album. It’s a song that lends itself to a straight, uninflected vocal, and the theme is one that Sutton presents easily, and comfortably. The harmony, sung by Luke Bulla, supports Sutton’s voice beautifully, adding a welcome depth to the vocal.

But (yes, I know you’ve been anticipating the “but”) in other instances Sutton’s voice doesn’t match the sophistication of his guitar playing. He’s not able to interpret with his voice as delicately as he can with guitar, and it shows. On “Run Away” he is playing clawhammer banjo, accompanying himself, and it’s too bare a setting to support the limitations of his voice. It’s also too fast. The result is that we’re not convinced that he’s really had the experience that he’s singing about, which is the loss of a partner, and the piece risks parody. So too of “Been All Around This World”—in the best recordings that song is like a sigh, an exhalation, from a person who has suffered and inflicted suffering, and is coming to the end of the line. In the chorus, Sutton accents “been” rather than “all”—an atypical choice—and it’s not as minor a point as you might think. It changes the intent of the lyric. Again, it’s too fast, too chipper, and it sounds less like a reflection on a life lived than it does a travelogue. And he doesn’t sing the lyric about lying the jail, which is the most important one, or at least I think so.

Now here’s another “but”: the instrumental tracks on this release are where the album really shines, and it shines considerably. Each is breathtaking. “Ole Blake” reads as a tribute to Norman Blake—Sutton hasn’t said that, at least that I have seen, but between the title and the style of the piece, it reads that way. The ensemble is impeccable, including Noam Pikelny on banjo taking a few wonderful turns. On “Frisell’s Rag,” a piece by Sutton, he is joined by Bill Frisell, the jazz great of the title, and the result is … I’m running out of superlatives … let’s say, important. You need to hear this. Elsewhere, the players featured in the recording are equally worth our attention, including fiddle by Jason Carter and Stuart Duncan, mandolin by Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury.

And another “but”: the album is called “Into My Own” but it’s as much a tour of the players and the forms of music that Sutton has been seduced by as it is a statement of self. Jazz, bluegrass, old-time; Bill Monroe, Bill Frisell, Norman Blake; a waltz, a folk song, a breakdown—together the material here forms the fingerprint of a musician who is as excited by what he hears as he is about what he plays. This is, in a word, a simply wonderful album. If the singing doesn’t rise to the level of the playing, it’s nevertheless nice to see that Sutton is taking those kinds of risks in order to reveal aspects of his musical personality that we haven’t yet seen. Anyone can be cool, but it takes a bit of courage to be geeky.

Where old-time becomes new again

(for KDHX) Darol Anger is one of the most skilled fiddlers working today. He is interested in taking the instrument into new places, though he’s not interested in developing an entirely new vocabulary for the instrument, and I think that’s an important distinction.

While some musicians find innovation in doing things that are drastically removed from anything that has been happening—and I think the Goat Rodeo sessions is an example of that—Anger’s approach is more refined, and I’d say ultimately more musical.

There are so many examples of his quiet mastery out there, and you can certainly take your pick, but one that stands out in memory is a video that he did with Mike Marshall in order to demonstrate some of the concepts of playing and improvising as a duo. They take a typical piece, “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and make a bit of magic with it.

What’s nice about that video is, after the performance, they describe some of the decisions that they made. If you needed one — and those coming at this recording without a good sense of the genres involved just might — that video is like a Rosetta stone, allowing you to see what is going on in this latest project from Anger, called “E-and’a.” In both instances the musicians are playing very close to the traditional sounds of Appalachian Americana, namely old-time and bluegrass. But they’re playing with the form, too, and there is a delight in the details. The chops are there (Sharon Gilchrist, on mandolin, in particular stands out) but listen for some of the long notes, the interesting chord choices, the counterpoint.

At the beginning of some of these pieces you think you know pretty much where you are, but then a whole journey unfolds before you. “Fiddler’s Pastime” is a great example of that. It’s an old-timey fiddle tune, or at least written to sound like one. And then, it’s not, or at least it doesn’t progress in the way we might otherwise expect it to. It dips and dives, changes key, takes a walk over this way, then goes for a hike over that way. This piece wouldn’t exist without jazz, though more importantly it wouldn’t exist without old-time music either. It’s not an attempt to elevate a baser form of music (and as much as I love it, we’re all aware of the unfair assumptions made of the genre) but to celebrate the fact that here we are, in 2014, and it’s a fluid, vital genre of music that is just as alive and vibrant as, well, jazz. Anger shows us that the precedents for this recording—and all of it is new music—are still very much with us today, not just a moment in the past.

The mood changes as we move from piece to piece, such as the pointillist entry to “La Ville Des Manteaux” or “Canyon Moonrise.” Unlike some of the other pieces, with these it’s easy to have a moment of wondering where we are, exactly. And then we realize as the piece opens up that we’ve been here before, that we’re entering a room that is familiar to us even though the furniture may have been moved around a bit since we were last here.

Here’s a little beef of mine: so many musicians seek to challenge us, though they do so by first alienating us. They make it hard to approach the music, to find a way in. They make us work for it. That’s fine, I guess, though Anger has shown throughout his career that he is a gentler guide, and ultimately he’s more successful. And the environment he has always been most interested in is American music. He lives there, and he wants us to live there too. He’s spent his career showing us why we should.

I realize it’s only March, but if you give it some honest attention, “E-and’a” is one of  the best albums you’ll hear this year.

Revisiting the Fold

Carlene Carter, “Carter Girl”
Rounder Records

(for HVBA) I have an unerring fascination with the Carter Family—or more precisely the Original Carter Family—because everything about their professional lives as musicians (or “musicianers” as AP would say) is as exotic as it is unfathomable. We all know at least the outline of the story: AP hears Sara’s voice and falls in love, convinces Sara and Maybelle to drive with him to Bristol to record, despite the fact that there were no paved roads and Maybelle was nine months pregnant. Late, tired, hungry, they sit in front of a recording horn and, on the first day, record “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and, among other things, “The Storms are on the Ocean.” The next day they record “Single Girl, Married Girl,” and “The Wandering Boy.”  In all they recorded just six songs at those sessions, and four of them became part of the very fabric of Americana music.

The three took pains to present themselves as anything but the yokels they worried they may appear, but all the details of their lives suggests that yokels, frankly, was what they were. Everything that you read about their lives prior to Bristol is from another age entirely. They didn’t own a Victrola, and some of the first recordings they ever heard were their own. There was no music industry to speak of, so they also had no idea where the venture may take them. They were just tickled that someone gave them some money to sing songs into a metal horn. They weren’t after fame, and to their minds at the time, they weren’t aware that there was any to be had. The whole thing was just one of AP’s schemes—like his failed crops, the failed fruit tree venture, the portable sawmill—and there was no indication that it would have any more success than any of the others before it. Sara and Maybelle were humouring him, and it’s easy to suspect that Maybelle didn’t want to go to Bristol but that Sara begged her to come along, if only for the company. On the way out the door that day, Maybelle even asked if she should bring her guitar along.

Nevertheless, within a few years the three would deliver a songbook that we all know and play even today, and through their recordings Maybelle revolutionized country guitar playing. If you doubt it, think of all the times you’ve sat down with complete strangers and played “Wildwood Flower.”

Of course, that’s just the beginning. It’s a messy story, with sidetracks and tangents. They went on to snake oil salesmen and border radio; to illicit relationships, and families, and quiet divorces. They were photographed for the cover of Life magazine, though the attack on Pearl Harbor bumped them from the spot. In time Sara left AP to live with her true love in a trailer park in California, virtually never to appear in public again, on stage or otherwise. For much of her later life only her hairdresser knew who she really was. AP went and ran a small grocery store in rural Virginia, not far from where he was born, though most who thought of him, if they thought at all, believed him to be dead. Maybelle, of course, went on to fame with her girls, countless television appearances and recording dates, and looking uncomfortable with all of it from beginning to end.

