“Outlaw” by Mark Chesnutt

Mark Chesnutt
Saguaro Road Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Once among the most successful of country-chart cowboys, for most of the last decade Mark Chesnutt has plied his trade with a series of independent, Texas-based labels. More a testament to the state of the industry than diminishing talents on the part of the Beaumont-based neo-traditionalist, Chesnutt has still managed a few chart appearances since his last Top Ten hit, 1999’s #1 “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”

Never afraid of looking back, Chesnutt’s new project embraces the obvious stylings of Waylon Jennings in a way that makes previous Chesnutt tributes to Jennings appear subtle in comparison. While ostensibly a tip of the hat to the outlaw movement of the ’70s—Kris, Willie, Jerry Jeff, Coe, Shaver, et al.—Chesnutt’s vocal phrasing and song choices make Outlaw an album that reeks of spilled beer and sawdust, with eight of the 12 songs once recorded by Jennings.

Chesnutt knows his way around a shufflin’, honky-tonkin’ ballad better than most. While some of the song choices are too obvious—“Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Desperados Waiting for a Train”, and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” have likely been recorded enough times—others are more inspired. Seldom-heard gems like “Freedom to Stay” and “Need A Little Time Off for Bad Behavior” are appreciated.

“A Couple More Years,” done as a duet with Amber Digby, is stellar, and I’m not sure a bad version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose”—“The devil made me do it the first time / the second time I done it on my own”—is even possible.

Chesnutt’s vocal abilities have not faded; he hits all the notes and can twist a lyrical phrase as well as his heroes did in their prime. Outlaw is evidence that while Nashville may turn its back on stars, the singers continue to create the only thing they know: real country music.

by Donald Teplyske

“Summertown Road” by Summertown Road

Summertown Road
Summertown Road
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

One of the most anticipated releases from a new band this year is produced by Kentucky-based Summertown Road. Bringing a balanced approach to bluegrass, one that embraces both traditional and contemporary influences, Summertown Road has not necessarily been an easy highway.

No sooner had Rounder Records prepared the album for release but co-lead vocalist, fiddler, and mandolinist John Rigsby departed the outfit. The band has pushed on, supporting the album with a fairly heavy slate of performances.

Produced by Don Rigsby, Summertown Road is an adequate but not astounding album. Stronger debuts have been made, but the songs included well showcase the vocal and instrumental talents of the band members. Working in the band’s favor is that two-thirds of the material is band-written, providing a set of fresh songs that make the listening experience more enjoyable.

Rather than alternating track-by-track between Rigsby and Bo Isaac on lead vocals, the album is sequenced to feature two or three cuts from each before switching back to the other. Isaac’s piercing tenor and Rigsby’s less-polished voice are individual, and this arrangement allows the featured singer’s style to become familiar to the listener over the course of a few songs. Swapping out on harmony, the singers’ voices work well together.

Having been employed by first-generation bluegrass legends including Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, Lester Flatt, and Melvin Goins as well as The Whites, Dave Evans, Larry Cordle and others, it is no surprise that Summertown Road are exceptional musicians. Jack Hicks’ banjo presence is especially appreciated throughout the album. Rigsby is double-tracked on fiddle and mandolin, allowing the band a full-blown bluegrass sound.

The album has several notable moments. The album kicks off with “If I Win,” a fast-paced tune that not only introduces the band’s fiddle and banjo core, but the complementary vocals of Isaac and Rigsby. “Rosalee,” a Hicks tune co-written with Shayla Huffman, rekindles the timeless story of a man who can’t control his desires. Tom T. Hall’s “That’s Kentucky” sings the praises of the bluegrass state—“Daniel Boone and ole Abe Lincoln, not to mention Bill Monroe…” “Dennis Braden” features clawhammer from Rigsby and shares the tale of a common man. The album’s lone instrumental is a zippy number entitled “Goin’ Home to See My Baby.” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages” is a superior gospel performance.

While there is much to enjoy within the forty minutes that make up Summertown Road’s debut recording, there is little to distinguish it from the many albums that will be released in 2010. But it is a fine recording, one that gives hope that the group will create a niche within the bluegrass community.

by Donald Teplyske

“Heartaches and Dreams” by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
Heartaches and Dreams
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Donald Teplyske’s review of Blue Side of the Blue Ridge by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice remains one of the most popular posts here on The Lonesome Road Review, garnering several hits a week after nearly two years.

