“Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection” by Lead Belly

Lead Belly
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

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By Aaron Keith Harris

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Lead Belly was from Van Morrison, on his masterwork album Astral Weeks (1968). Amidst the stream-of-consciousness lyrics there aren’t many concrete concepts or identifiable characters, but there in the title track Van is “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall.” One biographer puts this down to Van’s being known to keep a poster of Lead Belly with him to put on the wall of whatever room he crashed in, giving us the picture of the diminutive Ulsterman home from the pub lying on the floor looking up at the legendary singer while drifting off to dream of all the weird, exciting American music that came from his father’s vast record collection.

The world of blues and jazz and country in the South was strange and distant even for American musicians of the rock generation, much less the son of a shipyard electrician living in a block of flats on Hyndford Street, Belfast. The distance was not a temporal one—the great musicians of the first generation of recorded music were either not long dead or, in dozens of cases, still alive and even performing—but rather one of geography, class, and (often) race. The story of how those distances were bridged in America, and much of the West, is one that begins with music, and the technologies of radio and recording that allowed individual souls to affect each other viscerally and emotionally in a way that only the highly literate were able to experience before.

Born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jan. 20, 1888 at Mooringsport, Louisiana, Lead Belly was one of the key musicians to come of age in the dawn of the recording era, and his peculiar talent as a gatherer of songs kept much of the music that black Americans sang in church, in the fields, and in prison alive long enough to be captured by machines—just as A.P. Carter, with help from his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, did for the music of Appalachia.

Lead Belly did it so well that if one wanted to pick a place to start listening to and learning about 20th Century American popular music, a perfect place to start would be Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Listening to more than five hours of his recordings on these five compact discs (including some live recordings and an entire disc of radio performances) it’s hard not to be amazed at Lead Belly’s ambit. He sangs both familiar and obscure—with musicianship and vocal styles both sophisticated and primal—in musical idioms like “play songs” for children, of-the-moment political broadsides, field hollers, work songs, minstrel tunes, bawdy blues, sanctified gospel, and—of course—prison songs.

Essential to understanding the man and his music—and the reason to spend $100 on the physical copy of this release—is the 140-page book that also occupies this gorgeous 12″ by 12″ package. Along with dozens of great photographs of Lead Belly and miscellaneous ephemera, there is documentation of and commentary on each track from project producers Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways archivist, and Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, who each contribute an essay that takes us far past Lead Belly’s legend to reveal the man.

That legend began in 1933 when John and Alan Lomax—the father-son team of song hunters who chased after music “uncontaminated” by modernity—found and recorded Lead Belly, who serving time for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—tellingly known as Angola. When they returned the next year, Lead Belly was pardoned by Gov. O.K. Allen— for “good behavior” past his minimum sentence time, perhaps prompted by a song Lead Belly wrote about Allen—and returned with them to New York City, where headlines like this beckoned folk fans with a curiosity for the exotic:

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There is no doubt that this legend—buttressed by a newsreel reenactment of Lomax “discovering” Lead Belly at Angola, and the singer’s customary stage costume of prison garb or coveralls—helped sell the man and his music, not too different from the way  musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to 50 Cent have done it. No one bothered to note that Lead Belly’s homicide convictions all stemmed from drunken brawls, not train robberies or home invasions. Because urban blacks weren’t keen on being reminded of farm and prison life, Santelli notes, Lomax didn’t try marketing Lead Belly to them, but went right at the white liberals who liked politics with their pop culture in a way that Tom Wolfe later identified as radical chic.

A question that has to be asked is what part Lead Belly himself played in this hokum. He was a poor black man from the South in a country segregated by both law and custom; the best he could expect was paternalism—which he certainly got from the Lomaxes. More unfortunate is the glaringly obvious realization that King Kong was released just a few months before Lead Belly was “discovered,” an uncomfortable fact that even today informs any serious discussion of race and entertainment in America.

