“Never Say Never Again” by Dwight McCall

Dwight McCall
Never Say Never Again
Rural Rhythm Records
3 Stars (out of 5)

Never Say Never Again is the second solo release from second generation bluegrasser Dwight McCall. The mandolinist for J.D. Crowe & The New South brings bandmates, buddies, heritage, and talent to a predictably solid set of mostly predictable bluegrass.

The fourteen tracks follow what seems to be the standard formula for mixing original, traditional, cover, and classic material. This includes the requisite pair of gospel numbers, a Civil War song, and a country crossover (Michael Martin Murphy’s “Lost River”). McCall honors his deceased brother with “Goodbye My Friend” and classic combos the Bluegrass Cardinals, the McPeak Brothers, and the Country Gentlemen with songs each popularized.

McCall’s mandolin remains in its case for all but two tracks, but he does surprise with nice banjo work on “Little Bessie.” Mandolinist Alan Bibey heads the house band of New Southers Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle) and Harold Nixon (bass), Brian Stephens (guitar), and Randy Kohrs (Dobro). Steve Gulley, Lou Reid, and Rickey Wasson contribute guest harmonies.

These pickers certainly pack plenty of speed, precision, and drive. However, except for a striking grassification of Paul Van Dyk’s “Time of Our Lives” and the original gospel “He Never Turned Away,” the set simply lacks enough edge. Nevertheless, this disc should please purists, who surely will hope Dwight McCall will Never Say Never Again to a follow-up recording.

by Tim Walsh

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“Sounds Like Home” by Steve Gulley & “The Road Headin’ Home” by Grasstowne

Steve Gulley
Sounds Like Home
Lonesome Day Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Grrasstowne
The Road Headin’ Home
Pinecastle Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

The general impermanence of band line-ups in bluegrass is often frustrating for fans, and no doubt to the musicians themselves. But the byproduct is often the welcome launch of a new band or solo artist.

Or in Steve Gulley’s case, both.

Gulley, the lead vocalist on much of Mountain Heart’s material since 2000, left that popular unit recently to form Grasstowne with other prominent pickets Phil Leadbetter and Alan Bibey.

First, he finished up his first solo project, Sounds Like Home, a disc full of fine examples of Gulley’s versatile voice.

Even within traditional bluegrass arrangements, he can switch from fun and hard-edged (“Big Rock in the Road,” Reno & Smiley’s “Another Day”) to free and easy (“Little So & So” and the Flatt & Scruggs-styled “Cheater of the Year”).

Gulley is also at home with slighlty more modern bluegrass: the “B-chord slammer” of “Livin’ it Down,” the distinctly Kraussian “It Ain’t the Leaving” and “Mountain Heart,” which features all of Gulley’s old bandmates and serves as a perfect coda to the work of one of the better touring and recording lineups of the past decade.

We also get some well-chosen gospel material that’s clearly close to Gulley’s heart from his list of special guests. J.D. Crowe contributes a gentle but firm banjo foundation to “Prepare to Meet Thy God,” a Baptist hymn which also features Adam Steffey, Dale Ann Bradley and Jeff Parker joining Gulley in the quartet.

Gulley’s shares the lead vocal with friend Vic Graves on another Baptist hymn, the soft “No Not One,” and does a brother-style duet with Barry Abernathy on “All Alone.” “Nearer My God to Thee” gets a Louvin-like treatment from Gulley, his father Don and Doyle Lawson.

The disc’s two nicest treats are country tunes — a duet with wife Debbie on the Putman/Sherrill hit for George Jones and Tammy Wynette “My Elusive Dreams” and Gulley’s spine tingling take on the Possum’s “The Grand Tour”—  that make one wish for a whole album of the same.

There’s a Jonesian cut on Grasstowne’s The Road Headin’ Home — “You’re Right, I’m Wrong,” penned by Gulley — but the project as a whole aspires to be the kind of band album popularized by the Lonesome River Band and copied by dozens of others.

For the most part, they succeed, hitting both the high notes and the pitfalls that such albums usually have.

Joining Gulley (guitar, lead & harmony vocals) are veterans Alan Bibey (mandolin, lead & harmony vocals) and Phil Leadbetter (resonator guitar, harmony vocals) and relative newcomers Jason Davis (banjo) and Lee Sawyer (bass). Stuart Duncan and Tim Crouch provide studio help on fiddle.

As you might expect from such a lineup, the picking is solid throughout, with Bibey’s hard-hitting fretwork and Leadbetter’s concise lines working above a solid foundation from the rest of the group.

Bibey and Gulley are fine combo of lead singers, but the album’s song selection sometimes inhibits inspried performances, both vocally and instrumentally.

“Black Lung Blues” is a standard-issue coal-minin’ and moonshinin’ song with an almost-interesting arrangement, but it never catches fire. Neither does “Love You Don’t Know” or  “Bluest Case of the Blues,” which, I’m willing to bet, is a barn burner when these guys play it on stage.

