“Another Day From Life” by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
Another Day From Life
Rebel Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Wow. That was my first reaction as I listened to the Radio Ramblers’ latest CD and I’m sticking with that. Having a very good stage show and producing an excellent CD don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, and it seems many bluegrass groups do better with the CDs than showmanship. Mullins, for me, does both very well. He has a very good band, is a good banjo player and singer, and what he talks about during his show adds to the bluegrass book of knowledge, it’s not just chatter.

Veterans Day has just passed and my church played a video accompanied by “Some Gave All.” That song gets to me every time I hear it and now I can add “The Last Parade” from Another Day from Life to that list. Duane Sparks (guitar) sings lead, Mullins (banjo) tenor, and Mike Terry (mandolin) baritone. It’s a story about a young man who has given his life for his country and now he’s come home for his last parade. It starts off with just the guitar behind Sparks, describing the people along the parade route. The mandolin joins in with a sparse melody on the second verse as the storyteller “took my flag” and “took my place on the town’s main drag.” Then the band and harmony singers join in. You feel it all the way to your heart. That’s the mark of a good song.

The band are all excellent musicians and they take the time to come up with good arrangements for the tracks. Bands are often so concerned about what notes they are going to play that they forget to consider when not to play. Space creates impact and this band understands this. The other band members are Randy Barnes (bass) and Evan McGregor (fiddle). Put them all together and you have a great traditional bluegrass band.

“Johnson Island Prison” was a real Civil War prison and this song tells about the unhappy life of a prisoner there, a Rebel who hates the cold of this northern jail. They shift to another form of misery with “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” This is an old Porter Wagoner song and the rest of the title line is “tomorrow you’ll cry.” This number has an unusual melody and chord progression. (For you musicians, it’s 1 – 5 – 2 – 5 – 2, or C – G7 – D7 – G7 – D7. It sounds like the second line changes chords up one step.) Herschel Sizemore penned “Going Back To My Old Kentucky Home,” all about moving to the city for a better job, hating it, finally going back to the country and Kentucky. This is a saga that’s been repeated many times as people emigrate from the rural areas of the bluegrass belt but find the cities aren’t the life they want.

Mark Brinkman has penned a number of excellent songs and he’s done it again with “Through a Coal Miner’s Eyes.” Shut your eyes and let the story take you down into the ground and abyss of the underground coal mine. It’s all a lot of people have but not a place I want to go. If you hear an instrument on this number you can’t quite place, it’s probably Sonny Osborne’s guitjo being played by Mullins. Staying with the working man theme, they celebrate the life of the blue collar worker with “Blue Collar Blues,” a lively number that tells us the ups and downs of the blue collar life.

Songwriter Bill Castle, who recently passed away, wrote the title number, describing all the things that go on in life: happiness, strife, drunks, bad news. It’s an unusual topic for a song but Castle wrote a good one. Another song mixes the notion of life’s woes with a life once lived. “Hymns From The Hills” features some great four-part harmony with Barnes singing the bass line. Another very good four-part track is the old gospel number, “The Dearest Friend I Ever Had.” Another gospel track is one that is well known in southern gospel circles but not heard as much in bluegrass. Bill and Gloria Gaither’s “Because He Lives” is one of the best gospel songs you’ll ever hear and the band does a fabulous job with it.

One of the most celebrated songwriters in country music across the decades is Hank Williams. “May You Never Be Alone Like Me” has all the pathos you expect from a Williams’ ballad and I love his version, but the three-part version from the Ramblers nails this song and the mandolin and fiddle take a beautiful break on it. Speaking of country music, they do a hot version of Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly,” recorded by Bob Wills in 1942.

Joe Mullins and his Radio Ramblers are one of the best groups on the circuit and you’ll wear out this CD on your player.

 

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“The Way I’m Livin'” by Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lee Ann Womack had an extended reign as one of the most prominent country music entertainers of the late ’90s through to the late-aughts. But country music record companies are fickle these days, so Womack returned this autumn with her first album of new material in six years on Sugar Hill.

