“Long Road” by Drew Emmitt

Drew Emmitt
Long Road
Compass Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Over the course of several years, Drew Emmitt has now released three thoroughly satisfying albums. Instantly recognizable, Emmitt has a voice for the ages. It is warm and companionable, with just a touch of gravel providing traction.

The FM radio staple “Take the Long Way Home” is reframed, with Supertramp’s classic rock, loping rhythm transformed as a slice of Americana that is sincere and natural. Elsewhere, Emmitt and co-producer Garry West have elected to include takes of other familiar tunes.

The Marshall Tucker Band’s southern anthem “Take the Highway” is given a full-fledged and expansive workout that could easily have been enjoyed for several more minutes; guests John Cowan and Darrell Scott work with Emmitt to create a robust vocal trio. Van Morrison’s “Gypsy In My Soul” is moodier and less frenetic, but no less groovy.

Along with the album’s opener “Into the Distance,” ably sung by the venerable Tim O’Brien, these songs provide the album with its over-arching timbre- competent, complex, and colorful formula that seems just a tad safe. Fully enjoyable, but it seems we’ve been down this road a few times already.

Emmitt stretches things a bit more on the originals. “Gold Hill Line” is moderately reminiscent of the music Emmitt created for so many years as a principal member of Leftover Salmon; the song is vigorous, catchy, and instrumentally sharp. It also comes closest to bluegrass territory, always a good thing.

Heading into Buffett territory, “Beat of the World” is bright and cheerful, an easy going mantra of acceptance and calm. “Get ’er Rollin’” has a bit of Louisiana back beat to it, with Bill Nershi lending some resonator to the flavorful gumbo.

The instrumentation contained on the album is as impressive as one might expect from as expansive a talent as Emmitt. Leftover Salmon colleague Jeff Sipe handles authoritative drumming on the majority of tracks. Chris Pandolfi (Infamous Stringdusters) is the resident 5-stringer, while Alison Brown drops by for “I’m Alive.” Stuart Duncan (fiddle and cello), Reese Wynans (Hammond B3), Tyler Grant (guitar), Steve Sandifer (percussion), and Eric Thorin (bass) comprise the house band.

Notably, Ronnie McCoury is on hand to jam on the instrumental “Cloud City;” displaying the dexterity for rhythm he has developed over the many years as an integral component of the Del McCoury Band, McCoury and Emmitt work together with Pandolfi’s banjo accompaniment to propel this number into something quite memorable.

The album concludes with a fresh southern rocker that sounds thirty years old. “River’s Risin’” moves along at a solid clip and features an electric opening and lead guitar work from Grant that are surprising but not disconcerting.

Sure to satisfy long-term fans and newcomers alike, Long Road misses a five-star rating on the sole basis of a perceived lack of risk-taking that breeds familiarity. And heck, I could be wrong!

by Donald Teplyske

“Benefit of Doubt” by Pam Gadd

Pam Gadd
Benefit of Doubt
4 Stars (out of 5)

Benefit of Doubt
leaves no doubt what Pam Gadd’s been up to since her musical partnership with Porter Wagoner ended with his death in October 2007. The singer/songwriter/banjoist has finally finished her first album in over seven years and come up with the crown jewel of her career thus far.

“Hold What You Got” isn’t just the opener; it’s an advisory, as Gadd gathers an all-star cast and launches into fourteen tracks of fiery bluegrass and impassioned ballads. Gadd gets backing from Bryan Sutton, Aubrey Haynie, Andy Leftwich, Mark Burchfield, and former Wild Rose mates Wanda Vick and Nancy Gardner, and harmonies from Grasstowne’s Steve Gulley and former New Coon Creek Girl pal Dale Ann Bradley. She duets with Marty Raybon on “After the Fire is Gone” and Dolly Parton on “Apple Jack.”

Gadd’s clawhammer banjo on the latter and Scruggs-style picking elsewhere are excellent. Meanwhile, her vocals and lyrics are stronger than ever, particularly on the superbly-crafted “Until She Makes It Home,” “The Only Thing Left Between Us,” and the closing tribute “Farewell Wagon Master.”

If only the planet could negotiate these turbulent times with a fraction of the grace with which Pam Gadd glides between playful romps and heartfelt confessionals. Grassers can take solace in the beauty and brilliance Benefit of Doubt brings to the bluegrass world. Indeed, Gadd is good!

by Tim Walsh

“Cherryholmes III: Don’t Believe” by Cherryholmes

Cherryholmes III: Don’t Believe
Skaggs Family Records
4 stars (out of 5)

If you’re a bluegrass music fan, you’re probably familiar with the Cherryholmes story. Patriarch Jere decided the family would take to the road as a full-time bluegrass band before they knew how to play intstruments.

In a few short years, the six-member family band went from a cute sideshow in the halls of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass week to the organization’s entertainers of the year, an excellent example of contemporary bluegrass with plenty of crossover appeal.

The main element in the band’s appeal is older daughter Cia, as striking in voice as she is in appearance. Her voice and her strong banjo kick off the disc with “I Can Only Love You (So Much)” and on the hard, focused track “Don’t Believe.”

Cia handles slower material with equal ease on “This is My Son,” a heart-tugging song that likens sending a son to war to Christ’s sacrifice, and on the lushly arranged “Broken,” which features octave violin, mandola and cello.

Not too be outdone, younger sister Molly shows she might be even more engaging a vocalist than Cia on the bouncy “Goodbye.”

The boys get into the act as well, with older brother B.J. turning in two fine instrumental compositions (“Sumatra” on mandolin and “Mansker Spree/O’Coughlin’s Reel” on fiddle), and strong vocals on “Bleeding,” a version of “Devil in Disguise” that would do the Bluegrass Album Band proud and the album-closing duet with Cia, “Traveler.”