Gulley sounds just fine on four mid-tempo numbers of varying quality — “Here Comes that Feeling Again” being the best — but there’s just not much he can do with them to make them sound different from the pack

He sounds great — just like Bobby Osborne, almost — on Felice & Boudleaux Bryant’s “Lizzie Lou.”

Bibey’s best vocal cut is “Devil’s Road,” one of those happy-melodied, bloody-lyricked tunes that are so tough to get just right.

The cut from this project that stays in one’s head is “Dixie Flyer,” which has everyone getting into the act on a full-speed-ahead train song with a nice harmonic twist on the chorus and blistering mando from Bibey.

A track like that proves that while their debut isn’t a great album, there’s no question Grasstowne is a great band.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“DoorWay” by Ron Block

Ron Block
DoorWay
Rounder Records
2.5 stars (out of 5)

Ron Block is the sort of Christian artist who opens minds simply because his presentation is so atypical. But on DoorWay, his second solo outing, that freshness is only partially evident.

“The Kind of Love” gets the album off to a passionate — perhaps even challenging — start. “I want to get inside your heart/To have your heart to live in me/The two to make one beat.” As Block writes in his song notes, “God created us for union with Himself; the Bible is full of depictions of God as a lover.”

Block explores this concept further in the title cut (“Hands and knees on the desert floor/Pounding out a prayer to the Lover of his soul”) and “The Blackness of the Need” (“I knew I knew the answer ‘cause I’ve seen it all before/You’re the only answer I can see/And when the question’s ended I will say forevermore/I found You in the blackness of the need.”) This is as far away from “Jesus Loves Me” in whole notes as you can get — a spiritual palate cleanser that brings new inspiration with every reading.

“Love’s Living Through Me When I Do” succeeds with a plainspoken lyric about our faulty perception of separateness from God: “The problem lives in what I see/A separate Him outside a separate me.” “Someone” offers more subtle pleasures. It’s the story of a man who leaves the spiritual home of God’s loving embrace to seek his own vision of Paradise. That it follows the same arc as the “leaving home to seek greener pastures” stories so often told in classic bluegrass gives it a cultural resonance both deep and haunting.

Fans of Block’s bluegrass work will be pleased to find two bluegrass numbers here. “Along the Way” is driven by the superstar trio of Block on banjo, Dan Tyminski on guitar, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. “Be Assured,” one of the highlights of Tyminski’s first solo project, boasts equally capable instrumental work from Block and Duncan, especially.

The prickly guitar intro to “Flame,” and its vivid lyrical images, wouldn’t have been out of place on U2’s classic album The Joshua Tree. After spending a lifetime lost in a spiritual wilderness, the wandering soul who tells this story has the devil’s number: “You crucified the Son of Love/He called your work His Father’s cup/Risen from among the dead/Messiah’s heel crushed Serpent’s head.”

With all that promise, “Flame” falters with a generic B theme that’s much weaker than its thrilling opening. That, in essence, is DoorWay’s fatal flaw. Despite some worthwhile — even extraordinary — elements, the album is marred by generic melodies, performances, and production values.

Block’s most powerful lyrics (“The Kind of Love,” “DoorWay,” “The Blackness of the Need,” “Flame”) are blunted by the kind of one-size-fits-all melodies that are all too prevalent in terrestrial radio formats from smooth jazz to adult contemporary to New Age to Christian (The album’s back-to-back instrumental tracks, “Secret of the Woods and “I See Thee Nevermore” are just as anonymous.) Lyrics this intense deserve music to match, and it simply isn’t to be found here. And, while Block (who sings lead throughout) is a competent vocal technician, he lacks the nuance, power, and distinctive delivery necessary to be a memorable lead singer.

“Love’s Living Through Me When I Do,” with its promising minor key melody, is emblematic of the way the entire album is undercut by a undercut by a production style that’s almost numbingly homogenous. Block has assembled a stellar roster of guest musicians, but their distinctiveness is buried in the production.

The uniqueness that made A-list musicians out of Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Sonya Isaacs, Suzanne Cox, and Homer, Lisa, and Lori Forbes are smothered in a production that harkens back to the country music of the 50s, with its anonymous choirs of backing vocalists. Only Tyminski’s vocals (barely) escape this fate.

“DoorWay” was made to fulfill a spiritual hunger, and it succeeds admirably on that level. Those looking to fulfill a musical hunger will have to look elsewhere.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Salt of the Earth” by Ricky Skaggs & The Whites

Ricky Skaggs & The Whites
Salt of the Earth
Skaggs Family Records
4 stars (out of 5)

A gospel album by Ricky Skaggs & The Whites ought to be mighty good, and Salt of the Earth is just that.

