“The 5 String Flamethrower” by Rob McCoury

Rob McCoury
The 5 String Flamethrower
McCoury Music
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Rob McCoury’s first solo banjo project has been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. As five-stringer for what is unarguably the genre’s band of the last 25 years, he’s one of bluegrass music’s most important practitioners. Yet he is seldom nominated for individual awards—not unlike a left tackle on a great football team. This is partly because of his laconic personality and stage demeanor, but mostly, I think, because of his style.

McCoury doesn’t dominate like Earl Scruggs or JD Crowe—though he could, as evidenced by a his takes on Crowe’s “Blackjack,” and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Chimes.”

Rather, his strength is—with the left hand as well as the right—in the sections when the banjo is not pulling the sled—fills between and under vocal parts, deft turnarounds between solo breaks by other instruments, and contrapuntal lines played on the low side of the neck.

No wonder, then, that the two other legendary pickers he singles out for veneration here are Don Reno and Sonny Osborne.

McCoury rips through Reno’s “Charlotte Breakdown” and lays down a richly textured “Limehouse Blues”(an old jazz tune adapted by Reno for bluegrass banjo), but it’s his romp through Reno’s ebullient, stringbending “Banjo Riff”—exactly the type of tune that makes people fall in love with the banjo—that would be my first spin from this disc were I still a deejay.

The Sonny Osborne tunes are, appropriately, accompanied by pedal steel (Tim Sergent) like many of those middle-period Osborne Brothers tracks were. McCoury picks (in both senses of the word) two of Sonny’s most beautiful compositions,the Marty Robbins-tinged “Jericho” and the gorgeous “Siempre,” both with a Tex-Mex flavor that shows what imaginative musicians can do within the bounds of bluegrass.

McCoury also extends some professional courtesy to two lesser known pickers who clearly qualify as “banjo player’s banjo players” with Walter Hensley’s “Sugar Creek” and Larry Perkins’ “Northwest Passage.”

What makes this disc stand out from many other sideman solo efforts is that McCoury dances with them that brung ‘im, eschewing the stable of hired guns that we see over and over in favor of the Del McCoury Band, which allows Rob to do best what he does better than anyone—use bluegrass music’s essential instrument to make a bluegrass band sound great. Take a listen to the Del-penned “Caracas,” which stands among the best of DMB’s hard-edged instrumentals.

This 15-track, 41-minute album has two vocal numbers: Flatt & Scruggs’ “I’ve Lost You,” with Del on lead vocal and Bobby Osborne on tenor harmony and mandolin, and the Osbornes’ “We Could,” on which Sonny Osborne emerges from semi-retirement to join Bobby, Rob, and company. “The 5 String Flamethrower” should firmly establish, especially for those who hadn’t considered it yet, Rob McCoury’s virtuosity.

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“Curve and Shake” by Walter Salas-Humara

Walter Salas-Humara
Curve and Shake
Sonic Pyramid
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I came to the Silos late. The first new album of theirs I heard was likely When the Telephone Rings a decade ago, but I’ve filled in some of the gaps since with their self-titled album of 1990 being a favorite.

I’m certainly no expert on the music Walter Salas-Humara has made—either as the stable core of the Silos, under his own name, or his many other projects—but I do appreciate his creations when encountered.

My first impression of Curve and Shake was that it sounds like an album Lou Reed could have made had he been an entirely different person and artist. I’m pretty sure I know what that means, but have no idea if it connects with anyone else.

Curve and Shake is a rock album, certainly a roots-rock disc. Very different from the personal desperation—and heavy guitars—heard within Florizona, within this set of Salas-Humara’s songs I hear echoes of Warren Zevon’s, Alejandro Escovedo’s, and especially John Mellencamp’s work, which aren’t bad places to land, but not where I normally go when listening to The Silos.

And a reminder, I suppose, that this isn’t the Silos.

