“Family Circle” by the Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band
Family Circle
McCoury Music
5 stars (out of 5)

It’s nicely fitting that Family Circle is the title of the Del McCoury Band’s best, most passionate effort since 1999’s The Family. The same year that classic was released, the band also collaborated with Steve Earle on the classic The Mountain, and was poised to lead the bluegrass popular renaissance spurred by the film and soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both before and since then, the DMB has represented themselves and their genre with class, especially on their legendary live shows, but their recorded output has occasionally suffered slightly from a lack of focus.

That’s certainly not a problem here, with Del’s peerless tenor lead showcased on each of 14 tracks over 45 exhilarating minutes of music, a bounty that makes up for the band’s enjoyable but ill-packaged boxed set release earlier this year.

The groove of “Sweet Appalachia” sets the tone with Rob McCoury’s banjo underpinning perfect harmonies on lyrics that remind everyone just where the spirit behind the DMB’s music comes from. A cover of the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Barbaric Splendor” comes next. It’s an effort that, among bluegrassers, only Del could pull off. References to “angel of the alleyways” and “leather and lace” from a tough and tender narrator would sound awkward or contrived from most, but the straight-laced Del somehow pulls it off.

“Revenuer’s Blues,” co-written by Ronnie Bowman and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin, harmony vocals), simmers throughout, with Del’s voice as smoky and smooth as the product he’s singing about. “Hello Lonely” is a new song that sounds like a classic bluegrass number, featuring precise interplay between Rob’s banjo and Jason Carter’s electrifying fiddle. It gives way to “Delma Blue,” a lonely waltz that’s right in Del’s wheelhouse.

“I’m Justified” is a joyous four-part harmony gospel celebration of salvation that ranks with anything done by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver or Dailey & Vincent in recent years, proving that the DMB is as versatile as they are virtuosic. “Bad Day for Love” is back in more familiar DMB territory, a bluesy barnburner that’s sure to find wings on the live stage.

The Johnny Mercer-penned “I Remember You” is another curveball, one that has Del’s semi-yodel neatly matched to the sentimentality of a 1940s movie song. As gentle as Del is on that track, he’s positively menacing on Buddy & Julie MIller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” complete with wicked laugh.

The Alaska ballad “White Pass Railroad” and Mark Knopfler’s “Prairie Wedding,” which is markedly better than the original, make for a nice Western interlude and make one wish that Del’s voice could have found its way onto the soundtrack for Deadwood.

“Honey Hurry Home,” “Mexico’s Daughter” and a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Break Up” are three tasty lagniappes that leave you wanting more.

Repeated listenings of this disc, especially in the car, reveal new vocal and instrumental intricacies each time through and make one thankful to be around to hear such a band make such great music, both live and in the studio.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Circles Around Me” by Sam Bush

Sam Bush
Circles Around Me
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

The opening guitar chords in Sam Bush’s new CD Circles Around Me signal that this is a new turn in an old story. Sam Bush has produced a fine album of fourteen songs that return to an earlier era while forging into new territory. This is a neat trick, but Sam pulls it off with conviction and his customary high musicality. Sam uses his touring band of Scott Vestal, Byron House, Stephen Mougin, and Chris Brown to set and maintain the Bush sound while inviting a number of guests to share the microphone. Songs by Ebo Walker and an appearance Courtney Johnson reach back to his days in New Grass Revival. Four songs exceeding six minutes in length suggest the importance of the jam in a Bush performance or recording. Three traditional songs and a guest appearance by Del McCoury recall the importance of straight ahead bluegrass music in Bush’s music; the duo presents two Bill Monroe songs. All told, the CD communicates an elegiac tone in which Bush seems to be seeking to highlight and summarize his long, successful, and creative career.

It often seems that at a certain age — Bush is 57 — writers decide to look back at their careers and do some self assessment. These songs (or stories) are usually filled with regret, remembrance, joy, or some combination of these emotions common to people who have gained perspective and maturity. Circles Around Me introduces this CD and serves the purpose of opening the door of memory while leaving it open for still further growth and development. Albums often open with a bang, as if designed to grab and hold onto the listener. This song asks “how in the world did we get this far, holding tight to the tail of a shooting star?” Bush acknowledges the people and forces that have come into his life and suggests that those he’s influenced through the years are “running circles around me now.” There’s little if any regret to this refrain.

One of the most delightful elements of this album is the way Sam includes shades and shadows from his past in new and interesting ways. Songs from NGR days like “Souvenir Bottles” and “Diamond Joe” mix with the new murder song “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle,” a true story about the murder of Grand Old Opry star David “Stringbean” Akeman. He includes two older Bill Monroe songs sung with Del McCoury, who, along with his current acclaim, sang as a Bluegrass Boy early in his career. Then he writes a “Monroe-like” waltz tune and presents it with Edgar Meyer on bass, along with the rest of his family. The late Courtney Johnson, banjo player with NGR, and an Ebo Walker song help make the historical connection. The combinations and memories running through the disk circle back on themselves, reinforcing the title, “Circles Around Me.”

