“Good Thing Going” by Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent
Good Thing Going
Rounder Records
3 stars (out of 5)

Rhonda Vincent has packed her latest album with a variety of musical styles, terrific songwriting, and a dream roster of special guests. Her crackerjack band; her brother, co-producer, and ace harmonizer, Darrin Vincent; and even her fans (known collectively as the Ragers), have added their voices to Vincent’s own considerable talents to put the “good” in Good Thing Going. Yet, the result is a less-than-cohesive, even contradictory album.

A song that enjoys a special place in the hearts of the Ragers is Vincent’s version of the Jimmy Martin/Wade Birchfield classic, “Hit Parade of Love.” All the Ragers who begged her to commit “Hit Parade” to disc, will be thrilled with the result, and those from the “don’t-mess-with-a-classic” school may find themselves equally engaged. The band excels here: Kenny Ingram picks the banjer solid, and Hunter Berry’s screaming fiddle underscores the bristling, live feel.

“Bluegrass Saturday Night” is a life-on-the-road anthem in the mold of Bill Monroe’s “Heavy Traffic Ahead.” With shout-outs to the Ragers, her band mates, and even her sponsor, Martha White, “Bluegrass Saturday Night” is destined to become yet another fan favorite.

As good as she is at bluegrass barnstormers, Vincent does even better work on two of the album’s mid-tempo country numbers. “Just One of a Kind” (Dottie Rambo) is a Jim & Jesse favorite that Vincent used to perform with her family band, the Sally Mountain Show.  It’s re-imagined here with a breezy, 70s country feel – Glen Campbell and John Hartford might have worked it up this way.  Exquisite harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Kathy Chiavola, and a guest appearance by bluegrass pioneer Jesse McReynolds (who adds his patented cross picking) are the icing on the cake of this sweet love song.

On the other side of the romantic coin is Vincent’s collaboration with Connie Leigh (“Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On”), the bitter country waltz, “Scorn of a Lover.” Vincent and the Rage give a driving, good ‘n’ country performance here. Vincent’s lead crackles with anger and pain that are echoed by Berry’s sighing twin fiddles.

Two tracks in particular are real musical departures for this band. Karla Bonoff’s version of the traditional tune, “The Water is Wide,” inspired Vincent to try it here. She and guest vocalist, Keith Urban, surpass Bonoff’s take with the sheer beauty of their harmonies.

Guests Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) give extra snap to “World’s Biggest Fool,” a slice of old-school swing, which sets off a thoroughly modern lyric. In fact, Vincent is especially good at combining down-home musical style with lyrics that address contemporary concerns. The album’s title track, written by Vincent, is yet another example of this skilled fusion.

With all the distinctive musical character to be had here, it’s disappointing to hear several tracks that more closely resemble the kind of featureless material that’s performed regularly on “American Idol,” or in modern mainstream country circles. Both “I Give All My Love to You” and “I Will See You Again” have compelling back stories. (Vincent, as charismatic on the page as she is in performance, puts these across beautifully in her song notes.) “I Give All My Love to You” even boasts a lovely duet vocal from Russell Moore.

But, without the external input, these songs (along with “I’m Leavin’,” “I Gotta Start Somewhere,” and the title track) are simply forgettable. Despite musicianship equal to that of the album’s best tracks, these bland throwaways don’t even approach the exhilerating standard of the stronger work here.

There’s something for everyone on Good Thing Going, but faced with the choice of buying the whole album or downloading the tastiest tracks, consumers may wish that Good Thing Going was as good as it could have been from the first track to the last.

by Maria Morgan Davis

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“Through the Window of a Train” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
Through the Window of a Train
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

With a lineup that’s been remarkably stable since 1995′s debut masterpiece It’s a Long, Long Road, it’s no wonder that Blue Highway has been able to craft a sound that’s one of the most distinctive of it’s era.

Bassist Wayne Taylor’s criminally unheralded lead vocals and Rob Ickes’ panoramic Dobro playing are the most noticable parts of that sound.

But then you have Tim Stafford (lead guitar) and Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle) and Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), all remarkable instrumentalists and harmony singers.

Lane and Stafford are also fine lead singers, giving Blue Highway the same sort of vocal versatility that The Band had.

Through the Window of a Train makes their signature sound even more personal, with each of a dozen tracks written or co-written by a member of the band.