The grim reality of the title track is buoyed by heartening percussion, and the simplicity of “I Love That Girl” is reflective of the song’s hopeful, but far too innocent, protagonist. “Uncomplicated” is heavier sonically and spiritually while “Hoping For A Comeback,” again awash with Latin percussion, is optimistic.

In general, positivity rules Curve and Shake. Lyrically and musically, Salas-Humara is seemingly is a good place, and while this album isn’t going to push aside the Silos and Come On Like The Fast Lane, it does encourage me to continue expanding my knowledge of what Walter Salas-Humara offers.

“Mac Wiseman Sings Old Time Country Favorites” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Mac Wiseman Sings Old Time Country Favorites
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

1966. I remember it well because that’s the year I graduated from high school and started college. I was playing in the Starlighters, a local country band that was pretty danged good. Mac Wiseman wasn’t on my horizon. Neither was bluegrass. Most of the people in the band couldn’t stand it, especially the banjo.

But Wiseman, “The Voice With a Heart,” was a well established and popular performer in both the bluegrass and country worlds as well as dipping into folk music. Still active today, albeit with a lighter schedule, you’re most likely to catch him on RFD-TV’s Country Family Reunion, though he recently performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He started out as the bass player for Molly O’Day, joined Flatt & Scruggs then Bill Monroe and later struck out as a solo artist. His voice and the way he styles a song has made him one of my favorite arists. Many others love his work, too. He was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor in 1993 and will become a member of the CMA Hall of Fame within a few days.

In 1966 he made a mono LP (Sings Old Time Country Favorites [RRMW-158]) for Uncle Jim O’Neal, owner of Rural Rhythm, the only recording he ever did for them. It was reissued in 1973 (Singing Country Favorites [RRMW-258]) with an electric guitar and bass plus drums overdubbed to make a stereo effect. It was reissued again in 1997 (20 Old Time Country Favorites [RHYCD-258]) and that one is still available. The original recording featured Wiseman on guitar, Rudy Thacker on guitar, and Peggy Peterson playing Dobro. This CD was re-mastered from the original tapes with “Wildwood Flower” as a bonus track. It was recorded with the other tracks but not released. There’s not much information available on Peterson but she does appear in the credits of several records of that era (including works by J. E. Mainer and Jim Eanes) and is mentioned in Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Henry. Thacker was probably the man associated with the Stringbusters in the Cleveland area (the LP was recorded in Ohio, possibly Akron).

Several of these songs have become closely associated with Wiseman through the years. “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” traces back to the Carter Family, though he cuts out the middle two verses on this record. This song is a good example of a curious choice made by singers, more so in the first half of bluegrass history than the second but not unheard of today. A man will sing a song clearly intended for a woman without changing the words.

And when the dance is over and all have gone to rest

I’ll think of him, dear Mother, the one that I love best

He once did love me dearly and ne’er from me would part

He sought not to deceive me, false friends have changed his heart

It’s not as if the words are set in stone. Wiseman’s version varies slightly from the lyrics attributed to the Carter Family, but there seems to be a reluctance to change from first person to third person. This can be disconcerting when you first hear it.

Many of the songs on the album feel abrupt, shortened. The Vince Gill/Asleep At The Wheel version of “Corrina, Corrina” runs three minutes. The CD’s version is 1:36. This is a familiar song dating back to 1928 and recorded in several genre by a long list of artists. My guess is the choice was made to make most songs short so more songs could be included. An LP could hold twenty to twenty-two minutes of playing time on each side and each song has some delay until the next one. Math tells the story. It’s an understandable decision but still a trade-off.

Another “Wiseman” song is “I Saw Your Face In The Moon.” It dates back to 1937 and Governor Jimmie Davis. “Midnight Special” bears Wiseman’s melodic touch but many may associate it with CCR or Johnny Rivers. It probably dates (in print) to Howard Odum in 1905 and has been recorded by artists as varied as Lead Belly, The Kingston Trio and ABBA. Wiseman may have the gentlest touch of all.