The Way I’m Livin’ is pure country with all the duality such entails. The difference this time out is that the songs come from a selection of the finest Americana writers of recent decades.

Some songs are sad and sentimental (“Send It On Down,” from Chris Knight and David Leone), while others find her dancing with the devil (the album’s wonderful—but largely ignored by country radio—lead single from Adam Wright, “The Way I’m Livin’.”) Julie Miller’s “Listen To The Wind” provides depth, and allows Womack to cut loose vocally while playing off the band, notably electric guitarist Duke Levine. Also among those contributing songs are Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, Brennan Leigh, and Bruce Robison, with two.

Folks like Mac McAnally (guitar, piano), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Hank Singer (fiddle, mandolin) and Glenn Worf (bass) create a throwback country sound that is clearly appealing.

Throughout this expansive album, Womack is in exceptional voice. Too mature to confuse histrionics for passion, to these ears Womack has never sounded better, more comfortable, or assured. “Nightwind” is a showcase for Womack’s singing, with gentle backing allowing her to carry the emotional weight of the song. “Same Kind of Different” sounds familiar, in a light and positive way, from first listen. Roger Miller’s performance of “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore” just missed the Top 10 in 1971; here, Womack flips the perspective and in doing so softens the off-putting tale of a sad man obsessed with a dancer.

“Out On The Weekend” is yet another chance for Womack to shine as she enlivens and freshens Neil Young’s classic song. Instrumentally, the performance is fuller than Young’s, and Womack’s voice is so much warmer; swapping the gender of the teller allows Womack to inhabit the song, delivering intensified vulnerability.

Within an industry where Nashville is reality, there should be room for an artist of Lee Ann Womack’s quality and intensity on the charts and radio. It appears, however, that Womack is going to have to continue creating her own path well outside the commercial country mainstream, much like folks such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris did before her.

It has worked out pretty well for them; no reason it shouldn’t for the multiple Country Music Association Award-winning Womack.

 

“The Earls of Leicester” by the Earls of Leicester and “Three Bells” by Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes

The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes
Three Bells

Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life when I got and started listening to these two albums, which were released simultaneously by Rounder. He writes about the unlikelihood that a few teenagers in London would make it their life’s mission—at least foe a few years—to become a Chicago-style blues band, and that such a thing was only possible because of the invention of recorded music. Though he first picked up a guitar only about 25 years after the death of Robert Johnson and while the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter were still alive and productive, there’s simply no way he would have ever heard their music were it not for vinyl records and radio waves. Before their invention, musical styles grew slowly. Music was tied to a particular place and people, and to activities like Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning worship—a juxtaposition that influenced bluegrass music as much as it did the blues.

Music also passed from hand to hand, from master to apprentice. Musical mutations into new styles only occurred when a genius came along to synthesize and create from what already existed—the example most obvious to readers of this site is of course bluegrass music, which happened when the cross-eyed boy from Kentucky played dances with his fiddling uncle and a black guitar player at the same time and place musical evangelists were teaching the shape-note choir singing style. Without proximity to those three elements, Bill Monroe would not have created what Alan Lomax called “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British—American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

You wouldn’t quite call Josh Graves a genius on Monroe’s level, but he certainly was a virtuoso, much like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who hired Graves so his Dobro sound could further distinguish the Foggy Mountain Boys from other early exponents of Monroe’s art. (For the full story, read Bluegrass Bluesman.) Graves’ innovations led to a new vein of gifted musicians deciding to play bluegrass, including Mike Auldridge, who bought his first Dobro from Graves himself.