Carter Girl

The story—and I know I’m not alone in thinking this—is endlessly fascinating. More than a creation myth, it’s a whole collection of creation myths: the birth of the recording industry, the birth of country music, the birth of mass communication, the culture of the Great Depression, the introduction of copyright, and the benefits and pitfalls of fame. All of that is in there.

It’s also a myth that really happened, and one that Carlene Carter engages beautifully with on her latest recording, Carter Girl. Carlene is June Carter’s daughter, and Maybelle was her grandmother. Carl Smith was her father, and her stepfather was Johnny Cash. Carlene has had a career of her own as country singer, one that we would typically think of as new country. She’s dabbled in the Carter songbook from time to time, including a record of “Dixie Darling,” though for the most part I suspect that her listenership is not one that comes to her from the Original Carter Family or from the world of acoustic Americana and bluegrass. They, and perhaps others, won’t notice that seven of the songs on this disc are Carter Family songs, nor do they need to.

But for those of us who know these songs, such as “Give me the Roses,” “Gold Watch and Chain,” and “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” what Carlene is doing here is fascinating. They are old songs, though here they aren’t distinguished that way at all. Here they are just songs, with a message and a delivery so modern that they could have been written yesterday. It’s a reminder that the reason these songs have been with us so long is because the sentiments within them are so honest. AP wasn’t writing/arranging (or plagiarizing) for an audience of millions, but rather for his neighbors. He was finding the stories within the songs that was comforting to those who have experienced the loss of love, have braved the minor injustices of life, and who were struggling with conflicted feelings of one sort of another. “I’ll be all smiles tonight” is a feeling I think we’ve all had, and that’s exactly how Carlene delivers it here: it’s not a piece of our musical history, it’s a presentation of an idea. Same with “Give me the Roses While I Live.” Hearing it in this recording I’m wondering why I’ve never thought to learn to play it myself. The new context that Carlene gives these song can also act to remind us of how deftly they have been assembled; “Roses” manages to keep the message from becoming maudlin simply through some skilled word choice. Have a listen with this in mind and you can see how AP was carefully avoiding some pretty obvious thematic potholes.

Also here is Carlene’s own story, particularly in “Me and the Wildwood Flower” and “Lonesome Valley.” The first of these is a song she has recorded before, beautifully recalling the life of the Carter family at home when Maybelle was still alive. In the second, Carlene begins with a song that is indelibly AP, “Lonesome Valley,” though with new verses that she wrote. The juxtaposition of these two things—AP’s alienation and Carlene’s reminiscences of moments in her family life—works brilliantly and beautifully. If you are familiar with the names she mentions—Rosie, June, Mama, Helen, Daddy—there is a dimension that comes from the awareness that they are real people who all, in one way or another, walked alone. Then again, if you have no idea who they are, I’m not sure the song lacks any of its power. It’s a chilling rumination on something we all struggle with.

So, no, this isn’t a bluegrass album and, to be frank, I felt my interest in it would be as a novelty, a knickknack in the long history of the Carter family. In fact, it’s a delight on all sorts of levels, not the least of which being that the album achieves so beautifully, entertainingly, the thing that it set out to do: revisit the fold.

Brush With Greatness

A piece I submitted to JazzFM was read on air this week as part of their “Brush with Greatness” series. It is posted to their site. The full text is also copied below.

 

I was working at a summer camp when Brainerd Blyden-Taylor came up for a week to do some singing workshops. Then, as now, he was the director of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. I was the piano accompanist at camp, and so I was there for all his workshops, etc., and we also spent a lot of time talking in the evenings. At one point he suggested that he use me as a guinea pig for one of his classes in order to demonstrate coaching and critique. The idea was that I would sing a song, accompanying myself on piano, and then he would critique the piece in front of the class. That way the students could see what the process was all about and none of them would have to be the first one on the hot seat.

So, it’s in the evening and it’s just him and me, and he asks, “So what are you going to play?” I had been trying to work up an interesting arrangement of Rocket Man, so I suggested it and he said, “All right, let me hear it.” I finish and he said a number of things that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. He complimented my voice and phrasing, and the accompaniment, saying that those things weren’t at issue. Then he asked why I chose that song. I said, well, because it’s a good song. And he said, “yes, but the world is full of good songs. Even great songs. Hundreds and hundreds of them. But you chose that one, and until you know why, you can never really sing it. You need to go back and look at the song, what it means, what it says, and you need to find out what it is within the song that speaks specifically to you. You need to know why you chose that song.”

Maybe for some people that idea would have been obvious, but for me it absolutely wasn’t. And, given the themes of Rocket Man, it was a fairly devastating thing to face. There was an anxiety/fear (whatever the word would be) within the song that was as obvious as it was a reflection of things I had been feeling … though I had missed all of that. Anyway, in the following days—and I would see him for that week in the summer for a number of years, so this became an idea that we returned to at a number of points—he suggested I look at all the music that appeals to me in the same way. Why do we like the music that we like? He suggested it’s worth thinking about in general, not only about the pieces we choose to play.

As I say, it’s a concept that I’ll never forget, and one that I apply to the music I listen to and the songs that I play. It’s the idea that music can function as a kind of mirror, and can tell us things about ourselves. It’s a dimension of music that can make our experience of it richer. And, in  terms of making music, it’s about knowing that singing a song isn’t just about timbre, timing, phrasing … all those bits and pieces. It’s about combining those things in the service of a consistent expression.

I later had the chance to see Brainerd rehearse his choir, and that was stunning as well. He doesn’t say the kinds of things that you might expect choral directors to say, and he knows exceptionally well how to bring out dimensions in the music. Just as he did with me, with his choir he goes for the core of the song, it’s emotional centre, and then works to support that. Its stunning to watch him in action, and I feel so privileged to have had those experiences. Brush with greatness? It absolutely was.

Special Consensus, “Country Boy”

(For HVBA) About a year ago, a tribute album to John Denver was released which was, in a word, awful. I reviewed it for KDHX radio, which was kind of fun, actually, given that you rarely get the chance to review something that offers itself up so completely to unequivocal derision. I know that it’s not cool to quote yourself, but here’s a bit of what I had to say about The Music In You: A tribute to John Denver, illustrating a point that I’d like to revisit here:

“The players here are a grab bag, from Brett Dennon, to Dave Matthews, to Lucinda Williams, to a number of people I’ve never heard of.  They share, between them, pretty much nothing. It’s hard to imagine that some of them even know who many of the others are. And I frankly don’t believe that they all actually like the music of John Denver. Lucinda Williams comes close to blowing her cover in one of the promo videos for this release, noting that she didn’t know the song that she was tasked to sing, and was surprised at how much she liked it when in the studio recording it. ‘The more I got into it, I was really moved!’ she says with a sense of disbelief. ‘I was actually moved to tears a little bit!’”

That, in a nutshell, was the problem with the album: the contributors didn’t participate out of love, or apparently even a knowledge, of the music of John Denver. Many are too young to have heard Denver when he was constantly on the radio, and they also likely don’t realize how much a part of the culture some of the songs have become. And, in any case, the result was abysmal.

