“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.

“Better than I Deserve” by the Farm Hands

The Farm Hands
Better than I Deserve
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Farm Hands (not to be confused with the Farmhands Band) are four seasoned veterans who have now been together four years. Daryl Mosley plays bass and sings. He spent ten years with New Tradition, a bluegrass gospel quartet, then ten years with the Osborne Brothers. His composition “He Saw It All” was a #1 hit for the Booth Brothers. Part of his Osborne Brothers tenure included his present bandmate Tim Graves. Graves has been SPBGMA’s Dobro Player of the Year eight times. He also spent time with Wilma Lee Cooper and James Monroe. He has played in several iterations of the band Cherokee with his friend and Farm Hands bandmate Bennie Boling.

Boling is a multi-instrumentalist who plays banjo for the Farm hands. He’s also an accomplished songwriter with songs recorded by Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys. Rounding out the group is guitarist Keith Tew, who has played in Rhonda Vincent’s band and toured with Vassar Clements. His compositions have been recorded by the Lonesome River Band and Lou Reid. This is a lot of talent packed into one band.

Included in this CD are two Boling songs. “Farm Country” is an interesting instrumental with Boling, Graves and guest Jason Roller (fiddle) trading licks. “He’s Got An Answer for Everything” (co-written with Jim McBride) is a gospel number that says what Christians believe. Other gospel numbers are the well known “Over in the Gloryland” and “Streets of Gold,” a beautiful song about the heavenly home of the faithful. Mosley contributes “The Way I Was Raised,” a song about manners and a lifestyle that kids don’t learn as often these days. The band’s harmonies are very good and the musicians know how to support the song without overwhelming the singer.

Mosley also wrote “Better than I Deserve” is an unusual a cappella number that starts out as an solo then adds a variety of percussive sound effects and a background quartet of Mike Reid, Bruce Dees, Lisa Silver, and Nick DeStefano. Reid is a talented singer/songwriter who also had a career in pro football. His CD from several years back is still one of my favorites; twenty-one of his compositions have gone to #1 on the country and pop charts. Dees has had a long career as a session player and enjoyed a long relationship with Ronnie Milsap, including singing backup on one of my favorites, “Lost In The Fifties Tonight.” DeStefano has worked with a number of stars including Kathy Mattea and Lisa Silver has enjoyed a long Nashville career. That’s an impressive backup quartet. The song isn’t mainstream bluegrass but it’s good listening.

Tew adds one song, “Mama Prayed and Daddy Plowed,” a song about a hard but good life in the country, and they pick up three good country numbers: Jerry Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times,” Merle Haggard’s “The Way It Was in ’51” and a Randy Travis hit, “From Your Knees,” a song about a man who has reached the end of the line in love, a bed he made all on his own.

This is another very good CD from the Farm Hands, full of good songs and great picking.

“Brotherhood” by the Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers
Brotherhood
Rounder Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The Gibson Brothers enter 2015 as one of the biggest bands in bluegrass. Brotherhood is their twelfth album, and serves as another new start for the group.

They have truly had a great ride, establishing an approach to bluegrass that is populist while crafting a sound that is recognizably their own. They have developed through the bluegrass system, always touring to hone their craft and recording for various labels— Hay Holler, Sugar Hill, and Compass—to increasing acclaim. Each of their past seven discs have hit #1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited survey and they have been awarded numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards including Album of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year (twice,) Song of the Year (twice,) Songwriter of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year (twice.)

They are, indeed, bona fide.

Now with Rounder Records, the Gibson Brothers embark on their third decade as recording artists with an album of covers drawn from the deep well of brotherhood found within vocal groups of the country, bluegrass, and early rock ‘n’ roll. It is a natural concept—after all, the Gibson Brothers are constantly compared to the likes of the Louvins, Stanleys, and Everlys, songs from all of whom are included herein—but also one that opens the duo to criticism: Brotherhood could be viewed as an easy way to bridge the gap at the sales table until the next album of new material is ready for consumption.

There is nothing beyond the effortlessness of their presentation that would suggest that this disc was simply ‘thrown together’ to ensure they band has something new to promote.

In Juli Thanki’s well-composed notes, it is revealed that Eric Gibson, the elder brother, resisted Leigh’s vision of an album of covers from artists that were hugely influential on the pair while growing up and learning bluegrass in northern New York State. Almost all of the material will be very familiar to the Gibson’s core audience, but their approach to these maudlin parlor tunes (Eric’s characterization, apparently) is so heartfelt and passionate that even the most jaded listener will be impressed by their vocal arrangements and the instrumental juice these recordings possess.

The Louvin Brothers’ “Seven Year Blues” is definitely a highlight, with Eric’s tenor cutting through with Del McCoury precision. Del’s sons Rob and Ronnie join the Gibsons on “What a Wonderful Saviour Is He,” a song borrowed from the Four Brothers’ Quartet, likely the least widely-known act the Gibson’s recognize on the album.

The Osbornes and Monroes are well-represented by “Each Season Changes You” and “I Have Found the Way;” these song, as well as tracks that the Yorks, Bolicks, and McReynoldses brought to charts and hearts, are firmly established in the Gibsons’ musical DNA.

The most recent song within the set is a hard slice of ’80s country culled from Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, “It’ll Be Her;” stripped of dated production and brightened by Leigh’s smooth lead vocals and Eric’s harmony, the song remains essentially a country number, further strengthened by pedal steel from Russ Pahl. Essential Everly Brothers’ songs “Bye Bye Love” and “Crying in the Rain” bookend the fifteen-track collection, with the closing number given an absolutely devastating performance as pedal steel highlights the song’s ache.

