“What a Journey” by Paul Williams & the Victory Trio

Paul Williams & the Victory Trio
What A Journey
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Joyful! That is the word that comes to mind from the first notes of Paul Williams’ latest outing with the ever-changing lineup of the Victory Trio. These are some of the brightest and liveliest sounds in bluegrass, all punctuated by Williams’ timeless tenor vocals.

That Williams insists on recording only spiritual music limits his marketability even within the gospel-friendly environ that is bluegrass, but no one – and I’ll say this to Doyle Lawson should he ask – does bluegrass gospel better than the Paul Williams quartet.

In Dan Moneyhun, Williams has a strong co-lead vocalist and musical foil. He opens the album with “Back to the Old Home,” and this number is the one that has the widest appeal; while definitely one of the songs that Williams would refer to as having “a good message,” its foundation is cloaked in an ‘old home’ setting that makes it appear to be just another terrific bluegrass song.

Williams takes the lead on more overt gospel numbers including “Sinner Don’t Wait” – on which he stretches his high tenor to maximum impac t- and “There’s A Miracle Everywhere You Go”- a new Dixie and Tom T. Hall song. Also included are two Williams originals, “Don’t Worry About Me” and “Hid Away With God.”

With Jerry Keys returning on 5-string, as well as fiddler Keith Williams and bassist Susie Keys, Williams has gone to the past to revamp his Victory Trio; this trio of instrumentalists last backed Williams on Living on the Hallelujah Side in 2003. All demonstrate that they are more than capable of participating in a recording project such as What A Journey, and while their contributions may not be studio flashy they are significant and solid.

The banjo on this album is rather subdued, as benefits the subject matter, but adds airy freshness to the songs while propelling them along. The venerable “Come and Dine” allows Keith Williams to stretch a little on his fiddle, and he takes full advantage with restrained but engaging flourishes. Moneyhun takes few breaks, but adds a nice touch to “My Mother’s Bible.”

Williams makes his F-5 mandolin sing throughout the recording, perhaps never more notably as on “Back to the Old Home” while chopping the rhythm on tunes such as “I’ll Be Young Again.”

However, it is the vocals of Paul Williams & the Victory Trio that draws in the listeners, and on his eighth album this decade Williams again demonstrates that he is without equal when it comes to producing and arranging bluegrass gospel sounds. Any song chosen at random will reveal expressive lead vocals and soaring and soothing three part harmonies choruses. The baritone voice in the trios belongs to Adam Winstead who also contributes rhythm guitar.

Williams’ voice seemingly defies the passage of time and is every bit as enjoyable to hear today as on recordings made with Jimmy Martin fifty years ago; it is a wonderful thing! The title track may be this album’s finest presentation of his voice, but this is by no means the only place Williams shines. “Sinner Don’t Wait” and his own “Hid Away With God” are similarly spectacular.

“Beyond the Vast Horizon” contains a southern gospel vocal influence that balances nicely the more traditionally arranged bluegrass numbers.

Few bluegrass gospel albums capture my attention the way those of Paul Williams & the Victory Trio do consistently. With the inspirational and engaging What A Journey, Williams and his compatriots may have set a new standard for contemporary bluegrass gospel recordings.

by Donald Teplyske

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“Brothers ‘n’ Harmony” by the Crowe Brothers

Crowe Brothers
Brothers ‘n’ Harmony
Rural Rhythm Records
3 stars (out of 5)

It must be hard, deciding the nature and theme of an album, especially if you are a vocal duo specializing in the stylings of a by-gone time. Either you are accused of aping the past or challenged for pushing boundaries. Fortunately for those who appreciate brother harmonies, the Crowe Brothers maintain the tradition while bringing some freshness to a familiar sound.

The Crowe Brothers – Wayne and Josh – have made a few albums in their time, and Brothers ‘n’ Harmony comfortably fits within their recorded legacy. Similar to the previous Regenesis album, this recent outing finds the North Carolina siblings capturing the sounds of their most apparent influences including the Louvins, the Blue Sky Boys, and the Wilburn Brothers.

