“Took Down and Put Up” by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time

Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time
Took Down and Put Up
Lonesome Day Records
4 stars (out of 5)

There are some songwriters whose work sounds best when sung by someone else. Others simply need to sing their own songs.

Larry Cordle is neither kind. Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, and Alison Krauss have all recorded the Cordell, Ky. native’s work, and his “Murder on Music Row,” when cut by Alan Jackson and George Strait, quickly become the most important country song of its era.

But Cordle can hold his own as a singer when considered in the same class as his famous clients. With a wide-open, sonorous voice, Cordle has led Lonesome Standard Time on five albums since their 1992 debut, with 2004’s Lonesome Skynyrd Time being an album-length tribute to the band whose raucous side owes more than a little to the same hard-driving bluegrass evident in Cordle’s work.

Took Down and Put Up has 13 tracks, nine either a Cordle original or co-write. However, it kicks off with Booie Beach’s lead guitar and Kim Gardner’s Dobro introducing Jim Rushing’s “I Can’t Lose What I Never Had,” which builds to an emotional and musical crescendo halfway through the track and ends with a strong vocal tag – from Cordle, mandolinist Chris Davis on tenor vocal and bassist Mike Anglin on bass vocal – that sets the tone for more fine harmonies to follow.

Chris Stuart’s “The First Train Robbery” is next, marked by Kristin Scott Benson’s tough banjo and  Anglin’s thumping bass. Guest fiddler Jenee Fleenor sets the ominous mood for “Hole in the Ground,” Cordle’s able take on the customary coal-mining dirge.

“B.Y.O.B.,” “Old Cheater’s Blues,” “’67 Chevy Malibu,” and “Rough Around the Edges,” which has Travis Tritt duet with Cordle, are also strong bluegrass cuts, with just enough of that Skynyrd-style boogie to make it sound fresh.

By contrast, the Skynyrd track “Mississippi Kid” is a mid-tempo one, here played much like the original in a loping country blues groove.

My personal favorites are “Hero of the Creek” (it’s opening line “He had the biggest muscles of anyone around / Smoked cigarettes and had a mustache at fifteen” makes me laugh every time) and “I’m a Lie,” the type of song that would be unbearably preachy if not for Cordle’s writing wit and sly vocal.

“A Song for Keith” is a tender, stripped down tribute to, of course, Keith Whitley, Cordle’s voice full of honest sadness. “A Visit with an Uncle” is just Cordle and his guitar on another sentimental-in-a-good-way song that leaves you wishing that there was a show called VH1’s Storytellers: Bluegrass Edition.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular” by Tony Trischka

Tony Trischka
Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Banjos are a mighty powerful thing. So powerful that more than one playing at the same time in close proximity can be musically dangerous, as many who have unwittingly stumbled across a bad jam session can readily attest.

Tony Trischka’s hour-long Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, as you might expect if you know his work or that of any of his banjo duet partners or the dazzling list of guest musicians on other instruments, has the spontaneity and cohesion of the best jam session you’ve ever heard.

A spry duet on “Farewell Blues” with Earl Scruggs leads things off, a fitting invocation for the 13 other star-studded tracks to come.

Bela Fleck joins Tony on his own “Armando’s Children” and the co-written “Ivory Toad of Catalan,” both mellow, almost impressionistic pieces with little or no other instrumentation, and a rollicking Trischka original for full band, “Twilight Mountain.”

“Arcadia” and “Escher’s Waltz” feature Alison Brown, with he latter tune carrying an especially gorgeous meoldy.

Steve Martin — yes, that Steve Martin — bounces back from the tragedy that was The Pink Panther (seriously, why would anyone try to remake anything Peter Sellers did?) with fine fretwork on “Plunkin’ Rag” and his own tune “The Crow,” which made me think of a farm on a cool summer morning when the corn smells sweet and wet.

Bill Emerson contributes his nimble “Old Cane Pole,” and Kenny Ingram (“Bon Aqua Blues”) and Scott Vestal (“Doggy Salt,” a “backwards” version of “Salty Dog Blues”) bring their unmistakable styles to two of Trischka’s slightly more traditional tunes.

Three vocal tunes bring welcome change-ups in what is otherwise a steady diet of three-fingered fastballs. “Run Mountain” features Chris Thile mandolin and vocal and Noam Pikelny on banjo.

