“Susanville” by The Dixie Bee-Liners

The Dixie Bee-Liners
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Susanville is a grand recording, a concept album within a field where such is uncommon.

Its premise is one each of us has likely considered while staring through the windshield at the black ribbon: what are the stories of the faces we see sharing our road? The Dixie Bee-Liners—primarily Brandi Hart, Buddy Woodward, and Rachel Renee Johnson with a talented slate of supporters—delve into the idea that “every car on the highway has a story;” Susanville is their attempt to capture these in a loose narrative.

A dramatic bluegrass and Americana band, The Dixie Bee-Liners’ second album (an eight-song EP was the band’s introduction in 2006) is a departure from their previous Pinecastle album, 2008’s Ripe. The band has pulled back a bit from typical bluegrass trappings, successfully aiming toward an “acoustiblue” recipe that is more in keeping with that of Robinella or The Everybodyfields. This disc appears to be a continuation of select stories captured on Ripe; “Down on the Crooked Road” and “Lost in the Silence” would nicely complement these tales.

The band begins their two-thousand mile journey across the United States with a Steve Earle-inspired mando lick kicking off “Heavy.” This song allows Hart to introduce the first of her several voices; the youthful adventurer of this song is a very different character from the road-weary highway veteran following a “string of rubies trailed in the dust” in “Brake Lights.” Woodward takes a few lead vocals, most passionately on “Down” and when revealing the grim desperation of “Truck Stop Baby.”

Naturally, Susanville works best when as a continuous listen, when one can absorb the emotions and experiences that connect the various travelers. The dozen songs are bridged by instrumental snippets and GPS directions linking the loose narrative. Guest vocalist (and 1965 Academy of Country Music Top New Female Vocalist) Kay Adams gets the juiciest song, the lively “Trixie’s Diesel-Stop Café”; singing of her ‘Tiger Puddin’’, one discovers that Ms. Adams’ (best known for “Little Pink Mack”) might still make a trucker blush. Her voice remains distinctively sassy.

Nonetheless, most of the songs stand on their own. A lone extended instrumental entitled “Albion Road” holds the listener’s attention with intriguing flatpicking and mandolin. “Lead Foot” brings Simon & Garfunkel sweetness in the harmony while Sam Morrow’s banjo runs through. Other songs such as “(I Need) Eighteen Wheels,” “Find Out” and the title track could develop into radio favorites.

Susanville is a quality project, one whose very ambitions may out-strip its commerciality. Those who take the time to experience the disc will find lovely vocals, spirited and challenging instrumentation, and perhaps a perspective on those we pass within the bustle of our lives.

by Donald Teplyske

“Deep in the Shade” by the Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers
Deep In The Shade
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

While the bluegrass world is chock-a-block with exciting, young contemporary outfits, no other excites and impresses in the manner of the Steep Canyon Rangers.

The Rangers are on a roll. While they didn’t appear on Steve Martin’s popular and impressive The Crow last year, they gained considerable exposure appearing with the arrow-headed one at several high-profile gigs last fall: Hardly Strictly, Letterman, and Carnegie Hall. That explosive momentum is maintained by the dozen tracks comprising Deep In The Shade.

Having previously released four albums, each stronger and more distinctive than its predecessor, the Steep Canyon Rangers have the experience and chops to continue this unbroken string. Again working with producer Ronnie Bowman, the band hasn’t significantly altered their approach or sound. And while on some bands this may appear stagnant or limited, with the Rangers the impression is of consistency and capability.

Woody Platt’s voice is one of the group’s strongest features. It is south of high lonesome, inhabiting the mountainside between old-time and country, similar to Leigh Gibson (The Gibson Brothers). His voice is smooth and controlled, yet peppered with flavor that encourages one to return for additional helpings.

As always, the band is a cohesive unit, each part contributing to the high quality presentation. I’ve written previously of the interplay between Nicky Sanders’ fiddling and Graham Sharp’s banjo, and this impressive element remains apparent, especially on a track such as “I Thought That She Loved Me.” One day, and hopefully soon, the blistering mandolin talent of Mike Guggino will be recognized by those who vote on such things within the professional bluegrass community. Like all good bass players do, Charles Humphrey III keeps things between the lines while laying down a solid foundation on which the others build.

The songs, all but two band-written, are exceptional. Well-balanced between reflective lopers and the lively sounds most generally associated with bluegrass, there doesn’t appear to be an after-thought amongst the tracks. From the failed infidelity of the radio friendly “Have Mercy” to the Asheville-bound romp that is “Turn Up the Bottle,” the Rangers cover territory expected of quality bluegrass bands.

But they also gently push boundaries. Their four-part a capella treatment of the blues-standard “Sylvie” is spellbinding. The neo-folkiness of “The Mountain’s Gonna Sing” is like few other songs recently encountered:

Beneath the laurels, pearls of rain,
fall and shatter and sink into the clay.
Wash away these hills, wash away the dawn,
somehow there’s still the strength to carry on.
The spirit ever lingers in a song,
and the mountain’s gonna sing this song for me…
and rock me off to sleep.

