“Hylo Brown & the Timberliners” by Hylo Brown & the Timberliners

Hylo Brown & the Timberliners
Hylo Brown & the Timberliners
Rural Rhythm Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Frank Brown—dubbed Hylo by a deejay at WPFB in Middletown, Ohio who kept forgetting the first name of the singer with a wide vocal range—died in Mechanicsburg, Ohio a little more than a decade ago. It’s a short drive from there to Dayton where thousands of Brown’s fellow Kentuckians came looking for work after the war. They’d gather at the beer joints to hear songs of the place they’d left behind, giving the new musical form enough economic backing to flourish.

Brown joined the most commercially succesful bluegrass band of the music’s first generation—Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys—for the first time in 1957, and recorded his first album with his own band, the Timberliners, on Capitol the next year. From what I can tell, it looks like he rejoined Lester & Earl and continued to cut records as a solo artist or with the Timberliners when he had the time.

This disc is a reissue of a 1967 release for Rural Rhythm, the first of seven albums he cut for the label that’s putting out lots of great bluegrass these days.

Backed by Jack Casey (guitar), Ross Branham (banjo), John Maultbray (fiddle), and Danny Milhon (Dobro), Brown strolls through twenty songs—all of which bluegrass and country audiences would have considered standards back then—in just forty-three minutes. (A few of these are familiar instrumentals. Also, there’s a bass and a mandolin in the mix, but no credits in the notes.)

Though the band’s sound and style is similar to Flatt & Scruggs, the purpose here was clearly to let Brown charm the listener with that friendly, inviting voice, which remains full and rich whether its down close to the baritone lead or up in tenor territory. There are a handful of instrumentals here, but they’re even shorter than the vocal tracks.

“Little Bunch of Roses” and “Sweet Fern” are two fine examples of what Brown could do, as is his take on the Hank Williams tearjerker “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” As a bargain disc, this one’s a good pickup if you want to discover a great voice from the bluegrass past.

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“The Sacred Shakers Live” by the Sacred Shakers

The Sacred Shakers
The Sacred Shakers Live
Signature Sounds

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Through the years I’ve attended a number of happenings—church services, jams, shows with local performers—where the singers are untrained. That doesn’t necessarily mean bad, off-key, or off-time, just no cultured vowel sounds or beautiful diction. These are people who enjoy singing and don’t keep a scorecard on perfection.

Meet the Sacred Shakers. They combine a variety of related music styles, including old-time, bluegrass, country, and rockabilly to serve up their own brand of spiritual music, performed by a group that includes musicians who are Christian, agnostic and Jewish. It’s clear this isn’t your usual gospel offering. “Take Me In Your Lifeboat” has been performed and recorded by a long list of bands, but you may have never heard this particular combination of banjo, electric guitar, driving upright bass and drums. Guitarist Jerry Miller released his own CD (reviewed here) a year ago and is an ace instrumentalist in band of top-notch players.

The leader of the Shakers is Eilen Jewell. She has a good voice with a timbre that sets her apart from most female vocalists. Her version of “All Night, All Day” has a swinging, bluesy feel, with a good break by Miller and an a cappella ending that showcases the harmony singing of the group. Her rendition of Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me” is reminiscent in tone with Dickens’ version but more relaxed, with blues influences.

“Little Black Train,” a song done by Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family, has a dark feel to it with the banjo playing a repeating riff and some haunting minor chords from other instruments in the background. The fiddle music of Daniel Kellar plays an important role on this number, but on some tracks he must be trying for an old-timey sound as he comes across a bit scratchy. The band takes a different approach to “Lord, I Am the True Vine” with a rock-and-roll kick and then singing it like a gospel revival, drawing a picture of everyone waving their hands and swaying to the music. “Run On” shows off their harmony singing with the background singers responding to the lead.

