“The Room Over Mine” by Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass

Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass
The Room Over Mine
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

It used to be Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass, with son Danny sharing lead vocals and the band keeping a relatively low recording profile on the Brandywine and Strictly Country labels.

With the 2004 passing of Bob, Danny and the rest of the band elected to keep going. And with this Rounder recording, many more people than just the festival faithful will be made aware of just how awesome the Southern Grass sound is.

The foundation of that sound is the impeccable bluegrass groove – that’s much easier felt than described – laid down by guitarist Danny Paisley, bassist Michael Paisley, fiddler TJ Lundy, banjoist Bob Lundy, mandolinist Donnie Eldreth Jr. on 11 vocal tracks and two instrumentals.

That groove is the perfect setting for Paisley’s old school, strip-the-bark-off-a-hickory-tree vocal style that owes as much to George Jones and Vern Gosdin as it does to Bill Monroe and Vern Williams.

“Don’t Throw Mama’s Flowers Away” is about as sentimental as a song can get, but Paisley’s unyielding intensity steers clear of any maudlin notes. “The Convict and the Rose” shows that that intensity burns even hotter at a slower tempo.

If you’re not hooked on the Paisley sound after these first two cuts, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. If you are hooked you have to look forward to great tracks like the title track, Charlie Moore’s “I’m Leaving Detroit,” “Raisin’ Cane in Texas,” and Marty Robbins’ “At the End of a Long Lonely Day.”

So far, this is by far my favorite bluegrass release of 2008.

by Aaron Keith Harris

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The Old Apple Tree by “Molly & Jack Tuttle”

Molly & Jack Tuttle
The Old Apple Tree
Back Studio Records
2 stars (out of 5)

The Old Apple Tree is a cozy home studio collaboration between young (thirteen at the time of the recording) Molly Tuttle and her Dad Jack, a well-known teacher, performer, and writer in the Bay Area. Recorded one instrument at a time, this fully-arranged DIY effort’s only other musical contributor is bassist John Kael.

Although he sings some lead, duet, and harmony vocals and plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, the elder Tuttle by no means props up his daughter on the fifteen tracks. Molly, who began playing guitar when she was eight, provides solid lead throughout, particularly on “Alabama Jubilee.” She plays strong bluegrass banjo on “June Apple” and superb clawhammer on her original title track.

Unfortunately, her vocal development lags behind her advanced musicianship. Reverence notwithstanding, enthusiastic offerings of “Rain and Snow,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and “Going Down That Road Feeling Bad” are rather ambitious. Conversely, her wistful take on Cousin Emmy’s “Graveyard” reveals potential to hone and utilize her range.

Molly Tuttle is an immensely talented teen from whom we’ll be hearing much more. However, the disparity between her musical and vocal prowess at this point in her career renders The Old Apple Tree an intermittently charming keepsake.

by Tim Walsh

“Blue Side of the Blue Ridge” by Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice
Blue Side of the Blue Ridge
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

The first time I remember hearing Junior Sisk’s hard country/smooth bluegrass voice was on the Come Go With Me album of a band called BlueRidge in 2002. At the time, Sisk had joined forces with Alan Bibey and Terry Baucum to craft a formidable tradition-based but modern bluegrass sound. I had missed Sisk’s earlier recording with Ramblers Choice and with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz. But on first listen to Come Go With Me, I was aware that Sisk was someone whose music and singing I wanted to further explore. By chance, I was fortunate to catch BlueRidge at a festival a number of years back, and hearing Sisk live only strengthened my admiration for his vocal talents.

In the past few years, Baucum and Bibey left BlueRidge to go onto other bluegrass projects; such is the nature of the bluegrass world: bands come, bands go. Sisk elected to spend some time regrouping his forces, and has emerged with another in a string of albums that should find themselves well-received in the bluegrass world.

Let’s start with Sisk and his voice. His is a bluegrass voice to be remembered. It contains elements of James King, but is more nasally (and that is a good thing, to my ears), and maybe Don Rigsby, but with more power apparent. As he has in the past, Sisk remains very capable of transporting listeners to whatever setting he deems to sing about. He captures the magic of memories of a simpler past on “Little Bit of This, Little of That.” When he sings, “It’s time for me to start over, and time for you to leave” in “I Did the Leaving For You” one senses the frustrated heartbreak of withered love within the spirited arrangement. Seemingly lighter fare is the “Wolf at the Door” and “You Let the Dog Off the Chain,” but as is done in the best songs, deeper messages are conveyed.

