“Good News” by The Charlie Sizemore Band

The Charlie Sizemore Band
Good News
Rounder Re
4 stars (out of 5)

So, what’s news? That Charlie Sizemore is back and better than ever, with a new CD featuring soulful vocals, an exceptionally tight band, and songwriting that’s witty, poignant, and packed with novelistic detail.

Released in August, Good News is Sizemore’s first album after a five year sabbatical that allowed him to focus on his family and his law practice. Though it includes songs in the classic country mold, it also marks a return to bluegrass.

On the classic country front, the John Pennell/Harley Allen collaboration, “Devil On A Plow”, is a standout. A dry-humored chorus leavens the sentimental mood of the verses, and Sizemore puts the mixed emotions across as naturally as if he were talking with friends. The half-whispered line endings of “Blame It On Vern” (legendary honky-tonker Gosdin, that is) ache with last-call resignation. You can almost see the smoke from the singer’s last cigarette curling in the air.

Among the bluegrass highlights is “No Blues Is Good News”, about a man in the throes of new love. Here, the lonesome in Sizemore’s voice contrasts so painfully with the giddiness of the lyric that you wonder how long the relationship is going to last. On Hugh Prestwood’s “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart”, every nuance of Sizemore’s lead is matched by sensitive harmonies from Matt DeSpain and Danny Barnes. DeSpain and Wayne Fields (clawhammer banjo) set the chilling scene in “The Silver Bugle” (Sizemore, with Tom T. & Dixie Hall), a Civil War-era legend from Sizemore’s home on Puncheon Creek, Ky.

There’s a reason this outfit is billed as the Charlie Sizemore Band; from the crackling banjo kick-off of “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up” to the final wail of the dobro on “Good News When I Die”, the playing sparkles. The band (Sizemore on guitar; Danny Barnes, mandolin; Matt DeSpain, dobro; Wayne Fields, banjo; John Pennell, bass) is tight, but that can be said about a lot of bluegrass bands. What sets the CSB apart is a confidence under the gun of studio time that allows them to play full out when the music calls for it.

You can store up a lot of bluegrass in five years. Lets hope Sizemore and the band don’t have to wait another five to let it out.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Beautiful Bouquet” & “This is Rose Maddox” by Rose Maddox with the Vern Williams Band

Rose Maddox with the Vern Williams Band
Beautiful Bouquet
Arhoolie Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Rose Maddox with the Vern Williams Band
This is Rose Maddox
Arhoolie Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

As the eponymous girl singer of the Maddox Brothers and Rose from the 1930s through the 1950s, Maddox (1925-1998) was one of the most popular and distinctive female voices in “hillbilly” music. That was what they called it all when terms like country, bluegrass, Western swing and honky-tonk were rarely, if ever, used.

Maddox’s high, strong and resourceful style (listen to her recordings of “Milk Cow Blues” and “Honky Tonkin'” for starters) came to influence women in all of those genres.

That style had matured a lot and mellowed a little by the early 1980s, when she recorded these two albums in California with fellow Southern transplants, the Vern Williams Band.

The band’s unvarnished bluegrass sound and earnest harmonies are a perfect match, especially on the 14 gospel standards contained on Beautiful Bouquet.

This is Rose Maddox has many similar moments (“Philadelphia Lawyer,” “This Old House” and “Dream of a Miner’s Child”), but it also has quite a bit of expertly played chicken pickin’ on the Telecaster guitar, which is out of place here, not because it violates pure bluegrass doctrine, but because it burdens the tempo the rest of the band is going for.

But it doesn’t drown out Rose Maddox and these fine late-career performances.

by Aaron Keith Harris