“Gaining Wisdom” by Donna Hughes

Donna Hughes
Gaining Wisdom
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

There are no presumptions or theatrics in Donna Hughes’ voice, but her vocals are anything but dull. What sets her apart from any other blonde with a guitar is the sincerity in her voice, and ultimately, her lyrics. Her songs are a conversation with the listener, speaking straight to our hearts with her wisdom gained.

“One More Time” and “Not Anymore” are good examples of Hughes’ honest delivery. These songs delve into such life experiences as love, loss and the pain resulting from both. Her cover of Tim Stafford’s song, “Find Me Out on a Mountain Top” utilizes the minor chord as an understated blessing, a pattern repeated elsewhere on the album.

The winding piano melody in “Father Time” provides an excellent image of Father Time’s infallible pocket watch. Hughes acknowledges our powerlessness to stop the clock, but whispers a melancholy “Carpe Diem,” reminding us to take advantage of the moments we have, lest a time come when we remember the leaps we failed to make.

What really sets this album apart is the plethora of musical cameos in the band. Instrumentalists like Sam Bush, Ron Stewart, Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes and of course Tony Rice, help make this recording a stroll down the bluegrass red carpet. With background vocals from Alison Krauss and Sonya Isaacs as well as Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Donna will be hard pressed to find a better crew. Tony Rice obviously put his heart into helping make this record possible. His guitar expertise compliments Donna’s record in the same way a good book is complimented by rain upon the window and an excellent cup of coffee.

Despite the impression that the emotional dexterity in Hughes’ voice may not match the strength of her lyrics, her music is still powerful because of its honesty. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Truth can be really powerful stuff; you’re not expecting it.”

by Erin Faith

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“Sweet Virginia” by No Speed Limit

No Speed Limit
Sweet Virginia
Arhoolie Records
1.5 stars (out of 5)

Sweet Virginia is the second release from a spirited quintet that formed on the streets of Galax, Virginia. Although the fifteen tracks offer energy and talent, one wonders if No Speed Limit is entering the fast lane a bit prematurely.

The opening triple-shot of odes to Virginia certainly affirms the band’s allegiance, but it’s almost enough to alienate those of us in the rest of the world. The ensuing “Born a Rambler” costs considerable credibility, as teenage vocalist Amber Collins can’t possibly convey the subject matter convincingly. From there, a mix consisting mostly of banjoist Steve Barr originals and classics like “Blue Night” and “Wayfaring Stranger” yield mixed results.

Barr, mandolinist Ryan Blevins, bassist Jacob Eller, and guitarist Josh Pickett (the 2001 MerleFest guitar champion) capably back Collins’ powerful voice. That voice is still developing and consequently, it occasionally falters when she tries to pack extra emotional punch. Conversely, her soulfulness shines when she eases off the gas on Barr’s “Bluegrass Lullaby” and Julie Miller’s “Quecreek.”

by Tim Walsh

“Speed of the Whippoorwill” by Chatham County Line

Chatham County Line
Speed of the Whippoorwill
Yep Roc Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

I am predisposed to like any new offerings from Chatham County Line, as I rank their song “Route 23” among my all-time favorites. Mandolin, fiddle, and viola player John Teer, guitar and banjo player Dave Wilson, bass, pedal steel, and organ player Greg Readling, and banjo and guitar player Chandler Holt put on a fun show, singing and playing all-out hard while attired in traditional suits.

Fortunately for us, they pour this same energy and drive into Speed of the Whippoorwill, a mando-heavy set with an old-timey atmosphere emphasizing narrative solo vocals with harmony support. The album is made up of fourteen original songs, all written by members of the band with the addition of the writing talents of Zeke Hutchins on “Company Blues.”

The title track is a gem: catchy and pleasant, with a hummable refrain. In previous releases CCL has displayed a gift for the narrative, and this album once again meets that standard with “They Were Just Children,” “Confederate Soldier,” and “Waiting Paradise.”

Speed of the Whippoorwill includes more textural variety than the group’s previous releases, something I think the group was going for when they hired a new producer for this album. That sound meshes with the moving, high-energy arrangements and interesting and thought-provoking lyric based stories for a disc that’s truly distinctive.

by Katy Leonard

“Blind Man Walking” by Cadillac Sky

Cadillac Sky
Blind Man Walking
Skaggs Family Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Any bluegrass album that has a quote from Marcel Proust in the liner notes and songs that talk about abusing NyQuil, stealing Maseratis and whether plain ole lonesomeness has a genetic cause gets extra points for originality.