A highlight of Circles Around Me is Bush’s use of his road band at the center of the album. Scott Vestal on banjo, Byron House on bass, Stephen Mougin on guitar and harmony vocals, and Chris Brown’s percussion complement Bush and create the ensemble sound that grows when a band travels and performs together over a period of years. Guest appearances from Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Edgar Meyer on bass, along with his wife Cornelia Heard and son Nathan, and Del McCoury’s guest vocals are tastefully included and blend perfectly with the band.

With Circles Around Me Sam Bush has presented a brilliant collection of the old and the new, at once looking backward and forward. Still the consummate musician himself, he surrounded himself with others who share his vision and has produced a truly wonderful addition to the overall bluegrass catalog.

by Ted Lehmann

“Love, Lost and Found” by Lost & Found

Lost & Found
Love, Lost and Found
Rebel Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

When bluegrass fans gather around campfires, and the tunes start rolling it seems inevitable that a Lost & Found song is eventually played to wide smiles and grateful nods. After a long recording hiatus, Allen Mills’ long-running band is back sounding as good as ever!

“Back in Her Arms” has a “Me and Bobby McGee” feel within its melody, and is an easy introduction to the new lineup of Lost & Found. The musicians comprising Lost & Found are now Allen Mills (bass and vocals), Scottie Sparks (guitar and vocals), Ronald Smith (banjo and vocals), and Scott Napier (mandolin).

The material on this album is smoothly played, but never slick. The playing and singing is natural sounding, and has not been obviously impacted by studio wizardry. The song selection is not especially challenging but neither does it need to be, featuring tunes made popular by Ernest Tubb, Patti Page, and Don Reno. Everything is presented in an admirable fashion.

Oft-recorded songs including “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die” are performed sincerely. “That’s What Country Folks Do” sounds like a standard, but that may be a credit to Mills’ delivery of the populist lyrics. “Pretty Roses Remind Me of You,” is another sentimental Pete Goble song that will remain timeless. Three compositions from Dan Wells standout, particularly the pure lonesome “Letter Stained in Blue.”

But the past has not been entirely set aside. Dempsey Young, the popular and outstanding mandolinist for the entire run of the band until his death in 2006, is featured on more than half of these tracks, recorded in 2003 after their previous album, It’s About Time. Representing the final recordings he made with the band, tunes such as “Trail of Sorrow” and “A Daisy a Day” (featuring his lead vocal) are certain to become favorites amongst the Lost & Found faithful.

As has been the case for over thirty years, there is nothing ostentatious about this Lost & Found album. They do what they do, and they do it very well. Allen Mills’ voice remains impressive, and Scottie Sparks is no slouch when he takes the lead spot; his singing provides a bit of country to the bluegrass mix.

With Love, Lost and Found the band has chosen to rise above the many challenges it has encountered, and have emerged as a band that is primed to welcome its future.

By Donald Teplyske

“North to Ontario 2009″ by Various Artists

Various Artists
North to Ontario 2009
www.cootmusic.com

3.5 stars (out of 5)

 

Gene Gouthro and Tom McCreight have to be among the most ambitious semi-professional bluegrass musicians in North America. Not only do they maintain a popular and long-running,Ontario-based bluegrass band Silverbirch, they have now fronted four collections of original Ontario bluegrass music bearing the North to Ontario moniker.

As with the previous volumes of the series, this one features nearly twenty different lineups performing self-written and original material within a variety of bluegrass styles. The quality of tunes and performance are generally high, although understandably not consistently to the level one would anticipate from premier touring bluegrass groups. Not unexpectedly, the instrumentation is, collectively, more impressive than the lead vocals. Still, more hit nail than wood.

The always impressive Mike O’Reilly brings us another new song, “Caleb.” Fronting the aptly titled trio O’Reilly/Miller/Lester (featuring Larry Miller and Emory Lester), O’Reilly again proves himself to have been a Southerner in a previous incarnation, sharing a tale of Civil War challenge. Miller’s banjo is especially notable.

The fairer side of bluegrass is well represented. Marianne Girard’s “Alabama” is not only a well-written song of geography-challenged love, but her voice is singularly impressive. Honeygrass’ “Parents’ Love” is a quaint tale of familial love based around the music we love.

Pam Brooks & Lonesome Wind provides a fine song “Month of Sundays” that one would not consider out of place if heard on an Alecia Nugent album. “Waiting at the Crossing” features the impressive vocal trio of Sweetwater’s Tammy Carruthers, Nanda Wubs, and Patricia North. Jan Purcell & Pine Ridge returns with another fine song, “Sign on the Door.”

Silverbirch is always a favourite, and “The Long Road” demonstrates there is plenty fuel left in the band’s tank; an album from this lineup would not be unwelcome. Bill White & White Pine have a way with faith-based old home and mother songs, and they combine these themes on “A Church by the Side of the Bed.”

Prairie Siding have developed into a personal favorite, and their “1950 Studebaker” doesn’t disappoint. Finally, Denis Rondeau’s “Doghouse Breakdown”- yes, a two-minute upright solo- is much more enjoyable and impressive than one might anticipate.