As they did on 2007’s Lovin’ Pretty Women, the Steep Canyon Rangers again demonstrate that a band can be musically innovative while reaching into the past. Like other younger bands, Steep Canyon Rangers straddle the blurred edges of traditional and progressive bluegrass; that they do so as successfully as they do is a testament to their continued and expanding appeal.

Like I did while listening to Deep In the Shade over and over, I think you’ll find yourself exclaiming, “Damn, that’s good!”

by Donald Teplyske

“Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Let me start by saying that I’m well aware that no one and nothing can compare to The Band in any substantive way, but you’ll indulge me here so I can describe one of the best bluegrass music units of the last couple of of decades.

I’ve always thought of Blue Highway as being the bluegrass version of The Band, with three compelling lead vocalists—Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle) and Tim Stafford (guitar)—corresponding to Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band, with Jason Burleson (banjo) and Rob Ickes (resonator guitar) mirroring organist Garth Hudson and guitarist Robbie Robertson.

Also, Blue Highway’s music, like The Band’s, has the felicitous effect of being influenced by countless sources while sounding unlike anything else. I won’t stretch the comparison further, but you get the idea: Blue Highway is versatile, skilled and their whole is noticeably greater than the sum of its highly talented parts.

This collection does a fairly good job of presenting the band at their best, even though the collection, despite the subtitle, only reaches back to Still Climbing Mountains, their 2001 debut on Rounder Records. (To get a full and proper appreciation of the band, you simply have to go back to their first four albums: It’s a Long, Long Road (1995), Wind to the West (1996) and Midnight Storm (1998) on Rebel Records and Blue Highway (1999) on Ceili Records.)

That Rounder debut is well-represented by Lane’s lead vocals on the soaring title track, the apocalyptic “The Seventh Angel,” which features Alison Krauss on backing vocal and “Monrobro,” in which Ickes captures the essence of Bill Monroe’s sound on an instrument that the Father apparently described as “no part of nothin’.”

Ickes’ amazing talent is also spotlighted on “Elzic’s Farewell,” a tradition fiddle tune adapted for his 2004 solo album Big Time, on which he was backed by the rest of Blue Highway.

“Wondrous Love” and “Seven Sundays in a Row” come from the group’s all-gospel Wondrous Love (2003) and are two of the best gospel tracks recorded by anyone in bluegrass music over the last few years, the former featuring a sweeping emotion of praise, the latter a simple description of faith in action. Both benefit from striking lead vocals from Taylor, the best singer of the three lead vocalists, if you had to pick one.

Stafford’s lone lead vocal on this collection—one of its few flaws—is the propulsive Mark Knopfler tune “Marbletown” from the 2005 album of the same name, while Lane’s “Wild Urge to Ramble” from the same disc is also included.

Written by Stafford and Steve Gulley, “Through the Window of a Train” is a near-perfect song sung by Taylor and taken from the 2008 album of the same name. “Sycamore Hollow” is also from that disc, but should have been left off this one, as Lane’s vocals are ill-matched for a lower register, resulting in perhaps the only Blue Highway track I know of that I always skip when it comes on.

“Cold and Lowdown Lonesome Blues,” however, has Lane back on top of his game and is one of the three tracks newly recorded for this project that truly belong in the Blue Highway canon. Second is “Bleeding for a Little Peace of Mind,” cowritten by Stafford and singer-songwriter Darrell Scott and featuring Scott on inimitable lead vocals and playing the part of Bob Dylan to Blue Highway’s The Band, if I can stretch that analogy one more time.

“Some Day” is a re-recording of the a cappella gospel hit from Midnight Storm, which, even in its new form, still sends chills up the spine and reminds you that Blue Highway is truly worthy of this compilation, as well as others that will no doubt follow after whatever else the band has in store for the next fifteen years.

by Aaron Keith Harris

[Editor’s note (3-14-10): Someone closely associated with this project recently e-mailed me to ask about the 3.5-star rating I gave this project. Basically, my thinking was this: “greatest hits” or “best of” projects naturally have a half point or whole point knocked off, either because they didn’t pick the tracks I would have, or because they leave out tracks from an artist’s career that were recorded for other record companies. In this case, both reasons were part of my thinking: I would have liked more lead vocals from Tim Stafford and Wayne Taylor, and the fact that this project, by its nature, couldn’t include the band’s Rebel and Ceili recordings, which are such a big part of their estimable recorded output, make it less than a 5-star value when considering whether to purchase it on CD. The smart buy would be to get the newly released tracks individually on iTunes and apply the rest of your cash toward one or two full albums from their past. However, if you just want one CD to get acquainted with this truly great band, you can’t do better than this one, no matter what I rated it.]

“Shadow on the Ground” by James Hand

James Hand
Shadow on the Ground
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

James Hand’s 2006 Rounder release The Truth Will Set You Free was truly exhilarating. Amid a swirl of fiddles and steel guitar, there was that voice, sounding like a long-lost compadre of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell newly released from the amber in which it had been encased for half a century.