This is a CD of contrasts, recorded live with an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. Banjo balanced against rock and country electric guitar, rockabilly bass, a drummer who knows how to drum, very good harmonies, a fiddler that is sometimes impressive and sometimes not, and enthusiastic vocalists. This is music with religious roots but not producing a religious atmosphere, played for enjoyment, not conviction. If for no other reason, you need to listen to it because of Miller’s guitar work throughout.

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“Cut to the Chase” by Kathy Kallick

Kathy Kallick
Cut to the Chase
Live Oak Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Kathy Kallick is a versatile recording artist. Folk, bluegrass, Americana, pioneering trailblazer…labels have never meant too much to Kallick, have never limited her creativity.

“She was a nice Jewish girl living near Chicago,” is not the way most bluegrass biographies could begin, but those are the words Murphy Hicks Henry elected to use when beginning her chapter on Kallick within Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass. A California resident for forty years, she and like minded compatriots founded the Good Ol’ Persons in 1974 and Kallick has been at the center of the dynamic West Coast bluegrass movement. The Good Ol’ Persons produced five albums including the essential live retrospective Good n’ Live.

She has recorded songs of her musical roots (My Mother’s Voice),  albums for children (including the inspired Use a Napkin, Not Your Mom), an album of duets with Laurie Lewis (Together), and straight ahead bluegrass (Call Me A Taxi). Since the late ’90s, the Kathy Kallick Band has produced several albums of jaw-dropping, unfettered bluegrass starting with Walkin’ In My Shoes through to and including 2012′s Time. In my opinion, their Warmer Kind of Blue is all kinds of marvelous. (See Kallick’s discography from her website here.)

Alternately and frequently simultaneously, she has crafted albums bridging the unsettled ground between folk and country, releasing tremendously well-executed albums including Reason & Rhyme and My Mother’s Voice.

Having written a collection of new songs that will come to stand with her finest, with Cut to the Chase (which I mistakenly read as ‘Cut to the Case’ for about three weeks) Kallick provides ample demonstration that she continues to hone her art. I argue that my reading error was an honest one, as Kallick’s assertive, clean lead guitar playing is as central to the album as her remarkable voice and erudite lyrics.

The album’s lead track insightfully crafts a roadmap for Cut to the Chase, as the protagonist comes to the realization that “Tryin’ So Hard to Get to You” is a long journey toward heartache and frustration. While there may be benefits to giving oneself over to the power of another, it’s best to determine one’s own course, to “keep your feet on the ground,” to borrow from another song. The catchy “Same Ol’ Song” has a similar theme, but different mood. The influence of Hazel Dickens on these songs and “When”  may only be apparent from my perspective.

Whether inhabiting others in “Persephone’s Dream” and “Franco’s Spain” (with beautiful mandolin lighting the way) and exploring the psyche and worlds of her creations, or describing the life shaped by a boy’s fascination with a train’s whistle—”Not As Lonesome As Me”—Kallick brings forth honesty and experience to fashion tactile personalities.

“Ellie,” a song that dates back to the Good Ol’ Persons, is given new life closing this set. Apparently long unavailable (the original version is on I Can’t Stand to Ramble, which I don’t own), hearing the song for the first time I fully understand why Murphy Henry highlights the song as “the timeless classic” from the GOP’s second album.

Determined to be a good girl in her mother’s eyes, Annie makes some choices that might be disappointing. “As the baby grows, she learned to tell a lie, that’s easier to do to keep Mama satisfied” is just one of the foundational thoughts captured in the beautifully written song, with fiddle—presumably from Kallick band member Annie Staninec—tempering the ‘true life’ harshness of the lyrics with the acceptance of mournful reflection.

While Kallick wrote the majority of these songs by herself, three are co-written with Clive Gregson, long ago of new wave band Any Trouble and collaborations with Christine Collister, and himself a notable folk presence for the past few decades. “Get the hell away from me,” the affirming refrain within the album’s forceful title track, certainly cuts to the chase, while their “The Time Traveler’s Wife” requires listeners to immerse themselves in the song’s rich lyrical path.