Elsewhere, Sisk pursues love on the “Blue Side of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” finds new-found adult freedom while “Leaving Baker County” on foot, and contemplates hillbilly philosophy shining down from “The Man in the Moon.” Few bluegrass singers handle a spiritual number as sincerely as Sisk, and he out does himself on “Dust on the Bible,” a song familiar from the Bailes Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and others.

On “The Man in Red Camels,” one of two songs sung by Tim Massey, days past are remembered as he successfully communicates the impression a hard-working man made while “scratching out a living, the best way he knew how.” Massey wrote this number with Rick Perdue, and while the writing is strong, it is Massey’s interpretation of this that allows the listen to envision the red clay field, stained plow handles, and the man struggling with the mule.

At every turn, Ramblers Choice frames Sisk’s singing with tasteful and appropriate bluegrass instrumentation. At times Chris Harris’ mandolin sends out individual notes that trill, and elsewhere his chop provides a welcome percussive element. Banjoist Darrell Wilkerson has several opportunities to shine, most obviously on “Steel Rail Rider,” a cut on which everyone takes a turn to show off just a little. And the harmonies!

Blue Side of the Blue Ridge isn’t going to be the best selling bluegrass album of the year, and it most likely will be ignored when it comes time for year-end ballots. Still, it is a more than enjoyable album, with several elements- such as Sisk’s voice and superior song selection- making it notable and highly recommended.

by Donald Teplyske

“Bound to Ride: The Best of Larry Sparks” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Bound to Ride: The Best of Larry Sparks
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

In music, true stylists are rare. Even more so in bluegrass music, where both lyrical and instrumental content are so dependent on tradition.

But Larry Sparks is a true stylist. The shy, stoic demeanor, the thundering rhythm guitar that ocaissionally throws out a sharp break, and the peerless voice that’s perhaps the most mournful since, well, Carter Stanley, give him the capacity to convey absolute sincerity with a strong side of heartbreak.

Who else could take “Tennessee 1949,” “Smokey Mountain Memories” and “You Ain’t Lived” – all the same sort of nostalgia – and make of them true heart-tuggers rather than garden-variety bluegrass filler.

Sparks is equally authoritative on the banjo-driven existential lament “I’d Rather Be a Train,” the atmospheric “Imitation of the Blues” and the new classic “Colleen Malone.”

The greatest cut out of 14 great ones is, of course, the title track to Sparks’ 1980 masterwork John Deere Tractor. It’s not exactly a bluegrass song in form, but in mood and lyric simply the best expression of the country boy’s reaction to the city and what goes on there. When the boy’s conscience is “trying to plow a furrow where the soil is made of steel,” you almost hear Sparks sing “soul.” That’s the way Appalachians usually pronounce the word “soil,” but it’s also a deft trick from Sparks that adds another deep wrinkle of meaning to an already meaning-filled song.

There are more tracks I’m not mentioning, but they’re all eminently listenable. Even if you already have some of the albums from which these tracks come, Bound to Ride is the perfect way to keep these great performances conveniently close at hand.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“The Awful Truth” by Widow Maker

Widow Maker
The Awful Truth
Sadiebird Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Bluegrass has a rich lexicon of lyrics — many original, some adapted from other genres, and others liberated from British folk songs. The lyrics that are important to us might be a line, a couplet, a verse or chorus, perhaps a creative turn of phrase; we remember the words because they impact us in some manner — they are poignant, touch a nerve, or elicit a memory.

Some of our favorites would be instantly familiar- maybe “Nine pound hammer, it’s a little to heavy, for my size…” or “I drew a sabre through her, which was a bloody knife. I threw her in the river, which was a dreadful sight.” Others might be less familiar, but as powerful or memorable: “I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee” or “I’m like a John Deere tractor in a half-acre field, trying to plough a furrow where the soil is made of steel.”

Well, get ready to add to the list of bluegrass lyrics that are, once heard, never forgotten: “Fatten up pig, fatten up now, don’t you be mistaken. Come a-hard frost, hog killin’ time, good sausage, ham, and bacon!”