The Spectacular’s nicest surprise is a mini-reunion of Johnson Mountain Boys alumni Tom Adams (banjo), Dudley Connell (guitar and vocal), Marshall Wilborn (bass) and David McLaughlin (mandolin) on “Live and Let Live” and “Fox on the Run.”

Neil Rosenberg’s liner notes fill in the rest, from song origins to special tunings to how and why this album’s linchpin is an irreplaceable innovator of the instrument celebrated on a great album.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Thirtieth Anniversary Special” by The Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad
Thirtieth Anniversary Special
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

If you’re a fan of Dry Branch Fire Squad, you’ve already decided which songs should have ended up on this thirty-year career retrospective.

But what if you’re new to the band?  What can you expect from their music?

Despite multiple line-up changes, there are a few welcome constants. Lead vocalist, mandolinist, some-time guitarist/banjoist, and celebrated raconteur, Ron Thomason, has led the band since the beginning. Thanks to his guidance the band has retained all the musical hallmarks of its instantly identifiable style – rough hewn vocals, solid instrumental work, formidable tone and drive, and a knack for making traditional songs sung in a traditional style feel as current as the news crawl on the bottom of your TV screen.

Both “Devil, Take the Farmer” and “The Honest Farmer” borrow fragments of their melodies from old, familiar tunes.  The technique works like a musical dream sequence, adding layers of meaning, and taking the listener to another place. In “The Honest Farmer,” the dream, set to the old hymn, “Palms of Victory,” is of “Pans of biscuits / Bowls of gravy” – heaven in the form of full stomachs for a farmer and his wife, starved off their land by natural predators.

“Devil, Take the Farmer” gets musical and lyrical cues from the old children’s song, “The Farmer in the Dell,” the melody sketching a taunting spiral as the lyrics recount the personal and professional losses of a debt-ridden farmer whose dreams have turned to nightmares.

It’s a nightmare of a different sort in a previously unreleased version of Grayson and Whitter’s “He’s Coming to us Dead,” in which a grief-stricken father awaits his son’s homecoming. Utah Phillips’ “The Orphan Train” sheds light on a piece of American history, which saw city orphans transported by train to new lives in the rural West with the hope that they would be taken in by new families. The vocals on both tunes are so emotionally honest that Thomason himself might be the grieving parent, or one of the many orphans awaiting adoption.

Again and again, Dry Branch Fire Squad passes the bluegrass test — Do they sing it like they mean it? — with flying colors, foregoing the more homogenized vocal blend favored by so many contemporary bluegrass bands. In that respect, this band’s work recalls that of Thomason’s former boss, Ralph Stanley. So, it’s no accident that this band delivers some of the most stirring gospel that you’ll ever hear.

“Over in the Glory Land,” made famous by the Stanley Brothers, is a previously unreleased, a capella gem from the current lineup.  These folks are underrated masters of a capella gospel singing, as their version of “Dip Your Fingers in Some Water” will also attest.

Like “Dip Your Fingers,” “When I Went Down to the Valley to Pray” comes from the band’s most intriguing lineup (Mary Jo Leet on high baritone, Suzanne Thomas on tenor, and Charlie Leet on bass). This rousing arrangement, with its wind-burned mountain harmonies and gale-force delivery will be a pleasant surprise for those who first heard the song on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Traditionalists will thrill to the guest appearance of Hazel Dickens, a primary influence on this band. Dickens lends her inimitable mountain tenor on a roof-raising version of “Hide You in the Blood,” reprising her original duet with Don Stover.

Suzanne Thomas is an equally worthy foil for Thomason. She’s at home with gospel (Don Reno’s “Oak Grove Church”), country (she helps make Bob McDill’s “We Believe in Happy Endings” the group’s most worthwhile country cover), and traditional tunes. “Long Journey” will leave listeners in tears, and have aspiring singers wearing out the repeat button until they’ve learned every lick. When they’ve mastered that, they’ll turn to “While Roving on a Winter’s Night,” a three minute, 21 second clinic in astringent mountain harmonizing.

With all that to celebrate, there’s still something missing from “Thirtieth Anniversary Special.” Though a few cuts from “Live at the Newburyport Firehouse” are included here, the Dry Branch Fire Squad experience remains incomplete without a few of Thomason’s sidesplitting monologues. There’s only one cure for that: Go see them live. If you can stop laughing long enough, you’ll form your own opinions about which songs should be on the next thirty-year round-up.

by Maria Morgan Davis