Kallick’s hand-picked core band is a gathering of trusted colleagues. In addition to Staninec, members of the Kathy Kallick Band— Greg Booth (resonator guitar), Tom Bekeny (mandolin), and Cary Black (bass)—serve as the instrumental foundation for the album, while Good Ol’ Persons John Reischman (mandolin) and Sally Van Meter (Weissenborn lap slide), Bill Evans (banjo), and others also appear. The album is cohesive, with a consistency in sound that unifies the assembled story songs.

Cut To the Chase is several steps away from the music of the Kathy Kallick Band, and allows Kallick to continue to develop her own style of acoustic Americana. It is a beautifully constructed album of personal and poetic music that should appeal to all who have appreciated Kallick’s music and insights.

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“Dancin’ Annie” by Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie    
Dancin’ Annie
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

So many albums from notable bluegrass pickers these days feature the headliner with an assortment of other similarly famous pickers, and the results are usually satisfying—but that they are satisfying in the same way gets old after a while.

It’s refreshing to see banjo legend Bill Emerson (Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron) sticking to the tried and true approach of leading an actual band and trusting them to do great work in the studio.

Sweet Dixie is filled out by Teri Chism (bass), Wayne Lanham (mandolin), and Chris Stifel (guitar), all of whom play and sing with the effortless precision that we have long enjoyed from Emerson’s banjo. They split the vocal leads just about evenly, and their harmony singing and instrumental breaks are done in service of the song. Like I said: an actual band.

Stifel penned and sings a smooth lead on the bouncy title track, while the rest of this 12-track 39-minute CD features songs from other writers. The three on which Chism sings lead are particularly nice fits for her voice and this band: the hard-driving—both lyrically and sonically—”Two Hands on the Wheel,” Liz Meyer’s “The Only Wind that Blows,” and a simple, sweet version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

The three gospel numbers manage to be fresh and meaningful, rather than trite or preachy, and the two instrumentals—Emerson’s own “State Line Ride” and Lanham’s “Whistle Stop”—make this one a fun listen in the car.

The two best tracks here are “Days When You Were Mine” and “This Heart You Have Broken,” which isn’t surprising when you see that they’re both previously unrecorded songs from the songwriting team of Pete Goble and the late Leroy Drumm.

This approach to album-making has its roots in the 1970s, but Emerson and Sweet Dixie prove it still works.

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“I’d Do It All Over Again” by the Easter Brothers

The Easter Brothers
I’d Do It All Over Again
Pisgah Ridge Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I’d Do It All Over Again”—the Easter Brothers version, not Crystal Gayle’s lost love lament—is a song about years of labor for God, years of serving through music. Their faith is still strong and they’d do it again if they had the chance. This is the kind of message that you don’t sell without some history (like a singer belting out “I Did It My Way” before his thirtieth birthday) The Easter Brothers have sixty years of history in the business. You may have seen them on a Gaither show and people in the gospel world will make a connection because of Jeff and Sheri Easter, popular gospel performers and members of the Gaither troupe. Jeff is James Easter’s son and they recorded a video in the church James’ father started in 1963.

The musicians include a drummer (Steve Schramm) and pianist Les Butler. Butler is a very active, multi-instrumentalist in gospel music while Schramm is the bass player for The Easter Family, the only non-Easter member of this group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren. The other musicians are familiar names, all top-drawer musicians: Byron House (bass), Cody Kilby (guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin) and Justin Moses (banjo, Dobro). Numbers like “Let The Hallelujahs Roll” are a fusion of bluegrass instrumentation and gospel styling with brothers trading vocal leads on the chorus. It would be hard to find a bluegrass or gospel crowd that didn’t like this music.