Given these factors, perhaps it isn’t so tough to make decisions about a new album: pick a few favorite songs, pull in a couple new ones, call capable session pals, and take turns on the lead; before you know it, you have an album.

Of course, nothing is so easy, and I don’t want to give the impression that the album sounds slapped together, because it doesn’t. However, neither does it seem as if any great vision for the recording was in mind while it was being assembled.
Instrumentally, the album’s dozen tracks possess a light bluegrass feel with the traditional bluegrass lineup apparent; banjo and mandolin work together with the guitars, bass, and fiddle. The music swings more than one expects from a bluegrass act, and the Crowes embrace the opportunities presented within a country setting.

Adding to the country shadings of the Crowes’ music is the Dobro and lap steel contributions of Randy Kohrs; these are especially apparent on a number such as “Which One Is To Blame.” Kohrs’s steel work on this number brings a ’60s Nashville vibe to the tune.

Vocally, the brothers sound as they always have – intimately comfortable with each other, alternating leads and harmonies in a manner that sounds effortless. The brothers’ voices remain strong, clear and supple.  So intertwined are the Crowes’ voices that one would be mistaken to assume such occurs naturally as an accident of birth. Such sounds can only come with rigor and planning.

The songs do seem a bit familiar, even upon first listen. The arrangements are not especially memorable, and after fifteen or twenty minutes the songs tend to run together. Taken individually – as on an iPod shuffle or on the radio – the songs may work better than collectively in a single sitting.

I must take exception to the inclusion of Dan Seals’ over-performed “God Must Be A Cowboy.” Surely there are less tired songs available to the Crowe Brothers. To their credit, their arrangement is different from most versions attempted by bluegrass-friendly performers, but still…one does tire of its plodding rhythm and plain silly sentiment.

I guess others may take similar exception to the umpteenth recording of “Country Boy Rock & Roll,” which just shows there is no accounting for taste. Guest mandolinist Ronnie McCoury takes the instrumental lead on this one, and the number jumps along as Don Reno intended all those years ago.

Recent songs recorded for this set include “Cindy Mae” from Cody Shuler, “Holdin’ On When You’ve Let Go” by Dixie Hall and Eric Gibson, and a couple Josh Crowe songs “Take Me By The Hand” and “Million For A Broken Heart.”

If one is looking for safe, fairly traditional sounding, country-infused bluegrass, Brothers ‘n’ Harmony is certain to be enjoyed. If one is looking for music that pursues a more modern sound, one that explores new ground, one should likely look elsewhere.

by Donald Teplyske

“You Don’t Have to Like Them Both” by Eric Brace & Peter Cooper

Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
You Don’t Have to Like Them Both
Red Beet Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Okay, let’s get the clichéd opening out of the way right off the top: Eric Brace and Peter Cooper- You Don’t Have to Like Them Both…But You Will!

I feel better now.

The truth is, I can’t imagine anyone with a soft spot for easy Americana sounds not enjoying this first album from the Nashville-based duo. While the two music writers- Brace has worked for The Washington Post and Cooper writes for The Tennessean-have several advantages over other country-folk duos- namely PDAs that contain contacts for Kenny Vaughan, Tim O’Brien, Lloyd Green, Tim Carroll, Jim Lauderdale, and Todd Snider, all of whom either have songs placed on this disc or appear instrumentally- they also have the innate and hard-earned talents necessary to pull off an album.

There are a whole lot of good vibes on this dozen-track album. It is easy going but not MOR, relaxed and comfortable but not overly familiar or lazy. One writer compared the album to a mix-tape of favorite music, and while I understand the sentiment I think it sells short the talents of Brace and Cooper.

You may be familiar with Brace from his work with Last Train Home, or even a one-off project called the Skylighters with Mike Auldridge and Jimmy Gaudreau. Perhaps Cooper’s music hasn’t been as widely heard, but he has written with and produced Todd Snider.

When you choose to include songs from songwriting monsters such as Kris Kristofferson , David Olney, Paul Kennerley, Lauderdale, and Snider, it makes full sense to kick-off the album with an original. If you’re going to run with the big dogs, you might as well get a head start.