Ok, now we move from the ridiculous to the sublime: The tribute to John Denver by Special Consensus released this month is the other side of the coin entirely. Special Consensus has consistently covered songs by Denver during its 40-year run. (Cahill has remained constant throughout, as has the vision and the quality of the performances and the recordings.) They’ve done so because, as Cahill says in the liner notes, “These are great songs.” The musicians’ appreciation of the songs shows in every note, even when they are bringing something new to them, as with “Country Roads” or “Sunshine on my Shoulders”—songs that can easily risk feeling a bit tired or threadbare, if only because we know them so well. If I were to tell you that I’m about to play a version of “Sunshine on Your Shoulders” and it’s going to give you chills, would you believe me? Well wait until you hear the version on this album, sung as a duet between Rhonda Vincent and Dustin Benson. It will give you chills. I challenge you to tell me that it doesn’t.

Now, I need to qualify that idea of bringing something new to these songs. The differences in the arrangements and the feel aren’t earth shatteringly great, but therein lies the point that Cahill is trying to make. The band takes the songs and plays them as songs—this is music, not karaoke. The result is that the songs begin to speak for themselves, and we’re given an opportunity to hear the sentiments within them fresh, almost as if for the first time. Some of the songs, such as “Wild Montana Skies,” “This Old Guitar,” “Poems, Prayers and Promises” and “Matthew,” don’t immediately even register as Denver songs, if only because they are less known. You could play them on bluegrass radio and they wouldn’t be “John Denver songs,” they’d just be good songs, and that’s exactly what the participants in this project intended.

The band approached the project along the same lines as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has approached their Circle projects, that is, serving as the house band for a range of guest artists. It works fantastically well. (The only moment that doesn’t work as well is the last track: “Rocky Mountain High” with Peter Rowan on lead vocal. He’s flat in places. I think he intends it, but it’s kind of grating. It’s like he’s trying to sing it through a filter of Tibetan Bhuddism, though the better decision would have been to just let the song speak for itself.)

In any case, this album is an absolute delight. It allows us to enjoy some chestnuts from a fresh perspective, and it also gathers a fantastic roster of musicians in order to shine a light on some fantastic songs. As such, it’s a tribute in the truest sense of the word.

Tony Trischka’s “Great Big World”

(For KDHX)

I wanted to love this album, and I’m having a hard time with it even now, because saying something negative about it is akin to sacrilege. Trischka has always been the focus of a lot of praise, and the liner notes by Bela Fleck that accompany this disc continue in that vein. For the most part, Trischka truly deserves all the praise he gets. His playing is unique, and he is one of the people who, out of nothing more than a faith and passion in the instrument, chose to devote his life to proving that the banjo ought to be taken seriously. That’s true on this release, too. He approaches the instrument, and his audience, with unerring sophistication. (He’s also been one of the drivers behind two recent projects celebrating the instrument, first his release “Territory” and the concerts that the album came out of, and the PBS documentary “Give Me the Banjo.” I also know, having tried to broker an interview between him and Jens Kruger, who I was working for at the time, that he is absolutely gracious and generous with his time.)

But this release comes with so many red carpets and built-in hyperbole that you’ll feel bullied into liking it. No doubt, critics will rave, if only because it feels odd saying anything bad about something that Bela Fleck feels is so good, or that includes so many truly fantastic musicians. The list of contributors is vast—you hear 33 performers, including Oscar-winning actors, dancers, electric guitars, a cello banjo, harp, flute, drums, spoken word, dancing ducks, seven lead vocalists, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There is a core band, as well as some fantastic players who won’t get star billing simply because they are outshone by John Goodman, such as Mike Compton, Russ Barenberg, Todd Philips, Noam Pikelny, and others.

Over the course of just 13 tracks, none of them gets much real estate. It’s a lot of cameos without a lead. Trischka likes weird, though perhaps he hasn’t had a chance prior to truly indulge himself.  This, apparently, is the opportunity he’s been waiting for—there are lots of non-sequitors, most of it at the hands of Elliott and Goodman in the baffling “Wild Bill Hickock.” Earlier on the disc the dancing ducks introduce a suite of melodies, each of them played on a single string of the banjo. There are five movements because there are five strings to the banjo. I got that much. The only thing I don’t understand is why. It’s a kind of parlor trick that Trischka seems a bit chuffed at pulling off—he’s mentioned the difficulty of this kind of thing in interviews—but unless you can see him actually playing it, you’ve missed the tricky bit.

Ultimately it is indeed a very big world, and with Trischka in the lead, it feels like we’re lost within it after dark without a flashlight, a map, or any sense of direction. In isolation there are some very nice moments on this disc, but there is nothing that roots them together. It’s, wall to wall, a room full of strangers. Between the flights of fancy, we get a few nods to the tradition, though they are as incongruous as everything else. “Do Re Mi” is a song that has been done to death, and reads as little more than a tribute to a great songwriter, Woody Guthrie. Still, the message of the song is hard (and perhaps impossible) to deliver in a way that makes it feel at all relevant to us today. Here, as elsewhere, it’s little more than a museum piece. Museums are fine, but this album isn’t meant to be one, clearly, and how he ever arrived at this particular song for inclusion is a head scratcher. (He’s been involved in a tribute to Guthrie, so perhaps it was just something close to hand.)

“Angelina Baker” is a nice song written by Stephen Foster more than 150 years ago. We rarely hear the words these days—it’s more commonly played as a fiddle tune though, as in a game of broken telephone, the melody has strayed over the years to the point that the words can’t be sung to it. In any case, it’s a nice idea to present the words, which many people are likely hearing for the first time (though some of the choices here are puzzling … the words too have been altered over the years, and anyway … well, it’s a long story). In the right hands the song can deliver a profound narrative of loss despite the passing years and changing contexts from when it was written. Here, however, it’s fractured and show-offy, and the narrative—one of a slave being separated from his love through the trade of human chattel—is lost entirely. Maeve Gilchrist’s voice and harp on “Ocracoke Lullaby,” are lovely, though she comes so entirely out of blue that it’s akin to finding a sapphire in a bowl of ice cream. (Didn’t expect that!) Two tracks later, on “Joy,” we land in the middle of an electric gospel tune. (Or that!)

But, yes, writing this I feel like a grump, and I suspect that this might be the only bad review the album will get. I feel a bit like the Emperor Joseph noting that Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” contained “too many notes.” (Then again, it’s not one of the famous operas, is it? Joseph might have had a point.) But the message of this album doesn’t really feel like a musical one. Rather, it feels like you’re in an apartment across the hall from a party that you weren’t invited to. You see the guests arriving, and it sounds like they’re having a lot of fun. When making “Great Big World,” no doubt they were. Too bad we weren’t invited.

Rhonda Vincent, “Only Me”

(For HVBA) I was once helping with a satellite feed of the Kruger Brothers early one morning at Merlefest—the local television station was airing live segments from a hill overlooking the festival grounds—and Rhonda Vincent was the next up. The only problem was that her bus driver had gotten lost and wasn’t answering the phone. All the organizers were frantic, which was kind of funny, you know, having lost Rhonda Vincent and all. I noted that I had seen the bus in another parking lot on the way up, and they sent someone off running to set things right.

In the event, her driver got them to the right place with something like minutes to spare before the feed was supposed to begin. The sun was only just rising, and they had been travelling through the night, arriving at the festival something along the lines of minutes before, minutes that they spent sitting in the wrong parking lot. When they arrived where the filming was being done, some of the band members stumbled bleary-eyed out of the bus, one of whom was Josh Williams. And then, with seconds to spare, Vincent literally bounds from the bus, her hair tied quickly back in a pony tail, shaking hands, saying howdy, and asking which way to face. All business; savvy in every way.