Is Ontario poised to take over the bluegrass world? Umm, no. But wise American ears might consider scouting the talent from this lineup for fresh approaches to bluegrass music, both for recording projects and to provide something a little different on a festival stage.

by Donald Teplyske

“A Tribute to Fiddlin’ Paul Warren” by Johnny Warren & Charlie Cushman

Johnny Warren & Charlie Cushman
A Tribute to Fiddlin’ Paul Warren
CharlieCushman.com
4 stars (out of 5)

Depending on whom you are exchanging opinions with, the name Paul Warren should come up when discussing popular and influential bluegrass fiddle players. While others such as Kenny Baker, Chubby Wise, and Curly Ray Cline may be mentioned first, knowledgeable fiddle fans will eventually get around to dropping Paul Warren’s name.

As an old-time country fiddler, Warren had few peers and many admirers. Proclaimed on an old CMH album as “America’s Greatest Breakdown Fiddle Player,” Warren served as a sideman for two of the most revered names in bluegrass, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, as a member of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Warren spent forty years as a professional musician, winding up his time with Flatt and The Nashville Grass. Warren succumbed to illness in 1978.

This 17-track tribute of fiddle tunes was launched by Paul’s son Johnny and long-time fan and highly regarded banjo-slinger Charlie Cushman. Doubling on rhythm guitar, Cushman’s banjo-playing serves as a complementary foil to the younger Warren’s fiddling. Having listened to this album back-to-back to tunes featuring Paul Warren, one is likely stretching things if they claim to hear significant difference in the two musicians’ playing.

The album features Marty Stuart on mandolin, Tim Graves on resonator guitar, and Kent Blanton on bass, and this trio serves as as fine a house band as one could want. As far as I can tell, former Nashville Grass mandolinist Curly Seckler is featured on a single track, a take of “Sugar Tree Stomp.” Scruggs drops in to lay down some of his classic runs on “Buck Creek Gal.” Another highlight is “Ole Joe Can’t Play the Fiddle,” a tasty fiddle and banjo duet propelled by bass playing that just pops.

Individual track credits are not provided, a shame considering how much writing is contained within the package. Nominated for an IBMA award this past year for impressive liner notes from Eddie Stubbs, Marty Stuart, Cushman, and Johnny Warren, the esteem in which both Warrens are held is obvious.

Old fiddle tunes, some (according to the liner notes) almost lost to time, comprise the bulk of the project. “Poplar Top,” “Two Hog Weeds and One Stalk of Corn,” “Pretty Girl Goin’ To Milk a Cow,” and “Hollow Poplar” are but a sampling of the creatively titled tunes, each evoking the past.

Selecting individual highlights within such an impressive package of recordings is a fool’s mission. One is best advised to track down the recording, slip it into the CD drive, and allow the modern sounds of bluegrass past to envelope all troubles and concerns.

Celebrations of bluegrass music’s venerable history must continue. That some of the music’s finest practitioners are wiling to align themselves with the product of the first generation to honor a talent as mighty as Paul Warren’s is highly admirable. That they have produced so worthy a tribute is most extraordinary.

by Donald Teplyske

“One More for the Road” by Adam Steffey

Adam Steffey
One More for the Road
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Chris Thile won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Mandolin Player of the Year Award in 2001, breaking a string of eight years in which Ronnie McCoury won the award. A year later, Adam Steffey, a veteran of Alison Krauss’ Union Station then with The Isaacs, won the award and kept it for six out of seven years.

Whereas Thile’s playing is out-of-this-world and not at all bounded by the conventions of bluegrass music and McCoury’s playing is bluesy and biting, Steffey’s is clean, bright and always groove-inducing, making him perhaps the prototypical modern bluegrass mandolinist.

Steffey’s sophomore solo CD shows off that signature sound in settings that include fellow award-winning or all-star pickers like Clay Hess and Dan Tyminski on guitar, Barry Bales on upright bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Ron Block on banjo.

The wide-open, insistent “Deep Rough” evokes a crisp Saturday morning on the golf course, while the Celtic-inflected “Durang’s Hornpipe” benefits from the old-time banjo picking of Adam’s wife Tina Steffey. “Half Past Four” and “Barnyard Playboy” will underscore the reason why it’s hard not to use a variant of the word “groove” more than once when discussing the Steffey style.

Steffey’s deep baritone voice makes its first appearance on the 3 a.m. lament of the brooding title track and shows its versatility on Red Allen’s old school “Lie to Me.” Mark Rader’s “A Broken Heart Keeps Beatin’” and Steffey’s self-penned “What Give You the Right” are — here’s that word again — groove-heavy workouts that fit his voice perfectly, and Ron Block’s “Trusting in Jesus” injects a welcome bit of gospel into the proceedings.

That would be almost enough for a good album, but the disc’s 12-track, 37-minute roster  is rounded out by three stellar vocal cameos: Tyminski leads a raucous “Let Me Fall,” Ronnie Bowman nails Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” with a performance that would make George Jones proud, and Alison Krauss turns in another classic guest appearance with the stunning “Warm Kentucky Sunshine.”

by Aaron Keith Harris