One of bluegrass music’s favorite mandolin players makes his recording debut with the Gibson Brothers on Brotherhood; Jesse Brock (Lynn Morris Band, Flamekeeper, Redline) is an excellent addition to the group, and his mandolin playing complements the Gibsons’ approach to bluegrass. Long-time members of the Gibson Brothers Clayton Campbell and Mike Barber, on fiddle and bass, respectfully, remain.

Co-produced by the brothers and Barber, Brotherhood further solidifies the Gibson Brothers as foundational exponents of contemporary bluegrass. It continues their well-established string of exceptional bluegrass albums, bringing both tradition and freshness to the current bluegrass landscape.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” by Ralph Stanley & Friends

Ralph Stanley & Friends
Man of Constant Sorrow
Cracker Barrel
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’m not sure how many Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers albums have been named Man of Constant Sorrow, but I own three. Similarly, I don’t know how many projects have been created in the past two-plus decades that pair Stanley with a host of other singers, but I had three—Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1992), Clinch Mountain Country (1998), and Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (2001)—before the latest such set arrived.

I’m not complaining, mind. As long as Dr. Ralph is willing and able, and as long as those who admire his talents come to pay tribute, I will be listening. This new 40-minute set from Cracker Barrel has a great deal to offer.

Co-produced by Americana legends Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale (who, don’t forget, recorded I Feel Like Singing Today (1999) and Lost in the Lonesome Pines (2002) with Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys), Man of Constant Sorrow is a consistent, wonderful album from (almost) start to finish.

The Clinch Mountain Boys accompany Stanley on the vast majority of these familiar numbers, most of which were recorded in the intimacy of Miller’s living room. The guest vocalists and musicians are among the most recognized within the Americana, country, and bluegrass fields and include Josh Turner, Dierks Bentley, Ricky Skaggs, and Lee Ann Womack.

Recording with Stanley for the first time is Del McCoury; a highlight of the set, the two take on Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” As he is always, McCoury is in fine voice taking the lead, and by re-establishing much of the lyrical integrity missing on the version Stanley recorded in 1971, the song is given a mighty performance heightened by Stanley’s tenor.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform in a close vocal trio with Stanley accompanied by bassist Paul Kowert. A song often treated as a throwaway, on “Pig In A Pen” Welch especially appears to bring her ‘give-a-damn’ on this track; listening to her performance, which seems to inspire Stanley, one could easily be convinced that it is a song of major lyrical importance.

Ronnie McCoury and his mandolin make a few appearances including when Miller and Lauderdale assist Stanley on “I’m The Man, Thomas,” another frequently recorded Stanley favorite. Nathan Stanley sings “Rank Stranger” with the Clinch Mountain Boys, while his grandfather takes care of “Man of Constant Sorrow” with his very capable band.

Robert Plant continues to endear himself to the roots community with stunning vocal contributions on “Two Coats,” a song Stanley has recorded a couple times previously. Plant reaches the core of the song, and the arrangement is sparse and no little bit haunting.

The only glitch heard on the album most likely comes down to personal taste. The piece that surely resonates most closely with Stanley is his personal recitation over “Hills of Home,” and—like most similar pieces—it is just a little too precious and contrived for repeated listening.

Man of Constant Sorrow is just the latest in a series of albums, including last year’s disc of duets with Ralph Stanley II and A Mother’s Prayer, that provide no shortage of evidence that Ralph Stanley remains a vital entity in his 87th year.

“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“Better Than Blue” by the Trinity River Band

The Trinity River Band
Better Than Blue
Orange Blossom Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and that’s apt for this CD, whose cover art doesn’t let on that this is a family band—parents Mike and Lisa Harris with children Sarah, Joshua, and Brianna—and one loaded with talent. Make no mistake, though—there’s good bluegrass inside.

The title song was co-written by Larry Cordle and is a good love-gone-bad bluegrass number. Sarah Harris has an excellent voice and plays a mean mandolin. She also sings lead on “Faithless Heart,” co-written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Mountain Heart. The harmony singing sounds great, as you might expect from a family band.

Brianna Harris is the fiddle player and sings lead on “Daddy’s Hands,” a Top 10 country hit composed and recorded by Holly Dunn. She is a good singer, just not quite as strong as her sister, Sarah. There is a murder song, of course. “Steel and Blood” was written and performed by Mike Harris and it’s a good ‘un. Lizzy is a victim with a gunslinger in her past. He comes looking and tries to take her back but she solves that with a knife. That sounds like justifiable homicide to me but the jury sends her to a grave. Not everyone likes a death-and-violence song but they are a constant thread in bluegrass and I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t live on around the campfires.

The band has a deft touch with love songs like “I’ll Love You Just the Same.” Joshua Harris has some haunting Dobro lines and their arrangement has Lisa Harris laying out and then back in with the bass. I really enjoy songs with thoughtful arrangements and they’re doing a good job of it. Joshua shows his skill with the banjo as the band rips through “Mystery Train.” This number has been around a long time and many people will best remember Elvis Presley’s version.

They include another country hit with Mark Wills‘ “Jacob’s Ladder,” the lead sung by Joshua Harris. It’s obvious talent runs deep in this family with their singing and picking – and song writing. Sarah Harris composed “My Heart Will Find Its Way To You” and “Pure Poison,” a song with more drive than a Mack truck. Mike Harris also contributes a hot instrumental, “Barefoot Breakdown,” which shows off his guitar skills as well as stretching the playing muscles of the rest of the group. These are all front-row musicians.

Also included is a traditional Irish number, “Willie and Mary,” that shows they can step outside the bluegrass/country mold.

This Florida-based band has only been touring since 2011 but they are going to be a force in this music. This is a great CD that will find it’s way into my player over and over.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.