“Brothers from Different Mothers” by Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent
Brothers from Different Mothers
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

Every once in a while, an album comes out that reminds me why I first fell in love with bluegrass music: the soaring, tight harmonies, the sense of fun in seeing how much you can do within the limits of the genre, and, of course, a driving banjo.

Dailey & Vincent’s eponymous debut album did that for me, and their sophomore album Brothers from Different Mothers does it again, staying mostly within the formula that worked last time, but reaching for, and grabbing, that little bit extra that keeps it fresh and eminently exciting.

Joe Dean Jr.’s banjo kicking off “Head Hung Down” signals that the energy meter is set to 10 right off the bat, with the vocal trio of Jamie Dailey (guitar), Darrin Vincent (mandolin, arch-top guitar and bass) and baritone Jeff Parker (mandolin) clearly in fighting shape.

That’s even more evident on the next track, Roger Miller’s “You Ought to Be Here with Me,” which features a gorgeous high-lead trio on the verses and a stratospheric tenor line that Dailey hits on the chorus.

“Your Love is Like a Flower” isn’t the Flatt & Scruggs hit of the same name, but a quick-stepping showcase for Vincent’s lead vocals on the verse and for the duo’s brother-style harmonies on the chorus.

The brother duet is back on the gospel of “When I’ve Travelled My Last Mile,” with an arrangement that recalls their stellar performance on Gillian Welch’s “By the Mark” on the last album.

“Years Ago” is a cover of the Statler Brothers’ 1982 country hit about a guy slinking into his ex’s wedding, and an unabashed tribute to that group’s southern gospel sound, driven by a Scruggs-style guitar figure, some light percussion and, again, those amazing harmonies.

Next is another Statler Brothers tune, “There is You,”a happy duet that morphs into a trio on the choruses and ends with an understated southern gospel crescendo.

The boys get back to straight bluegrass with “Girl in the Valley,” a Dailey-penned song that he previously recorded with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.

Ron Spears’ “Please Don’t Let Our Sweet Love Die” is another modern update of a classic bluegrass song, this time in the form of a country weeper with Dailey offering proof that he’s every bit as great when singing a simple lead as when he’s harmonizing.

Sometimes gospel numbers take the momentum away from an album, but the opposite is true here, with “Oh Ye Must Be Born Again” and “When I Reach that Home Up There” serving as opportunities for more great southern gospel-style harmonies and demonstrating the band’s obvious love for the message of that sort of material.

In between those two powerhouses, lies a simple, perfect take on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ lonesome, yet hopeful, “Winter’s Come and Gone.”

A modern gospel tune framed with simple guitar and a string quartet, “On the Other Side” closes the album on a sentimental note, one that took me a few listens to get used to given its difference from the rest of this project, but in the end, it was — again — the perfect harmonies that won me over.

This one’s easily my favorite bluegrass release of 2009.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Two Dimes & a Nickel” by David Davis & the Warrior River Boys

David Davis & the Warrior River Boys
Two Dimes & a Nickel
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

A true bluegrass gentleman, David Davis doesn’t release albums terribly often. But when he does…Wow!

Since taking control of The Warrior River Boys more than twenty years ago, and including this new Rebel recording, Davis has only released five albums of new material. That this is the third release in just over five years would indicate that Davis may have found his stride.

A David Davis & the Warrior River Boys album sounds like no one else’s. While certainly commercially palatable, Davis occupies a fine niche within the bluegrass market. He doesn’t seem to have the populist appeal of a Skaggs, Cherryholmes, Lawson, or Vincent, but he possesses an artistic vision as defined and assured as any of those mentioned.

David Davis albums have a bluesy, literary quality setting them apart from the annual releases of several more commercially successful artists. Witness his 2004 treatment of Bill Grant’s “In the Shade of the Big Buffalo” or “Chancellorsville” and “The River Ran Black” from 2006’s Troubled Times. To give them their proper due, Davis albums should come leather-bound as is afforded the finest classic writing. Like those of Blue Highway, Davis releases have substance balanced by cracking good performances.

That Davis writes none of the songs on Two Dimes & a Nickel matters not; the man works tirelessly to uncover songs of unusual quality, and then interprets them to best reveal their stories, emotions, and messages.

As he has in the past, Davis turns to West Virginian Alan Johnston for standout songs. Just when one thought the John Hardy story had been examined from every possible slant, along comes Johnston’s “Two Dimes & a Nickel” revealing a fully realized, multi-dimensional man, albeit one with anger-management issues.

