“On the Brink of a Dream” by Mark Brinkman

Mark Brinkman
On the Brink of a Dream
3.5 stars (out of 5)

With a lively banjo run—courtesy of Justin Moses—igniting the album from the start, On the Brink of a Dream is much more than a calling card from one of the industry’s most in-demand and creative minds.

Mark “Brink” Brinkman is known for having his name on every fourth bluegrass album released over the past several years; few songwriters have as consistently been recorded as Brinkman. This new album features songs fresh and familiar, with a smattering having previously appeared on releases by Lou Reid, Larry Sparks, Carrie Hassler, and Don Rigsby.

The obvious appeal will be the impressive quality of songs. However, as one becomes more comfortable with the absence of showboating picking and vocal histrionics, the depth of Brinkman’s performance readily becomes apparent.

Story songs abound, and a few numbers— including “Mama Loved the Redbirds” and “Tennessee Backroads”—are sparkling bluegrass showcases within a largely traditional style. “Good Eatin’ on the Farm” and “Carolina Dust” keep things moving, while “Grandpa’s Way of Life” fondly recalls a past that can’t come back.

Brinkman sings with a matter-of-frankness that is sometimes marginally reminiscent of James Reams, although Brink’s voice lacks the supple qualities and defined energy of the Barnstormers’ leader. At other times, and equally effectively, Brinkman’s voice barely escapes loping, soft-spoken testifying and sharing.

Within a compendium of such breadth, one isn’t surprised that the music is multi-faceted. A couple songs are decidedly non-bluegrass in appearance with piano as a featured instrument.

Songs of faith are plentiful. Hearing Dale Ann Bradley sing is always a treat, so her shared lead on “Littlest Guardian Angel” was anticipated. The song didn’t particularly do much for this listener; the song is a little too obvious and much too precious for my tastes as “One hand reaches down from heaven, while the other holds the hand of God.” More successful is “Beyond the Rain,” another song of faith on which Bradley harmonizes with Brinkman.

The album’s showstopper is “Lucius Gray.” From the opening lines, the listener’s imagination is on alert.

“Lucius Gray had seen a lot of trouble in his time,
He was the meanest man to ever work down in the mine.
If you valued your existence you’d stay out of his way,
If the devil had a human form it would be Lucius Gray.”

By the time the coal mine collapses and only two men are left—the storyteller and Gray—I thought I knew where the song was going: a battle between good and evil for the failing supply of oxygen.

When Lucius Gray instead prays for the singer’s survival, tears start flowing and the darkness blurs as the story unfolds before the listener. Seconds later, this writer was a wreck, bawling to a song not unlike the first time The Dixie Chicks’ rendition of “Traveling Soldier” was heard: “That was the day The Devil became a prayin’ man!” It is a devastating song of redemption, one carrying an emotional weight beyond that which is normally found on even the most impressive of bluegrass or country albums.  “Lucius Gray” makes a case for religious belief like few men of God can.

The oldest song on the collection, “Bluestone Mountain,” is a mysterious ballad that combines the canyon wind blowing with lonesomeness through the pines with a missing mother and child. “With Love from Normandy” will get played on Memorial Day-themed radio programs, and rightly so; it is a simple song with international appeal, highlighted by Alan Bibey’s mandolin contributions and Bradley’s luxurious harmony.

The detail woven into Brinkman’s songs is most impressive, from the simple disintegrating elastic band holding together memories of service, affection, and legacy (“With Love from Normandy”), the “maze of black ribbon running through the ground” (“Bluestone Mountain”), and the cruelty of time and mental fragility within “She’s A Stranger in this Mind” (“The memories are gone, but his heart’s still keeping time.”) Another song of enduring love, “He Never Went Away” features a most effective and literate construction.

Working with a crackerjack crew including Jamey Booher (bass), Tim Stafford (guitar), and producer Steve Gulley, Brink has constructed a soulful collection of songs and performances that highlight not only his talents as a writer, but his skills as an arranger, collaborator, and singer.

by Donald Teplyske

“Letters in the Deep” by Cadillac Sky

Cadillac Sky
Letters in the Deep
Dualtone Music
2.5 stars (out of 5)

The liner notes to Letters in the Deep state that “all songs on this album were recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs to obtain the sound and feel of old time bluegrass music.” Let it be said that there’s nothing here, besides the choice of instruments, that resembles any sort of bluegrass music, much less the vintage variety—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Indeed, with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach producing and the dazzling musicianship, unusually soulful singing and compelling original songs of Cadillac Sky’s two previous efforts (2007’s Blind Man Walking and 2008’s Gravity’s Our Enemy, both on Skaggs Family Records), I was expecting a freewheeling, ambitious, sprawling acoustic rock album and I expected to like it very much. Despite repeated open-minded listening, I only got half my wish.

