“solo banjo” by Benji Flaming

Benji Flaming
solo banjo
4 stars (out of 5)

One night in the early years of this century I sat in a hotel suite in the Galt House in Louisville and heard some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard coming from a slight, and slightly shy, young man and his banjo.

It was an informal showcase by Benji Flaming, of Minnesota and now of the band Monroe Crossing, at the World of Bluegrass week held by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and the clear, smooth sounds he made were worlds away from the raucous bluegrass party going on in the halls and rooms all around us.

Thankfully, the atmosphere around IMBA was and still is conducive to other forms of music that are sometimes only tangentially connected to that pioneered by Bill Monroe and his disciples.

After Flaming’s showcase, I immediately asked him where I could get a CD of his playing. I’m glad to say that that CD is finally here.

Flaming’s approach is simple: take a simple musical idea on the banjo and work it into a miniature tonal landscape within the space of two or three minutes. Never flashy or overwrought, these 13 tracks clock in at a satisfying 33 minutes.

“Northern Sunrise” evokes a misty Minnesota morning and serves as a hopeful album opener. “The Glass Coffin” is an “uncheerful waltz” in the words of Flaming’s short, but charming, liner notes that reveals a bit of spookiness if you listen closely.

“The Golden Key,” “High Above the Hills,” “Spring Rain” and “Crestwood” are gently rising numbers that send you into another world of introspection, making it easy to lose your way if behind the wheel.

“Geppetto,” “The Grimm Tailor” and the harmonic beauty of “Titania’s Music Box” evoke a childlike wonder befitting Flaming’s technique and musical outlook.

“The Dream is Not Ended” may be the most melodically beautiful of the bunch, while “The Iron Kettle” is the only rustic, old-timey tune here, and perhaps a signal toward a theme for a future recording project.

“The Snail and the Rosebush” closes the disc with a gorgeous stroll of Flaming’s left hand up and down the fretboard.

Here’s hoping this relaxing and mesmerizing instrumental album is but the first of many from Flaming, whether acting solo or with those similarly talented.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“No Strings Attached” by Brand New Strings

Brand New Strings
No Strings Attached
Rural Rhythm Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Made up of five East Tennessee musicians who have spent some time sharpening their chops in other bands, Brand New Strings debuts as a unit with a 13-track, 36-minute disc—attractively packaged to resemble a packet of instrument strings—that’s sure to please the traditional bluegrass crowd while reaching out to fans of more contemporary sounds with some strong original songs.

Randall Massengill (lead guitar, lead and harmony vocals), Mike Ramsey (mandolin, lead and harmony vocals), Tim Tipton (bass), Stuart Wyrick (banjo) and Matt Leadbetter (resophonic guitar) work remarkably well as a unit, both instrumentally and vocally, for a band that’s been together for just several months. Maddeningly, though, neither the disc’s liner notes nor the band’s Web site make it possible to tell who sings what parts on which song, a shame since there are some particularly nice lead and harmony performances on this one.

“Merry Go Round” is a nice driving opener followed by the honky-tonk-flavored “Rainy Nights and Memories,” which in turn gives way to “Law of the Land,” a mountain man song of the type with which we are all familiar.

The Garm Parsons/Chris Hillman co-write gets a nice, breezy treatment, while the McCoury-esque “The Blues Club” positively simmers.

“High on a Hilltop,” “I Feel the Same Way Too” and “The First Date” are mid-tempo country numbers that show off the band’s skillful vocal arrangements. Massengill’s “Prayer from Home” explores singer-songwriter territory with some success.

No Strings Attached also contains four exceptional gospel numbers—”Caught Up,” “Living Water,” “When My Feet Touch the Street of Gold” and “Who Am I”—that look to be original to the band and that lift this project above most of the rest of the pack.

If this group stays together, they promise to be a favorite of deejays and festival fans for years to come.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“American VI: Ain’t No Grave” by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash
American VI: Ain’t No Grave
American Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

Seven years is a long time to wait for a legendary artist’s last recordings that were never “lost” to begin with, but it’s been almost that long since Cash died, bringing down the curtain on a career whose sustained, surprising third act was a run of extraordinary recordings with producer Rick Rubin for American Recordings.

