“This One Is Two” by Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley II
This One Is Two
Lonesome Day Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

With more than a dozen years as lead singer for his father’s Clinch Mountain Boys and four solo albums done in the same mountain bluegrass style, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ralph Stanley II – “Two” for short – would want to venture out in search of a sound of his own.

After all, one of his musical heroes, Keith Whitley, took the same path. With This One Is Two, Stanley has crafted a sound that fans of Whitley, or even Lefty Frizzell, will be drawn to.

The album features straightforward country arrangements executed by an all-star bluegrass lineup of Tim Crouch (fiddle and guitar), Cody Kilby (guitar), Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitar), Harold Nixon (bass), Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Ron Stewart (banjo).

With such expert backing, and free from the constraints imposed by the requirements of bluegrass harmony, Stanley sounds comfortable and confident in his vocal choices.

Song choice is another strength, with Garth Brooks’ truck-driving tune “Cold Shoulder,” Tom T. Hall’s upbeat “Train Songs” and Townes Van Zandt’s bittersweet “Loretta” all getting fine treatment. Elton John’s tuneful “Georgia” and a duet with Jim Lauderdale on the Lyle Lovett killin’ song “L.A. County” stand out as the most memorable of 11 strong tracks, including two co-written by Stanley.

One hopes This One is one of many to come in the same rich vein.

by Aaron Keith Harris

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“Leavin’ Town” by Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
Leavin’ Town
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

With 2002′s Flame Keeper, 2004′s Live at the Ragged Edge (with Tom Adams) and 2006′s Let ‘Er Go, Boys!, Michael Cleveland settled the question of how great a fiddler he is, winning IBMA awards and new fans with every stroke of his quick and powerful bow.

With veterans Jesse Brock (mandolin) and Marshal Wilborn (bass) on board along with relative newcomer John Mark Batchelor (banjo) and original Union Station member Todd Rakestraw (guitar, lead vocals), Leavin’ Town is most definitely a band album.

Batchelor’s banjo is as hard-driving as you’d expect in any band of Cleveland’s, with Brock’s crackling chop and Wilborn’s full bounce rounding out a solid groove very much required by songs like “When You Were Mine,” “I’m Ridin’ This Train,” “Leavin’ Town” and “Troubles ‘Round My Door.”

However, the most noticable facet of Cleveland’s band is Rakestraw’s voice, which, by happy accident rather than affectation, greatly resembles that of Dan Tyminski. On such priceless tracks as “Sold Down the River,” “In My Mind to Ramble” and the tear-in-your-beer “My Blue Eyed Darling” that voice works wonders.

However, as capable and distinctive as Flamekeeper is, Cleveland is still very much the star. He turns in new interpretations of Monroe instrumental classics “Jersualem Ridge” and the lesser-known “Northern White Clouds,” and is absolutely blistering on Brock’s “Kickin’ Back.” That, along with the endless stream of inventive, Benny Martin-esque licks on the vocal numbers makes this another triumph in Cleveland’s catalog.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“New Day” by Claire Lynch

Claire Lynch
New Day
Rounder Records
4 stars out of 5

Claire Lynch’s latest release, New Day, marks a long-awaited return for the venerated singer-songwriter. It is the first offering since her string of acclaimed albums in the 1990s that ended with 2000’s Lovelight. While the title may suggest a fresh phase for Lynch, in many ways New Day picks up right where Lynch left off—offering a fresh alternative to the homogenous bluegrass sound that often plagues the music today.

This continuity partly comes from the album’s personnel. While David Harvey (mandolin) is a newcomer, Jim Hurst (guitar) and Missy Rains (bass) are veterans of Lynch’s Front Porch String Band from the 1990s. A host of studio guests round out the core band, including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Andrea Zonn (fiddle), Charlie Cushman (banjo), Alison Brown (banjo), and Rob Ickes (Dobro).

With so many familiar session players, how can New Day represent a fresh alternative? I’ll give you one hint: it’s not about the band. It’s about Lynch. Her voice rings with an elegance, grace, and nuance rarely heard among bluegrass singers, male or female. Such songs as “Be Ready to Sail,” “Down in the Valley,” “Only Passing Through,” or her self-penned “I Believe in Forever,” showcase Lynch’s delicate delivery at her best.

She’s not afraid of putting the blues in bluegrass, either, as indicated by “Train Long Gone,”  “White Train,” “Leavin’ on that Evening Train” (notice a theme here?), and a great remake of “Up This Hill and Down.” And no matter who backs her up, Lynch always manages to extract that classic Front Porch groove from her band. All this coupled with a taste of Hot Club swing (“Fallin’ in Love”) makes Lynch’s latest effort a welcome departure from the typical bluegrass fare.

While a couple of the twelve tracks on New Day may be more tame in their emotional and musical “punch,” this album holds the kind of promise that makes one eager for Lynch’s next project. If New Day is any indication of things to come, I think we are all in for a wonderful “new era” of Claire Lynch.

by Kevin Kehrberg

“Keep on Walkin’” by The Grascals

The Grascals
Keep on Walkin’
Rounder Records
3.5 Stars (out of 5)

On Keep on Walkin’, the Grascals keep on doing what’s made them a fan favorite and two-time IBMA Entertainer of the Year(with perhaps number three on the horizon). The former sidemen stir up twelve tracks of hard-driving bluegrass and sentimental ballads on their third release.

Once again, the Grascals call on Harley Allen (“Me and John and Paul”) for another wartime tearjerker, “Remembering,” as well as a nostalgic trip to “Indiana” (co-written with Grascal Jamie Johnson). They also dip back into classic country’s deep well and grass up “Choices,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line.”

They fail to draw the line though when they sandwich Aubrey Holt’s “Happy Go Lucky” between the thematic title track and the gospel “Farther Along.” Despite the stirring harmonies on the latter, the sequencing might leave the band open to questions about its sincerity.

That’s unfortunate because Terry Eldredge, Jamie Johnson, Jimmy Mattingly, Aaron McDaris, Danny Roberts, and Terry Smith are not only top-notch musicians but also bluegrass lifers who toiled in the music’s trenches for years. So no one should begrudge the band for being in the spotlight. However, the bright lights of Nashville loom near, and time will tell if the Grascals cross that line.

by Tim Walsh