The Del McCoury Band
The Promised Land
4.5 stars (out of 5)
Fans have been asking for a gospel album from bluegrass music’s best band, and Del and the Boys have finally delivered. The result has justified the wait.
Many bands simply recycle bluegrass gospel standards from Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers for a project like this. But here the DMB makes the inspired choice to dip into the work of Alfred E. Brumley, who wrote “I’ll Fly Away” and “Turn Your Radio On,” for half of the disc’s 14 cuts. Brumley’s songs, along with “Don’t Put Off Unitl Tomorrow” (Pete Pyle) and “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Come Up Today” (Del McCoury/Jerry Salley), result in a backbone of old-school bluegrass gospel that isn’t too familiar.
Jason Carter (fiddle) and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) create an endless supply of inventive, economical breaks and fills while Rob McCoury drives each arrangement, with either his agile banjo or with finger-picked guitar on “The Lord is Writing Down Names,” “Gold Under My Feet” and the bluesy shuffle “Five Flat Rocks,” the latter featuring all five of the DMB in a splendid vocal quintet.
Though he doesn’t yet match the thump and drive of the departed Mike Bub – who could? – new bassist Alan Bartram does a creditable job.
But of course Del’s voice is the main attraction. He effortlessly shifts from expressive mid- and high-range lead vocals up to sharp tenor on choruses, where he and son Ronnie (vocals and mandolin) do the best duet singing that’s being done these days. The joy he takes in singing these songs is so strong you can hear him smiling through the speakers.
by Aaron Keith Harris
The Mark Newton Band
2.5 Stars (out of 5)
The IBMA 2001 Recorded Event of the Year award (for Follow Me Back to the Fold) and stints in Knoxville Grass and the Virginia Squires highlight Mark Newton’s bluegrass career. Hillbilly Hemingway is his first release since relocating to Nashville, where he could “learn and grow artistically while tapping into the pulse of the music business.” Uh oh.
Hillbilly Hemingway features well-executed, country-tinged bluegrass under the auspices of legendary singer, songwriter, and producer Carl Jackson. Between Newton, his underrated band – Andy Ball (mandolin), Clay Hess (guitar), Beth Lawrence (bass), and John Wheat (banjo) – and all-star guests – Rob Ickes and Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitars), Alecia Nugent (vocals), Tony Creasman (percussion) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) – there’s no shortage of instrumental precision and vocal blend.
Still something doesn’t quite jibe. From the title Hank tribute to the juiced-up intro on Julie Lee’s “Stillhouse Road” and nostalgic numbers about small towns, dirt roads, first loves, and “Home Folks,” hook after hook transform the collection into a fishing expedition. Confirmation comes on the closer “Jesse and Me,” which contains the lines: “Our goal is a lyric on the lips of the world. Number one with a bullet will do.”
This album would stand tall on Music Row. However, it loses traction on the Lonesome Road.
by Tim Walsh
3.5 Stars (out of 5)
Blue Highway burst onto the scene in 1995 and solidified its rightful place among the bluegrass elite with a trifecta of terrific Rebel releases – It’s a Long, Long Road (1995), Wind to the West (1996), and Midnight Storm (1998). Lonesome Pine compiles thirteen tracks from that trilogy.
Compiling a Blue Highway collection is a double-edged proposition. Lonesome Pine certainly showcases the vocal versatility of lead singers Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, and Tim Stafford, and the musical virtuosity of Rob Ickes (Dobro), Stafford (guitar), and Jason Burleson (banjo). Plus, one can’t go wrong with classics “In the Gravel Yard,” “Someday,” and “Two Coats.”
On the other hand, the source albums comprise 37 solid selections. Do the math, and Lonesome Pine can’t avoid coming up short. It leaves out “God Moves in a Windstorm,” “Wind to the West,” and “Find Me Out on a Mountain Top” (among others). Thus, for the Blue Highway aficionado, this collection is simply an enjoyable mix CD.
However, the absence of any previously unreleased material and the budget price indicate a sampler intended for the Blue Highway and/or bluegrass neophyte. In that regard, Lonesome Pine is hard to beat. Still, if the cash is available, proceed directly to It’s a Long, Long Road, Wind to the West, and Midnight Storm. They’re still in-print.
by Tim Walsh
3.5 stars (out of 5)
If you take Donna the Buffalo and Old Crow Medicine Show, mix them together, unplug and slow them down, you get Slowdrag.