That popularity has something to do with the song “The Man in Red Camels,” which has gained quite a following, but I suspect it’s got more to do with Sisk’s voice.

His mournful croon falls somewhere between the honky-tonk and the hills, and is in fine form indeed on the 10 tracks (out of 12) on which he sings lead. “Train Without a Track” by Tom T. and Dixie Hall is a strong, uptempo opener to the 36-minute disk, but the plaintive “Humble Man” and the love-gone-wrong “Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore” take things up a notch, with Sisk taking control the way few lead vocalists can.

“A Black Hearse Following Me” is a humorous drinking caper that you could hear George Jones do; “Bullets Always Win” is a card-playing adventure that might make you think of Deadwood.

Comprised of Billy Hawks (fiddle), Darrell Wilkerson (banjo), Jason Tomlin (mandolin, vocals) and Tim Massey (bass, vocals), Ramblers Choice delivers a consistent, tasteful backing, vocally and instrumentally, that will please any traditional bluegrass fan.

My main complaint about this album isn’t really a complaint at all: Massey does a good job on the lead vocals for “Don’t You Cry” and the fine “Guns, Coins and Jewelry,” but Sisk’s singing is so good you hate to let him take a break.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison” by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison
1 star (out of 5)

Like the book it covers, this review will be short and not comprehensive. I’m just going to pump the shotgun and let a couple of rounds go in the general direction of a profoundly bad book.

First of all, there are lots of instances where Marcus gets a lyric or song title wrong. “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” is rendered as “Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights” several times, even in a chapter title in big bold print. The song “Caravan” starts with the line “And the caravan is on its way,” but Marcus insists on saying it starts with the word “now.”

He says it’s Pee Wee Ellis on the cover of The Healing Game with Van, but it’s actually Haji Ahkba, who also happens to be the voice at the end of A Night in San Francisco asking the crowd if they had been healed. Ahkba was a vital part of that band, but Marcus can’t be bothered to find out who he is.

You may think these are little details, but if, in the title of your book, you are claiming to be “listening to Van Morrison,” you should get little details right. If not, what else are you missing?

Marcus also claims the song “Burning Ground” is about disposing of a body. Any research among Van fans who have parsed that dark song would have told Marcus that that’s emphatically not what’s going on in that song, but, again, he just doesn’t bother to look into things closely. (The song actually seems to be about casting off your old self in favor of a new beginning.)

Marcus also waves off every Morrison album from 1980 to 1996 as pointless navel gazing, even though Van fans find plenty to love about that long period (which is actually two or three periods). It also doesn’t jibe with Marcus’ main thesis to write these off. Marcus says that Van is all about reaching transcendence, which is true, but if Van can’t talk about himself, how can he transcend himself.

I’ve liked Marcus’ Mystery Train and his The Old Weird America: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but now I’m thinking I may have just been dazzled by his cross-genre comparisons. Now that I’ve read a book whose subject I know better than Marcus, I’m thinking he might be always full of crap.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Cryin’ Heart Blues” by Audie Blaylock and Redline

Audie Blaylock and Redline
Cryin’ Heart Blues
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

In his second album as a bandleader since leaving Rhonda Vincent’s band, Audie Blaylock maintains the high standard he set on last year’s self-titled effort.

Comprised of Evan Ward (banjo), Patrick McAvinue (fiddle, mandolin) and Matt Wallace (bass), Redline is precise without ever crossing over into slickness on hard-driving numbers like Carter Stanley’s “Let’s Part the Best of Friends,” “Troubles Round My Door,” “You Can Keep Your Nine Pound Hammer” and “Cryin’ Heart Blues,” which is done here in 4/4 time, not the waltz I’ve usually heard it as. Ward deserves being singled out for his backup playing on vocal numbers that approaches the Sonny Osborne/Rob McCoury territory.