The album’s strongest track is Tommy Freeman’s “The Brambles, Briars and Me.” Again, a seemingly exhausted vein — infidelity leading to lonely contemplation — is explored, but the songwriter finds fresh perspective. A flipside to “Long Black Veil,” this time out the best friend and the straying wife pay the ultimate price at the hands of the cuckold. Stalking the hills, the betrayed spends time among the brambles and briars remembering not only their transgressions but what he lost as a result. The song is positively spooky in its matter-of-factness, and the Warrior River Boys — especially Owen Saunders’ fiddle contributions — make it haunting.

David Davis brings to mind Buzz Busby as Davis tends investigate the dark sides of relationships and society, exploring the qualities most of us resist or keep hidden.

Like the best of Johnny Cash’s recorded material, Davis’s songs possess a cinematic scope. Thematically similar, Freeman’s “Tennessee Line,” Jim Eanes’s “Broken Promise,” and Jim Kelly’s “Never Looking Back” are fully-realized treatments that could provide inspiration to filmmakers. While very different from John R. in voice, Davis frequently favors a half-spoken singing style reminiscent of the Man in Black.

Ensuring familiarity, the band hauls out a couple festival favorites in “I’ve Been All Around this World”  and “The Train That Carried My Girl to Town.” “Never Looking Back” could be a song written in 1964, so straightforward it is in its approach. Yet the song never seems to resort cliché, even as the rambler compares life to a railroad.

Whenever a bluegrass band illuminates the mountain music roots of a rock song, one must be impressed. The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Blue Ridge Mountain Skies” is re-imagined and sounds more bluegrass than much currently resting on the national surveys. The lyrical phrases are compacted befitting the chosen tempo, and the instrumental breaks are elongated allowing the banjo and mandolin to breath life into the tune. It’s fresh, vibrant, and inventive.

The same can be said for the entire album. Once again, David Davis and his Warrior River Boys —  Saunders, Adam Duke (guitar), Marty Hayes (bass and tenor vocals), and newcomer Robert Montgomery (banjo and baritone vocals) — have ideally captured their truly unique approach to bluegrass.

Kudos to the Rebel team, and artistic director Christopher Kornmann, for encouraging and designing a album package and booklet that have timeless qualities. The photography captures the reflective moods of the songs, the layout is clean, and the effects are appropriate for a nontraditional-sounding bluegrass album that embraces the history and spirit of the music.

A classic recording.

by Donald Teplyske

“Bluegrass Hits and Heartsongs” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Bluegrass Hits and Heartsongs
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Though he has grabbed some of the spotlight in recording with Del McCoury and Doc Watson (Mac, Doc & Del, 1998) and John Prine (Standard Songs for Average People, 2007), Mac Wiseman remains one of the lesser-appreciated founding fathers of bluegrass music. This is partly because, as Jon Weisberger points out in the liner notes to this attractively packaged product, his best-known recordings from the early 1950s were for Dot Records, which went under and thus did not keep Wiseman’s work in print.

About 20 years after those Dot Recordings, Wiseman went into the studio for Vetco Records to re-record some of those hits and to finally commit to wax other songs that had become a part of his stage repertoire. This 14-track, 38-minute collection is taken from the two LPs that resulted from those sessions, which included Billy Edwards on banjo, Buddy Griffin on fiddle and autoharp, John Palmer on bass, Tater Tate on fiddle, Jeff Terflinger on mandolin and Tommy Boyd on Dobro.

Just a few bars into the opener “My Little Home in Tennessee,” it’s easy to see why deejays everywhere refer to Wiseman’s as “the voice with a heart.” Not the bluegrass requisite “high, lonesome” by any means, that voice is more of a sentimental crooner’s, yet it works, even on upbeat, twin-fiddled banjo-driven songs, probably just because of that intangible “heart” that Wiseman always projects. Just listen to “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die” and how he holds out the note on that initial “tears,” or the word “Heaven” on “I Haven’t Got the Right to Love You,” or the easy intensity of “Four Walls Around Me.”

As good as those performances are, Wiseman is simply devastating on more emotional material like “When the Roses Bloom Again,” “Mary of the Wild Moor,” “The Letter Edged in Black,” and “Knoxville Girl,” a murder ballad made truly terrifying by the sweetness of Wiseman’s delivery. Even a tune like “Reveille Time in Heaven,” which could easily be too maudlin, sounds sincere coming from Wiseman.

This collection admirably serves as both a solid introduction to Wiseman’s body of work and as a snapshot of him at the height of his vocal powers. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s too short.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“My Own Set of Rules” by Lou Reid & Carolina

Lou Reid & Carolina
My Own Set of Rules
Rural Rhythm Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

It has been four years since the last release from Lou Reid & Carolina, 2005’s excellent Time. Unlike that star-studded album, My Own Set of Rules features the touring line-up of Carolina augmented by only guest fiddler Ron Stewart. The result is a cohesive, focused presentation of traditionally-rooted but thoroughly modern bluegrass.