“The Lost Sheep” is one of many numbers written by the brothers. This number, the story of a man who had lost his way in life, features narration in a voice just a bit used by age, the perfect setting for a story of trials and tribulations. Time takes its toll on vocal cords and we’ve heard it in many voices: Johhny Cash, some of the performers on Country’s Family Reunion, some of the bluegrass legends still on the circuit. These changes in voice seem to make no matter to the fans and the Easter Brothers do remarkably well with their singing. Their voices havechanged some with the years but are as good as ever. “Old Fashion Talk With The Lord” is another number where they swap leads and fill the choruses with their dead-on, excellent harmony. This song has a clear and unquestionable message:

Do you feel all alone, with burdens and sorrows

And is your heart heavy, too?

And it looks like the Savior is a million miles away

It’s not the Lord that’s drifting, it’s you

Their message of being changed by faith and a life devoted to faith sounds in song after song. “I Didn’t Leave Like I Came” is a fast-moving number that is a message of change and happens to be excellent bluegrass. “The Crossing” touches the inevitable we all face and the promise of salvation. I’m writing the words down to sing this one in my church.

Great singing and harmony, excellent musicians, the good message. What more could you want?

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“One Evening in May” by Laurie Lewis

Laurie Lewis
One Evening in May
Spruce and Maple Music
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Laurie Lewis’ brave and challenging One Evening in May will likely confound some listeners as much as it impress others. This album is unconventional, surprising, and no little bit excellent.

Lewis’ new live album is both brave and challenging for good reason. She leads a trio that includes long-time collaborator Tom Rozum and electric guitarist Nina Gerber and has elected to capture songs recorded live on a single evening at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage.

Not only that, but she has chosen to build the bulk of the album around newly written songs. Therefore, few of these songs will have been heard by any but the most ardent of Lewis’ listeners. I’ve been intently listening to Lewis for more than a dozen years, and nothing sounded familiar to me. Well, almost nothing; more on that later. No “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” No “Tall Pines.” No “The Wood Thrush’s Song.”

This album then is a whole new listening experience, one that captures Lewis and her cohorts in a very comfortable setting, and I imagine this will be what confounds some who experience this album expecting the tried and true. As most who have listened to Lewis for longer than a festival weekend will attest, it is this very unconventional approach to music that has helped Laurie Lewis remain at the fore of string-band influenced, modern folk.

While there is little to connect the music contained within One Evening in May with bluegrass, neither is there a great deal beyond instrumentation removing it from that world. The themes Lewis explores are definitely ‘grass-friendly, and it is to her credit that she effortlessly breaks the confines of genre. More Blossoms than Skippin’ and Flyin’, those attracted to Lewis’ warm personality and charming music will find One Evening in May very attractive. Select songs also feature harmony from the T Sisters, and a pair have fiddling by Tristan Clarridge, providing a more fully enveloped context.

While the songs are unfamiliar, they don’t remain that way for long. “Arson of the Heart” and “Garden Grow” are jumpy little numbers that allows the trio to rock out, joined on the latter by the exuberant Tietjen Sisters. After this bit of frivolity, Lewis settles into one of the album’s most significant songs.

“Sailing Boat” could have come from Guy Clark or Mary Chapin Carpenter, and now that I think about it, so too could have “Garden Grow.” Like many of Lewis’ compositions, “Sailing Boat” uses finely hewn lyrical phrases to create vivid images and a contemplative mood that remain fixed in the psyche long after the chords fade. The metaphor is indeed a boat bound for the reef, but the human relationship is unambiguous.

“Barstow” is quite wonderful, a short story in song deserving of a literary label. Her personal compendium of “Kisses” balances the density of the songs that surround it, while simultaneously revealing a depth of consideration that may escape notice within clever wordplay. “En Voz Baja” and “The Crooked Miles,” a song of joyful reflection, would not be out of place on Emmylou Harris albums of the 70s.

I quite appreciate the spritely banjo tones that Lewis brings to the rousing album closer, “With Me Wherever I Go.”