This Canadian band is made up of Koralee Tonack and Craig McKerron on harmony vocals and guitar, with Paul Bergman on bass, joined on a few tracks by guest artists Ivan Rosenberg on resophonic guitar and Steve Taylor on high-hat percussion. The titular claim to slowness is not a false one; the songs are laid back and, well… slow, though never boring.
The unforced and languid arrangements allow Tonack and McKerron to sing lovely and interesting harmonies that the ear really latches onto. Their duet singing has been compared to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but Tonack’s gentle voice is more comparable to singers like Caroline Herring or Claire Holley (minus those artists’ Mississippi twang, of course).
The album includes a nice mix of originally written and familiar songs, both beginning and ending with Carter Family tunes. The “prettied-up” and nearly twang free version of The Carter Family’s “You Are My Flower” fits nicely in with the Karl and Harty tune “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” which features some peppy mandolin soloing by McKerron.
The songwriting is above average, and the newly written songs by both Tonack and McKerron fit in smoothly alongside the old-time gems.
by Katy Leonard
Soon Be Time
4 stars (out of 5)
Like the memories Molsky alludes to in the liner notes, these songs are wistful and simple. And this album is sparse, but not monotonous, a collection of tunes rooted in Old Time favorites (“Lazy John/The Bucking Mule,” “Cider,” “John Brown’s Dream”) with some Bulgarian and Swedish Rock melodies thrown in as well as one newly written song from Molsky himself.
Molsky is alone on all tracks, whether singing or playing guitar, fiddle, or banjo, and he does not attempt to dress up his playing. Straightforwardly and genuinely, he offers no-nonsense performances of classics and lesser-heard melodies from traditions as varied as blues, Irish, Bulgarian, and Swedish.
There’s an old-time flavor to the cowboy song “Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie,” and to the presumed Irish melody “Georgia Belle.” There are nods to Molsky’s lifetime of influences and playing partners, such as “The Brass Band Ruchenitsa” a 7/16 tune learned from fellow Mozaic member Andy Irvine, possibly Bulgarian in origin.
Molsky’s gentle touch makes for a serene, unmediated listen, just as if he was sitting across from the listener in a pub, a kitchen, or a front porch playing and singing.
by Katy Leonard
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
4 Stars (out of 5)
Instrumentals was released a few weeks before Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder earned its eighth International Bluegrass Music Association Instrumental Group of the Year award. So, while an all-instrumental collection comes as no surprise, anyone expecting classic barnburners like “Get Up John” (Bluegrass Rules, 1997) is in for quite a shock.
Skaggs’ album title isn’t exactly imaginative, but his eleven originals exhibit staggering creativity across elaborate soundscapes of bluegrass, newgrass, old-time, Celtic, classical, and jazz. He and Kentucky Thunder – Mark Fain (bass), Cody Kilby (guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle) and Jim Mills (banjo) –flawlessly glide “Wayward to Hayward” with a little “Spam Jelly” on their way to “Polk City.” Newgrassers “Missing Vassar” and “Dawg’s Breath” pay respective tributes to Vassar Clements and David Grisman. “Gallatin Rag” introduces a little Dixieland with Andy Statman on clarinet.
Despite past collaborations with the Chieftains and the clear ties between bluegrass and Irish music, the prevalence of Celtic tones on Instrumentals is still somewhat, but pleasantly, surprising. Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle) accompanies Kentucky Thunder on “Going to Richmond,” “Crossville,” and “Goin’ to the Ceili.” The album’s centerpiece is the 7-minute opus “Crossing the Briney” – with full orchestration courtesy of the Nashville Sound Machine.
Is the eclecticism a subtle rebuff for being recognized almost exclusively as an instrumental bluegrass band, or are incredibly talented musicians simply enjoying the freedom of artistic expression? Regardless, of all the grassers-gone-country and back again, Ricky Skaggs’ return is arguably the most sustained and sincere. The bluegrass section is where one will find Instrumentals (if one can find a record store these days). At home, consider filing the disc under “E” for “Exquisite.”
by Tim Walsh