Lead Belly certainly knew what was going on, and he eventually broke with the Lomaxes over both the money and his role as convict/bumpkin. It seems reasonable to think that he simply thought of himself as a musician who wanted to work, and decided to put up with the hassle. Though did write and record some political songs (“Scottsboro Boys,” “We Shall Be Free,” with Woody Guthrie, “Jim Crow Blues,” “Bourgeois Blues”), he never became an activist. “He simply was willing to ignore our radical politics,” Pete Seeger said.

The last few years of his life did bring more artistic freedom and satisfaction than the years preceding it, thanks to Lead Belly’s association with small-time record label owner Moe Asch, a folk enthusiast who also recorded Guthrie, Seeger, and Cisco Houston. Instead of orchestrated studio sessions, Asch would merely make some suggestions on what to record then let his artists record live around an open mic. Asch treated these recordings with much more respect than those before (no more albums with titles like Negro Sinful Songs), but that didn’t result in better sales.

Musicologists Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith also recognized the value of Lead Belly’s art, and recorded him in 1948 on a new open-reel tape deck that allowed for longer recordings (including Lead Belly’s spoken introductions) than the wax cylinders that most previous recordings had been made on. The fifth disc in this collection is devoted to selected tracks from those Last Sessions, which Asch released on his new Folkways label in 1952 as two 2-LP sets—another new format, supplanting 78s.

Lead Belly always hoped and even believed, it seems, that his work would lead to wealth and notoriety—and it did. The year after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the Weavers sold half a million copies of their version of “Goodnight Irene,” helping folk music become noticed by enough post-war American record consumers to generate tremendous interest in the work of Lead Belly and his peers.

But none of this would have mattered if Lead Belly hadn’t been an excellent musician He didn’t just stand up and bash away on his trademark Stella 12-string guitar while simply belting out songs without nuance. As powerful as his voice could be, he always used it to serve the song and connect with the listener. Combine that—and his vast memory—with uncanny timing (“Out on the Western Plain,” “Rock Island Line,” “Alabama Bound” ) and deceptively intricate guitar work (“Fannin Street,” “Ella Speed”) and you have what Santelli calls “an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer” capable of playing just about anything someone waned to hear. Performances like “The Gallis Pole” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)” are as idiosyncratic and intense as anything done by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, or the Monroe Brothers (“The Gallis Pole” contains all the instrumental and vocal elements that Led Zeppelin tried to capture on their version, “Gallows Pole;” and “Black Girl” was reworked by Bill Monroe as the keening “In the Pines” and, in harrowing fashion, by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged).

There are countless musical phrases and lyrical allusions in this set that have echoed down through the years, and whether Lead Belly composed, modified, or simply recorded these songs, the shade his body of work casts is immense (click on any song title below to see how later musicians used Lead Belly’s material).

“The Midnight Special,” “John Henry,” “Take This Hammer,” “Alabama Bound,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Easy Rider,” “Duncan and Brady,” “How Long, How Long,” “John Hardy,” “Outskirts of Town,” “Black Betty,” “Stewball,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “On a Monday.”

“Irene (Goodnight Irene)” is, of course, the one song that Lead Belly will always be known for, though his version seems to be based on performances by Haverly’s Colored Minstrels of a composition by Gussie Davis. Its sentimental melody and macabre lyrics are made by Lead Belly’s mournful shout into an the kind of strange, unsettling experience that demands a response. It doesn’t seem right that it took the mawkish version of this song by the Weavers to introduce the post-war music industry to the man who, as much as anyone, created such a thing.

“Live at the Old Feed Store” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Live at the Old Feed Store
GSM Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ recent release is a live album recorded over two days in 2013 at—where else—“The Old Feed Store,” an intimate venue in southern Illinois. For those of you not familiar with the band, Chris Jones is satellite radio host of Bluegrass Junction, award winning songwriter, and a columnist at Bluegrass Today. The Night Drivers are Ned Luberecki (banjo), also a host of Bluegrass Junction, banjo instructor, and songwriter; Jon Weisberger (bass), the 2012 IBMA Songwriter of the Year, columnist, and IBMA chairman; and Mark Stoffel (mandolin), a professor at Southern Illinois University. It’s hard to think of a group that exceeds this one in terms of instrumental prowess, broad knowledge of bluegrass music and its history, and contributions to the music with their work off the stage.