On the gospel side are a very short “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” and “Just Over In Gloryland.” “The Black Sheep” has a message of forgiveness that isn’t gospel but is still an uplifting message of right in the end. Other familiar numbers are “Wreck of the Old ’97,” “The Georgia Mail” and “More Pretty Girls Than One.” “Rovin’ Gambler'” runs only 1:51 but there are so many variations of this song (as with most of these) that it’s not necessarily shortened and, in this case, you feel like he finished the song instead of just cutting it off. Listen to “Little Mohee” and you’ll hear where “On Top of Old Smokey” borrowed its melody.

“Mary of the Wild Moor” has a long and interesting history and many artists have recorded it, including Sara Evans in 2001 who heard it on a Dolly Parton recording. “Little Blossom” is a beautiful but grim number, the story of a little girl killed accidentally by her drunken father. Then there are the simple songs that don’t say much of anything but were still popular at one time. “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat” was recorded by artists like Split Lip Rayfield, Grandpa Jones and the Coon Creek Girls while “Turkey In The Straw” dates back longer than anyone can remember. “Sourwood Mountain” is another song with unknown beginnings, part lament, part nonsense. Parts of it were used by the Grateful Dead in Sugar Magnolia.

This is a welcome half-century look back at a recording by one of the greats of bluegrass and country music. It’s a reminder of the history of the music and might influence some listeners to look back for one of their next cuts when they record.

“The Old Country Church” by Mike Scott & Friends

Mike Scott & Friends
The Old Country Church
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Really, who needs to hear “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for the thousandth time? That may be your first reaction to track list on this CD, but don’t pass judgment too quickly.

Bluegrass fans love to hear the old songs, whether repeated by the artists who made them famous or by others with their own take. One way to do a project like this is to surround yourself with Grade-A musicians, men (in this case) who know and love the songs as much as you do, get in the studio and let the music flow. Mike Scott is an excellent banjo player, sideman to Ronnie Reno for several years. Mix in Adam Steffey playing mandolin, Bryan Sutton and Tim Stafford on guitar, Rob Ickes on resophonic guitar, Ben Isaacs as timekeeper on the bass plus Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and you expect nothing less than excellence.

You can listen to the comforting strains of “Pass Me Not,” “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” and “Precious Memories,” close your eyes and be transported back to the days you were growing up and hearing these in church and gatherings of friends and family. It’s difficult to hear “I Saw The Light,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” without wanting to sing along, whether you’re certain of the lyrics or not. “The Old Country Church” has been a bluegrass favorite since there’s been bluegrass, and “I’ll Fly Away” joined that rank almost as soon as Albert Brumley penned it. And how many times have we sung “Victory In Jesus” in church?

They’re all there in this excellent instrumental CD by Mike Scott & Friends, along with “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “Where the Roses Never Fade.” There are no surprises here, just the comfort of hearing beautiful renditions of old friends. The next time life’s not going your way, take a step back, drop this CD in the player, and refresh your soul.

“Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning” by Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning

Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning
Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

What’s bluegrass without songs of death? Murder songs are woven into the culture and are evidence of how bluegrass remains tied to its roots—and most of us believe that’s a good thing. Maggie and Molly, “Sisters of the Mountain,” are twins living alone on the mountain all their lives and who fall in love with Joshua Taylor, a Blue Ridge mountain man. They catch Joshua in the arms of another woman and he disappears forever. I know places where that still might happen.

Rachel Burge nails the song and she and the band do it with drive. You won’t be confusing this with indie country, Americana, or any other genre. The arrangement grabs your attention, with Burge and Michele Birkby-Vance (fiddle) joined at the hip on their vocals.