In truth, Hand, now in his late fifties, had been plying his trade in the honky-tonks of West Texas since the 1970s, gathering fans like Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel) and Lloyd Maines.

Benson and Maines produce Shadow on the Ground, Hand’s second Rounder release on which he writes 11 of 12 tracks on a disc clocking in at more than 38 minutes.

“Don’t Want Me Too” kicks things off with a guitar lick lifted from the blues standard “Good Morning Little School Girl” before shifting into a country swinger that shows Hand is every bit as expressive and entertaining as he was on his last recorded effort, especially when he whines out the repeated “why, why, why?” of the chorus.

Next is a shuffling version of the Nat King Cole standard “Mona Lisa,” complete with cascading electric and steel guitar parts framing Hand’s not-quite-urbane delivery.

“Just a Heart” and “Floor to Crawl” are two heart-stoppers in which Hand’s songwriting compares favorably with that of Hank Sr. and Ernest Tubb. Unfortunately, they are separated by “The Parakeet,” a rockabilly-leaning novelty song that just isn’t cute enough to work.

“What Little I Got Left” and “The Pain of Loving You” sound like George Jones outtakes from the 1970s, which isn’t bad, but it’s not in Hand’s vocal wheelhouse like “Ain’t A Goin’,” a rollicking musical autobiography and mission statement.

Likewise the narrators of “Midnight Run” (“whiskey-drunk and under the gun”) and “Don’t Depend on Me” (“one who always drinks, seldom thinks and never gives a damn”) allow for a more emotive Hand than the post-outlaw sound of “Leavin’ for Good,” which finds Hand holding back just a bit.

“Men Like Me Can Fly” could pass for one of Hank Williams’ good-natured gospel songs, and it’s a fine close to an album, though not as arresting a listen as its predecessor, that is as good a country release as you can expect to hear these days.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Heartache & Stone” by Monroe Crossing

Monroe Crossing
Heartache & Stone
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Minnesota’s Monroe Crossing have been actively promoting their interpretation of classic bluegrass sounds tempered with folk and pop sensibilities for more than a decade, and have released a number of fine songs and listenable albums. Heartache & Stone, their ninth album, brings to fruition their ongoing efforts and serves as a more substantial calling card than their previous releases.

While banjo players have come and gone, the group has been long centered about the twin powers of Art Blackburn (guitar and vocals) and Lisa Fuglie (fiddle and vocals). This formidable pair continues to be ably complemented by mandolinist Matt Thompson and bassist Mark Anderson. Benji Flaming remains on five-string, duplicating the lineup featured on Live from Silver Dollar City a couple of years back.

What has changed? Perhaps I’m the only one to sense it, but it seems like the band is no longer trying too hard. It is as if they have grown into themselves and accepted not only any limitations they may have — and if these exist, they are not apparent from listening — and embraced their attributes. It is as if they have become more comfortable within their skin.

The songwriting seems stronger, too. While the band has always explored unlikely sources for material — Etta James’ “At Last,” Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” and Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” — on previous discs, this time the selections seem less forced. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “4 + 20” is interpreted minimally, with Art Blackburn handling the lead singing and some delicate picking; as stated in the liner notes, the rest of the band “mostly just stays out of the way.” Without exaggeration, the song sounds brighter, livelier, and perhaps better within this interpretation than it does on Déjà Vu.

A number of Minnesotan songwriters have their material included. The standout may be Becky Buller’s contribution “Raven Tresses,” a languid, atmospheric piece sung hauntingly by Blackburn. Fuglie’s harmony adds depth to the circumstances, while Flaming’s banjo notes create sparseness within darkness.

Another notable song is the title track, a Blackburn original featuring the lyric, “The road to happiness is paved with heartache and stone.” In what could have ended ugly, a reimaging of Prince’s “Purple Rain” is delivered without mockery or flamboyance; the lyrics are entirely appropriate to the genre and the adjustments made to the melody and instrumentation are bang on. Who knew there was a bluegrass song in there?

Being from the northern Midwest, it is pleasant that the band embraces their state’s history for touchstones. In the case of “Me & Billy” a roundabout repeats Minnesota history by attempting to out-do the James Gang’s exploits, only to be brought to justice by a childhood friend.

The instrumentation and vocals are superior to much one encounters on “regional” releases. On up-tempo pieces such as “Patience” and “Mississippi Stringer,” as well as on less lively songs (the evocative “Potter’s Field,” for example) the musicians demonstrate their instrumental agility. Blackburn and Fuglie slip out of the lead vocal positions into harmony with Thompson effortlessly, creating an appealing blend. There is any number of reasons the band has remained popular within their circuit for such an extended period of time.

Monroe Crossing has long had an identifiable logo, and the band’s trademark sign is as fine a piece of bluegrass memorabilia as exists. Musically, everything has come together for the quintet on Heartache & Stone, and it stands as their most accomplished album to date.

by Donald Teplyske