“Dailey & Vincent” by Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent
Dailey & Vincent
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Dailey & Vincent signal exactly what they’re all about by kicking off their debut CD with “Sweet Carrie.” Joe Dean’s banjo accelerates into Jamie Dailey’s clear, high and powerful lead vocals, which in turn are joined by flawless harmony vocals from bassist Darrin Vincent and mandolinist Jeff Parker. And in just 30 seconds you’ve got a strong dose of the vibrant modern bluegrass – not too traditional, not too progressive – that follows on 11 more tracks.

Vincent, former guitarist and baritone singer in Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, steps into the vocal spotlight with engaging lead singing on “Cumberland River,” “Don’t You Call My Name,” and “Music of the Mountains” and on gospel numbers “Place on Cavlary” and “My Savior Walks with Me Today,” the latter a beautiful Monroe Brothers-style duet with Dailey singing tenor and just guitar and mandolin backing.

Gillian Welch’s “By the Mark” get similar treatment, with Dailey taking the lead on what must be considered the best “bluegrass” version of this modern classic.

Dailey, who gained countless fans from his several years in Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver, is equally adept at quick-steppers like “Sweet Carrie” and “Poor Boy Workin’ Blues” as he is on mid-tempos like “More Than a Name on a Wall,” “River of Time,” “Take Me Back and Leave Me There,” and the gospel showpiece “I Believe.”

The picking throughout, though clearly subservient to the vocals, is first-rate, with Andy Leftwich and Stuart Duncan handling the studio fiddle duties with their characteristic brilliance.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Footprints: A IIIrd Tyme Out Collection” by IIIrd Tyme Out

IIIrd Tyme Out
Footprints: A IIIrd Tyme Out Collection
Rounder Records
3.5 Stars (out of 5) 

Footprints: A IIIrd Tyme Out Collection compiles thirteen tracks from the band’s four Rounder releases during the mid to late 1990s plus two previously unreleased tracks – “Footprints in the Snow” and “One Kiss Away from Loneliness.”  

The reissued tracks recall IIIrd Tyme Out’s seven year reign (1994-2000) as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Vocal Group of the Year. Two-time Male Vocalist of the Year Russell Moore’s terrific lead and hair-raising harmonies from Wayne Benson, Ray Deaton, and Steve Dilling comprised a vocal tour de force that conquered everything from driving grassers “John and Mary” and “Raining in L.A.” to trademark adaptations of “Milk Cow Blues,” “Only You (and You Alone),” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The latter is one of three standouts from the gospel collection Living on the Other Side. 

The heart-stopping, could-have-heard-a-pin-drop cover of Carl Jackson’s “Erase the Miles” is the lone track from Live at the MAC, but it reminds us that IIIrd Tyme Out is alive and well (having recently released its third recording from that venue). Deaton and fiddler Mike Hartgrove have departed, but Moore, Dilling, and Benson carry on with new mates Justin Haynes and Edgar Loudermilk. 

While all four source releases remain in print, Footprints affords newcomers a less expensive (but obviously less comprehensive) catch-up opportunity. Meanwhile, longtime followers must decide whether to spring for a wonderful mix tape to get two new tunes. Maybe purchasing single-track downloads has its merits after all. 

by Tim Walsh 

“Crowd Favorites” by Claire Lynch

Claire Lynch
Crowd Favorites
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Crowd Favorites collects Claire Lynch’s most requested numbers, ranging from four re-recorded Front Porch String Band tunes to ten subsequent Rounder releases. With able backing from Jim Hurst and Missy Raines, among others, Lynch skillfully traverses a wide range of musical styles.

Her blue-tinged vocals are the highlight of the grassy “Train Long Gone” and the more overtly bluesy “Jealousy.” The straight-up swing of “Fallin’ In Love” would have benefited from some of those blues.

Lynch switches gears with the classic country tune, “Silver and Gold,” and fares equally well on the full-out grass of “If Wishes Were Horses.” The rollicking, Cajun-inflected “Thibodeaux” gives the strongest hint of the great time to be had at a Claire Lynch show.

“The Day That Lester Died“ mourns Lester Flatt in the context of bluegrass’ growing pains. A fragment of “On My Mind” makes a poignant coda.

Lynch’s gorgeous voice is one of the most recognizable in acoustic music, but her skill as a songwriter makes her work ripe for interpretation.