She speaks the language of bluegrass musicians as well as she does television crews. She found her mark, asked if they wanted an intro (they did) and she counted it in and they were into a few bars of some very hot material. If your coffee hadn’t woken you up, she did.

In all, Vincent was a sparkplug, raring and ready to go. She gave an energetic interview, then another energetic performance until the producer said they were off, at which point she stopped mid chop stroke, said sincere thanks, and then she was gone.

No one knew quite what hit them. What hit them, of course, was a seasoned professional who has worked hard not only to become an A-list musician, but also an A-list entertainer. Look at any issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, and there isn’t another performer who is featured in so many festivals. She knows her business, and for decades, she’s done it tirelessly: she’s not out to change our minds, or educate us, or to challenge us, but to get people together and entertain them. Her show can seem a bit slick at times but, really, why not? There is a time for all things.

I’ve said all of that in order to say this: Vincent’s latest recording, Only Me, is impeccably produced, nicely conceived, and fantastically entertaining. There are two parts here, six bluegrass songs and six country songs. To be honest, I’m not clear as to why such a stark division is made—for those buying a physical copy, the songs are divided onto two discs—because all of the material comes from the same place, one of appreciation and delight. The country songs are covers and, to her credit, Vincent takes on some chestnuts—including “Once a Day,” and “Beneath Still Waters”—which in lesser hands could easily sound tired.

Here, everything sparkles thanks to the energy and the voice that Vincent brings, as well as the musicians that she’s assembled, including Josh Williams, duets with Daryle Singletary and Willie Nelson, and Mark Johnson on pedal steel. The result is a beautifully crafted romp through some fantastic material. It won’t change your mind about anything, but you’ll be singing along, and giggling here and there, and feeling blue now and again. And, as with everything that Vincent does, you’ll be entertained from beginning to end.

Blue Highway, “The Game”

(for KDHX) I think every bluegrass band could take a lesson from Blue Highway, and here’s why I think that is: they put the content, and the storytelling, before everything else. And, frankly, storytelling is what this kind of music, if not every kind of music, is really all about. At least I think so, and clearly Blue Highway does as well.

“It’s a similar formula to what we’ve had in the past,” says Tim Stafford of this new album, titledThe Game. “It’s mostly original songs—that’s one of the strengths of the band and it has been from the beginning.”

No doubt it is. Indeed, there have been many songs along the way that really stand out in memory, not because of a great lick or grandstanding, but because of the stories that they tell. If you’ve been listening to Blue Highway over the years, all you need are the titles of the songs to bring the emotions and the ideas flooding back: “He walked all the way home,” “Homeless Man,” “Lonesome Pine,” “Before the Cold Wind Blows.”

The Game —thankfully, delightfully—brings more of the same. It is another set of stories to get lost within, delivered impeccably. Really. Truly. Fantastic. You know the players, as they’ve been around a while and have played with everybody and won all the awards. Even better, this is a formation that, as is often said, have remained together, without any personnel changes, since they formed in 1994. I can’t think of any other band in the bluegrass world that even comes close. The result is a chemistry, and a level of comfort with who they are, that really sets them apart. The writing, the arrangements, and the deliveries are so crystalline, so mature, that they give you goosebumps. Just when you are drooling over Rob Ickes’ dobro, as on “A Change in Faith in Tennessee,” then there’s Shawn Lane on the mandolin. Then they go back and forth and do it again.

The Grascals, “When I Get My Pay”

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 10.01.02 AMThe Grascals are as capable as any bluegrass band out there these days. They know what they are doing, and they are doing it well. They were the IBMA emerging artists of the year in 2005, they’ve played the Opry, and otherwise spent their time polishing the ensemble and their writing. When I Get My Pay is their 8th studio release, and might well be their best, which is saying something given that all their albums have gained critical notice and places on the charts.

When I Get My Pay is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through some common bluegrass topics: the road, working, broken hearts, hard luck, and fun. (There is also the theme song for a reality TV show, “American Pickers,” a show about antiquing.) The Grascals might be first known for their energy, though some of the best material on this disc are the ballads. “Bluegrass Melodies” is about family and home and includes a few callouts to Bill Monroe. The harmonies are as good as the Grascals have ever done, and the fiddle parts, on that track and elsewhere, work exceptionally well.

The band is from Nashville, and they fall into some of the familiar music-city tropes, including a lap steel guitar and, unfortunately, an electronic piano. Piano is fine, but if you’re reading this, I suspect you might be suspicious of the ability to successfully add piano to bluegrass. As well, I suspect you might not love how the Grascals handle it. An acoustic piano would have helped, and a less soporific approach, as on “Silver Strands,” would have helped too. In all, they are better when they stay closer to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and vocal styles, and thankfully there is a lot of that on this album, as in “Roll On” and “Five Miles to Milan.”

All that said, there is a goofiness to the album cover that I’m having a hard time getting past. Whoever told them to dress up in overalls, slap grease on their faces and stand on a bridge over a rail yard should be fired.

In any case, if you don’t look at the cover, there’s a lot in this collection to love.

 

Best of 2013

(for KDHX)

This has felt like the official year of “well, it’s about time!” recordings. There seemed to be so many albums from really top flight players who haven’t released anything in, literally, years. In all cases, it was worth the wait.

It’s been ten years since the last O’Brien and Scott studio recording, six since Bruce Molsky’s last project, six since Pete Huttlinger’s last album of original material, five for Daily and Vincent (discounting a Statler’s Brothers tribute and an album of gospel tunes) and four for Claire Lynch. This year also brought the first ever solo project from John Driskell Hopkins, though he’s gained lots of notice as an integral part of the Zac Brown Band.

For fans, all arrived with a sigh and a “what took you so long?” Perhaps it’s emblematic of the state of the music industry that releases are coming fewer and further between these days. (I interviewed  James Alan Shelton this year, and he noted that he’ll probably never release a new album, as there just isn’t enough return to warrant the investment of time and resources.) Still, it felt like Christmas came early a few times this year, both in terms of surprise—who knew that O’Brien and Scott were working on another project?—and also in terms of quality: There were a few albums released this year that, in time, might well prove to be lasting hallmarks of the musicians’ careers, such as the first four on this list.

Noam Pikelny, “Noam Pikelney plays Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe”
A track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. Strange? Nope. Brilliant.

Dailey and Vincent, “Brothers of the Highway”
Says Vincent, “We wanted to make an album about the joys of a simple way of life and tell stories through descriptive lyrics about friends, family, and love.” They did, and it it’s there best album to date which, for D&V, is saying something.

Bruce Molsky, “If it ain’t here when I get back”
The freshest old-time music you could ever hope to hear.  This is a very important album, given what Molsky brings to the music but also because of how few albums he releases. Definitely, a big highlight this year.

John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”
A really nice mix from a musician from Zac Brown’s Band. I believe this is his first solo release, and certainly leaves us wanting more.

Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”
This album marks a move from the B league to the Majors for what is by any measure an extremely capable group of musicians. It also earned them a Grammy nod this year.

Cindy Woolf, “May”
She is an independent artist that vast swaths of the country will never hear, which is too bad. This album is confident, layered, and heartfelt. It’s funny, too.

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, “Moments and Memories”
Quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited, and is one of the best things to come along this year.

Pete Huttlinger, “McGuire’s Landing”
Huttlinger has resided largely in the shadows, with the bulk of his career spent as a session musician (he has even won an Emmy for scoring a PBS special). His health has been an obstacle, and is currently awaiting a heart transplant. It’s a situation that is far more dire than he lets on, yet through it all—his heart condition is genetic and one that he has lived with his entire life—he has still be creating music, all of which comes a place of stark honesty, musicianship, and an awareness of craft. This project literally began when he was in the hospital, vowing to begin work on it when he got up and about. The music is varied, gorgeous, and can stand on it’s own. Still, the project also comes with a long prose piece, a kind of novella, that the pieces illustrate. It’s a release that is truly remarkable in every way.