Birkby-Vance wrote and sings “Homeplace in the Mountains,” a pure bluegrass number that’s yet another core of bluegrass: away from home and longing to go back. Burge adds “My Cold Heart,” a hard driving love song from a different angle. She’s a woman who rejects love because of her cold heart and she’s the one who’s leaving and wronging someone. Burge combined a college education with bluegrass, obtaining a certificate in bluegrass from Glenville State College. This allowed her to play with Mac Wiseman, Ronnie Reno, and others as part of that program. She’s not only an excellent bluegrass singer, she knows how to play her mandolin as well as anyone you’ll hear out on the circuit. “Please Stay Away” is a pretty love song in waltz time, asking a person she loves to please stay away. Love hurts and she tells us about it in a very pretty way.

Joining Burge and Birkby-Vance are Radford Vance (banjo, guitar, vocals), Lance Gainer (guitar, vocals) and Rick Westerman (bass, vocals). Radford Vance composed “Road Apples,” an excellent instrumental that showcases the excellent musicianship of each member of the band – except the bass player. For some reason they made the choice to keep him so low in the mix you have to work at hearing him. What comes through sounds good, though. Vance also gives us “Barefootin’,” recollections of a youth growing up in the country.

Burge reaches out to other composers, including Bill Carlisle and Tommy Cutrer, who wrote “I’ve Kissed You My Last Time,” a beautiful country ballad released by Kitty Wells back in 1955 and Doyle Lawson in 1995; Ronnie Bowman, co-writer of “I’ve Seen Enough of What’s Behind Me,” a song with a hook about not needing a rear-view mirror because the singer is only looking ahead in life; “April Snow” by Mark Brinkman, another song about broken love; and Rebecca Westerman’s “Living In The Light,” a gospel number that features the group’s excellent harmonies.

This is an excellent CD from a group that should make a lasting impression on bluegrass music.

“Chapter Two” by Carolina Story

Carolina Story
Chapter Two
True Bearing Entertainment
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Carolina Story is the husband and wife team of Ben and Emily Roberts. Chapter Two is the followup to last year’s well received Chapter One, reflecting the continuing maturation of their music. One downside to be noted: it is an “extended play” CD, jargon for only getting six tracks.

Their voices blend well together. The lead song is a story about friendship on the road, though I have to admit I’m still trying to match “It’s Almost Over Now” with the lyrics, uncertain about what is almost over. Friendship? Traveling together? Anyway, it’s a pleasant song for listening. Their music is modern country with some tracks not far removed from classic country. “I Won’t Let You Down” is a story about courtship and has the formula for their music. The session band plays backup, throw in a few licks and a kickoff on each song but avoid sparkle of their own. It’s about the singers and the lyrics. The band members are capable musicians, including Chad Cromwell playing drums (and I still wish someone would let the drummer be creative), Billy Panda playing guitar and Michael Rhodes on bass. They’re joined by steel player Dan Dugmore and Darrell Scott playing guitar, bouzouki and mandolin. It’s too bad they never get a chance to express their talent with an instrumental track or extended breaks, but that’s country music, especially modern country.

Their signature is singing as a duo. They sound great together but I think they could add more diversity to their sound by playing off each other, one singing and one responding or some similar arrangement on more tracks. For some reason, constant duoism wears on my ears. Ben does take the lead on “When I Was Just a Boy” and it works well, telling of the warnings he received from his parents and how he hasn’t always listened. “Crash and Burn” is a rocking song and should have a chance at the hot new country market. “I’m Gonna Love You Forever” is another track with Ben taking the lead and Emily joining in on harmony.

They certainly have their fans, including Manuel, the man behind all the rhinestones you’ve seen on the Opry for so many years. They’re averaging over 130 shows a year for the past five years and that’s a lot of wear on your soul and sneakers. Good music and a bright future – they have a lot going for them.

“The Next Move” by Phil Leadbetter

Phil Leadbetter
The Next Move
Pinecastle Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been around music most of my life and had the privilege to perform with some very talented people. I deeply appreciate the art of making music and the skill of musicians like the ones on this album.