We’ve all been caught in the situation of watching a live show with disappointment due to a lack passion from the band, no rapport with the audience, or basically not sounding anything like the album. As a musician who regularly plays on stage, I always strive to accomplish an entertaining show for the audience; in the studio, I attempt to create a album that represents a live snapshot of a show. For that reason, I enjoy the experience of a live album—the stage patter, the crowd participation to formulate a feeling of being in the audience, and even the mistakes. There certainly aren’t many of the latter on Live at the Old Feed Store.

Mixed in with the strong original material are a few traditional tunes like “Bound to Ride,” the gospel classic “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which brings back childhood memories, and the classic fiddle tune “Forked Deer,” all of which use their well-known melodies as a jumping-off point for nifty individual expression.

Jones’ take on the classic theme of jealousy and relationships, “Like a Hawk,” and “Then I Close My Eyes” are prime examples of his writing talent, the latter including special guest Emily Bankester on an eerie tenor vocal.

The most entertaining song on the album is “Cabin of Death” written by Nedski as his attempt to write the perfect bluegrass tune that incorporates an upbeat feel, depressing lyrics, and powerful banjo licks.

Being a history teacher and civil war enthusiast, another of my favorite songs on the album is “Battle of the Bands,” (cowritten by Weisberger), which blends fine instrumentation with words that convey the reality of the cruelest war in America’s history.

This 15-track, 48-minute disc gives me the feeling of being in the front row at a great show—I’ll definitely be there in person next time Chris Jones & the Night Drivers come to my neck of the woods.

“In Style Again” by Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown
In Style Again
Plowboy
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

In 1959 I was a kid with a lot of exposure to country music because that was the music—really the only music—my dad loved. But it was at grandma’s house that I first heard “The Three Bells.” I was mesmerized, drawn to the smooth baritone of Jim Ed Brown. For the next fifty-six years he’s remained one of my favorite singers. He, as well as his many contemporaries, disappeared from mainstream “country” radio years ago. But they persevered, still playing dates, maybe moving to Branson, still playing the Opry. And now Jim Ed Brown has a new CD.

“Who gave the world the right to turn the page, and leave me here feeling twice my age?” The title song asks this and many of us feel that way as the decades roll along, but it’s a question that Brown can certainly ask as he saw his career fade from the spotlight. It’s not that his fans don’t still love him, but his fans are feeling the touch of age and the crowds that follow stars like Garth Brooks or Luke Bryan far outnumber the crowds around country stars from the music’s golden era. It’s an introspective question, not maudlin, and it makes a touching song. He’d just like to be “In Style Again.” He’s joined by sister Bonnie on a beautiful number, “When The Sun Says Hello To The Mountain.” Chris Scruggs’ pedal steel underscores this song with a classic melody. And speaking of classic melodies, his longtime singing partner Helen Cornelius joins him on Carl and Pearl Butler‘s “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.”

“Laura (Do You Love Me)” is an easy-flowing love song of a love lost because he’s out traveling the world. There’s a hint of an Irish air in it but it’s truly a country ballad. Brown, who will turn 81 on April 1, 2015, still has that beautiful baritone but his voice shows a few signs of age. At times you can now hear some gravel in his voice as you do on this number, sometimes he has some trouble hitting the notes. There was recent news that he returned to the Grand Ole Opry after a four-months absence being treated for lung cancer. That may have affected his singing some during this recording but, if you can reduce it to numbers, his voice is still 95 percent as good as ever. “Tried and True” is a country number that will take your breath away if you’re a fan of the ’60s sound with a walking bass line. Vince Gill sings backup on this one.

“It’s A Good Life” is the story of a life lived as best a man could while “Older Guy” is a put-down of young guys is favor of the wisdom of age. It has a swing sound that you’ll enjoy, almost inviting you to dance even if you have two left feet. Sharon and Cheryl White join him on “You Again,” another song that looks back across the years but he’ll still choose the love of his life again. “Watching the World Walking By” is another swing song that has a happy note to it.