Claire Lynch, “Dear Sister”
Lynch is a great writer and presenter, though this album includes a line-up that is a draw in itself, including Mark Shatz and Bryan McDowell. Lynch gives them lots of elbow room, and the result is less an album than it is an event. If you haven’t heard it, you’ve really missed something.

Adam Steffey, “New Primitive”
The first track opens with a pop music flourish that you don’t typically find on old time albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. Certainly, it isn’t. Steffey looks back in order to look forward. And it’s quite a view.

O’Brien and Scott’s “Memories and Moments”

(for KDHX) The thing about Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott is that each project comes with the feeling that you’re joining a show already in progress. That’s true of their latest studio release, Memories and Moments, which comes a full decade after their first. Like everything they’ve done, it’s quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited and is one of the best things to come along this year.

But there is a distinction to be made here. The pop music format approaches each new release as an artifact, a collection of new songs presented as if they were etched in stone. Albums are understood to be definitive, complete, and unalterable. That solo on “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” is the solo and always will be. Audiences expect to hear it at shows, and if they don’t they feel that they’ve been cheated out of something.

O’Brien and Scott aren’t that. This album includes new songs as well as songs that we’ve heard before, and while not radically different, are different enough. “Brother Wind” was recorded for the Transatlantic Sessions with a rich cast of players and gorgeous production (and a great video). If you love that version, then you might feel that you’re being cheated out of something here. This recording of the song is barer, thinner, less lush. The lead voice is dry, and the instrumentation straight forward, just as if you were sitting in a room with two guys playing a song that, for whatever reason, they just feel like playing. Scott’s vocal harmony can sound a bit tentative at times, almost as if he’s still working out his part.

It’s not better or worse, it’s just a song. It doesn’t need a definitive recording, because it’s the idea that O’Brien is drawing us to, which is a quality that marks all of his writing and performances. He’s asking us to come along with him for a moment, and to take a look at something important. He’s successful because he is simply a brilliant songwriter, and that’s not because he turns out great lines, but rather because of what he allows us to consider and, for the moment, get lost within. The duo of Scott and O’Brien is successful because they both clearly share that approach; they’re not trying to etch anything in stone, but just turn over some ideas.

There are a couple tracks here that might get more attention than others, principle among them being a recording of John Prine’s classic “Paradise” with Prine himself adding vocals. Fine, but the song becomes a distraction with the presence of Prine pulling focus from the truly great stuff in here, such as the title track and the caustic “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.”

At the end of the day, it’s no matter, because there is a richness to this material that really demands your attention while reminding us that there is nothing permanent. It’s all just thoughts, ideas, memories and moments. The recording was apparently done over three days, and the feel is as if we are there with them, in the room, just savoring all of that.

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

(for KDHX) I’m just going to come right out and say it: I love everything about this album. The only way to make it any better would be to have it autographed. The art, the concept, the musicians, the arrangements, the production—in any way you care to look at it, Noam Pikelny’s latest release, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is a delight from start to finish.

The first thing that I love is that, on the face of things, the concept is so unabashedly geeky: It’s a track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. It’s right up there, in terms of cool, with Civil War re-enactment and stamp collecting. For the cover, Pikelny is wearing a Baker-era suit, tie (yikes!) and the same brand and style of Stetson that you see on the initial release.

The risk, perhaps, it that it could come off as mockery, though he negotiates that line carefully and we see the impulse for what it is: respect. Baker had been a long-time fiddler with Monroe, and spent longer playing in that band than any other musician. He was a master of phrasing and interpretation, and also such a Monroe die-hard such that when he went to make a solo recording, he did a collection of Monroe’s songs. Famously, Bill Monroe came by the studio for little more than to say hi and ended up staying throughout the sessions, and playing on every track.

That album, rightly, is prised for the approach that Baker brought to the music, though the subtleties can be hard for those less steeped in the music to hear. At the time, Baker’s playing stood out from the crowd for its polished feel and the elegance that it added to the music. It became a classic recording, a status that it retains to this day.

The concept of recreating it began, as is noted in the liner notes, when Pikelny joked in a text to Ronnie McCoury “Could I get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe?” The idea stewed a bit and, a year later, he decided that it actually was a very attractive one. Pikelny spent months transcribing Baker’s solos in order to bring them faithfully to the banjo. Why? Well, maybe it was fun, or whatever, but he did it, perhaps to work through the interpretations of a master with the intention of learning from them as much as building on them.

Once done, Pikelny brought together some musical friends that are all operating at the very top of their instruments: Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. All share a deep, abiding sense of the tradition of bluegrass music, yet all project their own personalities and their own voices through the music they play. Each is a delight on his own, and together they could play “Happy Birthday” and no doubt it would be absolutely entertaining. They are just that good. The album was produced by another great, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and the only regret is that we don’t get to hear him on here too.

The result is an album that is simply impossible to resist. It includes some very common bluegrass tracks, such as “Jerusalem Ridge,” and “Brown County Breakdown” as well as some pieces that are somewhat less heard theses days, such as “Road to Columbus.” The recording quality is crystalline, and while there is a dedication to what Baker and Monroe brought to this music, the voices of these players come through as well and there are a wealth of “ahh!” moments. McCoury is such a deft student of Monroe, though he doesn’t parrot the playing, instead using it as a means to explore new musical ideas. Stuart Duncan , well, there is no better or humble player out there today.

I could go on, but I won’t. It just doesn’t get any better than this. If you are a fan of acoustic music, and have a CD player in your car, get a copy of this album. If it doesn’t win a Grammy, then those awards aren’t worth a 70s-era tie.

Interview with James Alan Shelton

Update: When this piece was posted, Shelton emailed saying “I just wanted to say thank you so much for the wonderful story. It was one of the best I’ve ever had done about me and my music. I could tell from the interview that you were familiar with my guitar playing and I certainly appreciate that. It was truly a fine piece of work.” Not long after that he very sadly passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a wonderful musician, and a wonderful person.

(for KDHX) James Alan Shelton has been playing, touring and recording with Ralph Stanley for twenty years, longer than any guitar player Stanley has ever worked with. I reached him by phone to talk about what it’s like to have your dream job.

Continue reading Interview with James Alan Shelton

The Definitive Doc Watson

(HVBA) You can be forgiven for thinking, “Do we really need another collection of Doc Watson recordings?” When I heard of this release, that’s what I thought. My initial impression was that Sugar Hill was just releasing something in order to drum up some sales in light of Watson’s passing in May of last year.

Once I got my hands on this collection, I realized that the answer is, actually, yes, you do need another collection of Watson recordings, and this is it. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into selecting the tracks here, and Jack Lawrence, long-time guitar player with Watson, was one of the people involved. As well, the tracks have been remastered, evening out some of the sonic anomalies of the very early recordings, allowing them to sit well alongside the later recordings, the most recent of which is a duet with Bryan Sutton on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in 2006.