Mandolinist Tom Rozum is afforded considerable space within this recording, providing his impeccable rhythm and tone throughout. He takes the vocal lead on “Down to Tampa” and “One Sweet Hello,” but it is the colorful fills and supportive notes he provides on songs such as “Barstow” and “Kisses” that are his most true contributions. Nina Gerber is allowed to showcase her playing on the instrumental “Winthrop Waltz,” and like Rozum she is a gifted collaborator whose talents are essential within this trio. She cuts loose on “I Missing You Tonight,” laying out classic-sounding guitar lines.

Beyond the overall quality of the production—the sound recording and both the understated album packaging and graphics (kudos, Mr. Rozum) are immaculate. What is readily apparent with this recording is that Laurie Lewis continues to peak. Her albums stretch back more than thirty years, and among them are several bona fide classics including The Oak and the Laurel, True Stories, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Skippin’ and Flyin’, and Guest House.  I would suggest that we add One Night in May to that list.

The one familiar note in this work of remarkable originality? A stout take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to kick things off.

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“Things Left Undone” by Darren Nicholson

Darren Nicholson
Things Left Undone
Bearded Baby Productions
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Not to be overly philosophical, but I’ve found that reflections on how I’ve lived life increase as the decades roll by. The title song of Darren Nicholson’s new CD is a song I might have listened to but not heard at one time, sung without thinking. Now, I need to find somewhere to put this track so I can hear it on a regular basis.

When a stranger came knockin’, did you let him in?

Was there food on your table for a down and out friend?

Did you hide in the shadows? Did you walk in the sun?

Or do you regret the things left undone?

Good arrangement, good song.

While I’ve heard CDs that I felt had a wart or two, it’s rare to listen to a bluegrass CD that has anything less than superb musicians. This one isn’t pure bluegrass but ‘grass is its base and it meets the test. Nicholson plays mandolin and lead guitar plus doing the lead vocals. His list of accomplishments is long and he’s also a part of Balsam Range. He’s joined by a bevy of guests and Darren Nicholson Band members including Steve Sutton (banjo), Carl Jackson, Tim Surrett, and Aaron Ramsey plus others. How could you expect anything but good music from this lineup?

“Travelin’ Teardrop Blues” is a number about life on the road. It’s not traditional but it’s bluegrass, featuring Kevin Sluder on bass, Griff Martin on guitar and Tony Creasman on wallet box. It tells us about the tension between loving to travel but leaving behind loved ones. “Give Mother My Crown” has been covered many times, going back to its origin with the Bailes Brothers and a few years later by Flatt & Scruggs. Sparse, just a guitar and bass with Nicholson, Eddie Rose and Audie Blaylock doing the vocals. You won’t get much grassier than this, or the “Bluegrass Stomp,” one of Mr. Monroe’s compositions, featuring Steve Thomas on fiddle, and “Sugar Creek Gap,” a blazing instrumental.

They also dip their toes in country. “Way I’ve Always Been” is a Tom T Hall song from his 1997 Home Grown album, though they do it (with Sluder on lead vocals) twice as fast as TTH did. “In A Perfect World,” co-composed by Milan Miller, gets the full country ballad treatment with Jeff Collins playing some Floyd Cramer-tinged piano and David Johnson working overtime with guitar, fiddles, strings and beautiful steel guitar. If you like classic country ballads, this is as pretty as you’ll ever hear. “I’m Not Going There Today,” featuring Rhonda Vincent and Jennifer Nicholson on vocals and Miller on electic guitar, is another excellent classic country number.

Does your taste run to country, like Guy Clark’s “Rain In Durango?” Perhaps you like hot modern bluegrass: listen to “Dancin’ In The Kitchen.” They offer some rock-’grass fusion with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” in a bluegrass conversion. And then there’s the traditional side of their music. This CD isn’t pure bluegrass but it’s pure fun, and that’s what is important.

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