The tune is “Hog Killin’ Time”, and it kicks off the strong album from Alberta’s Widow Maker; these veteran bluegrassers have delivered a tight, dynamic, and powerful listening experience.

Many Canadian bluegrass fans will be well familiar with the principals of Widow Maker. Banjoist Craig Korth and vocalist Julie Kerr have been mainstays of the Alberta bluegrass and acoustic scene for years, and Byron Myhre has fiddled as a member of various bands, most prominently with Korth in Jerusalem Ridge. Dale Ulan is less known nationally, and plays bass with Widow Maker.

For some, the least known member of Widow Maker is Will White. With a back-story that wouldn’t be believable should it occur in a mystery novel, White is a doctor who just happens to be a son of the South who followed love to settle in Calgary. Raised in North Carolina, Dr. Will comes to bluegrass naturally.

He writes and sings the majority of the songs on this debut recording, bringing to each his deft touch. Especially impressive is the way several songs, but none so strongly as “Silver and Gold, Diamonds and Pearls,” sound like they could have been pulled off a Red Allen album of forty years ago.

Whether it is on the slightly-frivolous “Get Up There Mule” or on more subtle numbers such as “She Should Know” or “Believe Me,” White’s approach to the song leaves nothing in reserve. His voice is distinctive and true, and while the band is most assuredly an ensemble, it is White’s vocal contributions that resonate most with this reviewer.

Both the title track and “Deal Breaker Baby,” with their sixties pop/country crossover overtones, delicately picked guitar breaks, and warm vocals sound closer to a Billy Cowsill outtake than Bill Monroe’s bluegrass, but they are among the album’s many highlights; the songs are two of a number that feature White and Kerr harmonizing to memorable effect. The reverb-heavy “You’ve Mistaken Me” is another number that brings the late Cowsill to mind.

Myhre’s sizzling fiddle playing is prominent on nearly every number, but never overwhelms the vocal space shared by White and Kerr. Instead, Myhre fiddles like Bill Anderson sang thirty-five years ago- effortlessly.

Korth can ring tones from a banjo like no one else in Alberta, and his work is positively featured throughout the recording. Picking out individual banjo highlights is pure folly, but 5-string enthusiasts are advised to check out “Water’s Rising,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” and “Just One More Drink.”   Beyond this, Korth has worked to become one of the area’s finest acoustic guitar players, and he does the heavy lifting in that regard on all parts of this album. Meanwhile, White’s slide guitar on “Water’s Rising” is quite unlike anything I’ve heard recently.

Listeners are advised that the album pushes at the edges of bluegrass with a bit of swing influence apparent, as well as the previously mentioned country-pop reverberations. It is a challenging album, one that rewards listeners who take the time to allow the unfamiliar to become comfortable.

One will leave The Awful Truth humming half a dozen melodies, and these will linger until the next opportunity for a listen occurs.

by Donald Teplyske

“Ripe” by The Dixie Bee-Liners

The Dixie Bee-Liners
Ripe
Pinecastle Records
4.5 Stars (out of 5)

The opener “Down on the Crooked Road” isn’t just the Dixie Bee-Liner’s tribute to the legendary landmark and its music; it’s also where band co-founders Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward set up shop after toiling a few years in New York City. They came with empty pockets but not empty hands. While in Gotham, the band worked around Hart’s office job and Woodward’s anime voiceovers to self-produce and self-release a terrific self-titled EP.

Hart and Woodward have continued to build a buzz since returning to the bluegrass and rent friendlier confines of their native Southeast. They revamped the Bee-Liners with fiddler Rachel Renee Johnson and banjoist Sam Morrow, penned a deal with Pinecastle Records, and headed off to Nashville to record with producer Bill VornDick. There they hooked up with Infamous Stringduster Andy Falco, Kentucky Thunder’s Mark Fain and Andy Leftwich, former Grascal David Talbot, and Travis Toy of Rascal Flatts.

The result – Ripe – is a fruitful full-length debut. One can take their pick from twelve originals highlighted by reprises of three masterpieces from the EP – the bluesy gospel “Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain,” the old-timey “Yellow-Haird Girl,” and the epic “Lost in the Silence.” The nine new songs include the superbly-crafted “She’s My Angel” and a pair of Civil War standouts (one co-written with Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford).