It’s to pay homage to Graves and the sound he helped create, of course, that prompted Jerry Douglas, the undisputed Dobro master, to form the Earls of Leicester. Walk down Broadway in Nashville, and you’ll bump into enough pickers who could play an impromptu Lester & Earl set, but the five that Douglas has enlisted do it as good as it could possibly be done: Union Station’s Barry Bales plays upright bass, Johnny Warren fiddles as good as his father Paul did with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Shawn Camp (lead vocals, guitar), and Charlie Cushman (banjo) play the parts, respectively, of Curly Seckler, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The effect they achieve on this 14-track album is uncanny—they don’t sound exactly like the source material, but they capture the key element of the Flatt & Scruggs sound—its effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication. It’s great to hear Camp, an accomplished country-rock singer songwriter, sing bluegrass, coming closer to Lester’s vocal style than one could imagine anyone else doing, and O’Brien and Cushman have Curly’s chop and Earl’s roll down pat. Warren’s fills and breaks are as exciting as his daddy’s were, and Douglas’ vicariously reminds us just how important the grafting of Graves on to the bluegrass family tree was for what we hear and appreciate today. Adding the Dobro’s six strings as the music’s sixth instrument gave it so much more depth without sacrificing a bit of its integrity.

After Graves and before Douglas, there was Mike Auldridge. As a founding member of the Seldom Scene, Auldridge helped that band firmly establish the “progressive” approach to bluegrass—mixing in both the songs and the sensibilities of the country-rock and singer-songwriter styles of the 1970s. You can do a lot with a traditional five-piece bluegrass unit, but you absolutely cannot put across a song like “Sweet Baby James,” much less make it far superior to the original, without that small taste of Auldridge’s Dobro.

In the months before Auldridge died in 2012, he recorded Three Bells with Douglas and Rob Ickes—no backing band, just the three of them—with Auldridge’s instrument in the middle of the stereo mix, Douglas left, and Ickes right. I don’t think an approach like this could work, in a simply technical sense, nearly as well with any other instrument—especially not among the other five bluegrass tools. And it’s hard to imagine three other players could use this approach to create a sound so skilfully woven, as if all 18 strings were played by only one musician.

The 11-song, 45-minute track list is free of cliché—only “Panhandle Rag,” a composition of Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys) is from the bluegrass/country instrumental canon, which makes sense. Such tunes are written with the idea that each instrument in the band can have a turn showing what it can do before passing off to the next man.

Instead, this ensemble refashions old parlor, jazz, and easy listening songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Sunrise Serenade,” and “The Three Bells” into brocaded tone poems free from the schmaltzy sheen present in their most popular versions. Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” is similarly refined into a stately hymn.

But of course, Auldridge, Douglas, and Ickes are all gifted composers as well, and their own songs are the best on this album: Auldridge’s bright and bouncy “For Buddy,” Douglas’ propulsive “North,” and Ickes’ perfectly titled “Dobro Heaven.”

Each man also contributes a solo performance—Auldridge a gorgeous medley of “‘Till There Was You/Moon River,” Ickes his own reflective “The Message,” and Douglas the truly sublime “The Perils of Private Mulvaney”—to remind us both the emotional richness a single Dobro can convey, and of why this trio making this record just in time is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fiddle Tune X” by Billy Strings & Don Julin

Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X
No label
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Michigan acoustic duo Billy (Apostol) Strings and Don Julin have released their second recording, a live album entitled Fiddle Tune X. It is an animated, forceful collection of mostly very familiar songs, none of which appeared on their debut album of last year.

I have heard it argued—and may have taken this position myself—that a duo cannot play bluegrass as it is impossible to include the necessary elements of the genre with only two instrumentalists. Strings (guitar) and Julin (mandolin) may not feature fiddle or bass, but everything about their stance suggests deep interest in and respect for bluegrass. They are certainly a bluegrass duo.

While the sound may not be bluegrass in its purest form, the essence of the music is certainly concentrated within the duo’s sparse framework. They draw on the fiddle-tune foundation of bluegrass (“Salt Creek”/”Old Joe Clark”), the influence hillbilly and country sounds had on its founders (“Beaumont Rag,” “Walk On Boy,” and “Miss the Mississippi and You,”), and the standards that are at the core of the music (“Poor Ellen Smith,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”)

While such a repertoire may appear tired or pedestrian, such is not the case. Strings and Julin bring an abundance of energy to their performance, feeding off each other and their audience to elevate these frequently encountered songs. While most of the songs have been around next to forever, the pair—working around a single mic—have found a way to make the overly recognizable extremely appealing.