But then there is this: while there have indeed been many Watson releases over the years—he recorded more than 60 albums, and they were in turn redistributed in countless collections of one sort or another—this is the first one to jointly anthologize the Vanguard Records and Sugar Hill Records periods of Doc’s discography. The only thing better (and who knows, maybe one day we’ll get it) would be a collection that also anthologizes recordings from the Smithsonian releases, which were the earliest recordings of Watson ever made available. The first recording ever made of him was a field recording at a fiddle convention when he was still just in his early teens. It’s a rough recording, and the intro is brutal to endure, but once Watson plays, it’s fascinating. Smithsonian released the duets of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley and later the duets with Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie. You really feel those absences on this collection, as you do the duets he did with Chet Atkins, an album called Reflections which is now inexplicably out of print. (People in the US can get it in digital download through iTunes, and if you don’t have it, do yourself another favour and download it. I live in Canada, and can’t buy it through iTunes … so much for free trade.)

Nevertheless, this collection includes the broadest selection of Watson’s work ever released in a single product: 34 tracks recorded from 1962 to the last recording he made, that one with Bryan Sutton. From beginning to end, it’s a delight. There are lots of familiar tunes here, such as “Tennessee Stud,” “Shady Grove,” and “Black Mountain Rag.” But, there are also a fair number of tunes that, unless you are a diehard Watson collector, you may not have heard much of. There’s nothing rare, and everything is available on the original albums, but with so many albums out there, really, it’s hard to hear it all. I like that they begin this collection with “The Cyclone of Rye Cove,” and I like that they included “Southbound,” one of the few songs that Watson wrote that really entered his performance repertoire.

It’s interesting, too, that they choose material that sits well together, deciding not to include tracks from some of the albums that he did that were a bit further from the core of his work, such as the Docabilly album. What this collection comprises is a very informed collection of songs, chosen by people who worked with Watson. As such it collects a range of the material he released, not just the songs that get all the attention. There are some interesting absences—“Midnight on the Stormy Deep” doesn’t appear here—but, in fact, that adds to the collection as a whole, in that you don’t feel you’re just hearing all the familiar stuff all over again. It all sounds fresh and alive. And, with two wonderful liner essays, you really couldn’t ask for much more. This is the collection that really will remind you of how charming, talented, and entertaining Doc Watson was.

Old Time 101

(KDHX)

Photo courtesy Ray AldenToday we call the kind of music that Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller, and Jim Nelson play “old-time music,” though that wasn’t always ever thus. Prior to the 1920s, it was just called music, and it came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers. In the US the music naturally kept growing, changing, and evolving, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles throughout the eastern United States were as unique and clustered as English accents are even today. You could tell, within a few miles at times, where a player was from just by hearing them play.

Continue reading Old Time 101

Revisiting Tommy Dorsey

When we were teenagers we defined ourselves through the music that we listened to, and I suppose that that is something which remains true for teens today. I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to James Taylor (even if I sat enthralled with “Sweet Baby James” when no one was around) and the same was true for big band music. In the 70s, big band music was the soundtrack of our parents’ lives, which was synonymous with lame.

Well, I’m older now, and with age comes the freedom to be lame in my children’s eyes. It’s a great freedom, because it allows me to listen to music in ways I never did before. Since I got a turntable for Christmas, I’ve been buying LPs at garage sales, thrift shops, wherever. As a result, I have a new fave: Tommy Dorsey.

No, “Tommy Dorsey” doesn’t sound very hip, does it. Dorsey was a famous bandleader, arranger, and trombonist. But there’s something otherworldly about so many of his recordings that I find myself resisting saying the kinds of things that David Sedaris quotes from his father, like “Listen to this! They really don’t make records like this anymore!” (But, seriously, they don’t. I’m not sure anyone even could.)

The frontrunner Dorsey album for late night summer listening is, hands down, a collection called “Yes, Indeed.” I say collection because it was never a proper studio album, but a collection of hits of a sort, some from the early 30s and then on up to a couple from the post war years. There was a time when this music was pop, but now it sounds veiled, clandestine, and mysterious. “Star Dust” “Song of India” “Marie” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” The album features a young Sinatra and the Pied Pipers, a vocal group. Group shouts, brass, mellow reeds—lots of variety and the kinds of intense arrangements that Dorsey was famous for. It just makes you feel like you’re someplace else. Someplace like Europe with an American regiment during the war.

Vinyl is important, because it really makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on another place and time. There’s something about knowing that the album is a thing that has made the trek from back then. It was once bought new from a record store and held in, perhaps, a young pair of hands. The copy I have was pressed in the late 40s, and the pops and background hiss add to the exoticism of the album. It just sounds like plantation humidity to me. There is a laziness to the record going around and around until the hiss, pop, and then silence when the needle lifts at the end of a side.  The liner notes are great too, including the ubiquitous note to “Beware the Blunted Needle.” There isn’t a hint of irony or sarcasm anywhere, which can seem disingenuous to a modern reader.

There’s nothing sarcastic or ironic about the music, either, even though the modern ear can play some tricks in that regard. But alone, late at night, if you just give yourself over to it, this is the kind of music that can remind you that it’s  a very big world out there.  I’m not sure why, but it just does. And it is. Bigger than I ever imagined.

Don Rigsby’s “Doctor’s Orders”

(HVBA) Don Rigsby has been around a while, and as such he always seems to be there, not too far away. Many probably came across him for the first time in the movie Bluegrass Journey where he’s onstage with the Lonesome River band (in what some consider their best line up) at the IBMA’s and then later, in the hallway of the hotel at the conference, playing his heart out with Don Rigsby and Friends. Maybe we’d seen him in Lonesome River, but with the movie and the subtitles, he finally had a name.

There are some very memorable scenes in that movie, but the ones with Rigsby aren’t among them. He doesn’t have Rhonda Vincent’s teeth, or Chris Thile’s looks. He doesn’t have Tim O’Brien’s quick sense of humor, or Tony Rice’s cool, or Dolly Parton’s dress. He’s just Don Rigsby. His default expression seems to be worry. He’s playing and singing beautifully, though perhaps not transmitting across the footlights the way some of the others do. Even when he’s with his own outfit, he’s still playing the sideman.

That’s the Don Rigsby we find on this new album, too. He is self-effacing to a fault in the liner notes, which is dedicated to childhood memories of his hero, Ralph Stanley, to whom this release is a tribute. Stanley is on the cover, and he’s collaborated on a song, “The Daughter of Geronimo.” That song is a highlight, to be sure, but it’s just one song, so the gush of the liner notes seems, initially, a bit over the top.

When you listen closely though, even if Stanley doesn’t have such a personal presence here, the fact is that his music, and his influence, is everywhere. Where Jim Lauderdale pushed Stanley out front like a stage prop on his collaboration Lost in the Lonesome Pines, this album from Rigsby is much subtler, and is far and away the finer tribute. “Little Maggie” is a song that he requested at a Ralph Stanley concert on his sixth birthday, and it’s covered beautifully here; the reference to the banjo ring is as much an homage to Stanley as you can get.

There are some high-powered guests here in addition to Stanley, including a vocal turn from Ricky Skaggs on “Home in the Mountains” and “Tennessee Truck Driving Man.” Barry Bales is on bass throughout, and James Shelton and Larry Sparks are pretty equally represented on guitar. The song selection is strong, and the production serves the material as much as the stilted album cover photo (get it, “Doctor’s Orders”?) and liner notes undercut it.

This is a lovely album, and bluegrass fans will enjoy its calm confidence. “Sinner Man” is a gorgeous a cappella piece, and “Walking up the Hill on Decoration Day” is a highlight as well. Still, Rigsby is good enough to set himself clearly out in front, and if I were his manager, that’s what I’d be begging him to do. Rigsby has been a sideman for the vast bulk of his career, and it seems that he’s trying to be a sideman on this recording as well, which becomes the one fault of the project. Yes, he’s got lots of musical heroes, but there are musicians out there for whom he could be a hero if he let them perceive him in that way.