Lane’s lead vocal and the straight-ahead grass of “Life of a Travelin’ Man” is, both lyrically and musically, a perfect tone-setter for other tales to follow of men going somewhere they may or may not want to be.

Burleson’s banjo rings out on his instrumental “The North Cove” and on Stafford’s “Blues on Blues,” Lane’s “Sycamore Hollow” and the Taylor/Lane duet “Just Another Gravel in the Road.”

On the title track and “A Week from Today,” which seems to have been inspired by a character in The Shawshank Redemption, Taylor nails the nostalgic vocal, avoiding the sappiness that traps so many bluegrass singers.

Taylor also sounds great on “Homeless Man,”about a Vietnam War veteran, though “Two Soldiers” is more emotionally powerful.  Co-written and sung by Stafford, who kicks it off with a gorgeous guitar filigree, the story two servicemen who personally deliver death notices every day, is a fresher and more immediate message.

While everything on this project meets the high standard Blue Highway fans come to expect, there are two cuts sure to become favorite radio and festival requests: Lane’s lighthearted, but sincere gospel quartet “V-bottom Boat,” which has both the narrator and Noah happy to go to Heaven as long as they get to do a little fishin’ on the way and “My Ropin’ Days are Done,” a modern-day cowboy ballad written by Staffor and Bobby Starnes, that George Strait wishes he could sing as good as Wayne Taylor.

by Aaron Keith Harris 

“The Trail of the Aching Hearts” by Special Consensus

Special Consensus
The Trail of Aching Hearts
Pinecastle Records
3.5 Stars (out of 5)

Since 1973, Chicago-based Special Consensus has brought its blue-collar bluegrass to clubs, concert halls, festivals, and theaters throughout the world. Co-founder and banjoist Greg Cahill and company just keep on keeping on with the band’s 13th release.

The Trail of Aching Hearts delivers what longtime followers have come to expect – hard-driving traditional bluegrass garnished with a little gospel, Irish, and swing. Ron Spears’ “I’d Like to Wander Back to the Old Home” and “Lift Your Voice in Prayer” (a glorious gospel quartet) sound just as classic as selections from Flatt & Scruggs and the Louvin Brothers. Special C also covers itself, with new recordings of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and the oft-requested “Ten Mile Tennessee.”

Troubadours Cahill and Spears are complimented more than capably by Justin Carbone (guitar) and David Thomas (bass). The guys get a little help from their friends – Tim Crouch, Rob Ickes, and Phil Leadbetter – and former band members Tim Dishman and Tres Nugent.

Dishman and Nugent are among the thirty plus Special C alumni that include Chris Jones, Josh Williams, Robbie Fulks, Dallas Wayne, and now Spears. Personnel change is nothing new for Greg Cahill, who remains rather underrated both as a musician and a developer of talent. Maybe The Trail of Aching Hearts will put him on the road to some much deserved recognition.

by Tim Walsh

“Ground Beef Patrol” by Special Ed and the Shortbus

Special Ed and the Shortbus
Ground Beef Patrol
Self-released
1.5 Stars (out of 5)

Political correctness obviously is of no concern to Special Ed and the Shortbus. Insensitivity notwithstanding, the cleverness of the Richmond, Virginia ensemble’s  moniker is counteracted by childish track titles like  “Trouser Gravy,” “Underpants Rag,” and “Haecceity of Scrotus.” Unfortunately, immature antics ensue accordingly.

That’s too bad, because Ground Beef Patrol initially exhibits skilled musicianship in its helter-skelter amalgamation of bluegrass, eastern European music, jug band, old-time, punk, ragtime, and Vaudeville. Special Ed Brogan (lead guitar), Ben Belcher (banjo, mandolin, bass), Josh Bearman (mandolin, bass, kazoo, clawhammer banjo), Aaron Lewis (fiddle), and Jake Sellers (percussion, battery) possess a solid foundation in traditional styles, and the band won the Southeastern Independent Music World Series in 2007.

Yet Ground Beef Patrol deteriorates in conjunction with the locker-room humor and inane improvisations of “Bloodworm Sausage,” “Drag Rag,” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout the Poor.” The result resembles a soundtrack (sans the audience noise, “dolphin impersonations,” and “rhythmic armpit-fart solos”) for the band’s live shows, where broken strings and broken bottles quantify (and apparently qualify) the performance.

If only Special Ed and the Shortbus could elevate its humor to even a lowbrow level. These guys definitely know what they’re doing; however, they also should know better than to do it.

by Tim Walsh