“Sweetheart, Darlin’ of Mine” delights with its ethereal harmonies. “Kennesaw Line,” about death on the battlefield, builds slowly to an intense, emotional peak. “Your Presence is My Favorite Gift” is a sweet slice of country gospel, while “Hills of Alabam,’” with its aching vocal, uses a contemporary folk setting for a lyric about lonely life on the road.

As different as these numbers are, any of them would be at home on Nanci Griffith’s next CD of cover tunes, or one of Jennifer Warnes’ increasingly rare new releases.

“Friends for a Lifetime,” a tender valentine from a mother to her infant son, seems ripe for the picking the next time the folks at Disney decide to do an animated fairy tale. If that happened, Lynch would become the deserving favorite of a much bigger crowd.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Pretty Runs Out” by Amanda Shaw

Amanda Shaw
Pretty Runs Out
Rounder Records
2 Stars (out of 5)

Whether or not Amanda Shaw’s name has been called when choosing sides for basketball, at 17, the New Orleans fiddler, singer, songwriter, bandleader, and actress already has amassed an impressive resume. She won Offbeat’s 2004 Cajun Artist Award and the 2005 Big Easy Award for Best Female Entertainer. She also starred in Hurricane on the Bayou and had feature roles in two Disney television movies.

On her Rounder Records debut, Pretty Runs Out, Shaw partners with producer Scott Billington and a crew of top-notch musicians that includes drummer Mike Barras, guitarist Cranston Clements, bassist Ronnie Falgout, multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, and guest vocalist Sarah Borges. They cover a lot of ground in thirteen tracks: from Cajun instrumentals to co-writes with Shannon McNally and Anders Osborne and a version of Jack Johnson’s “Gone.”

Nearly each track is executed flawlessly. Nevertheless, although one dares not question Ms. Shaw’s life experiences, Pretty Runs Out boils down to love and love-gone-wrong songs sung by a 17-year old girl. Her credibility runs into “Brick Wall,” a funk flop full of grunts and vocal struts. The title track simply isn’t convincing, but it and “Woulda Coulda Shoulda” pack enough cliché for commercial radio.

Shaw and her band (The Cute Guys) landed an opening slot for Taylor Swift, and the talented teenager seems destined for stardom. Rounder thinks so, and they’re probably right.

by Tim Walsh

“Keep it Simple” by Van Morrison

Van Morrison
Keep it Simple
Lost Highway Records
4 stars (out of 5)

More than any other artist, Van Morrison can make feeling the full weight of your humanity bearable by taking the worst things about being human and turn them into music that is joyfully, cathartically ecstatic.

But since 1997’s The Healing Game Van has seemed less interested in reaching for ecstasy in favor of strolls down musical memory lanes. Not only has the overall quality of his songwriting suffered during this time, but his band – once anchored by organist Georgie Fame and former James Brown sax man Pee Wee Ellis– has had players of decidedly reduced skill.

Still, there have been flashes of startling brilliance, like “Little Village” from What’s Wrong With This Picture? and “Celtic New Year” from Magic Time.

Keep It Simple is, unfortunately, marred by the same drawbacks as its four immediate predecessors – including some garish, atrocious countrypolitan backing vocals – but its spare instrumentation and stronger songwriting let a little more of the master’s brilliance shine through.

“No Thing” is the worst track here, but even it has a bit of charm, with Van intoning, “People come / and people go / one monkey don’t stop no show.” “How Can a Poor Boy,” “School of Hard Knocks” and “Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore,” are a couple of notches better, especially the latter with Van’s shout-outs to erstwhile collaborators Fame and Mose Allison.

The punning “That’s Entrainment” is a loping, rustic romance that enriches our vocabulary — entrainment simply means the synchonization of an organism to an external rhythm — and ends with Van whispering “You put me back in a trance,” as if the magician has fallen under his own spell.

“Song of Home” is a country rewrite of “Irish Heartbeat,” complete with twanging banjo; “End of the Land” is the mirror-image to “The Philosopher’s Stone,” with Van heading west out of town and driving all night “when things get out of hand.”

“Keep it Simple” is, appropriately, the album’s center, harkening back to the mix of cynicism and nostalgia that made Hymns to the Silence a great work. Against simple guitar arpeggios, the older, wiser, Van concludes that life is but “illusions and pipe dreams on the one hand / and straight reality is always cold,” therefore “we’ve got to keep it simple to save ourselves.”