Adam Steffey’s “New Primitive”

(HVBA) The first track on Adam Steffey’s new album New Primitive opens with a pop music flourish of a kind that you don’t typically find on oldtime albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. And, certainly, it isn’t.

It’s his third solo project and one that Steffey says he’s been hoping to do for some time— namely to record some of old time tunes that are rooted in the musical history of Appalachia. All the pieces here are traditional ones that have been handed down in the traditional way, from player to player over the course of generations.

That’s how Steffey learned them too, and his pedigree for this material is as good as it gets: his maternal grandfather was Tom Carter, a cousin of A. P. Carter of Carter Family fame. In the liner notes that accompany this CD Steffey writes of Tom Carter that, “he was … a midwife/country doctor, of sorts. My grandfather (Fred Carter) once told me that the first time he heard a phonograph record was when A.P. Carter brought a phonograph over and played the records of the first Carter Family sessions that they had recorded in Bristol.”

He adds, “This music is something that is very dear to me and I count myself very blessed to have grown up in the East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia area. Having been allowed to hear and perform with so many terrific musicians from this area has made me the musician that I am.”

It was at The Carter Fold in Hiltons, VA, the home place of The Carter Family, that Adam first heard this kind of music. It is a place that still has traditional music every Saturday night and where Steffey occasionally performs. He has taken it around the US, and around the world, and traditional music could scarcely have a better ambassador. Steffey is a Grammy winner and IBMA mandolin player of the year … nine times. For a time he was a member of Alison Krauss’ band, Union Station, and has recorded with everyone from James Taylor to his own award winning band, the Boxcars.

But on this CD he mixes things up a bit; he returns to his roots, though he does it with an energy and an enthusiasm that is infectious. Some of the tunes are well known, such as “Cluck Old Hen” and “Raleigh and Spencer.” Others are a bit more esoteric to listeners less steeped in the Appalachian traditions. All sound absolutely fresh and alive. This recording isn’t a museum of old tunes, but rather a vehicle for Steffey to pay homage and also have a lark with some of the material that is so familiar to him.

Here he also presents the Snyder Family Band—a group that we’ve profiled in these pages—in a way that they’ve been featured before. Zeb Snyder plays guitar throughout, and absolutely tears it up on the faster tunes, such as “Chinquapin Hunting.” He’s coming into his own as a guitar player, just as his sister, Samantha, is as a fiddle player and singer. This CD includes a gorgeous vocal track featuring Samantha, “Who Now Will Sing Me Lullabies.” Her voice has matured even since her last recording with the Family Band, “Building Bridges” which was released this year.

Ron Block’s “Walking Song”

(HVBA) Listening to this disc, I wished that I had no idea who Ron Block is or any of the things he’s done in his career. By any measure, he’s done a lot, most notably as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station for twenty years. On his own, he’s released two collections prior to this one, and they—as this one—are populated by a lot of very high-powered musical friends, though his previous releases were more overtly dedicated to his gospel writing, which can often come off as preachy and lacking much depth or dimension.

This disc, Walking Song, is the first of his albums that I’ve really loved, and there is a lot to love. The musicianship is really beyond compare, and the guests comprise a group of players that is simply hard to get enough of. The main ‘band’ throughout this project is Union Station, with Krauss and Dan Tyminski taking turns on backing vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass. Other guests who appear here include Sierra Hull, Sam Bush, and Mike Compton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Also sharing vocals are Suzanne Cox and the stunning Kate Rusby. Like I said, there’s a lot to love, and all of it works brilliantly. Block isn’t a scintillating lead singer, perhaps, and his delivery can be flat, but the material and the settings make up for the shortfall. The material ranges from old-time (“Devil in a Strawstack”) to folk (“Summer’s Lullaby,” “Chase Me to the Ocean”) to traditional bluegrass (“Nickel Tree Line,” “Shortnin’ Bread”) to celtic (“The Fields of Aidlewinn”).

Throughout, it’s a lovely tour through some great ideas and sounds. The album is relaxed, free of some of the big ideas that he’s tried to present in the past, and the collection really benefits from the lighter approach. “Some of these songs are just fun,” says Block. ”They’re fun and they’re sweet and they’re just for a moment of relief or respite from the hum-drum everyday world. ‘Ivy’ is one of those, just a sweet little song. It’s not some grand philosophical idea; it’s a guy wanting to get back home.”

I wished that I didn’t know anything of his history because I wonder how it would be to come at this material absolutely fresh, with no baggage in terms of expectations, or all those thoughts that tend to crowd in. The reason is because this is an album that stands so beautifully, and brilliantly, on it’s own. If you had no idea of the background, you’d feel that you’d made a great discovery, and that in itself would be so exciting.

Anyway, it is what it is, which is easily one of the best albums released this year.

“Tell the Ones I Love” by the Steep Canyon Rangers

(HVBA) Culturally, we seem to like the idea of the struggling artist, someone who suffers for their work and who’s work seems to benefit from the struggle that goes into it. Would we revere people like Hemingway, for example, if their lives were idyllic and the only drama was in the pages of their books. I’m not sure the work would seem as honest, and that’s true in music as well. Roni Stoneman was a banjo player with the storied Stoneman family, and her relatives were there with the Carter Family at the Bristol sessions. She went on to star on Hee Haw and, when that was over, descended into crushing poverty and abuse at the hands of her husband. I heard her in interview once when she was asked to give advice to a 12-year-old musician. Stoneman said, “Enjoy the music that you play, because, most of the time, that’s about all you’re going to get out of it.”

If there is an opposite to that story, at least in the world of bluegrass music, it’s that of the Steep Canyon Rangers. There is a goofy, frat party quality to them, but in a good way—they seem to be five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, out to have some fun. Then, when they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wife is a friend of a friend of the band—they became his touring band and, ever since Martin’s Rare Bird Alert (2011) they’ve been his studio band as well. As a result they’ve gone to places—Carnegie Hall, recording with Paul McCartney—that most bluegrass musicians can only ever dream of. They’ve toured big halls and done a wealth of media, again, which most bluegrass musicians, including some of the greats, never attain.

It’s easy to envy them, but then again, it’s equally easy to wonder what might have been had they not had (at least what seems) such an effortless rise. Martin himself considers this idea from time to time, as in the current issue of Fretboard Journal when he says, thinking of when he first started working with the Steeps, “I was a little bit worried. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll taint them a bit. They’re a traditional bluegrass band, and they’re teaming up with a comedian.’”

The fact is, he indeed may have. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music, and the gaze within the writing, let’s face it, is rarely from they heights down. Instead, bluegrass, like the blues, is about being down and trying to look up.

I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. On their latest release, Tell the Ones I Love, they break from tradition with bluegrass (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding many of the sounds of that other hard-luck music: country. Here are drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. They sing of hard times, as on “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken” though the music never really meets the sentiment of the lyric, nor does the lyric ever really develop the idea.

The musicianship is, of course, professional in every way, as these are five guys who know their way around their instruments. Songs like “Stand and Deliver” have a lovely sonic quality (and, in that case, is sung by Graham Sharp, providing a nice counterpoint to the typical lead voice for this band, Woody Platt).

The album was recorded in Woodstock in a barn on the property of the late Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band. Prior to Helm’s death he had been producing a series of events he called the Midnight Rambles, and the Steeps were involved with those. Not surprisingly, some of the material and production here approaches a tribute to Helm. “Camellia” has that lope-shouldered rhythm and harmony vocals that we associate with the Band.

