“Lonesome Way to Go” by Spring Creek

Spring Creek
Lonesome Way to Go
3.5 stars (out of 5)

In 2008, there is no shortage of quality bluegrass recordings being unleashed. It seems each month sees another hot release from any of a dozen or so familiar labels. Each album and each band have something significant to offer the bluegrass public; unfortunately some of these discs are a little too slick for those favoring a more natural sound.

For those who are eager to uncover unfamiliar sounds, there exist numerous bands with a slightly different approach to bluegrass, one that is entirely modern but perhaps closer in soul to the sounds of a previous time.

With the spirit of independence running deep, Spring Creek is one such band. From Colorado, the four-piece band has recently shortened their name, dropping “Bluegrass Band” while releasing the follow-up to their very well executed debut album Rural & Cosmic Bluegrass.

Lonesome Way to Go finds the band continuing down their path of bright, modern traditional bluegrass, with blues and old-time influences defining an appreciation for the roots of the music.

This relatively youthful band consists of Taylor Sims (guitar), Jessica Smith (upright bass), Chris Elliott (banjo), and Alex Johnstone (mandolin). Each take turns on lead vocals with Sims and Smith most frequently featured.

The diverse textures of the dozen tracks, augmented by the range of voices possessed by the band, make the album a pleasing listening experience that holds up over dozens of plays. Stand-bys such as “Hello Operator,” “Pathway of Teardrops,” and “The One I Love is Gone” are balanced by keen originals and fresh songs demonstrating the band’s talents.

The initial trio of numbers outlines Spring Creek’s approach to bluegrass- solidly within the fold, but bringing in their own colorful touches.

A new song from Oklahoma’s John Diamond kicks the album off with some energy; “Done This to Yourself,” sung with accusatory frankness by Smith, plainly lays it out for a wandering man- this woman has had enough of his faithless ways.

The vocal-trio treatment of “Pathway of Teardrops” reveals a different side of Spring Creek’s bluegrass tradition; Elliott’s lead is augmented by Smith’s and Sims’s harmonies in homage to the Osborne Brothers’ recording from which Spring Creek learned the song.

“Fiddler’s Banjo,” an Elliot original, showcases Gabe Witcher’s fiddling within a rousing and memorable bluegrass instrumental that allows each band member an opportunity to display individual touches.

Elsewhere, additional influences appear. The title track, written by Smith, has a melody that borrows from “Down in the Willow Garden.” The words capture the realistic desperation found in the best traditional numbers while relating the tale of a life tied to circumstance. Another Smith original, “Sleepin’ Like A Baby” has a bit of Lorrie Collins’ rockabilly bite, while Elliott’s “Way of Life” is reminiscent of the ‘looking back’ country shuffle tunes with which The Grascals have been quite successful.

There is no shortage of intriguing songs on this sophomore release. The band understands the complexity of sounds comprising bluegrass, and they make the execution of such appear effortless. Put in the effort, and seek out Spring Creek’s Lonesome Way to Go.

by Donald Teplyske

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“Stronger” by Carlene Carter

Carlene Carter
Yep Roc Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Long time fans can be forgiven for believing they were unlikely to ever hear new material from June Carter’s first-born.

Going back to the late 1970s, Carlene Carter has been at her strongest performing songs — whether from her pen or others’ — that seemed to resonate with her on a personal level, take “Love is Gone,” “Alabama Morning,” and “Appalachian Eyes,” to name three from the initial English pub rock-influenced phase of her career.

During the Nashville hit years, for every “I Fell in Love” or “Every Little Thing” there was a “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” “My Dixie Darling,” “The Sweetest Thing,” or “Unbreakable Heart.”

On her first album in over than a decade, CC displays the passion that has consistently been present in her country-rock hybrid while instilling depth that was frequently missing from her chart hits. Stronger has more than a little of the spirit of her Carter family ancestors woven within the tracks.

Having spent years out of the spotlight, Carter started to claw her way back with a well-received acting stint as her mother in the stage production Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter StoryStronger was originally available as a fan club disc, and has been revitalized for wide-spread release with John McFee at the production helm. McFee also overdubbed new instrumentation throughout the album.

Carter’s voice is huskier than on Little Acts of Treason, her major label swan song. But she displays control and sensitivity throughout, never over-extending her voice.