Very Van-like that such a jolt of pessimistic realism comes after the positively gorgeous “Lover Come Back,” which quotes melody and imagery from Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as Van’s voice trades off with John Allair’s sumptuous Hammond organ and Cindy Cashdollar’s steel guitar.

“Soul,” the disc’s penultimate track, is one of its two classics. With an arrangement that’s both brooding and uplifting — and an unexpected, perfect sax solo from Van himself — it’s a perfect example of Van’s lyrics and vocals combining to make something infinitely satisfying.

The finale “Behind the Ritual” is Van at his very best, drinking wine in the alley and talking all out of his mind in the days gone by, ripping off another sax solo, mumbling vocals, soaring vocals, nonsense scatting vocals, all adding up, if not quite to ecstasy this time, to a positively cathartic spiritual experience.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Abraham Lincoln in Song” by Chris Vallillo

Chris Vallillo
Abraham Lincoln in Song
Gin Ridge Music
4 stars (out of 5)

An album of old-time folk music from and inspired by the times of Lincoln; now there’s a commercial bonanza just a-waitin’! Fortunately, folk singers don’t worry about such matters.

Recently endorsed by the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, Illinois songwriter and musician Chris Vallillo celebrates on his fifth studio release the times and music of the early- to mid-19th Century.

In the detailed liner notes, Vallillo outlines the connection each track has to Lincoln, whether a personal favorite of the 16th president, an artifact of the time, or a contemporary piece reflecting a historical perspective. Anticipating the bicentennial of his birth, Abraham Lincoln in Song presents thirteen tunes and songs from the familiar- “Lorena,” “Hard Times,” and “Dixie’s Land­”- to the less known- “El-A-Noy” and “Let the Band Play Dixie.”

The album works most completely as a unified listening experience. Although not placed chronologically, one traces the events and times through Lincoln’s life in the songs.

Individual performances do stand out, however. Vallillo’s treatment of the Civil War standard “Lorena” is especially effective. The steel guitar work by Vallillo on “Shawneetown” fits the melancholy mood of the tune ideally, and the additional guitar picking on this number — either by Vallillo or accompanist Gary Gordon — complements the phrasing of the steel bits.

Vallillo’s voice is ideally suited to the timbre of “Lincoln’s Funeral Train,” and he conveys the song with such conviction that one may be forgiven for believing he wrote the Norman Blake song.

Vallillo has a pleasant, masculine voice that is fully capable of carrying the nuance of a popular sentimental melody while bringing a bit of bombast to more inspirational numbers. Vallillo’s guitar arsenal is large, and he is accompanied by mandolin, fiddle, bass, and harmonica.

Beyond the stellar musicianship and singing, Abraham Lincoln in Song is further impressive because of the care that has gone into packaging the album. From the cover art featuring an uncommon photograph of Lincoln’s hat and glasses, to the multiple panel fold-out featuring the notes and additional photographs, Vallillo has elected to place emphasis on creating a product that puts quality over profit margins.

Those interested in the aural tradition and historical basis of familiar songs within a stunning acoustic context are well advised to investigate Abraham Lincoln in Song.

by Donald Teplyske

“Thankful” by Larry Stephenson

Larry Stephenson
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

The opener asks “How High is that Mountain,” but the real question on Thankful might be, “How high can Larry Stephenson’s vocals go?” The 5-time SPBGMA award winner’s trademark tenor is in prime form on his fourth bluegrass gospel album and nineteenth release overall.

Thankful turns out twelve tracks of hallowed treasures and new gems. Stephenson dug into his record collection for the Louvin Brothers’ title track, the Lewis Family’s version of “Set Another Place at the Table,” and Kitty Wells’ cover of “I Need the Prayers.” On the flipside, Barry Clevenger’s “Weary Pilgrim Welcome Home” and Tonya Lowman’s “When I Get Home” are new songs that sound older than the hills. And in a class by themselves are Tom T. and Dixie Hall who (along with Troy Engle) penned “Lord It’s a Hard Road Home.”

Stephenson’s impressive support cast includes Shad Cobb, Sonya Isaacs, Missy Raines, and former band members Dustin Benson and Aaron McDaris. Isaacs’ harmonies are the first female vocals to be heard on a Larry Stephenson recording.

Thankful is a very personal effort by Stephenson, who lost his mother and four close friends in 2007. It may also be his finest, and it should contend for the IBMA’s 2008 Gospel Recording of the Year.

by Tim Walsh