The backup musicians and singers are all excellent, the arrangements all good. There’s some variety in song styles and my preference would be a narrower focus, more on his ’60s and early ’70s music, but that’s my own prejudice and this selection will probably appeal to a wider range of folks. One of his songs asks, “Am I Still Country?” It has some really good lines comparing a meat loaf boy to a Chinese-food man, but he concludes he’s still country. There’s not much country in country music these days, but Jim Ed Brown’s got it and he’s still country.

“Going Down to the River” by Doug Seegers

Doug Seegers
Going Down to the River
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It might be that my memory started playing tricks on me after I got the CD and read about Doug Seegers long journey in the music industry that included busking around Nashville , but I could swear I saw him busking on Broadway boot world a few years ago. I remember thinking that he was just a little too good to be out there doing that.

I’ll leave the biography for other articles, but I can tell you that though Seegers looks like a down-at-the-heels Hank Williams Sr. on the cover of Going Down to the River, he’s more than just a honky-tonker.

He does cover Hank’s “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight,” along with help from former bandmate Buddy Miller, with a herd-edged twang that also serves him well on “Pour Me,” which could have easily been written by Hank himself, but he’s also adept at other country styles. “Gotta Catch that Train” is a bit of Bob Wills mixed with modern-day Americana, and “Hard Working Man” and “Memory Lane” could have been mainstream country hits in the 1960s, though the stark lyrics to the latter are delivered with more real pain than just about anything from that era:

You’re my guardian angel
My addiction from Hell
But only Jesus really knows
All the love that I felt

“Burning a Hole in My Pocket” and “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again” have a bit of a Lyle Lovett feel, both lyrically and, with saxophones added, musically.

All of which is great, but it was the very slightest of letdowns after hearing the first four tracks, which had me held tight on first listen—and every one since.

Along with what’s now my favorite cover of Gram Parson’s “She” (with Emmylou Harris harmonizing with Seegers), “Going Down to the River” and “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” are right in the sweet spot, musically and lyrically, where Seegers just slays you with that lonesome, Johnny Rivers-tinged voice. With just a dash of Nick Lowe, “Angie’s Song” is the most soulfully pitiful song I’ve heard in quite a while, making me hope there’s more like this on Seegers’ next recording.

 

“In Session” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
In Session
Mountain Home Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I realize it may not be a popular opinion, and it may even get me into trouble, but I’ve always wondered how good DLQ would be if the band became a more stable group, with members expected to stay together for several years to grow into a true band—rather than be a bluegrass training ground or (my least favorite bluegrass term this side of ‘progressive’) ‘school of bluegrass.’

I first had this thought about ten years back when Quicksilver included folks like Jamie Dailey, Jesse Stockman, Barry Scott, and Terry Baucom, fully realizing Baucom was an original member of the group—by the time Dailey and Scott, in particular, left the band, DLQ was getting it as good as it can be got.

Instead, Quicksilver boasts an almost constantly revolving lineup of musicians and singers, all of whom bring considerable talent to the band. But, to me, it always seems everything is temporary with the band—it is just a matter of time before someone moves on and the next guy slips into the mix. Kind of like when Greg Brady needed to fit the Johnny Bravo suit.

As much as I feel this way, I usually enjoy DLQ in concert—as long as the antics aren’t too predictable, and they sometimes are—and I appreciate their recordings, although not as much lately. Recent albums have suffered from weak material and generic and faceless lead singing, with Roads Well Traveled being a particularly telling point, in my opinion. Songs like “Dobro Joe,” “How Do You Say Goodbye to Sixty Years,”  and “One Small Miracle” just didn’t cut it, being derivative of songs Lawson had previously performed to greater impact. “Say Hello to Heaven” was a new low, contrived and nauseatingly shallow, flaws that also marred “I’m That Country” and “The King.”