Without overstating things, Doc Watson—whose spirit doesn’t seem to be too far removed from these boys’ hearts—comes to mind; you comfortably anticipated how a Doc Watson performance would unfold, but that didn’t stop you from leaning forward to listen. Same here, although the familiarity factor is obviously less apparent.

Strings sings the lead throughout with Julin coming in with complementary tenor. The bulk of the songs were recorded at various venues including small halls, bars, and homes. These songs have the most vigour, with the audiences’ enthusiasm for the duo readily apparent. They play to the crowd rather shamelessly and good-naturedly, extending both “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie” to six minute-plus jams, guitar and mandolin exchanging the leads while also coming together in impressive displays of companionable accompaniment. The opening pairing of “Beaumont Rag” and “Walk On Boy” showcase Strings considerable flatpicking skills.

A large handful of songs were recorded without second guessing or overdubs in a snowbound farmhouse early this year, and it is on these cuts that the duo are at their strongest. Absent the whooping and hollering of the more exuberant members of their fan club, one can more readily appreciate their talents.

Julin’s title tune is a driving bluegrass instrumental that threatens to go by a bit too quickly were it not for Strings’ judicious tempo adjustment on his break. “Dos Banjos,” Strings’ composition, has a real mountain sound with timeless lyrics that could be lifted from a Hobart Smith side. Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” is perhaps the album’s most pensive tune, and showcases the duo at the highest level. Strings’ playing, while considerable throughout the 17-track recording, is especially appealing here with Julin serving up delicate notes that are terribly impressive. The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son” is another highlight.

The closing rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded on Third Man Records Voice-o-Graph is the only jarring bit on an otherwise terrific collection; given this and Neil Young’s indulgent A Letter Home, let’s hope the fascination with this low-fi method is a quickly passing fancy.

Billy Strings and Don Julin have captured some of their favorite live performances within this collection. Augmented with their isolated farmhouse recordings, the duo have crafted a very pleasing set of acoustic music. I anticipate frequently returning to Fiddle Tune X. Especially recommended for those who appreciate Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien.

“Family, Friends & Fellowship” by Steve Gulley

Steve Gulley
Family, Friends & Fellowship
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley is at home with a bluegrass, country, or gospel song. A favorite spot in his bluegrass performances is when he steps up to the mic to sing George Jones. Gulley typically sings in the lead register, between baritone and tenor but can hit the tenor part when he needs to. If you had to pin his voice to a genre, it’s more country than bluegrass but bluegrass isn’t totally about that high, lonesome sound. He’s a veteran performer, from his young days in Renfro Valley to time with Doyle Lawson and helping found two very popular groups, Mountain Heart and Grasstowne. Now he’s released his first gospel CD.

Family, Friends & Fellowship has elements of country as well as bluegrass, easily slipping from one to the other. “The Man I Ought To Be” is classic country music. Fiddles, steel guitar, bass—it will stop a country music lover in his or her tracks just to savor that kickoff. The message is a good one, too, talking about the struggles of living a Christian life. One of its great lines is “I never felt so tall as when I fell down on my knees.” His wife, Debbie, sings harmony and she doesn’t take a back seat to anyone with her singing ability. Gulley co-wrote this song and wrote “Scars In His Hands,” a number he recorded with Mountain Heart, one of their best songs. On this cut he’s joined by Kenny and Amanda Smith plus Jason Burleson playing mandolin and Brandon Godman, who plays fiddle on several tracks.

“What Would You Have Me Do” is a story about the dark times of life that Gulley wrote, hoping its message might help someone along life’s way. Some of the CDs multi-track supporting artists are Phil Leadbetter (resophonic guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle), Stewart’s bandmate Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Tim Stafford (guitar). On the country numbers you’ll hear Les Butler paying piano and Terry Crisp on steel with Mark Laws providing percussion on most tracks. These are some of the best musicians in bluegrass and country. Bringing together such a diverse group likely means at least some of them recorded their tracks remotely, but that had no effect on the quality of the end product.