Blaylock’s is not your classic bluegrass high lead voice, but that’s what makes him interesting. His restrained power, crisp phrasing and ability to hit the high notes when warranted (as on Bill Monroe’s “Stay Away from Me”) are what makes him unusually good. The effect, when applied to familiar songs like the ones listed so far, is that of a skilled jazz musician bringing a fresh take to the standards. His version of the Jimmy Martin classic “Drink Up and Go Home” might be the best example of this.

“Matches,” written by Keith Stegall and Charles F. Craig, and “Can’t Keep on Runnin’,” written by Harley Allen, are two unusually good, apparently new songs that Blaylock nails and that makes one hunger for even more non-traditional material on his next effort. This one, with 13 tracks clocking in at 38 minutes, will do better than fine in the meantime.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Chasing Giants” by Jennie Arnau

Jennie Arnau
Chasing Giants
2.5 stars out of 5

An experiment.

Aaron, the lonesomest of those of us populating The Lonesome Road Review, sent me an email asking if I would be interested in reviewing an album from a singer I’ve never heard of, Jennie Arnau. Being the amiable sort, I agreed and then got this idea: since I have no idea who Jennie Arnau is, why don’t I keep it that way and simply write about the tracks as I open them from my e-mail? No liner notes, no Googling, no one-sheet; stream of consciousness-like, as it were.

A fine exercise, methinks. Let’s see where it goes.

First problem, Track 1 isn’t attached. Off to eMusic (nope) and iTunes—there it is, an April 2010 release. I now know the album is called Chasing Giants and—dang it—I couldn’t help but notice that this is Arnau’s fifth album and she is from South Carolina. Eyes averted to prevent me from learning any more, I download the missing track.

And we start listening:

“For the Winter” “She glows in the sun” are the first words heard and the pictures start forming. Captures emotions of childhood—as a kid, filling your days of warmth and adventure without thinking about the coming of winter; the immediacy of youth. A repetitive banjo-run punctuates things, giving a light summer feel. Arnau’s voice is pleasant, but not terribly distinctive so far. More interesting is the male voice providing intermittent punctuation. I like the line “There’s nothing more fun than playing on newly bare blacktop.” A hopeful start.

“The Sparrow & The Gods” Some percussion kicks off this one. A mid-’70s feel; a little Carly Simon here. Immediately apparent is that Arnau is singing with more verve, a different type of intensity, on this number than on the more airy initial track. Again, it ends before I get interested. Not a good omen, I’m afraid. Hopefully, things improve.

“Bouncing Ball” The banjo is back, giving some life to this song. Arnau’s voice and material aren’t grabbing me, although her voice has appeal. I can understand why some listeners would like it; it just isn’t doing anything for me. A lovelorn number, she’s waiting for things to turn around for her. I wonder, Why doesn’t she fling the door open and go after the object of her affection? This album, so far, is sounding like it would fit comfortably within a Signature Sounds sampler from ’95.

“Safe Tonight” Mournful, this one; appeals to my gloomy side. “It is always darkest before the night.” Good line. Fiddle helps shape this one’s mood. Even with these elements appealing to me, I’m having to force myself to remain engaged. Arnau reminds me a bit of Serena Ryder and Patty Griffin, other singers I wish I could enjoy on recordings more than I do.

“Beautiful Life” An affirming number, she’s finally showing some life. A bit retro, again, but it works a little better here. Banjo returns. Nice tempo and mood change-up mid-song. Contains a few potential diva moments, I can hear Wynonna singing this one, although it would benefit from a bit more blues growl. So far, the only song that matches the lead-in.

“Jack B Nimble” I don’t like hearing the slide making additional noises on the strings of a guitar. I wish they could somehow get those out of the picture. Very distracting, so much so that the song is almost two-minutes in before I’m really able to listen. Let’s start over. Another song of the past, perhaps reflections of someone’s childhood. The guitar playing on this track is much more appealing when that noise isn’t present. At the 2:43 mark there is a nice guitar fill, just a couple seconds, that captures my attention. And then the slide, or whatever makes that squeak, is back. Urgh!

“Savior” An interesting beginning to this one, voice with minimal (maybe) steel accompaniment. Arnau’s voice has range, and she can roar in that modern country, female vocalist way quite well. She uses that range on this one, going from soft gentleness to affirmative aggression, but not too aggressive; she pulls back before things drift into Sheryl Crow territory. Other than the line, “You are my savior,” nothing sticks from this track.

