“Forever Yours” by the Hagar’s Mountain Boys

Hagar’s Mountain Boys
Forever Yours
No label
3 stars (out of 5)

We first saw The Hagar’s Mountain Boys, in one of their very first performances, at the Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC about four years ago. At that time they were raw, just beginning to feel their way into becoming a band. A year or so ago, at the Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival in Roxboro, NC they were schedule for six sets over three days. This heavy duty schedule stretched their repertoire and their voices to the breaking point. Nevertheless, their work showed an increased maturity of vision as well as vastly improved performances and musicality. The addition of Blake Johnson on vocals added significant talent to their sound.

Now, with the release of their new CD Forever Yours, under the guidance of founder and front man Ricky Stroud has produced a fine, traditional bluegrass album that should have broad appeal.

Produced by Jason Moore , Mountain Heart bassist, Forever Yours offers four originals, one penned by Blake Johnson and the others carefully selected, as well as several appropriate covers that span the bluegrass waterfront pretty well. Except for the appearance of Jim Van Cleve on fiddle, the present recording displays the talents and skills of the band you’d see and hear at bluegrass festivals or other performances.

As news of this young band gets around, they are being seen more widely, including an appearance in Florida this winter. The tempos and strong rhythm the band generates captures the excitement of traditional bluegrass with most songs having been written fairly recently.

Blake Johnson shows a first class high baritone bluegrass voice with good timbre and plenty of soulfulness, communicating emotion and commitment to the song. It’s an honest and strait forward voice that’s easy to listen to and rewarding. His range of emotion and ability to sell content adds a fresh dimension to the genre. His singing on Travis Tritt’s “Anymore” reaches out to a listeners heart. He does a creditable job on bass.

Ricky Stroud plays solid and tasteful mandolin as well as contributing a good lead on one song. His harmonies are dead on and he’s to be commended for having the humility, as the band’s founder and front man, to leave the heavy vocal lifting to the very talented Johnson.

Mike Johnson, Blake’s father and the band’s guitarist, contributes three leads and offers solid harmonies. The band shows its musical versatility on the traditional a capella gospel song “Lord, Don’t Leave Me Here,” Cliff Smith on banjo offers capable work along with good vocal harmonies.

Forever Yours is a very pleasing effort by the Hagar’s Mountain Boys. It has been released on a private label, and can be obtained from the HMB Web site. Steve Gulley wrote the liner notes. This CD presents a refreshing new band in a good light. It’s worth your attention.

by Ted Lehmann

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“Whatcha Gonna Do” by the Claire Lynch Band

The Claire Lynch Band
Whatcha Gonna Do
Rounder Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

Claire Lynch’s new CD on Rounder Records, Whatcha Gonna Do, falls comfortably into the realm of Americana, its bluegrass, country, folk, blues, and jazz roots showing clearly through in a delightful collection of mostly new songs.

She presents a set of twelve songs each chosen to show off her light, friendly, and emotionally subtle voice and the musical versatility of her very fine band. As befits a band whose members have already won five IBMA individual awards and are nominated for an additional two in 2009, the band demonstrates musical depth and variety with plenty of melody and versatility.

Lynch builds on her bluegrass and acoustic roots to create an album worth repeated listening and thoughtful appreciation. With a train song, a mine song, a couple of road songs, some light gospel, and an appreciation for rural life and values, Whatcha Gonna Do fits easily and comfortably within the bluegrass world while offering lots of opportunities for lovers of other genres to discover and appreciate Lynch’s musical vision.

Lynch has either written herself or co-written four of the songs in this collection. “Highway” is a women’s road song that celebrates re-discovering one’s self worth on the endless road. “Face to Face” (co-writteen with Donna Ulisse) is a light and hopeful gospel song. “Widow’s Weeds” provides and old-timey sound and feel while lamenting continued mourning for a lost husband. In the last cut on the recording, Lynch celebrates the dark loneliness of the deep southern woods in a song called “Woods of Sipsey” dedicated to her grandmother.

The CD makes the obligatory nod to Bill Monroe in “My Florida Sunshine,” one of Monroe’s more forgettable, though tuneful, songs. For me, “Barbed Wire Boys” and “Great Day in the Mornin’” are among the highlights. Singer songwriter Jesse Winchester makes a guest appearance; otherwise the band for the CD is Lynch’s road band.

With the versatile and virtuoso playing of Jim Hurst on acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, and, in one cut, mandolin, and Mark Schatz’s always impressive work on bass, the CD does not lack for strong instrumental play. Jason Thomas on fiddle and mandolin, although less known than the others, is impressive in his work here. Lynch’s voice is flexible and engaging, and the harmony vocals contributed by Hurst and Thomas are unobtrusive, while making the appropriate contributions.

While Whatcha Gonna Do may not appeal to hard core traditional bluegrass music fans, its broader appeal is undeniable. It fits neatly into the progress of her music. People who attend Lynch concerts will see and hear the band on the recording, a good feature, and will find the recording an excellent representation of her live performances. The CD is easy to listen to, but not easy listenin’. It’s worth buying and adding to any collection.

by Ted Lehmann

“Solo: Songs My Dad Loved” by Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs
Solo: Songs My Dad Loved
Skaggs Family Records
4 stars (out of 5)

When Skaggs returned to bluegrass music after a highly succesful career in the country field, he kept Kentucky Thunder as the name of his band. Even though the personnel has changed, his use of the band setting to showcase his own virtuosity, as well as that of his elite sidemen, has not changed. Until now.