The epic box Unearthed—with four discs of new tracks and one compiling the “best of” his American recordings to date—came out just after his 2003 death, while American V: A Hundred Highways was released in 2006. Both of those projects felt to me like the final Cash recordings when they came out, so I was kind of surprised and a little skeptical when I saw American VI was imminent. Would it just be scraps from Rubin’s cutting room floor?

The answer is no, but neither does this 10-song, 33-minute album reach the heights that the rest of the series has. But, though he does sound tired in spots, it is after all Johnny Cash, so it’s still better than most anyone else. He’s joined at times by guitarists Mike Campbell, Smokey Hormel, Jonny Polosky and Matt Sweeney and keyboardist Benmont Tench.

The traditional Pentecostal holler of “Ain’t No Grave” is stripped down to a stolid groove with the Avett Brothers’ overdubbed banjo and footstomps, fittingly opening the set list with a promise that death is not the end for this singer. A surprisingly good apocalyptic tale from the pen of Sheryl Crow is next, with Cash longing for the impending “Redemption Day.”

A couple of easy-going, folky tracks—Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and Tom  Paxton’s “Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound”—bookend “I Corinthians 15:55,” an optimistic take on death that seems to have been Cash’s last major composition.

The country-gospel standard and Porter Wagoner hit “Satisfied Mind” is a perfect Cash recording, his trademark authoritative vocal exactly matching the message of being right with one’s on conscience.

Cash then makes his final trip west, with a lilting take on Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” and a strong and clear delivery on the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Cool Water.” Ed McCurdy’s 1950 peace song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” is a nice reminder of Cash’s idealism, and the album ends with a strange and wonderful choice of the Hawaiian “Aloha Oe,” with Cash’s voice slightly quavering and lisping out his final recorded goodbye.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Buckaroo Blue Grass II” by Michael Martin Murphey

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

Michael Martin Murphey built a career out of a few country-rock hits in the early ’70s. Now staples in the country field, “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” “Wildfire,” and “Carolina in the Pines” didn’t make significant impact on the country charts when released; Michael Murphey made his initial appearances on the more open pop charts of the day.

Of course, the Texan eventually adopted his full name and found a home within the country market, reeling off a string of Billboard Country Top 40 appearances through the ’80s. As the hits faded, Murphey embraced the cowboy poetry circuit, releasing several albums of music that were more western than country.

Always adaptable, last year brought MMM’s first foray into the bluegrass world with the Grammy®-nominated Buckaroo Blue Grass. 2010 has him roaming the same range with Buckaroo Blue Grass II.

I’m left to ask, Why?

Before the publicists and label folks get upset, let me explain a bit. I doubt there are many bigger Michael Martin Murphey appreciators in the bluegrass world than me. “Wildfire” was a seminal song of my childhood, and I’ve followed his career from a distance since. As the years passed, I’ve picked up the occasional new release and have owned more than one MMM compilation. His voice remains rich and smooth, ideally suited to his material, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

But Michael Martin Murphey is not a bluegrass singer, and to his credit I can find no reference where he claims to be such.

Buckaroo Blue Grass II
is quite enjoyable and is entirely harmless, much as one who has heard the previous release might expect. He sings like Michael Martin Murphey throughout. But I’m still not sure why MMM and the Rural Rhythm folks felt the need to go down this path.

Why do country singers want to move into the bluegrass field? I guess the question (and likely, the answer) is the same as, Why do rock singers want to move into the country world?

Almost all of these songs have been previously recorded by Murphey and the bluegrass instrumentation—while expertly played—adds little to their appreciation. The playing is impeccable. The same names appear on this album as did on the initial endeavor—Flynn, Leftwich, Bush, Ickes, Cushman, and Ronnie McCoury—with Andy Hall, Audie Blaylock, and Carrie Hassler also dropping by.

What we have here is a country and western vocalist singing with bluegrass players. The umpteenth rendition of “Wildfire” doesn’t make this an essential recording, nor do the versions of “Cosmic Cowboy,” “Medicine Man,” and “Backslider’s Wine.”

