“Too” by Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome
Too
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It’s long been rumored that some big–name country stars can’t sing on key, so they use auto–tuners in the studio and on the road. Bluegrass producers might use it in the studio (although I doubt it’s widespread) but I asked Tom Feller, who provides sound to venues like Bean Blossom (and is half of Feller & Hill) about having it in his equipment. He’s not aware of any bluegrass group using them on their live shows.

I’ve heard Flatt Lonesome’s live show. What you get on their CDs is what you’d hear jamming with them around the campfire. Their pitch is excellent and their harmony is as good as you’ll hear anywhere. This is their second CD and they continue to make excellent bluegrass music. “Slowly Getting You Out of the Way” is a hard–driving Randall Hylton song that features some good breaks. “I’m Ready Now” is another pure bluegrass number on the gospel side. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill sings the lead with siblings Buddy and Charli Robertson adding their signature harmony vocals.

The musicianship of the group is excellent, too. Buddy Robertson plays guitar; sister Charli Robertson plays fiddle while sister Kelsi Harrigill adds mandolin. Her husband, Paul Harrigill, plays banjo and guitar and the band is rounded out with Dominic Illingworth on bass and Michael Stockton on resophonic guitar.

“Dangerous Dan” is a Tim Stafford/Barry Ricks number with a twist. It’s the story of a hard times moonshiner who ends up as a God-fearing preacher. It seems there’s hope for all of us. Another good Hylton song is “So Far,” yet another story of broken love.

Then there’s the countrygrass. It’s been part of bluegrass almost forever: how many Louvin Brothers songs have appeared on bluegrass recordings? Crowds I have seen at live shows seem to like it; they certainly applaud it. Some people don’t. A banjo–playing friend called me this morning complaining about a bluegrass–marketed CD that sounded too much like country. If you don’t object to countrygrass, there’s some very good numbers on this CD.

“Letters Have No Arms” is a 1949 Ernest Tubb song that’s a great love song. (Bluegrassers may recognize a couple of other Tubb recordings: Wabash Cannonball and “one of his old favorites,” Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin.) “I Thought You Were Someone I Knew” is a waltz beat love song with an unusual fiddle interlude (some people might mistake the intro as flutes). “It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again” makes good bluegrass to my ears, but I can also imagine standing on the stage in a club singing it to a country crowd. Most times the country/bluegrass division is just the delivery and the instruments. “I Can’t Be Bothered” is very country, which is hardly surprising since it was recorded by Miranda Lambert. Of the two, I like Flatt Lonesome’s harmony better.

I expect the “too much country” argument will continue longer than it takes the pines to grow tall. If you aren’t concerned by it and like really good music, you need to run out and get this CD.

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“The Game” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
The Game
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s hard to write a review of an album you know is going to be good. Blue Highway started with a five-man lineup 20 years and 10 albums ago, and it’s still the same five guys making great music (Tom Adams replaced Jason Burleson on banjo for the group 1999′s self-titled fourth album.)

All the elements of this versatile and durable combo are in place for the 12 tracks and 40 minutes of The Game: Burleson’s firm right hand, three singer-songwriters—Shawn Lane (mandolin and fiddle), Tim Stafford (guitar), and Wayne Taylor (bass)—who could easily front their own bands, and the second greatest Dobro player to ever put steel on steel in Rob Ickes.

“The Game,” “Where Jasmine Grows,” and, especially, “Talk is Cheap” are the kind of groove-heavy tracks that Blue Highway does better than anyone else.

“Just to Have a Job,” “All the Things You Do,” and “Remind Me of You” are the kind of irrepressible, perfectly crafted and sung tunes that outclass just about every other bluegrass songwriter.

Burleson’s celtic hop “Dogtown” and Ickes’ breezy “Funny Farm” are inventive instrumentals that aren’t merely excuses for showing off.

All of that is—please forgive me—just a little bit of a letdown. The Game is a great album, but it’s great in essentially the same way that their last two or three albums have been. I suppose that’s a little bit like complaining that Sandy Koufax just pitched another no-hitter, but I can’t help but think that tinkering with the mix a little—perhaps by collaborating with a producer (instead of self-producing) or by adding another musician (as the Del McCoury Band did with Jerry Douglas on The Cold Hard Facts)—would be a catalyst for something even more creative.