The uncompromisingly honest treatment of “On To You” is enough to signify that at fifty-plus, Carter can give those half her age something to consider. “To Change Your Heart” would fit nicely on any of Carter’s mid-’90s albums; it is a mid-tempo country shuffle with heartbreak at its core: “Well-meaning friends don’t understand why I can’t let go and start again.”

While Carter exposes herself emotionally throughout Stronger, the album’s mood isn’t dense or bleak. Lightness shines through although the two-stepping splash of her ’90s recordings is absent.

“I’m So Cool,” originally recorded on the Nick Lowe-produced Musical Shapes, is as lively as it was almost thirty years ago. Attention to phrasing and delicate instrumentation allows the gentle love song “Spider Lace” to standout as a highlight; McFee’s pedal steel contributions provide a honky tonk element.

The recording isn’t perfect. On “Break My Little Heart in Two,” Carter’s vocal is too far down in the mix; the song had potential to be Stronger’s radio song, but this production decision weakens what could have been a defining performance. “It Takes One To Know Me,” originally written for Johnny Cash, isn’t the most dynamic song in Carter’s catalog, and husband number four Jon Breen’s duet vocal is non-descript. Still, the heartfelt intention behind the song rescues it.

Finally, all the stops are pulled out for the album’s closer, the intense title track. “Stronger” doesn’t mince words, and Carter’s mature performance of the clichéd lyric (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”) elevates the song. When one considers from where Carter was for much of the last thirteen years- addiction, career bankruptcy, criminal charges, family losses- June, Johnny, sister Rosey, ex Howie Epstein- “this hell-raising angel” is entitled to look back with contented perspective. “Stronger” should become Carter’s signature song.

Not only the Comeback of the Year, Stronger may serve as a candidate for Comeback of the Decade.

“There’s grace in forgiveness for angels in flight,” a lyric from her elegy for her sister, may be suitable for Carter herself. Without apologizing for her past, Carlene Carter has documented the challenges, celebrations, and lessons of a hard-lived life on Stronger.

by Donald Teplyske

“Waterloo, Tennessee” by Uncle Earl

Uncle Earl
Waterloo, Tennessee
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Uncle Earl’s musical styles range from thoughtful simple tunes, (“My Little Carpenter”), to spiritual calls with open Asian harmonies, (“My Epitaph”), to powerful shape note a cappella singing (“Buonaparte”), each presented with equal skill and apparent enjoyment.

The g’Earls are Kristen Andreassen on guitar, fiddle, feet, and banjo ukulele, Rayna Gellert on fiddle, KC Groves on mandolin, guitar, and mandola, and Abigail Washburn on banjo.  All contribute to the vocals.  Each musician brings her own styles and experiences to the recording, both in song choice and execution.  A changing array of lead vocalists with diverse vocal styles keeps the sound fresh and aurally engaging.  As a whole, the harmonies are deep, rich, and lovely.

Abigail Washburn’s soulful voice is highlighted in the lovely song, “The Last Goodbye,” while “Drinker Born” highlights Rayna Gellert’s thoughtful fiddling and vocals.  “Wish I Had My Time Again,” a song inspired by a man who served eleven years in prison before being proved innocent, reflects the raucous energy of musicians who sound as if they are having a blast playing together.

The transition from the exhilarating a cappella shape note harmonies of “Buonaparte” to the festive, instrumentally driven “Bony on the Isle of St. Helena” give two very different takes on a similar subject, each a considerable blessing to listen to.  This is simply a great album, worth listening to over and over.

by Katy Leonard

“Sweetheart” by Sarah White

Sarah White
4 stars (out of 5)

Charlottesville’s Sarah White has something that guarantees, even on a five-song EP, a satisfying listen: a strong voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. And contrary to the name of the title track “Sweetheart,” White’s voice isn’t sugary at all, but open and pain-filled.

On “Ply Me” that voice is sly and seductive amid a singalong chorus.

White gets a little folkier on “Apple in B Major,” the wonderfully Dylanesque “Where You’re Going” and the dark, wry closer “Half a Smile.”

Throughout, Ted Pitney’s acoustic or electric guitar grips the spaces around White’s melody with just enough warmth.