On this loving tribute to his father, Skaggs plays a number of instruments – acoustic guitar, resonator guitar, round hole and f-hole mandolins, mandocello, octave mandolin, steel-string and gut-string fretless banjos, fiddle, piano, bass, Danelectro electric baritone guitar and percussion – achieving a simplicity and intimacy over 13 tracks and 40 minutes approaching that on Skaggs’ masterpiece duet album with Tony Rice.

Fred Rose’s “Foggy River,” with its loping rhythm and effortless vocals, serves as a great tone-setter for the set. It’s followed by “What is a Home Without Love?,” one of two Monroe Brothers tunes — the other being “This World is Not My Home” — that play to Skaggs’ strengths as a harmony singer and honor the fact that Hobart Skaggs played in a similar duo with his brother Okel before Okel died in World War II.

Skaggs includes three instrumentals here and each is a pleasant surprise: “Colonel Prentiss,” with some great, greasy old-time fiddlin’, the sprightly drop-thumb banjo workout “Pickin’ in Caroline,” and “Calloway,” a nice and easy fiddle and banjo tune.

Roy Acuff’s “Branded Wherever I Go” and a Stanley-inspired take on “Little Maggie” get a straightforward treatment from Skaggs’ signature tenor voice, while the novelty song “I Had But 50 Cents” Skaggs sings with a twinkle in his eye.

It’s no surprise that Skaggs connects most viscerally with the gospel material: the gently menacing “Sinners, You Better Get Ready,” a retelling of Pslam 23 “Green Pastures in the Sky,” the call-and-response “God Holds the Future in His Hands” and “City That Lies Foursquare,” on which Skaggs’ keen embodies the yearning for Heaven.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Love and Other Tragedies” by Red Molly

Red Molly
Love and Other Tragedies
Red Molly
4 stars (out of 5)

Red Molly is an all-female trio of very talented folks based out of Stony Point, N.Y. that have put together an extremely entertaining project called Love and Other Tragedies.

Although this CD isn’t exactly in my musical wheelhouse it is an excellent project with great use of vocal harmonies as well as a good variety of material ranging from Melissa Monroe’s “Is the Blue Moon Still Shining” to Gillian Welch’s “Wichita”.

Five of the thirteen songs on this project were written by band members Laurie MacAllister, Abbie Gardner and Carolann Solebello and they stand up well along side songs written by other, more recognized songwriters. As singers, these ladies show that they can handle up tempo tunes as well as slow contemplative ballads with equal ease.

The ladies are ably accompanied on this project by Jake Armerding on fiddle, Duke Levine on mandola and electric guitar and lap steel, and Mike Weatherly on bass, with some vocal help from Anthony da Costa, Fred Gillen Jr. and Steve Kirkman.

“Wichita” is an excellent song to open the CD as it shows the difference between the use of mandola as opposed to mandolin. The mandola is a much more weighty instrument and gives the whole CD a darker tone with much more low end.

“Beaumont Rest Stop,” written by Laurie MacAllister, is all about leaving home when you really don’t want to and coming home when you have to. “The Mind Of A Soldier,” written by Abbie Gardner is a ballad of longing for the soldier gone to war and the need for a man, hopefully the right one.

“Summertime” is Carolann Solebello’s contribution to the songwriting aspect of the CD and is a reflection on home and the simple life as opposed to something more complicated.

Melissa Monroe’s “Is the Blue Moon Still Shining” has a Laurie Lewis-like sound to it, which isn’t a bad thing at all. The Dobro is particularly effective in this piece and the harmonies make for a very smooth presentation.

“Honey on My Grave” is another Abbie Gardner written song and, to mind, speaks of getting earned respect.

“Old Dancin’ Fool” is an old fashioned waltz type tune that has a nice flow and the laziness  of it all is very relaxing, with the song suggesting that we “close our eyes and hold to each other” and everything will be OK.

“Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia” is a strong swing tune with a bluesy turn that makes good use of vocals and the mandola fits it very well.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is traditional song that has been arranged a hundred different ways but this arrangement, although not a lot different from most, has a haunting sound with the mandolin backed by the lap steel and fiddle.

“This Farm Needs A Man,” written by Laurie MacAllister is all about the trials and tribulations of men gone off to war and the woman doing the “best I can” under the circumstances.

“Make Me Lonely Again” is about the plight of the wallflower who finds a mate and wishes that she could return to the wallflower life where she was happily lonely and didn’t realize it.

“Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” is a very old song that may have been first recorded by Rev. Gary Davis. In the bluegrass genre it is probably best know by Hot Rize ,but Red Molly does a credible job in keeping the lamp trimmed and burning in anticipation of the returning of the Lord.

“May I Suggest” is an a cappella number that is an apt ending to the CD as it features the honey sweet vocals of Red Molly.

All in all this is a very strong performance and certainly deserves a listen. A solid four stars out of five.

by Charlie W. Hansen