The lineup of Carolina has remained quite stable in the interim. Fronted by bluegrass and country music veteran Lou Reid (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Ricky Skaggs, Seldom Scene) on mandolin, Trevor Watson continues as the resident 5-stringer. Mrs. Reid — Christy — has moved to the bass position with Lonesome River Band alumnus Shannon Slaughter taking over the guitar position while also providing outstanding vocal harmony.

The addition of Slaughter, one of bluegrass music’s under-valued voices, is a boon for Reid and Carolina. Slaughter has a distinctive baritone voice that moves down to bass and up to tenor throughout the project. Taking only a single lead spot, on his own “Blue Ridge Girl,” Slaughter is a nice complement to Reid’s tenor, especially on mid-tempo tracks such as “Picture Me There.”

While many contemporary bluegrass instrumentals serve as little more than digital filler, Watson’s “Beat the Train” is not only a lively banjo and fiddle showcase, the song has a couple changes of pace that sustain interest. Slaughter’s guitar break is impressive while Stewart’s signature fiddling imprints the tune in the listener’s consciousness.

The album contains several songs of a gospel nature.

A song from 2009 MerleFest/Chris Austin Songwriting Contest winner Dennis Duff, “Daddy Tried,” provides both the faith- and family-based sentiments largely required from bluegrass albums. While the message and even arrangement is familiar, the band’s restrained execution and Reid’s controlled delivery maintain the song’s integrity. Especially impressive within this number is the tone Stewart achieves, working with the voices of the singers to create a fiddle sound that approaches perfection.

The a cappella “It’s Hard to Stumble (When You’re Down on Your Knees)” features a quartet arrangement that is quite unlike anything I can recall hearing on a bluegrass album, and clearly delivers the message that this edition of Lou Reid & Carolina are not afraid of risk-taking. The result is a remarkably crafted and memorable vocal treatment of another Slaughter original.

The recently popular southern gospel tune “John in the Jordan” features a four-part harmony on the chorus that is as pleasing as every other element of the disc.

The lively tune “Left Handed Dreamer” gives the album its title: “My own set of rules seem to keep me on the inside, chasing after some elusive dream.” A free-spirited ode, the song captures the essence of this album: take life as it comes, and hit the road again tomorrow!

Christy Reid’s vocal harmony contributions add a different sound to the band, a softer but lively female presence that is not only appealing but very effective.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the strength of My Own Set of Rules is that it has been executed while Reid continues as a member of the bluegrass super-groups Longview and the Seldom Scene. While those outfits record and tour sporadically, more than one bluegrass performer has seen his career sidetracked by attempting to spread himself too thinly. This disc contains no evidence that Reid is in any danger of succumbing to such a fate.

A high-quality bluegrass album, My Own Set of Rules demonstrates that Lou Reid & Carolina remain one of the finest outfits on the circuit.

by Donald Teplyske

“Before Bluegrass” by Heather Berry & Tony

Heather Berry & Tony
Before Bluegrass
Blue Circle Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Having just received this 2008 release, I am a bit embarrassed that such a bounty managed to pass me by for over a year.

Relatively unheralded, Before Bluegrass is an impressive and worthwhile collection of mountain parlor music of interest to those who yearn for the sounds of a much earlier and seemingly simpler time.

Heather Berry’s voice has been included on the most recent Daughters of Bluegrass projects and she has been leading her own group for almost a decade. Her husband Tony Mabe is a North Carolina native who has played with the Jeanette Williams Band. Both only 21 years of age, this is their first project together.

The duo trade off three instruments — guitar, banjo, and autoharp — with no song featuring more than two of these. The album was recorded off the floor, and no punch-ins, vocal tweaking, or overdubbing were included. As a result, the album radiates a warmth and simplicity that allows the listener to picture the couple performing only for them.

Given its thesis of presenting music that predates bluegrass — recalling the Carter Family and Monroe Brothers — the banjo is played clawhammer style, and provides a rhythm that drives the melody on songs such as “Scissors and Paper” and “Creecy Greens.” The autoharp selections are wonderfully presented, a lovely contrast to the guitar playing that accompanies it.

Throughout the album, including on “When the Sun Comes Out Again,” it appears that one is listening to a guitar player of greater renown that Tony Mabe.  The picking on “None For Me But You” and “A Prisoner’s Prayer” is most impressive.

The majority of the songs come from the prolific imaginations of Dixie and Tom T. Hall, and almost all contain sentiment and structures that could easily have been written in the 1800s. “Hazel Creek” has the couple trading off verses “Mockingbird” fashion, while “Hound Dog Blues” could be pulled from a Charlie Poole or Dock Boggs side.