Here’s to looking forward to a full-length follow-up.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Satisfied” by John Sebastian & David Grisman

John Sebastian & David Grisman
Acoustic Disc
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Satisfied is a perfect soundtrack for the lazy days of summer – or for imagining what “lazy days” might be like while gazing longingly out of the window of your urban office.

The album as a whole brings to mind a rowboat on the water, parasols, white gloves, hot, sticky weather, and cool lemonade. Recorded simply, with limited editing, Satisfied hosts an honest, easy ambiance. Sebastian takes over the lead vocals, guitar, baritone guitar, whistle, and harmonica, while Grisman provides harmony vocals, mandolin, mandolas, and banjo mandolin.

The song “Passing Fantasy,” is a nice aural tour of summer in the city, while the bluesy “John Henry,” a great rendition of this classic tune, spotlights John Sebastian’s prowess on the harmonica.

This slow, dreamy session is a reunion of two greats who began playing together in Greenwich Square in the 1960’s as folk revivalists, but then moved on to separate, successful careers. In the forty years between, Sebastian and Grisman have honed unique styles, which pair up nicely in this recorded collaboration.

The album closes with the “Jug Band Waltz,” dedicated “to all of our jug band friends in radio land,” presumably paying homage to Sebastian and Grisman’s early gig together in The Even Dozen Jug Band. Rounding out the leisurely album as a “hidden” track, Sebastian reminds listeners of his Lovin’ Spoonful days by whistling “What a Day for a Daydream,” just the right ending for this wistful collection of tunes.

by Katy Leonard

“Different Roads” by The Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene
Different Roads
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

At first glance, Different Roads might seem a bit of a disappointment. The Seldom Scene recorded seven albums for Rebel Records, but this compilation pulls tracks from only three. Slip the CD into the player, though, and the disappointment vanishes in a cascade of guitar and mandolin.

The Scene does top-notch work on the fastest track here, “Pan American,” but it’s on slow and mid-tempo numbers that they demonstrate complete mastery of the concept of drive. Thanks to his trick of crescendoing into the ends of phrases, John Starling’s vocal drives as persistently as guest guitarist Paul Craft’s leads.

The full band uses the same technique throughout, always in the service of the music. The way Starling’s voice swells into the last chorus, which then dims to a whisper, is only one of the moments worth studying on “Wait a Minute.” Instrumentalists will be taken with Duffey’s simple yet stunning mandolin break, full of emotion, thanks to his expert use of dynamics. On the verses, Starling tests the limits of his baritone to heartbreaking effect. This classic track is gorgeous, soulful and astonishingly musical from beginning to end.

Repeat that last sentence for “Last Train from Poor Valley.” Starling wrings every last ounce of empathy and resignation from Norman Blake’s forlorn lyric. The way the band uses their impeccable diction to shape phrases demonstrates their exceptional musicality.

That musicality is no accident: Auldridge, Duffey, and Gray all came from the most musical band in bluegrass at that time: the Country Gentlemen. With the Scene, they recorded a compelling re-reading of the Gents standard, “Rebels Ye Rest,” making the original their own with a more urgent delivery.

If music is what occurs in the silence between notes, the Scene made some of their best music with  Starling’s “Gardens and Memories.” The reading is hushed and uncluttered, but driven nonetheless. This is due in no small part to bassist Gray’s distinctive walking bass lines, also used to marvelous effect on “Reason for Being” and “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.”

The Scene’s individual members drew attention to themselves in spite of – or perhaps because of – their consciousness of the ensemble as a whole. “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” boasts an unusual duet, in which Eldridge plays something called a dobro-banjo, weaving in and out of Auldridge’s back-up lines without ever getting in the way of the vocal trio. For all their instrumental prowess, the Scene’s vocals were (and are) what sets them apart.  Duffey, Starling, and Auldridge concocted a vocal blend that never sacrificed their individual sounds.

It takes expert musicians to do that, and the Scene managed it every time they harmonized. The blend is particularly good on “Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” “Old Train” (made better by Auldridge’s peerless dobro work) and “Walk Through This World With Me.” To the latter, Duffey brings his special brand of soul, all the more remarkable because he never shouts.

