“Carolina Road” by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road
Carolina Road
Blue Circle Records
3 stars (out of 5)

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road have undergone some major personnel changes since their last album. All the problems and joys that come with such changes are evident on their latest release.

The good news is that the single, “Can’t You Hear the Mountains Calling,” features an understated yet soulful vocal from new guitarist Jerry Butler (late of Pine Mountain Railroad). In Butler’s hands, familiar themes like the pull of home and the pain of loss are just as compelling as they were when the founding fathers of bluegrass were singing about them.

Speaking of the founding fathers, songwriter Jerry Williamson has a potential standard on his hands here – one that’s every bit as good as Carter Stanley’s similarly-themed “The Fields Have Turned Brown.”
Gorgeous twin fiddle work from Josh Goforth and new bassist Todd Meade (who played fiddle with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys) burnishes the traditional glow.

Butler offers another subtle, lovely vocal on Tom T. and Dixie Hall’s “Come and See Me,” while lead vocalist Josh Goforth shines on the traditional “Frances Lee.”

Gospel tunes seem to galvanize this band, and they turn in two solid quartets with Mark Brinkman’s “When You’re Looking Up” and the traditional “Jesus Said Go.”

As can be expected from a band with three 2008 SPBGMA nominees (Jordan, Goforth, and Meade – and, for what it’s worth, Butler, and banjoist Ben Greene should also have been nominated) for instrumental work, the playing is consistently crisp and hard driving.  When the instruments and voices combine, though, “Carolina Road” runs into problems.

On numbers like “Run Little Fox,” and the title track, the mellow, even static vocal delivery is at odds with the driving fiddle and banjo.

“Which Way To Go” (another outstanding Jerry Williamson composition), and Don Reno’s classic  “Maybe You Will Change Your Mind,” show a similar contrast between the group vocals and the keening instrumental backing.  These latter two suffer additionally from stiff, under-nuanced phrasing.  Other vocals (“Carolina Rain,” “Carolina Hurricane”) are surprisingly unremarkable.

Jordan has assembled a first-class band.  She has a genuine talent for writing great material (the album’s whiplash closer, “Carolina Hurricane” is the sole example here), and for collecting songs from writers with fresh, innovative ideas (The two Williamson tunes and Becky Buller’s detail-rich “Carolina Rain” are the standouts).

Perhaps time will see Jordan and this promising band cohere into a more dynamic unit.

by Maria Morgan Davis

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“Pretty Green Hills” by Dave Evans

Dave Evans
Pretty Green Hills
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Why do we view traditional bluegrass as music whose colors and edges have been faded and blunted by the passage of time?  Maybe it’s because almost no one infuses traditional grass with as much drive and vitality as Dave Evans.

There’s a mix of classic and contemporary songs on Evans’ latest, but if you don’t know the classics, you’ll find yourself sneaking looks at the liner notes to figure out which songs are from the golden age of grass and which were written just for this album.  Evans, whose picking combines an old-time ring with driving authority, takes no prisoners.

Equally adept on banjo (his main instrument) and guitar, Evans plays both on the album’s hair-raising title cut, from Tom T. and Dixie Hall. And his vocals, here and throughout, are pure, unfiltered, mountain soul.

Evans understands that for yet another version of a classic to succeed, he has to invest as much heart in it as he would a song he’d just finished yesterday.  No rueful, barstool karaoke here:  With Evans, every note means something. The traditional tunes, “Cora Is Gone” and “East Virginia Blues”; Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle”; and “Sea Of Regret” (popularized by the Stanley Brothers) are sterling examples of these principles at work.  You know the stories are not going to end well – not because you’ve heard the songs before, but because Evans is a born storyteller.  His delivery puts you on the edge of your seat until the last notes die away.

The instrumental work is just as satisfying.  Evans and crew give a chestnut like “Soldier’s Joy” such a fresh, sprightly reading that you’d never know they’ve played it a million times in a million other bands. Evans makes you glad to hear the old songs again; you can’t wait to discover what he and the band will do next.

Little touches, like the high-stakes vocal harmonies of “Cora Is Gone”, and Mike Garris’ swinging bass (which drives a startlingly fresh take on Lester Flatt’s “Head Over Heels”) make these old, familiar tunes new again.