Enough points, in fact, to forgive most of the slick-for slick’s-sake studio touches that occasionally distract from what is essentially a pretty good record.

Bryan Simpson (lead vocals, mandolin) is writer or co-writer on 12 of the album’s 13 cuts, most of which touch on familiar themes in modern bluegrass without relying on phrases so cliched they lack meaning.

“Born Lonesome,” “Insomniac Blues for Matthew,” “Can’t Trust the Weatherman” and “Wish I Could Say I Was Drinking” are the best examples of Simpson’s fresh voice and of the band’s sound, fun and fast, propelled by Matt Menefee’s banjo and Andy Moritz’s bass with Ross Holmes’ fiddle darting and slashing like a honeybee.

There’s also a gospel edge to some of the material, and it works well on the title cut and “You Again,” where the narrator’s conscience fails to stop him boosting that Maserati.

“Sinners Welcome” is less accessible and way over the top, starting with an acapella quartet and ending with a faux Pentecostal hand-clapping rave-up.

“Mountain Man,” a pretty standard weird-guy-in-the-woods song, doesn’t quite fit either.

Guest Sonya Isaacs duets with guitarist Mike Jump on “Homesick Angel,” proving the band can handle softer ballads as well.

But Cadillac Sky is definitely at its best when the top is down and the pedal is all the way to the floor.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Unsung” by Slaid Cleaves

Slaid Cleaves
Unsung
Rounder Records 11661-3245-2
4 Stars (out of 5)

Ordinarily, a singer/songwriter with writer’s block would be in a heap of trouble. So credit Slaid Cleaves for coming up with an effective and engaging Plan B for his eighth release.

On Unsung, Cleaves covers eleven songwriters whom he wants to give “a little bit of exposure.” Some already have quite a bit of exposure (Adam Carroll, Anna Egge, David Olney); others should be familiar to Cleaves’ followers (Peter Keane, Karen Poston); and others likely are new names (JJ Baron, Michael O’Connor, Graham Weber). Like Cleaves, each operates well outside the mainstream.

Without the liner notes or a heads up, one probably would presume all or most of the thirteen tracks are Cleaves originals. That’s because the source songwriters’ blue collars, broken dreamers, lowdown eccentrics, small-town losers, and lost lovers comprise the typically quirky cast we’ve come to expect from Cleaves. Plus, ever the cool customer, the seasoned singer moves masterfully among the melancholic “Another Kind of Blue,” the sinister “Millionaire,” the comical “Racecar Joe,” and the hopeful “Flowered Dresses.”

Make no mistake; Slaid Cleaves needs to snap out of his songwriting slump. He may never match his 2000 masterpiece Broke Down, but Unsung is in the ballpark.

by Tim Walsh

“Alone with Forever” by Pine Mountain Railroad

Pine Mountain Railroad
Alone with Forever
Steeltown Records 0127
2.5 stars (out of 5)

For many bluegrass bands, longevity is a key to becoming an established artist at the national level. However, groups often need to be established at the national level in order to achieve longevity. That catch-22 continues to plague Pine Mountain Railroad.

The Knoxville-based ensemble’s seventh release – Alone with Forever – features yet another revamped lineup. Bassist Bill McBee (PMR’s only remaining original member) is joined by banjoist Elmer Burchett, Jr., guitarist Mark Cable, fiddler Matt ‘Scooter’ Flake, guitarist Eli Johnston, and mandolinist Cody Shuler. Among its ranks, the sextet boasts five songwriters, five lead singers, and multiple three and four-part harmony combinations.

Perhaps in an effort to rally fans behind the new troops, Alone with Forever settles on material comprised mostly of safe, sweet sentiments and get-onboard gospel numbers. “Whippoorwill” whips up some edginess; however, it’s buried by the novelty of a re-recording of the corporate sponsor’s “Odom’s Tennessee Pride Grand Ole Opry Theme Song” and “Who Picks the Banjer.” Sadly, the latter affirms the negative stereotypes often associated with bluegrass music.

Nevertheless, as with past incarnations, PMR’s current configuration is capable of becoming a top band in bluegrass. Stronger material and roster stability might determine whether Pine Mountain Railroad realizes its potential.

by Tim Walsh