Soul was the hallmark of this edition of the Seldom Scene. In John Starling and John Duffey, they had two of the most soulful lead singers in the business – a vocal partnership as classic and deeply missed as that of Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin. Their vocals shine with emotional truth, whether on contemporary tracks like “Easy Ride from Good Times to the Blues” (driven by drums and Auldridge’s pedal steel) or traditional favorites like Earl Scruggs’ “I’ve Lost You” and “If That’s the Way You Feel,” from Ralph and Peggy Stanley.

The classic Seldom Scene packed more music into 14 tracks than some bands do into a lifetime of work. “Different Roads” is a worthwhile substitute for the exhaustive box set that they so richly deserve. But, at this rate the current, equally deserving lineup may beat them to it.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Same Old Man” by John Hiatt

John Hiatt
Same Old Man
New West Records
2 stars (out of 5)

If there’s any truth to the lyrics on his latest album, then John Hiatt is one conflicted guy. First, he’s celebrating a time when “I had nothing to live up to/Everywhere to be” (“Same Old Man”) and dismissing a loyal companion, saying “I woulda took her with me/But that trail never ends” (“Ride My Pony”.)

Then, he’s getting all gushy about wuv. And if that last sentence reads more like, “Hell just froze over,” then here’s a sampling of his lyrics. Read ‘em and weep:

“I wanna thank you, babe/For lettin’ me back in/I wanna thank you for askin’ me/To love you again” — “Love You Again.”

“That’s what love can do/Make you feel brand new” — “What Love Can Do.”

“When the old seems almost new/That’s when my heart burns cherry red for you” — “Cherry Red.”

“Two hearts/One for me and one for you/Two hearts/Do you feel the way I do” — “Two Hearts.”

“We’ve been down a rough road or two/This is another one we’ll get through” — “Same Old Man.”

“There’s nothing written anywhere/That suggests the blues’ll set you free,” Hiatt sings in “Old Days.” Indeed, that might be his raison d’etre for this record. Yes, sentiment can be effective, but if Hiatt should be taking lessons from anyone, it should be Carter Stanley, Beatles-era Paul McCartney, or Richard Rodgers, not the folks at Hallmark. It’s shocking to see Hiatt fall into the fledgling writer’s trap of too much telling and not enough showing. Most of the album’s 11 tracks suffer this fate, and the musical clichés (Hiatt verges on self-parody here) don’t help.

“Same Old Man” has some worthwhile moments. Hiatt’s daughter, Lily, contributes tart harmonies to two songs. Luther Dickinson adds some understated but illustrative fills on National reso. And Hiatt can’t forget himself entirely. There are flashes are lyrical brilliance among the recyclables.

By far the most brilliant is “Hurt My Baby.” Hiatt wails in pain and outrage, about a loved one’s deep emotional wounds: “No need to be explicit/ Anyone can see/The injury was permanent/The wound was really deep.”

When, in a throwaway line, he names the perpetrator(s) of the crime, the effect is shattering, and absolutely free of cliché. Is it because Hiatt has to work harder to comprehend a hurtful situation? Or is he using boilerplate lyrics elsewhere to avoid a deeper understanding of his happiness? In the end, maybe John Hiatt is a lot less conflicted than his lyrics would have us believe. Now, all he has to do is show it.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947″ by Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947
Skaggs Family Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Since his return to bluegrass music with 1997’s Bluegrass Rules!, Ricky Skaggs has been careful to credit the legacy of Bill Monroe as the prime reason for his musical rebirth. Skaggs’ devotion has included a full-length star-studded tribute to Monroe, 2000’s Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe.

So it’s no surprise that Skaggs, with his band Kentucky Thunder, is again paying tribute to Big Mon, this time including the other four members of the classic, original bluegrass band, with Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947.

Instrumentally, Skaggs plays the part of Monroe on mandolin, with plenty of stutters, slides and shouts that would make the master himself proud.

Jim Mills more than ably fills the Earl Scruggs banjo slot with plenty of jazz and twang; Andy Leftwich does the same in place of Chubby Wise on fiddle. Mark Fain is solid and unobtrusive on bass, just like Howard Watts was.

The only major difference is on guitar, where Cody Kilby provides strong rhythm as Lester Flatt did, but also throws in several anachronistic, but impeccably flatpicked, lead breaks.