A rendering of “Running Gun,” made semi-famous by Marty Robbins is of some interest and not only for Audie Blaylock’s acoustic lead contributions; this and the album’s lead track—a well-known MMM song “Blue Sky Riding Song”—kick off the album with momentum, but this is not maintained.

If creating this album pleases Michael Martin Murphey and his label, that’s fine. It’s their money, their effort and time. Buckaroo Blue Grass II will likely provide a pleasant listen for some.

Me? I’m reminded how much I enjoy this singer, but I’ll stick to the Murphey recordings that don’t play at bluegrass.

by Donald Teplyske

“The Very Things You Treasure” by Lonesome Day Records

Various Artists
The Very Things You Treasure
Lonesome Day Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Lonesome Day Records may not have the deepest or most active catalogue in the bluegrass music business, but what music they have released has been of quality.

The disc’s liner notes begin, “Music is the lifeblood of our temporary existence.” I surely can’t argue with that sentiment. Faith and family have—along with murder, deception, and drinking— been woven into the roots of bluegrass music since the beginning. This 24-track collection assembles a generous offering of that which has appeared on the Lonesome Day label since 2002.

This compilation is focused on articles of faith and family and almost every one of the label’s artists are represented. Blue Moon Rising has four cuts including “Pawpa Taught Me” and “He Arose.” Darrell Webb’s clever and spot-on “Thank You Father for My Dad,” written by John Pennell and Jeff Barbra, is a highlight as are the songs from Rick Bartley and Sam Wilson, early signings to the label.

Steve Gulley, Randy Kohrs, Jeff Parker, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, and Lou Reid & Carolina are also represented. Perhaps most appreciated is the opportunity to reexamine three songs from Ernie Thacker’s out of print Doobie Shea album, The Chill of Lonesome. “Father, Son, & Holy Ghost,” “Little Piece of Land,” and “Momma Preached and Daddy Plowed” sum up this album’s purpose in just a titch over ten minutes.

An enjoyable summary of what the label has represented.

by Donald Teplyske

“Southern” by Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie
Rural Rhythm
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Bill Emerson has a more impressive bluegrass pedigree than most. A founding member of the Country Gentlemen, Emerson has packed on the years playing with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, co-leading an influential bluegrass band with Cliff Waldron, spending years fronting Country Current, and now appearing under his own name with Sweet Dixie, a different lineup of which previously released an album on Rebel Records.

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie is a solid bluegrass band, perhaps lacking the flair that one encounters with the most accomplished groups. Still, Southern is a better than average bluegrass recording.

Tom Adams, who has since moved onto a similar position with Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, takes most of the leads here and also handles the guitar duties. Formerly a premier banjo picker, Adams has been forced to set the 5-string aside due to focal hand dystonia. Here he proves himself a more than capable lead and rhythm player and a considerable vocal talent.

Teri Chism lacks the powerful surge of preeminent female bluegrass singers, but her voice is more than serviceable and provides Sweet Dixie with vocal variety.

“The Midnight Train” is given a fine performance, with Wayne Lanham’s mandolin sparking his lead vocal turn. Rickie Simpkins guests throughout on fiddle.

The well-chosen songs are mined from country (Marty Stuart’s “Sometimes the Pleasure is Worth the Pain,” Lionel Cartwright’s “Old Coal Town,” and Chris Hillman’s “Love Reunited”) and bluegrass (Hazel Dickens’ “I Can’t Find Your Love Anymore” and “Pete Goble’s “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo.”) Flatt & Scruggs (and others) previously recorded “I Don’t Care Anymore” while Vince Gill’s “Life in the Old Farm Town” appears to be a new song.

Graham Pratt’s “The Black Fox,” composed in the style of an ancient-British folk tale—in which the Devil escapes the hounds—is the album’s most impressive performance, with Emerson’s banjo taking a run through the woods.

The album’s lone instrumental is a jaunty number entitled “Grandma’s Tattoos;” something tells me the songwriter missed a lyrical opportunity with that one. A sole band-written number closes the album: Tom Adams’ “The Lord Will Light the Way” is one of two overtly religious numbers in the set.

With a flair for song selection and creative arrangements, Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie has delivered a quality bluegrass recording that is weakened only by a lack of vocal distinctiveness.

by Donald Teplyske