“Chasing Giants” I’m in trouble. I don’t very often write negatively. I take no pleasure in doing so, and would rather ignore an album that doesn’t appeal to me or possesses few redemptive elements. What am I missing on Chasing Giants? Arnau’s voice is nice. But that isn’t an attribute, is it? The songs are regrettably forgettable.

This music must appeal to someone—this is album five, and you don’t make that many albums without a fan base—but I’m not hearing what makes her special. At the mid-point of this title track, she sings: “I’m looking for a way out, just trying to find my way back home…’cause I don’t think that I can take the chance on my own.” Whatever the exact words, they capture my mood; I’m regretting taking this stylistic leap. I wish I could hear something to set Arnau apart from the pack. But, unlike singers who can sing this type of introspective material—Mary Chapin Carpenter, Carrie Newcomer, to name just two—Arnau falls short.

“No Guarantees” Sometimes song titles say it all. I guess that is the lesson I’m going to take from this album and experience. I like the idea of jumping into things without knowing how they’ll turn out, but I’m getting schooled here; it isn’t how I best operate. I’ve finally found the comparison that has been eluding me for several songs: Beth Nielsen Chapman. Others sing her praises, and Nanci Griffith even sings that she wishes she had a voice like BNC. The appeal is lost to me, and I think Jennie Arnau is going to remain that way to me.

“The Sharp Things” No, I won’t go there. This song drifts along like the several that preceded it. The substance continues to elude me. I predicted the power chord that cuts in at the two-minute mark. I shouldn’t be able to do that, should I? And I wasn’t surprised by the vocal exclamation made 25 seconds later.

I hate sharing my thoughts in this manner, but in this case it is probably the most honest way to. Is it fair to me to reduce the work, the art, of someone to a single 40-minute ramble? Likely not, but I’m confident I could listen to this album three more times and not change a meaningful word. I can’t anticipate my feelings changing; in another format, I would simply fill any rewritten review with biographical and recording background that would conceal my unfavorable opinion behind tricks writers use when considering something that is unsatisfying.

Entering the editing and revising stage…and listening again while I do.

I’m only changing the occasional verb and eliminating repetitive thoughts. I’m disappointed in this album, and I had no reason to anticipate anything of it. How can that be? I wanted to like it, if only because of the pleasure I get from enjoying new music and turning others onto it.

Unleash the slings and arrows…

by Donald Teplyske

“Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads” by Cherryholmes

Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads
Skaggs Family Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Long ago Cherryholmes proved they were much more than just an interesting story and family band. Their fourth studio effort—clocking in at a generous 15-songs and 53 minutes—is further proof of that.

Produced by Ben Issacs, with help from father Jere (bass) and brother B.J, the album has a hard-driving wall of sound on the uptempo tracks, and every song here is written by members of the family working singly or together with no outside help.

Mom Sandy sings lead on two self-penned gospel numbers that show the group’s bluesy side—”Changed in a Moment” and “Standing”—and each of the four singing siblings brings a unique vocal approach that enlivens the entire project.

Guitarist and younger brother Skip sings wistfully an the lushly arranged “It’s Your Love,” while the older B.J. (guitar and mandolin) belts out the convincing warning against “Idle Minds” and the mournful “Making Pretend.”

The sisters sound even better, with Molly (fiddle) bringing her rich, luxuriant style to, sadly, just two tracks: “Live It” and “I Am Your Conscience.”

As good as Molly is, it’s Cia, whose banjo is at the heart of the album’s sound, who is still the best singer here. With a slightly rougher edge  and more expansive tone to her voice than her younger sister, Cia nails the grassiest material here—”When It’s N0t with Me Everyday,” “The Harder I Fall” and “How Far Will You Go”—while branching out on the brooding “Weaver of Lies” and the jazzy “Just You.”

I haven’t had a chance to catch a Cherryholmes stage show in a while, but if this album is any indication they are still likely one of the top two or three most entertaining and talented units working in bluegrass music today.

by Aaron Keith Harris