The musicianship is still dazzling, and the songs are nothing if not original (though not as strong as on the two previous records), but this five-piece powerhouse forgot or chose to ignore the artistic maxim that less is more, that a great work of art is often distinguished by what’s not there in the final product. Instead, the musical choices on Letters in the Deep always add that little extra touch that distracts from the good material that is here. Lead vocals from Bryan Simpson and David Mayfield are buried in an echoey wash, and there’s a dissonant mellotron, harmonium or melodica lurking around every corner.

A cut called “Trash Bag” is, ironically, the album’s most beautiful moment, with it’s recurring Brain Wilson-esque chorus, but its sense of unity is not replicated elsewhere. The “everything but the kitchen sink” approach can work on an album—think of Wilson’s best work, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde or The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.—but the boys from Cadillac Sky, while still the most promising acoustic unit around, weren’t up to the challenge they set for themselves here.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“One and All” by Pieta Brown

Pieta Brown
One and All
Red House Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Recorded quickly and mostly live in the studio, Pieta Brown’s latest album is also her most expansive.

A mid-western Gauthier housing the heart of a dust-road philosopher, Brown writes and sings of human frailties and fragilities with forthright simplicity that disguises the visionary and lyrical approach to her craft.

As on previous albums and EPs, Brown’s observations are compelling in their blending of words and instrumentation. While one may follow the flowing narratives of her songs, one needn’t. No matter what she is singing, the sound of her voice is utilized like an instrument to complement her musicians.

Lyrically, Brown isn’t afraid of minimalism. “Prayer of roses, petals and thorns, and the heat on my skin now where my shirt is torn,” reveals openness to the pains accompanying commitment. In “Faller” Brown identifies “a crowd of people” in the face of a stranger and recalls that “there are no words inside the rain.”

“El Guero”, the centerpiece to her previous release Shimmer, is reinterpreted as a ballsy rocker that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sheryl Crow album. “Grass Among the Hills” quietly and succinctly identifies the mystery of modern times conflicting with timeless traditions where “future shock can’t hold a candle to the dove.”

One and All is that rare album that can truly overwhelm the listener, causing one to forget everything going on around them.

With stream of consciousness poetry embracing pop-art simplicity, Brown has crafted a dynamic album that succeeds on all levels.

Anchored by co-producer Bo Ramsay, Brown is further complemented by Jon Penner (bass), Brian Wilkie (pedal steel), Joey Burns (cello and accordion), and non-dueling, simpatico drummers J.T. Bates and Steve Hayes.

Having lived with the disc for several weeks, I can attest that the dreamlike qualities of One and All continually take me to places I can’t remember.

by Donald Teplyske

“Light on My Feet, Ready to Fly” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Light on My Feet, Ready to Fly
Horizon Records
4 stars (out of 5)

“Teddy Bear Revival” is just the sort of track that shows how great Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver can be. The song is about a boy pretending to be an evangelist with his toys serving as a congregation. I can’t imagine such song working for any bluegrass band but Lawson’s, whose unquestionable sincerity brings off the song with just the right amount of sweetness and none of the overwrought sentimentality others would likely add.

The lively “Mountain View Missionary Baptist Church” and the bittersweet “He Will Remember Me,” a tale of love and faith ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease, are also highly listenable tracks instead of cloying novelties thanks to Lawson and company’s professionalism.

Part of that professionalism has been the quality musicians that Lawson recruits to Quicksilver before they, seemingly invariably, set out on other highly successful ventures. The current lineup is no disappointment, with youngsters Corey Hensley (who wrote the title track and “The Hammer of Sin”) on guitar, Josh Swift on Dobro, Jason Barie on fiddle and Jason Leek on bass. Quicksilver veteran Dale Perry is back on banjo and bass vocals.

The unit distinguishes itself instrumentally on the title track and on Carl Story’s “It’s a Mighty Hard Road to Travel,” while achieving harmonic excellence on a cappella numbers “My Lord’s Gonna Move this Wicked Race” and the album closing “Zion Medley.”

Throughout the 11-track, 38-minute all-gospel disc, Lawson’s genteel vocals and smooth, clean mandolin are pleasant assertions that bluegrass music’s best bandleader is still at his peak.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Memories of John” by The John Hartford Stringband

The John Hartford Stringband
Memories of John
Red Clay Records/Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Had John Hartford done nothing but write “Gentle on My Mind” and bring the banjo to national attention on the The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash show in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his service to bluegrass and old-time music would have been immense. But, given the financial freedom that comes with having penned a megahit song, he spent a long, fruitful career in acoustic music that dipped deep into the past while looking far into the future.

Of his extensive list of recordings, this, though a tribute album made by his close musical associates, can be considered his final album, as his presence permeates it both figuratively and literally. (Hartford also participated in another tribute album recorded live a few months before his 2001 death.)