“Can You Hear Me Now” was previously featured on Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s 2007 release More Behind the Picture than the Wall, and has a well-executed, challenging country harmony. The song benefits from the female perspective of this rendition.

Heather and Tony have included three songs of their own, and these stand unabashedly alongside those crafted by the far more experienced Halls. The strongest of these tracks is “Public Enemy Number One,” which reflects on the impact of choices made when one falls for a career criminal, in this case John Dillinger.

While decidedly not a bluegrass album, there is no reason why those who appreciate bluegrass music would not enjoy Before Bluegrass. It is a wonderfully executed celebration of pre-war country music, played and sang with clarity and passion.

by Donald Teplyske

“Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl” by Van Morrison

Van Morrison
Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl
Listen to the Lion Records
5 stars (out of 5)

I could write a book about this CD and its 1968 predecessor – why don’t one of you bestow upon me some patronage so I could do just that? – but I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.

First of all, get your hands on the original album and listen to it a few times and you’ll, hopefully, know why the release of a live version 40 years hence is such a big deal. It’s an album that has served as something like a sacred incantation, or a calming, soothing drug, for the mere thousands who have “gotten” it over the years, and it’s the greatest work by the world’s greatest singer-songwriter not born in Hibbing, Minn.

This album, the live one released in February, marks a return to form for Van who had been struggling on stage with sub-par newer material and bands that weren’t up to following him to places he used to go. And this album got this writer out of a serious bout of mind-fog and writers’ block earlier this year.

No one else’s voice can heal the soul quite like Van’s, and all throughout each song on this album there are examples of that. From mumbling and whooping through his harmonica into the mic, to starting a line late so he has to rush to catch up, to hitting high notes with an unmatched sense of drama, to repeating a word or phrase over and over, to spontaneous scatting, to just being silent, Van’s arsenal has never been more full.

He imposes a sense of dread and desolation on “Beside You” and “Slim Slow Slider” but leaves you feeling hopeful and strong in spite of it. Nothing is more urgent than his vocal on “The Way That Young Lovers Do,” and no one else can sound that urgent while being totally in command.

No one else has written and performed love songs of the structure and feel of “Astral Weeks,” “Sweet Thing” and “Ballerina” and no one has done the same for nostalgia and regret as Van does on “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George.”

There are two non-Astral songs tacked onto the end of the CD, the introspective “Listen to the Lion” and “Common One,” which is the middle call and response section taken from previous performances of “Summertime in England,” a full version of which would have been more than welcome.

It would be reasonable to expect one to detect flaws in Van’s approach this far on, but age seems to have only made him better, especially when performing his best work. One hopes this towering achievement makes Van and other artists less likely to stay at arm’s length from the great works of their youth.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Hear Music
2 stars (out of 5)

When I heard Elvis Costello was going to a “bluegrass” album with arists like Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Dennis Crouch (bass), I was naturally pretty excited, especially after seeing Costello’s stellar solo-acoustic support act for Bob Dylan in 2008 (I think it was). But, even after a few open-minded listens, I’m profoundly disappointed.

The disc starts promisingly with “Down Among the Wines and Spirits,” with Costello and backing vocalist Jim Lauderdale harmonizing on a drinkin’ song with a honky-tonk feel, but it quickly runs off the rails on the second track, a version of “Complicated Shadows” that strips all the vocal and instrumental urgency that the original version has. (Side note: that original version of “Complicated Shadows” was almost picked as the theme song for The Sopranos.)

Things get back on track for a moment with the lonesome “I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came,” but “My All Time Doll” breaks the mood as Costello tries to sound menacing as the band plinks away in the background.

“Hidden Shame” was apparently written for Johnny Cash, but we can be thankful that the Man in Black never cut this wan parody of his 1950s rockabilly style. “I Dreamed of My Old Lover” tries to be a tearjerker, but Costello approaches it with the overwroughtness that his vocals often flirt with.

And speaking of overwrought: “She Handed Me a Mirror,” “How Deep Is the Red?,” “She Was No Good,” and “Red Cotton,” apparently from a Costello opera about Hans Christian Anderson, are simply awful songs, repetitive and not well-built at all.

“Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an annoying travelogue that has Costello imagining he is the fancy of women from all sorts of cities across these United States, and “The Crooked Line” is but a throwaway, with the maddeningly ubiquitous Emmylou Harris popping up for a harmony vocal.

A countryfied version of Bing Crosby’s “Changing Partners” is as good as the album’s two previously mentioned good tracks, and a maddening reminder of what Costello was able to achieve on his previous “country” album, 1981’s Almost Blue. Hard to believe this mess was produced by T Bone Burnett.

by Aaron Keith Harris