Each of the the 13 tracks is a setting for Skaggs’ clean, crisp Kentucky tenor and The Whites’ lush family harmonies, with Sharon (Skaggs’ wife), Cheryl (Sharon’s sister) and Buck (Sharon and Cheryl’s father) each offering lead vocals on three different tracks.

In spite of the presence of Andy Leftwich (fiddle) and Cody Kilby (guitar) throughout — and pedal steel guitar hero Paul Franklin on “Homesick for Heaven” — this isn’t a picker’s project. The country/bluegrass/Southern gospel arrangements are there so the singing can shine.

Skaggs’ lead vocals on modern material like the title track, “Love Will Be Enough” and “One Seed of Love” are achingly sincere and just rustic enough to link them to the gospel standards that form the backbone of the project.

Sharon’s sensitive vocal on “Let it Shine” and Cheryl’s emotive lead on the album closer “The Solid Rock” reveal how gifted they are even outside the familial trio or quartet.

And you can practically see Buck grinning away at the piano on the bouncy Southern gospel of “This Old House.” His “Wreck on the Highway” is the other side of the coin in all its gory, Gothic glory.

Salt goes from good to great on “Farther Along,” “Blessed Assurance” and “Wings of a Dove,” each sung by the quartet with passion and precision that’s hard to achieve without singing and living together for more than a quarter of a century.

by Aaron Keith Harris

‘Iron & Diamonds’ by The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers
Iron & Diamonds
Sugar Hill Records
3 stars (out of 5)

Eric and Leigh Gibson are two of the most musically astute pickers in bluegrass. Transcending flash, they always put the right licks in the right place at the right time. What’s more, they possess two of the most distinctive and high lonesome voices in the genre. Their choice of material for Iron & Diamonds is less sure-handed, and that makes the brothers’ latest release an uneven effort.

It starts out promisingly with a cover of Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below.” The Gibsons give it a bright Cajun-grass feel that obliterates any memory of the dark, swampy original.

Their take on the Roger Miller/Faron Young classic, “A World So Full of Love,” fares less well. The melody peaks in all the right places. The power of the lyric – in which a jilted man finds himself “in a world so full of love with not enough to go around” – is undeniable. But the Gibsons’ version lacks both gravity and urgency; they fail to make it their own.

Julie Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” falls somewhere in between. Eric’s driving banjo transforms Miller’s Bo Diddley beat into straight-ahead grass. But, as with “A World So Full of Love,” the vocals could be more urgent.

The Gibson-penned title cut is a fascinating yet problematic snapshot of the Lyon Mountain area where they grew up. The story of the “Poles and Lithuanians/Itals and Irish too” who mined for iron ore six days a week, and split the seventh between the Lord and baseball, is set to a folk melody, warmed with old time fiddle and banjo from Clayton Campbell and Eric Gibson, respectively.

The problem lies in the limitations of cramming such epic scope into four minutes and three seconds. The song is like a movie trailer that piques interest, but doesn’t tell the full story. Yet the subject matter feels weighty enough to warrant a concept album that would give Bruce Springsteen a run for his money.

Leigh Gibson’s breathtaking (and underrated) guitar picking is the highlight of “Angry Man.” He almost makes you forget the lyric, which aims for universality, but ends up just being trite (The same can be said for the lyrics of “One Step Closer to the Grave,” “Bloom Off the Rose,” and Steve Earle’s “Heartbreak Hotel” retread, “The Other Side of Town.”)

“Picker’s Blues,” in which a musician laments the emotional hardships of life on the road, is a similar case of a boilerplate lyric (“It’s all been done before/Someone’s story is the same”) that the band’s chops make up for. Eric’s down-home banjo, Clayton Campbell’s wicked shuffle, and Leigh’s crystalline guitar combine for a track that would have fit right in on one of the Dillards’ later projects. This is top-flight country rock, the way it sounded before the Eagles and their contemporary country imitators rode it into the ground.

All the elements come together with “Long Way Down,” another slice of country, 70s style, that makes skillful use of metaphor to put a fresh spin on an age-old theme. To an old friend who’s “been living high and mighty” at the expense of his (or her?) ideals, the brothers sing, “I dream about that old life we’d found/And I wake up after the fall screaming out/It’s a long way down.”

The brothers’ distinctive harmonies shine on two of the album’s best tracks. In “Lonely Me, Lonely You,” they decide that it’s better to try and save a relationship than to subject it to a regretful post mortem. With a sweet, 50s ballad feel, this track sounds like a long-lost Louvin Brothers tune that’s just begging to be covered by Emmylou Harris.
“Gone Home” is a Bill Carlisle hymn that the Gibsons first learned when they heard it performed by the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet. They’re joined by their sister, Erin LeClair, and the result is a triumph of high lonesome gospel singing, beautifully complemented by Junior Barber’s resonator guitar, and Leigh’s fingerpicking.

All told, “Iron & Diamonds” is not a bad effort, but if the Gibson Brothers had been a bit more selective, they might have hit a home run.

by Maria Morgan Davis