At first blush, Brace’s “I Know a Bird” appears to be simply a mournful meditation of being separated from a lover. Within a couple stanzas it becomes clear that the protagonist is serving overseas where he feels he has been “counting every grain of sand, every grain in the desert where I’m quickly growing old.” Within a few dozen lines, one realizes that Eric Brace requires no false advantage.

By the time Peter Cooper hits us mid-set with “The Man Who Loves to Hate” one wonders why the pair decided to stop at only four originals. Yes, the songs chosen from those mentioned- as well as Kevin Gordon, Colin Linden, and Karl Straub- are rendered in a manner that will keep listeners returning, but I wanted to hear more from the main pair. Hell, anyone who who rhymes ‘vacillate’ with ‘hate’ in a country song- as does Cooper in this song- deserves a serious listen.

Brace has a more traditional folk-country voice, and on a two-stepper such as “The First In Line” he demonstrates his silky-smooth yet masculine approach to fine effect. Cooper reminds one of Kevin Welch, providing a lovely counter to Brace. When their voices come together- as on the baseball themed “Omar’s Blues #2” or “Denali, Not McKinley”- it is very much like listening to Guy Clark singing with anyone; it shouldn’t work, but it does! Neither dominates the other, a true pairing of talents without ego.

The album’s standout performance is contained within “Down to the Well,” a Gordon/Linden song. With the pair exchanging verses, this one song encapsulates everything You Don’t Have to Like Them Both is perhaps intended to be; two friends who share a musical vision collaborating on a wonderfully written song to make it even greater.

As an added bonus, Brace and Cooper have not scrimped on the album packaging. The tri-fold digipak is artfully arranged to provide song notes- an increasing rarity in these times of downloads- and illustrations.

You Don’t Have to Like Them Both is a solid reminder, as if we needed it, that not everything that originates in Nashville is fodder for the machine. If one looks hard enough or at least pays attention, gems continue to emerge from the center of the country music world. Thankfully, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper met up there and found their common ground.

For those looking for more, Peter Cooper’s debut recording Mission Door (entitled Cautionary Tales on eMusic) provides additional outstanding performances while Eric Brace’s album with Last Train Home Live at IOTA is equally strong.

by Donald Teplyske

“Buckaroo Blue Grass” by Michael Martin Murphey

Michael Martin Murphey
Buckaroo Blue Grass
Rural Rhythm Records
3 stars (out of 5)

Sixties country-rocker and latter-day cowboy poet Michael Martin Murphey, who had a huge pop hit with 1975’s “Wildfire,” is the latest name to cross over to the bluegrass realm.

One might be tempted to credit this trend to the long boom produced by O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but in this case it seems to be the demonstrably superior quality of the best bluegrass musicians that impelled Murphy to take on this project.

He employs Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle), Charlie Cushman (banjo), Pat Flynn (guitar), Rob Ickes (Dobro), Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Rhonda Vincent (harmony vocals) on a set of 11 songs that fans of Murphey will find familiar.

“Lone Cowboy” kicks off the album with Murphey’s trail-worn voice at the fore, delivering rhyme-heavy lyrics (I’m writing this song as I’m riding along) that aptly characterize his writing style.

For the most part, those hired instrumental horses are on a tight rein, providing simple backup for Murphey’s vocals. There are some extended solos, however on “Fiddlin’ Man,” one of two songs here of the all-too-common guy-with-a-fiddle type (the other being “Cherokee”).

“Dancing in the Meadow” is another fiddle-based tune, this time with lyrics focusing on the connection between nature and music, a vein that Murphey also mines on “Lost River,” with nice backing vocals from Vincent, “Healing Spring,” and “Boy from the Country,” and which gives a thematic unity to the project.

“Wild Bird” is also a nature song, but one that doubles as a beautiful love song.

“Closer to the Land” is a modern-day cowboy song, one that could be a hit on country radio for a younger, NashVegas approved act.

The highlights here are the rambling “What Am I Doing Hanging Around” and the soaring “Carolina in the Pines,” both offering the best of both Murphey’s voice and his songwriting.

by Aaron Keith Harris