The traditional “Hicks’s Farewell” is the one track on The Game that a band member didn’t have a share in writing, and it’s the most striking—master musicians calling down the ancient tones that resonate deeper than even the best of modern craftsmanship.

“Five” by Balsam Range

Balsam Range
Five
Mountain Home Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The last release from Balsam Range was Papertown in 2012. As good as they are, that’s too long to wait. They are receiving the recognition such a good band deserves and, while it’s not the cover the the Rolling Stone, they did make the cover of the July issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.

Some of their music isn’t Flatt & Scruggs-style traditional bluegrass, but more countrygrass. This is music done in a bluegrass environment (the usual four to six acoustic instruments, three-part harmonies) but could be done on a retro-country stage (you know, country before it became countryhiphoprappop). Though some who love their traditional bluegrass as the only “true” bluegrass complain, the audiences I’ve seen love this music as well as they do Jimmy Martin songs. It seems to me to be a reasonable expansion of genre rather than a threat to it. Dan Seal’s hit “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” from more than two decades ago cerainly fits the countrygrass mold. Buddy Melton’s (fiddle) lead is good stuff, doing the song as much justice as Seals did. I keep playing this track over and over.

“Don’t Watch These Tears” could be a country song. Caleb Smith (guitar) handles the lead work on this fast-paced, troubled love number. “Too High a Price To Pay” features yet another lead singer, Darren Nicholson (mandolin), and is another love-is-gone song.

Balsam Range’s members are all accomplished musicians. Melton played with Doc Watson and has solo projects on the market. Surrett is a man of many musical accomplishments and has performed some beautiful gospel music. Pruett is a graduate of the Jimmy Martin school of music.

Banjoist Marc Pruett is the only band member who doesn’t sing. Bassist and resonator guitarist Tim Surrett takes the lead on “Songs I’ve Sung,” a change of pace from love. This is a song that looks ahead to the end of the road, wondering more what will happen to the songs he’s sung than what will happen to whatever he owns. It’s something many of us have wondered as we grow older: will we be remembered when we’re gone or just fade from the memories of our friends? They dip further back into the past with the late Micky Newbury’s 1971 classic, “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be,” using a piano and steel guitar for more of a country sound.

What’s a bluegrass album without a murder song? “Moon Over Memphis” is yet another song about love and murder, faster paced than many songs like this (“The Crime I Didn’t Do”, “Knoxville Girl“). They throw in a song that must have been written for me: “Monday Blues.” Monday mornings get here too soon. On the traditional side, Milan Miller co-wrote “I Spend My Days Below The Ground,” a story about the hard life in a mining town: in the mines young to help your family survive, your dreams dying in the dark until you go too young, a victim of an accident or disease. There’s a good reason there are so many mining songs in bluegrass. And then there’s the Civil War. “From a Georgia Battlefield” has an old-timey sound to it, telling again the story of that horrible war.

The bluegrass genre has been around six decades. The fan base has expanded to include people who enjoy the countrygrass sound and that doesn’t seem to be threatening a loss of the traditional side. Balsam Range is an excellent example of a 21st century bluegrass band and Five is an excellent bluegrass CD.

“In the Shadows” by New Outlook

New Outlook
In The Shadows
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass and gospel music have always gone hand–in–hand, from Bill Monroe’s The Gospel Spirit, with such great songs as “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” to current masters such as Paul Williams. New Outlook, a midwestern regional band based in Ohio, joins the gospel field with an impressive CD.

Early pioneers in country music, with many of their songs now standards in bluegrass, the Bailes Brothers penned and recorded songs in the ’40s and ’50s. One of the numbers, composed in 1942 and based on a message Walter Bailes heard in 1937, recorded innumerable times, is “Dust On The Bible.”