But, again, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. Helm, too, lived a life of hardship and discord that made so much of his best music really shine. When he sang of lost love and hardship, it had an honesty that, in so much pop and rock, is hard to come by. The Steeps make very nice music, and I wanted to love this release which, it has to be said, is the best work they’ve yet done. They are at their best in songs which say closer to home, as on the instrumental “Graveyard Fields” and “Take the Wheel.” They make up for more derivative material, such as “Las Vegas.” But, as I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is still yet to come.

The Spinney Brothers’ “No Borders”

(HVBA)

Dick Bowden recently wrote a compelling cover story about the Spinney Brothers for Bluegrass Unlimited. Titled “On the road with the Spinney Brothers” (April, 2013) Bowden gives an account of one leg of the Spinney Brothers’ summer 2012 tour, following the band from the moment they leave the Bluegrass in the Hills festival in Hopedale, Ohio, on Friday to the moment they leave their next gig, Saturday/Sunday sets gig at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival near Norwich, Connecticut. Continue reading The Spinney Brothers’ “No Borders”

Review, “The Music is You: a tribute to John Denver”

(KDHX)

There are lots of tribute albums around, though they are a curious bird. The assumption we make as consumers is that the people who contribute do so because they were inspired by the person whose work they are paying tribute to. I once bought a tribute CD to Jimmy Rogers that opened with a track from U2, “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes.” It was hard to imagine that U2 had ever heard of Jimmy Rodgers, and even harder to imagine that they had been influenced by him.

Continue reading Review, “The Music is You: a tribute to John Denver”

Review: Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”

(HVBA)

Well, if you want to get on my good side, cover a song from Laura Boosinger, and indeed that’s how Della Mae starts this collection. “Letter from Down the Road” is a traditional song with new words and arrangement from Boosinger, and the version included here is a very faithful romp through a delightful piece. From there, Della Mae keeps the energy up on what is easily the best release from them to date.

Continue reading Review: Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”

Review: Dailey and Vincent’s “Brothers of the Highway”

(HVBA)

There are lots of good bluegrass albums, and there are a few great ones. There are also some that stand out even above those ones, and this new release from Dailey and Vincent is going to prove to be one of them.

Continue reading Review: Dailey and Vincent’s “Brothers of the Highway”

Interview with Greg Cahill

(HVBA)

Greg Cahill - BanjoGreg Cahill is, in so many ways, the embodiment of bluegrass music: honest, friendly, and in it not because he wants to be, necessarily, but because he has to be. I was fortunate to reach him at his home on a day that he was, as he says, unpacking his suitcase, doing the laundry, and packing it all in again in order to head back out on the road. Through it all, he tries to be an ambassador for the music and, frankly, you couldn’t find a better one.

Continue reading Interview with Greg Cahill

Heidi Talbot’s “Angels without Wings”

(KDHX)

Here’s how every review of Heidi Talbot opens: Talbot is from County Kildare, Ireland, and famously was a member of the Irish-American all-female supergroup Cherish the Ladies. The reviews for her new album, “Angels Without Wings,” likewise will all tell you in the first paragraph that Jerry Douglas and Mark Knopfler play on this disc, so there now I’ve done it too.

Continue reading Heidi Talbot’s “Angels without Wings”

Interview with Chris Eldridge

(KDHX)
I reached guitarist Chris Eldridge at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., during a break from a tour that will eventually bring Punch Brothers to St. Louis and the Sheldon Concert Hall on January 25.

Eldridge noted that it was nice to have a break from the road, to see friends and to sleep in his own bed, so I began by asking if being the son of a very successful musician — Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene — had prepared him for what life would be like as a professional musician.

Chris Eldridge: Despite being very successful at what [the Seldom Scene] did, they were never a band that toured. They were always guys who had regular, white-collar jobs that went to work from 9 to 5, and then they played, basically, on the weekends, or they’d take a couple days off work and they got to be successful despite that.

So, I think I had a bit of a wacky view of what it was to be a musician. And the thing is, I love doing what I do and feel extremely grateful. There aren’t a lot of people who get to do what they love and make a living at it. Despite some of the craziness that goes along with not being at home for months on end, I feel very lucky.

Glen Herbert: Perhaps despite the craziness of the road, nevertheless, whenever you are on stage or on TV, it seems that the five of you [in the Punch Brothers] are having an absolute ball. Is it really as fun as you make it look?

Yes! I think it is. Especially when we get to actually be on stage. We all like each other, we get along really well. And I don’t mean that it’s some great relief to get on stage, but it really is the best part of the day, when we actually get to play and to be there with the people who come to the shows and are ready to have an experience with us and we’re ready to have an experience with them. It’s a joy to get to do that.

There was a video I saw that you did, and you were playing in a trailer, an Airstream trailer of some sort, and it looked like any one of you was about to laugh at any point. It seemed that it was a joy that was coming directly from the music you were making.

Yeah, that was an on-air streaming thing. Yes, we love playing music and we like each other and we’re very lucky. It can be easy to take it for granted and to get dark about being on the road all the time or being away from home, but there’s definitely a flip side to that.

It seems that you play to a pretty unique audience. Do you get a sense that that’s true? How would you characterize the people that come out to see the shows?

Our audience is really great. We’ve been around for a while now, and we’ve kind of built our audience slowly, and as a result it’s a pretty varied audience in terms of stages and backgrounds. I don’t really know — it would be funny for me to try and identify what the common thread is — but the development of our audience wasn’t a flash in the pan.

So the cool thing for us is that we’ve developed our fan base over a long time, and therefore we have a longer-term relationship with them. I think it’s cool that when they come to a show that they’re very willing to let us lead them someplace. Part of their expectation is that we might take them someplace they may not expect, but they’re totally prepared to be along for the ride.

What kinds of plans are you hatching for the year ahead? What can we expect from the Punch Brothers in the near future?

We’re doing a tour that carries through mid-February, and then we’re going to take some time off from touring. We’re still going to play shows here and there, but our priority is going to shift to writing the next Punch Brothers’ record, which is something that we’re all really excited about.

There have been some really interesting and exciting sparks for songs when we were on the road last year, some stuff that feels just really good and slightly different than what we’ve done in the past, but I’m really excited about it.

So there’s some writing that we’re going to do as a band, but it’s also good that we have time as individuals this year to do other things. I’ve just finished working on a score for a little independent film. I’d never done that before, so that was a cool project for me to embark on. I did a little project with Julian Lage, a great guitar player.

So those are two things I have on my immediate horizon, and I know everybody else is doing similar things in their downtime from the band — which is, I think, really important. It’s important to be able to step away from something like that and rejuvenate your creative energy; to put yourself in a different context where you really have to quick on your feet. I think doing that and having those experiences you bring them back to the band.

The “Ahoy” EP has been getting some attention, and it has some material that is a bit different, too. Is it true that those are tracks that didn’t make it onto “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

It is. Those are all things that we cut for the record. And, actually, as individual songs, some of those tracks were some of our favorites, like “Another New World.” But they were misfits. Those songs didn’t really belong on the full album that we trying to make. They weren’t a part of that album, and they would have taken away from [the creative vision for that album]. So, it’s actually kind of fun that they still got to see the light of day. That’s the nice thing about over cutting for an record, you get to have little treats like that afterward.

88.1 KDHX welcomes Punch Brothers to the Sheldon Concert Hall on January 25.

Audie Blaylock and Redline, “Hard Country”

(HVBA)

Hard CountryOne reviewer noted of Audie Blaylock that he “puts music before image.” If you’ve seen the cover of his latest album, Hard Country, you’ll see some of the truth of that statement: this is one of the best albums of 2012, and it has one of the worst album covers.

Continue reading Audie Blaylock and Redline, “Hard Country”