Phil Leadbetter appreciates them, too, and he’s one of the best on the instrument that Josh Graves help make famous: the resophonic guitar. Struggling with severe illness, facing death, “Uncle Phil” made a list of great musicians he wanted to make a recording with, if he could do it just one more time. He had to wait until his cancer was in remission to do it, and now he’s fighting it in a second round, but he got it done. I saw him on stage (during his first round) for a salute to J. D. Crowe at Bean Blossom and he was obviously struggling, but he still made the reso ring beautifully.

Resophonic guitar or Dobro? The terms are often used interchangeably but they really shouldn’t be. The resophonic (or resonator) guitar has some type of resonator built into the top. The list of possibilities is too long to discuss here, but it’s usually a metal plate full of holes. Generally played in bluegrass flat with a bar and fingerpicks like a pedal steel guitar (Tut Taylor was an exception, using a straight pick), it may be found in a blues setting played like a regular guitar or with a bottleneck slide.

Dobro is a trade name originally associated with the Dopyera brothers, John Dopyera was the original developer of the resonator guitar. Despite efforts to control “Dobro” as a trademark, it has entered mainstream usage as synonymous with resophonic guitar.

Playing bass is either Mike Bub or Tim Dishman while Steve Thomas is everywhere playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar, one or more on almost every track. Shawn Camp wrote and sings lead on “Pull The Trigger.” He and Thomas play guitar and Camp’s Earls of Leicester buddy, Charlie Cushman plays banjo. Steve Gulley and Don Rigsby, two great voices in bluegrass, sing harmony while Alan Bibey plays mandolin and Tim Crouch plays fiddle. Camp is also featured on an introspective “Jesus, My Old Dog and Me.” Harking back to Flatt & Scruggs, “Just Joshin'” was written by Josh Graves and Jake Tullock. Cory Walker (banjo), Kenny Smith (guitar) and Sierra Hull (mandolin) join Bub and Crouch to support Leadbetter, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas on this salute to the reso guitar. Leadbetter joins with son Matt on Dobro along with Thomas, Crouch and Bub plus Jarrod Walker (mandolin) to do a Leadbetter tune, “Leadbelly.”

“Sweet Georgia Brown” isn’t contained by genre lines and Leadbetter and crew give a rousing performance here, lots of swing and jazz, but hey, with Béla Fleck on banjo and Buck White playing piano (along with Hull, Thomas, Bub and Smith) what else would you expect? Another number in the jazz and blues vein is “Georgia On My Mind.” It’s been done by legions of performers but many associate it with Ray Charles. You need to hear Con Hunley’s rendition. Steve Thomas doubles on mandolin and fiddle and Mike Bub plays a great bass line with Jim Hurst doing the guitar work. Too bad they couldn’t make this one thirty minutes long.

Going country, Ken Mellons co-wrote and sings “I’m a Modern Day Interstate Gypsy” with musicians named already and Gulley and Mark Newton adding harmony. Gulley co-wrote “I’ve Never Seen a Love That Wasn’t Blind” and sings it along with Dale Ann Bradley, Leadbetter’s current bandleader. Steve Wariner plays guitar and also co-wrote and performs another number, “Hole In The Earth,” a song about escaping the fate of a coal miner’s life—almost. He leaves but he comes back and now spends his life digging for coal in this hole in the earth.

Rounding out the first eleven tracks are John Cowan and Sam Bush, along with Jake Stargel playing guitar, tearing it up with “I’m a Ramblin’ Rolling Stone” while Marty Raybon and Joe Diffie, with Paul Brewster singing harmony, soften the tone with “Baptism.” “Down with the old man, up with the new,” that says it all about baptism and Raybon’s soulful voice is impossible to beat on a song like this but Diffie is right there with him.

From his posts on the bluegrass listserv and Facebook, it’s clear that Phil Leadbetter is a man of faith. He closes with a soulful, peacefully slow solo rendition of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” Friends and fans alike will remember this cut forever.

This is bluegrass at its best from some of the best in the business joining a contemporary master in his labor of love and life.