Ripe offers refreshing range and depth as it beautifully bridges contemporary and traditional sonics and subjects. In short, the Dixie Bee-Liners have found a sound that’s sweeter than honey.

by Tim Walsh

“Africa to Appalachia” by Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko

Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko
Africa to Appalachia
http://www.jaymestone.com
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Jayme Stone may be unfamiliar to many, but he has spent considerable time mastering the arts of the 5-string banjo. A student of many — Bill Evans, Tony Trischka, and Béla Fleck are but three who have spent time guiding the young Canadian in the ways of modern banjo — Stone has released a couple of previous albums that display his propensity for complex arrangements and airy, jazzy fare. In early 2008, Stone was awarded a Juno- the equivalent of a Grammy Award- for Instrumental Album of the Year for a rootsy album entitled The Utmost.

The Ontario native’s third disc is even more organic in nature as it is more closely tied to the history of the banjo and the African instruments from which it developed. Stone spent time last year in Mali exploring the roots of the 5-string banjo. A result of the relationships forged overseas is Africa to Appalachia, a dynamic new album that successfully amalgamates traditional African sounds — kora, percussion, ngoni, and vocals — with the fiddles and banjos of the Appalachian region of the southern United States.

Much more than an academic experiment, the teaming of Guinean griot (more than an oral historian, but that is a good place to start) Katenen Dioubate, Quebec-based Malian Mansa Sissoko, and Stone with guests including Casey Driessen produces a magical unification of rhythms that is lively, memorable, and awe-inspiring. One is primarily aware of the African dimension because it is so obviously infectious, but acute listeners will sense the persistent presence of banjo and fiddle inhabiting each song.

Africa to Appalachia
serves as a beautiful and accessible introduction to world music while providing those already attracted to African music a new twist, that being the unobtrusive and natural incorporation of the fiddle and banjo into the blend. For those who love the banjo, the album provides an insight to where the banjo has been, and where it might again go within parameters that have not frequently been explored.

by Donald Teplyske

“Gardens in the Sky: The Bluegrass Gospel of James King” by James King

James King
Gardens in the Sky: The Bluegrass Gospel of James King
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

It’s Christmas in July, courtesy of James King. His first gospel compilation has something for everyone. From traditional to modern, from classic cuts to new releases, “Gardens in the Sky” is full to the brim with gospel treasures. With the addition of special guests and frequent musical collaborators, this career-spanning disc is truly an embarrassment of riches.

The Stanley Gospel Tradition starts things off. James Alan Shelton’s driving lead guitar and a surprisingly brisk tempo make “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn” especially fresh.

But King is such a natural talent that he can breathe new life into the classics with nothing more than simple, heartfelt readings. He invigorates “Sweeter Than the Flowers” just by bringing his own emotions and experiences to it. That – and Kevin Prater’s hand-in-glove tenor harmony — is all the ornamentation it needs.

King seems to be a magnet for great tenor singers. Rhonda Vincent (“Don’t Worry Mama”) and Paul Williams (“I Just Steal Away and Pray”) appear separately on just one track each, but both of them will leave listeners clamoring for more.

Dudley Connell fans have reason to rejoice as he appears on “These Old Pictures,” plus five more tracks. The title track is an affecting brother-style duet that never descends into sentiment, but relies of the rock-solid faith of its youthful narrator. The ragged-but-right “Message for Peace” beautifully recalls the Stanley Brothers.

King and Connell are joined by Don Rigsby for three tracks from the original Longview (“Angels Are Singing in Heaven Tonight,” “Voice of My Savior,” and “The Touch of God’s Hand”.) With good, old-fashioned drive and high lonesome singing, this band creates great grass without even trying. Performances like this are what set bluegrass apart from any other music.

From the smooth yet soulful quartet harmonies of “Happy I’ll Be” to the passion of “Just as the Sun Went Down,” and the hushed, insistent harmonies of “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” King’s work with his own bands is just as solid.

For all that, two of the album’s best tracks spotlight King as a lead vocalist. On the aforementioned “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” his vocal is choked with emotion. His matter-of-fact reading of the previously-unreleased “Jerusalem Tomorrow” makes the story that much more suspenseful. Listeners will want to stop the CD when this one’s over, just to let the chill bumps subside.

If gospel music is the ultimate test of any bluegrass singer, then James King has passed with flying colors.

by Maria Morgan Davis