Doyle Lawson still has it, of course. His most recent albums with Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe are certainly proof of that. It seems that he has just become too focused or maybe complacent, musically, on being Doyle Lawson—repeating the same old stuff with which he has found success. I’ve heard him speak about his recent music, including Roads Well Traveled, and he sure seems to like what he is doing.

I just don’t see—and most importantly, hear—the appeal.

Which is a long way of getting to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s new album, In Session.

It’s pretty good, certainly a mile and half better than Roads Well Traveled. For me, it doesn’t rise to the level of the albums I consider to be DLQ classics: Once and For Always, The Hard Game of Love and You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper. It sounds and feels more impassioned than any Quicksilver secular release since Lonely Street.

The band is solid, of course. Within the current edition of DLQ, Josh Swift (reso, percussion, and vocals) has been around the longest—well, other than Doyle Lawson, natch.  Joe Dean (banjo and guitar) has made a few albums with DLQ, while lead vocalist and guitar player Dustin Pyrtle has been around for a couple of years. Eli Johnston (bass, guitar, vocals) and Stephen Burwell (fiddle on a single song, “Wilma Walker”) are more recent recruits. Most of the fiddling is very ably handled by Jason Barie, now with Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.

The traditional Quicksilver drive is all over this album, with Johnston propelling things from the back end. Songs like “Reasons Why” and “Roll Big River” really benefit from his pulsing bass notes. “Captain” is (I believe) a strong new song from Johnston and Cody Shuler, a bit sad but not obvious.

The instrumental “Evening Prayer Blues” is a great tune, one that has been around for a long time. Lawson’s playing on it is simply impressive while the guitar contributions add a real nice texture to the tune. A cover of the Moe Bandy song “Americana” is a tad over-wrought, but not inexcusably so. The old country song (The Browns, Jimmy C. Newman) “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” is brought into bluegrass perhaps for the first time and it is a good fit. The courting song “Wilma Walker” will likely be popular.

For this listener, this new album is a welcome return to the form and quality that I had come to expect from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. That I felt the band had gone off track for a while is now beside the point: DLQ is back and (forgive me) In Session!

 

“All Star Duets” by Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time

Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time
All Star Duets
MightyCord Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Wordsmith mogul Larry Cordle has been a heavy hitter with hit songs for decades in Nashville.  The former accountant has contributed to records that have sold more than 55 million copies worldwide since he left his day job to become a full-time musician/songwriter.  His newest release is a “greatest hits” duet album including a dozen A-list country and bluegrass acts who have recorded his work in the past, including Ricky Skaggs (“Highway 40 Blues”), Garth Brooks (“Against the Grain”), Trisha Yearwood (“Lonesome Dove”), Dierks Bentley (“You Can’t Take it With You When You Go”), and Kenny Chesney (“The Fields of Home”).

Unlike a lot of premier Nashville songwriters whose vocal talents make it plain why aren’t out front on stage, the Mighty Cord has been singing in the major leagues with these all stars for quite a while—the tear-jerking throwdown with Terri Clark, “Cure for the Common Heartache.” Cordle’s performances really draw out the personalities of his duet partners, all of whom take full advantage of the opportunity to put their particular spin on these great songs.

The instrumental lineup is also quite stellar—Bryan Sutton, Kristin Scott Benson, Andy Leftwitch, Mike Anglin, Jenee Fleenor, Randy Kohrs, Tim Croutch, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Benson, Chris Davis, and Kim Garner—and the tones and execution of the instruments were superbly captured by Slack Key Studio (Randy Kohrs) and Ben Surratt at Mark Howard’s Signal Path Studio.

Del McCoury (“The Bigger the Fool”) and Travis Tritt (“Rough Around the Edges”) bring the hardcore ‘grass, and Alison Krauss’ reworking of “Two Highways” 25 years after her original version helped make her a teenage superstar is especially satisfying.

“Murder on Music Row,” which is 15 years old now, closes the album with Daryle Singletary and Kevin Denney helping Cordle show that a good country song written for its own sake will always outlast whatever is written to be trendy and marketable.

 

 

“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.