There are several other oft-recorded songs on this CD, so you may wonder why you should listen to yet another version. New Outlook’s take on “Dust On The Bible” is a Charmin™ version, softer and gentler than many bluegrass versions I’ve heard. Husband–and–wife team Brad and Lori Lambert are the vocalists along with Caleb Daughtery. They feature great harmony singing and offer a good alternative to the country stylings of Hank Williams and Kitty Wells or the southern gospel style of the Chuckwagon Gang. Is it worthwhile listening to yet another version of “Dust” and these other songs? In this case, definitely.

They go back for versions of “Will He Wait A Little Longer,” a Stanley Brothers number and Dottie Rambo’s great song, “If That Isn’t Love.” “Beautiful Altar of Prayer” compares very well to Doyle Lawson’s version with Jamie Dailey singing lead, and that’s a tough act to follow. Other songs from the past include the old hymn “Pass Me Not (O Gentle Savior),” a banjo–driven version “Cryin’ Holy Unto The Lord” and “Are You Building On The Rock.”

Additional musicians are Dave Morrison on Dobro, Dewayne Guffey on mandolin, and Dave Johnson on fiddle and Dobro. It was engineered by Dan Ward, something not usually mentioned in a review but Ward turns in a good performance singing bass on “I’ve A Mansion Over In Glory.” It’s too bad they didn’t use him on more tracks.

Included are some original compositions by Brad Lambert, including the title track, “Half Remains Untold,” and “See You In The Morning,” which will bring some tears. It’s the story of a couple in love but the man dies. She’s left remembering him saying, “I’ll see you in the morning or I’ll see you in glory.”

There’s not a throwaway track on this CD. It’s going in my stack of play–these–often.

“Nighthawk” by Danny Roberts

Danny Roberts
Nighthawk
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When it comes to live appearances, Danny Roberts is in danger of being overshadowed by his teenaged daughter, Jaelee, and he’s not complaining. I recently saw her on the Bean Blossom stage and the girl can sing! She sings the lead on the Alison Krauss hit “Oh, Atlanta.” You can hear the youthfulness in her voice but she owns the song. If she chooses a career in music she’ll be a powerhouse (she’s also a fiddler). She also sings lead on “How Great Thou Art,” a softer approach but with as much vocal control and presence as her other track.

Oh, yeah, Danny Roberts. He’s a founding member of the Grascals and this is a solo mandolin project for him. He’s enlisted a fine crew of musicians to help, including bandmates Kristin Scott Benson (banjo) and Adam Haynes (fiddle), Tim Surrett (bass), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Jimmy Mattingly (fiddle), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Tony Wray (guitar) and Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle). Good picking? Do you need to ask?

Along with a majority of tracks on this projects, Roberts composed the title number, a medium-speed instrumental with some intricate parts and interesting progressions. “F-5 Rag” is a bit plainer but still a good number, featuring an extended guitar break by Wray. “Danielle’s Waltz” is a change of pace, just Roberts and Benson switching leads while the other plays a contrasting backup.

“Big Stone Gap” moves at a speed that will tear off your hairpiece and features a nice break by fiddler Mattingly. “New Gil Ramble” has a fitting name as the tune seems to lope along at an easy pace, just like someone off on a ramble. It features an interesting section with Benson (banjo) and Wray (guitar) trading phrases. “Walking To Winslow” has the same easygoing feel and again has the Benson-Wray trading of licks. Both feature a second mandolinist (McCoury / Mike Compton) and, if you listen close, you can hear some spots where they trade licks with Roberts.

“I Went Down a Beggar” is a much-recorded gospel number that features spouse Andrea Roberts (lead) and daughter Jaelee (harmony). They blend well and do an excellent job on this good old number. The other cuts are “Derrington Drive,” another hard driving, fast moving tune; “Coppingers Court” is a lilting, reel-like number with a section played in a minor key; “You’ll Have That” is a medium speed, danceable number. “Swing-A-Long” is a change of pace from all the other numbers, a bit of swing as the name implies.

If you like instrumental packages you’ll enjoy this CD. There’s variety and excellent musicianship. The bonus is a preview of a young singer who can make a name for herself in this business.