Another family-affair song is “God’s Not Dead,” with Gulley’s parents Linda (lead) and Don (baritone) joining Steve and Vic Graves (bass vocals). Gary Robinson, Jr. and Bryan Turner (both members of Gulley’s new band, New Pinnacle), Stuart Wyrick and Scott Powers contribute, too. Graves also sings lead on an 1893 hymn that’s one of my favorites, “I Must Tell Jesus.” Gulley turns to his old boss and friend Doyle Lawson to help on “Pray For Me” and a nice arrangement of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” Lawson sings baritone while Don Gulley sings lead. Don Gulley is a veteran radio announcer and performer and is clearly in his element on this CD.

Carl Story co-wrote “Light At The River” and one of my favorite singers, Ricky Wasson, shares the lead duties on this good old song. A great partnership lasted a few good years when Paul Williams played in Jimmy Martin’s band. One product of their relationship was “Stormy Waters.” Harking back to their days together in Renfro Valley, Gulley sings this one with Dale Ann Bradley. He reaches into southern Gospel to give us a G. T. Speer song, “I Never Shall Forget the Day,” along with Joe Mullins, a singer who ranks high in my list of favorites. Debbie Gulley sings harmony then takes her turn on lead with a touching number that leads to some soul searching, “Could You Walk a Mile.” This is a number we should all listen to carefully. Another song from southern gospel that will touch your soul comes from Ronald Hinson, “That I Could Still Go Free,” featuring Debbie Gulley and Mark Wheeler on harmony. What a great song this one is.

The CD closes with a song that probably all of us know, “Jesus Loves Me,” featuring grandson Mack on the intro and Alan Bibey on mandolin.

This is Gulley’s first gospel CD. After you hear it you’ll be hoping it’s not his last.

“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
Masterworks
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.

“The View” by the Roys

The Roys
The View
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Roys continue to bring out good CDs. We’ve looked at them before with Gypsy Runaway Train and New Day Dawning. This CD bears their signature, not just on the performance side but on the composing of the songs. At least one of the two is in the credits of every song.

Lee and Elaine Roy, siblings for those who don’t know, do all the singing with Lee playing the mandolin family (mandolin, mandola and mandocello) while Elaine plays the guitar. Joining them are Daniel Patrick (banjo, Dobro), Erik Alvar/ (bass) and Clint White (fiddle). Two-part harmony is their thing but they could think about experimenting with another voice now and then for variety.

Two numbers touch on a hard time in our lives. “Sometimes” talks about a woman who is experiencing dementia associated with her age. It’s a pleasant song and touches the highs (if you can call them that) and lows of this condition and generally offers a positive outlook. The Roys are very big on positive outlook. I can’t say it’s one of my favorites because it’s too much like a conversation for my taste. “Heaven Needed Her More,” on the other hand, has a country flavor, a great fiddle intro and caught my attention from the first bars. “Black Gold” is another good ‘un, one of the favorite topics of bluegrass: coal miners.

“Mended Wings” is another very pretty number, talking about making the trip to heaven with wings mended by grace. They pick things up with “No More Tears Left To Cry,” a song about triumph over misery, and “No More Lonely,” a song about finding love and freedom from misery. “Those Boots” is a different type of song, reflecting on people who have made their way in life by talking about their boots. It starts with ranchers then soldiers and ends with performers who have “kicked out a few footlights” and tonight stand in that magic circle on the Opry stage. Their songs are marked by melodies that vary from a three chord formula and have interesting arrangements. They pay tribute to Bill Monroe with “Mandolin Man,” featuring Doyle Lawson, not a bad mandolin picker himself, as a guest.

The pickers get a chance to shine on “Northern Skies,” a good instrumental number. The title song, co-written by the Roys and Bill Anderson, is a great number of memories about growing up. It features a fairly rare (in bluegrass) arco (bowed) bass. They pass along good advice with “Live The Life You Love.” If we could all do that we’d be a lot happier bunch of folks.

It’s doubtful you’ll ever hear them singing “Knoxville Girl” but you don’t have to do murder songs to do good bluegrass. This is good bluegrass.