Special mention should be made of Bobby Hicks, whose sublime fiddle work casts a honeyed glow over every track on which he plays.

“Pretty Green Hills” is a bracing, welcome reminder of bluegrass’s mountain origins, and a perfect gift for those hard-to-please, traditional ‘grass fans on your Christmas list.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Standard Songs for Average People” by John Prine & Mac Wiseman

John Prine & Mac Wiseman
Standard Songs for Average People
Oh Boy Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

John Prine’s first three albums in the early 1970s caused some to call him “the new Dylan.” Prine certainly didn’t want the title, but hack music writers of the day heard the ambitious songwriting, acoustic guitar and gruff voice and couldn’t help themselves.
Standard Songs for Average People matches Prine with Mac Wiseman, the singer and guitarist known to bluegrass fans for 50 years as “The Voice with a Heart.”

It’s an unexpected, but pleasing, pairing. Wiseman’s voice stirs into Prine’s like Tennessee whiskey does into campfire coffee.

Their easy, verse-swapping on Ernest Tubb’s “Blue Eyed Elaine” and “Saginaw, Michigan” (written by Donald Wayne and Bill Anderson, popularized by Lefty Frizzell) tops a 14-song setlist that includes other great country & western, honky tonk and rockabilly songwriters like Bob Wills, Charlie Feathers, Leon Payne, Al Dexter, Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall.

Producer David Ferguson helped line up musicians including Cowboy Jack Clement (guitar), Jaime Hartford (electric guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Mike Bub (bass), Tim O’Brien (guitar), Ronnie McCoury (guitar, mandolin), the Carol Lee Singers and the incomparable Lester Armistead to give the album a just barley pre-countrypolitan sound with a touch of bluegrass.

It would have been nice to hear one or two songs from each singer’s discography – let’s say Wiseman’s “‘Tis Sweet to Be Remembered” and “Letter Edged in Black;” Prine’s “Souveniers” and “Paradise,” which continues as a bluegrass standard thanks to Jim & Jesse – but that’s a small quibble at a very nice listen.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Slidin’ Home” by John Starling and Carolina Star

John Starling and Carolina Star
Slidin’ Home
Rebel Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Bassist Tom Gray and Dobro/resophonic guitar icon Mike Auldridge join singer/guitarist John Starling in Carolina Star and in Slidin’ Home, the group’s first release.

Joining these three members of the original Seldom Scene are Jimmy Gaudreau (harmonies, mandolin, bouzouki), Rickie Simpkins (fiddle), guest vocalists Emmylou Harris, Jon Randall and Larry Stephenson, and a host of other top-flight musicians.

The group offers soulful, but clear-eyed interpretations of folk rock, country, and bluegrass material, including classics that lesser musicians would just ham their way through. Starling and company find renewed meaning in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waitin’ For A Train” and Gram Parsons’ “In My Hour Of Darkness,” with Harris reprising her harmony vocals from the famous original.

Two more standout covers are Lowell George’s “Willin’,” with Jay Starling’s piano and Auldridge’s pedal steel enriching Starling’s weatherbeaten lead vocal, and “Those Two Blue Eyes,” sung most memorably by Keith Whitley and given a for a lean, bluesy treatment here with Rickie Simpkins’ mandolin setting the tone.

The lesser known numbers receive equally well-considered treatment. “Cold, Hard Business,” a karmic roll-call of sleazy executives, cheating husbands, and false friends, exudes menace from the first note. With an uncanny ear for mood, and the ability to evoke it in any genre, Auldridge turns in a remarkable sharp performance here.

Starling’s delivery on Gillian Welch’s “The Riverboat Song” is fond, but never mawkish, the hints of regret and bitterness painting a rich and intimate portrait of a vanishing way of life. That’s Starling’s greatest gift: transcending musicianship to inhabit every song he sings.

The dominant theme of Slidin’ Home may be loneliness, but friendship is surely the theme behind the making of the album. The latter is eloquently expressed in the closing track, “Prayer For My Friends.”

John Starling may sing some hard luck songs, but, in the end, he tells us, friendship has made him one of the luckiest men on earth.

by Maria Morgan Davis