One would expect this band, in particular, to run wild on rockers like “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel,” “Toy Heart,” “Why Did You Wander” and “Bluegrass Breakdown,” but they don’t quite. It’s as if their reverence for the material has trumped their enthusiasm for it, resulting in a sound that doesn’t quite have the jauntiness of the originals.

However, the mid-tempo and slower tracks are simply stunning, with Skaggs singing Flatt’s lead vocals and Paul Brewster singing Monroe’s stratospheric tenor parts. This peerless duet nails “When You’re Lonely,” “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “Mansions for Me,” “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” and “Remember the Cross.”

Two cameos make this project extra special: Scruggs himself kicks things off as the lone banjo on the album-opening “going back to old Kentucky” and Del McCoury duets with Skaggs on the album-closing “The Old Cross Road.”

by Aaron Keith Harris

“The Old Step-Stone: A Collection of Old-Time Duets” by Ann & Phil Case

Ann & Phil Case
The Old Step-Stone: A Collection of Old-Time Duets
Dry Run Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

The Old Step-Stone is the fourth full-length recorded example why Southwest Ohio’s Ann & Phil Case are one of the very best old-time duos working today.

Ann plays a 1929 Martin 0-21 guitar and a handmade 1903 Audinot copy fiddle; Phil plays everything else: a Wildwood 5-string open-back banjo (1993), a 1921 Gibson F4 mandolin, guitar, harmonica, alto and tenor saxophones and bass.

On instrumentals like the sprightly “Shoo! Fly”, the play-party tune “Go In and Out the Window” and the sublime, gentle “Crystal Stream Waltz,” Ann & Phil put those instruments to expert use.

But it’s the vocals and vocal harmonies that make “The Old Step-Stone a true delight, with the title song serving as the cornerstone of the album and one of about a half-dozen heart songs that, with Ann’s tender lead vocals and Phil’s plaintive harmonies, recall the parlors and drawing rooms of old as much as the back porches and barn dances.

“Rainbow ‘Mid Life’s Willows” is a stunning a cappella; “The Baltimore Fire” is, pardon the pun, a real barn-burner.

The 14-track disc closes  on a gorgeous note with the lushly arranged “Let the Rest of the World Go By,” whose wistful lyrics float along on a bed of saxophones, a fiddle, a cornet and a Hawaiian Dobro.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Follow Me” by Bearfoot

Follow Me
Glacier Records
4 stars (out of 5)

When Back Home was released five years ago, this Alaskan quintet was known as Bearfoot Bluegrass, precocious youngsters performing bluegrass at band camps and festivals.

While youthful, the group has maintained a consistent lineup while spreading across the continent in pursuit of higher education and life experience. Follow Me is their third recording and reveals a confidence and maturity that was not previously in evidence. Freed of the constraints of being perceived as teenage prodigies, Bearfoot has continued the journey toward becoming truly professional musicians.

Today’s Bearfoot has firmly embraced the new acoustic approach previously explored by Nickel Creek and, more recently, by Crooked Still. Bluegrass is present only in the very broadest of definitions.

Bearfoot is Annalisa Tornfelt (guitar and fiddle), Kate Hamre (acoustic bass), Angela Oudean (fiddle), Jason Norris (mandolin), and Mike Mickelson (guitar.) All five sing with the ladies’ voices more prominent than the men’s.

Annalisa has a voice for the ages, and hers is that which Bearfoot relies upon to bring a signature to their sound. Her voice may be described as sultry, but it is more than what that term implies. Like John Reischman & the Jaybirds’ Trisha Gagnon, Annalisa possesses that extra special something — an easy, soulful breathlessness, perhaps — that separates her from others.

Mike’s take of the jam favorite “Deep River Blues” is bluesy and swinging, a description that also applies to several other tunes on the album including the openers “Molasses” and “Go on Home.” Kate sings the lead on the old-timey “The Blackest Crow” and Becky Buller’s “Little Bird” is another highlight.

As time passes, people change and so does the music they want to play. Don’t hold it against Bearfoot that they are no longer the sweet teens who captured imaginations playing bluegrass.

Instead, welcome the mature and fully realized version of the band that has produced an album that should become a favorite.

by Donald Teplyske