“In Our Own Words” by Bluegrass Express

Bluegrass Express
In Our Own Words
Plum River Records
3½ 
stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Founded by patriarch, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Underwood and his son (bass, guitar, vocals) Greg Underwood, Bluegrass Express is a (mostly) family band that’s now has added third generation member Jacob Underwood (banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals) and mandolinist Andy Hatfield. They are joined on this CD by Tim Crouch (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin on “I’ll Be Gone”) and Bethany Burie (high baritone on “The Key To Heaven”).

Many have the opinion that some of the best harmony singing you’ll hear comes from family bands, and, and that holds true here. Also, all songs on this disc are Underwood family originals—a laudable effort when so many projects feature well-worn material—and the results vary from very good to not quite so good.

“I’ll Be Gone” is a pretty number about love problems, always a favorite subject for composers. It’s a countrygrass number—one that fits either a bluegrass or a classic country stage–and features Greg Underwood as lead singer. He has a good voice and is pleasant to hear singing. It features the banjo as a background instrument through much of the song and, for my taste, a bit more ingenuity would be welcomed, switching the instruments for some variation. I suppose it’s just a personal thing, but I just don’t much like an electric bass in bluegrass. The type of bass isn’t specified but it sounds to me like an electric flat-top. Decibel for decibel, note for note, I would enjoy an upright a lot more.

Gary Underwood sings lead on “It’s Raining Outside,” a slow, swinging, moody number with twin fiddles and nice breaks by the instrumentalists. This is a great number. He also sings lead on “Sinner Hear Me.” It has some swing to it, an interesting chord progression into some minor chords. You don’t hear many gospel swing numbers but they pull this one off nicely. Burie co-wrote the song she sings harmony on, “The Key To Heaven.” This is a good song but she’s low in the mix, mostly a function of not dialing back the lead on the chorus. That’s too bad for she’s a good singer.

“There’ll Never Be Another You” is a fairly typical love–is–gone song—it’s not easy to come up with a fresh take on one of the oldest themes around. “Down In Tennessee” reflects on how much the singer loves Tennessee even though he has to be on the road. This is a good uptempo number and shows off the talents of the pickers.

Getting back to countrygrass, “New True Love” is a good number with a walking bass line. If you like country music you’ll love it, but it may circle people back to the “too much country in bluegrass” argument. I don’t think bluegrass is in danger of losing its identity, of becoming the new real country music with Jimmy Martin’s style of music lost in the shuffle. “Baby’s Gone For Good” is another heartbreaker with a more interesting arrangement, saving most of the instruments to come in after a few bars. It’s a good song, but you may re-start it a time or two as it has an odd, 2–beat pickup start.

This is a good CD, well worth a listen by anyone who enjoys countrygrass.

“A Dotted Line” by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been a decade and a half since Nickel Creek released their self-titled third album, the one that introduced them to music fans outside the bluegrass festival circuit that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother Sean Watkins had been popular on since they were kids.

Now in their thirties, each is rightly considered among the very best musicians on their instruments—especially Thile, who is nothing less than the Babe Ruth of the mandolin. But their sum here on A Dotted Line is considerably less substantive than their parts.

Twee is the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this one several times. Rather than trusting their talent to just play, the trio can’t get out of their own way when it comes to writing, choosing and arranging material.

Even on what could have been a simple and beautiful instrumental track like “Elephant in the Corn,” they have to throw in a couple of bits that are—to copy and paste from my dictionary app—”affectedly quaint.”

I suppose Thile thinks he’s being Byronic on “Rest of My Life,” “Love of Mine,” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” but he’s really still just doing John Mayer’s tired act. What’s worse is that Sean tries the same thing on “Christmas Eve.” You’d think a couple of grown men would know how to talk to women more effectively, but I guess when you’re in a band, you can let that part of your game slide.

Sara comes through with lead vocals on the disc’s only two listenable tracks, the self-penned perfect pop of “Destination” and a gorgeous take on Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” Her voice is as sweet as it was on “The Hand Song,” but she’s got the maturity that her bandmates don’t.

The most important track here is the cover of “Hayloft,” by Canadian indie rockers Mother Mother. It took great skill to play and produce a track so awful, which makes it so disappointing that these three seem so intent on proving their hipster bona fides when they should just relax and play (see the Infamous Stringdusters).