Younger brother Skip turns in a nice lead vocal on the lovelorn “My Love for You Grows,” and mom Sandy brings her Celtic-flavored voice to “The King as a Babe Comes Down” and “The Sailing Man,” on which she plays clawhammer banjo.

With so much vocal variety and an unending instrumental energy, Don’t Believe that you’ll get tired of this album anytime soon.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Delivered” by Mark Erelli

Mark Erelli
Signature Sounds
5 stars (out of 5)

Sometime ago, Mark Erelli posted to his website the opportunity for fans and followers to invest in his next album. It isn’t a unique fundraising venture, but one usually reserved for artists of lower profile. It is telling of the narrowness of economic margins in the new musical world order, however. I neglected to respond to the opportunity, and now that I have the product in my hand I very much regret that I spent the hundred dollars on coffees and gum rather than contribute to Erelli’s project.

Delivered is a powerful, dramatic artistic statement from a singer-songwriter who has for too long flown under-recognized while cover shots, features, and praise have fallen on contemporaries. Not that Erelli is better than anyone else plying their trade out there within the coffeehouse, folk club, and house concert circuit. He’s different from some of them, similar to others, and this isn’t a competition, after all. He’s received his due praise from the media that matters, and yet his name is never raised when I’m discussing favoured artists with like-minded peers.

Delivered is different from the other albums of Erelli’s that I’ve enjoyed- Hope & Other Casualties and Compass & Companion– lack of ampersand notwithstanding. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated those recordings, Delivered is of an entirely different breed. The album has more of a universal theme to it, as it attempts to focus on issues impacting our world, even if they are close to home. It is that ‘great leap forward’ that one hopes for those one respects and holds in esteem.

As a non-American, “Abraham” doesn’t speak to me the same way it may to Erelli and his countrymen, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same. When he sings, “We’ve more in common than divides us, but we need someone to guide us,” I like to think Erelli is singing about more than American politics and leadership. This song, with its refrain of “Rise up, rise up, rise up” calls to all of us to consider not only who we choose to follow, but challenges us to consider why we chose to follow rather than lead.

That Erelli has chosen to close his album with such a powerful number is most appropriate. Elsewhere Erelli provides sketches and portraits of people caught in changing times, feeling powerless to activate any type of action.

The album opens with an incredible song, one that Erelli may have to sing for the rest of his career. “Hope Dies Last” utilizes a backdrop of quiet domesticity to facilitate his description of the pressures faced by not only his country, but those who are tied to its fate. While the images Erelli highlights- suicide bombs, trapped and lost coalminers, New Orleans, and myopic presidents- are tied to current times, the overarching message of holding close those you love will last long after specific headlines are forgotten.

In both “Shadowland” and “Volunteers” Erelli portrays the fates and circumstances of those who serve in the military. Both songs are gripping in their honesty and use of language. “Shadowland” is the loudest song I’ve ever heard from Erelli, reaching levels of distortion and anger that rivals Jerusalem-era Steve Earle. The sense of loss and despair expressed by the song’s protagonist is excruciating- “When you’re dancing with a devil of your own design, you sink down to his level every time.”

“Volunteers” takes a more linear path, but the destination is similar. Caught in a war he never anticipated, the National Guard volunteer who had spent his weekends filling sandbags and cleaning up after storms finds himself in Iraq. Unprepared for what he experiences, and feeling the disappointment of a nation, Erelli’s soldier reflects on his challenges. Considering the judgments of history and God, the volunteer admits, “Over here it’s a victory just to make it through another day.”

Not everything is centered on global wars and politics as Erelli looks at the loss and frustrations of folks caught up in their own turmoil where things don’t always work out as planned. “Five Beer Moon” captures a father living on his own, filling his hours with thoughts about what might have been elsewhere. The darkness of “Baltimore” could only occur after an all-night drive to an elusive love; Erelli doesn’t reveal how the story ends, but one anticipates it isn’t with a country wedding.

The pressures of being the “Man of the Family” seem less harsh surrounded by the despair that populates other songs, but to the guy who feels he can “only tread water” in his own doubts, the impasse is palatable. And for the fellow who claims “I ain’t giving up, I just changed my mind” while standing on railway tracks in “Unraveled,” all the signs in the world are not going to free him from his situation.

Erelli has a way with words that is more than remarkable. Sometimes it is a stark image of “roadside trash crucified on a barbed wire fence” (“Unraveled”) capturing a daily observation in a way one could never have thought. Other times it is in a series of lines that captures the strength of a short story- “Small town Sunday morning and the children all dressed up for church. The bells are a-ringin’ and I’m a-thinkin’ for whatever it’s worth that I might find some comfort if I could just learn how to kneel” (“Not Alone”). In “Baltimore,” the spurned lover laments, “I’ve got a pawn shop ring and a yellow rose bouquet/Honey, that I bought in a cheap truck stop. Hardly seems enough to prove to you I’ve changed/Well, maybe it ain’t, but it’s all I got.” Lonesome, for certain.

Instrumentally, the album has a comfortable sound, familiar to previous Erelli discs, but also fresh. Liam Hurley’s drums provide a conscious heartbeat for Erelli’s songs. There is the usual selection of guitars and basses, and the addition of pump organ, piano, and other keyboards along with horns makes Delivered a full and panoramic listening experience.

Despite the elaborate settings of some of the songs, the focus is always on Erelli and what he is singing. The words are powerful, and while I don’t believe a song can change the world, we need songs like Erelli’s to encourage us to have the strength and conviction to make changes Where We Live. To borrow a quip from Jon Brooks: for me, that is what folk music is all about- advancing civilization four minutes at a time.

Mark Erelli has done that with Delivered.

by Donald Teplyske