Chris Sharp (guitar), Bob Carlin (banjo), Matt Combs (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Mark Schatz (bass), who comprised Hartford’s band for his last five Rounder recordings and for live gigs during the last few years of his life, are the house band here, choosing a mix of Hartford favorites and a couple of songs—”Madison, Tennessee” and “She’s Gone (And Bob’s Gone with Her)”—that Hartford wrote but never recorded.

The results of a quick recording session, the Stringband tracks are perfect realizations of the Hartford sound, and guest vocals from Tim O’Brien (“M.I.S.I.P.” and “Lorena”) and Alan O’Bryant (“Delta Queen Waltz”) are moving without being mawkish. Bela Fleck, George Buckner and Alison Brown also guest on individual tracks with their interpretations of Hartford’s banjo style.

The biggest treats here are two short demos recorded by Hartford in the 1960s: the lighthearted “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” and the album’s fitting closer, a gentle, sweet, wordless, whistling tune called “Fade Out.”

Memories of John, depending on your exposure to his music, can serve as either an introduction to Hartford’s tremendous body of work or a capstone for his career. Either way, it’s great listening.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Country Music” by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson
Country Music
Rounder Records
3 stars (out of 5)

Excepting Johnny Cash, there’s no more distinctive stylist in the post-honky-tonk world of country music than Willie Nelson. A tremendously talented singer-songwriter, the genres he has dabbled in—blues, jazz, pop and even reggae—all flavor his brand of country.

Country Music strips those layers away in favor of a mostly acoustic sound that’s contains elements of honky-tonk, Western swing and bluegrass, all strains of country that blossomed in the 1930s and 1940s. Famed producer T Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Crazy Heart) helms the soundboard, but there’s not really much that won’t go right with a band that includes Buddy Miller (electric guitar), Chris Sharp (acoustic guitar), Riley Baugus (banjo), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Dennis Crouch (bass), Russell Pahl (pedal steel) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle).

Willie occasionally picks away at his trademark gut-string guitar, and his voice sounds great, retaining its elastic quality to emote in both higher and lower registers. His performances here are, perhaps not surprisingly given his drug of choice, markedly laid back, bringing little spirit to 15 tracks spread over 54 minutes.

Upbeat tunes like his own “Man with the Blues,” and Doc Watson’s “Frieght Train Boogie” lack any urgency, and slower ones like “My Baby’s Gone” and “Drinking Champagne” are positively soporific.

There are flashes of genius here though, such as Willie vocal on “Ocean of Diamonds,” a tune made famous by bluegrasser Jimmy Martin, and rustic, banjo-led takes on “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” A jazzy, bass-driven “Pistol Packin’ Mama” also stands out.

Not a bad effort, but far from the spectacular result when Willie worked with another super-producer, Daniel Lanois, on 1998’s Teatro.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“East Nashville Volume 3: More Music from the Other Side” by Various Artists

Various Artists
East Nashville Volume 3: More Music from the Other Side
Red Beet Records
5 stars (out of 5)

I’ve only been to Nashville once and the closest I came to East Nashville was a stroll to the end of Broadway where I unknowingly gazed at what lies beyond the Cumberland River.

Therefore, forgive me the limits of my East Nashville knowledge, most of which has been garnered from colorful Todd Snider and Steve Earle stories and interviews. Also, I missed the first two volumes of this ongoing series coordinated by Eric Brace and Mary Ann Werner.

Obviously I do know that there is more to Nashville than that offered by the modern conglomerates hiding behind the curtain of the country-pop Oz. Clocking in at more than an hour, a more than satisfying collection of inspired music is compiled here.

Assembling material from a number of labels and even more artists, Brace and Co. have provided a cross-section of Americana that is faultless. Every tune works both as a stand alone and as a component of this multi-dimensional conversation about independent music. Some songs have twang, most don’t. Some tell as story, others sketch emotion.

Previously unreleased tracks from Peter Cooper (featuring steel from Lloyd Green), Kevin Gordon, Elizabeth Cook, and Tim Carroll are nestled alongside material from Kieran Kane, Audrey Auld, Phil Lee, and Chuck Mead that may have already been heard by many finding the compilation of interest.

While I get to hear more modern Americana music than most, folks like Anne McCue, Amelia White, Taylor Bates, and Stephen Simmons have somehow escaped notice. The benefit of a finely crafted compilation such as this one is that I have now corrected the oversight and sought out albums from those performers.

Brace’s “Tranquility Base,” Matt Urmy’s “Renaissance Rodeo” and Tom Mason’s “Chano Pozo’s Shoes” are highlights, as are the Lee songs that bookend the set.

In the liner notes, the “style-blending spirit” of the late Duane Jarvis (whose exceptional “I Miss You Already” is included) is mentioned as typifying the album and the musical community it attempts to represent.

Also included is an invitation to visit the area; if I again make the 2,200 mile journey to Nashville, I think I’ll be calling Brace for a personal tour of his East Nashville.

by Donald Teplyske