“Singing from the Heart” by Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent
Singing from the Heart
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

An off-and-on project since 2001, this 12-track, 33-minute a cappella album was recorded and released in May 2010 to benefit the Tennessee Bible College, an institution of the Church of Christ, which worships without instruments in their services.

Dailey and Vincent, along with a rotating roster of quartet members that includes Doyle Lawson, Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane and bass singer Glenn Dustin, hew so closely to the Southern tradition of shape-note singing that you can almost smell the Murphy’s Oil Soap on the wooden pews of the country church pictured on the CD cover.

Listeners expecting the all-out spiritedness of the duo’s three other albums (see here, here and here) might be a tad disappointed until they get into the feel of this set, which emphasizes equal parts beauty and precision.

The album’s opener, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” doesn’t quite swing as much as the Golden Gate Quartet’s version, but serves as a fine intro for what’s coming. The next four tracks—”Near the Cross,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” “I Am Resolved,” and “The Old Rugged Cross”—are familiar favorites that are easy to sing along to, a goal the duo states in the liner notes.

“Moses Smote the Water” swings a little where “Joshua” didn’t. Dailey’s solo first verse of “Amazing Grace” is absolutely gorgeous, and things get even better when Molly Skaggs joins the second verse.

“Jesus is Coming Soon,” a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys, has some Southern Gospel swagger to it, and an ornate ending characteristic of that genre. “O To Be Like Thee” has a simpler arrangement, but no less exquisite a denouement.

“‘Til I See You Face to Face,” cowritten by Dailey and Lawson, holds up well in this mix of standards, and “Don’t You Want to Go to Heaven,” by David Marshall, represents well the style that the Marshall Family brought into the bluegrass music ambit.

This CD is satisfying enough on its own, but it will be thrilling to see some of these songs take flight in the always-exciting Dailey & Vincent live shows.

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“Outside of Tupelo” by Steven L. Smith

Steven L. Smith
Outside of Tupelo
Vinyl Record Company/www.slsmith.info
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Looking for contemporary country sounds that owe more to Kris Kristofferson than Jon Bon Jovi? One could do worse than spend a half hour with Outside of Tupelo.

Recorded in Nashville, Adirondack native Steven L. Smith’s sixth album of original music is as fine a slice of appealing, lyric-based country music as one can hope to encounter in times when country music is less about the songs than the party they accompany.

A skilled luthier and wordsmith, Smith approaches music with matter-of-fact honesty. Lacking inhibition, Smith exposes his fictional characters to self-examination and recrimination in a manner that is mature and hope-inspiring. Providing credit for turning around a life, the barroom Charlie of “I’ve Got You” declares, “When I’m with you I feel like a good man.”

Lightness exists elsewhere, as when love is declared for a “Woman on a Pole.” Waking up in a hotel room after a night of drinking, salvation-of-sorts is pursued in “I Stole the Bible.” The title track generates a video of the mind, with bluesy fiddle accents revealing the shadowed lanes and even more shadowed memories traveled by the protagonist while seeking a romance from the past.

Smith’s voice has depth of authenticity, bringing to mind Canadian Gary Fjellgaard and Mickey Newbury.

Fiddle from bluegrass veteran Glen Duncan is given prominence throughout the album, lending the disc additional character.

Almost every community houses an unheralded singer or songwriter. Steven L. Smith appears to be Brant Lake, N.Y.’s and he takes the responsibility seriously; nothing fancy, Outside of Tupelo is evidence that sometimes straight-forward approaches and attitudes will prevail.

“The Genesee EP” by Ted Pitney

Ted Pitney
The Genesee EP
http://www.tedpitney.com
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

King Wilkie cofounder and songwriter Ted Pitney took some time off from music after leaving that band, but he’s back with an extraordinary five-song EP that shows us he’s as gifted a singer as he is a songwriter.

Pitney mentions Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Rick Danko as influences, and they are certainly evident, but it struck me after a few listens that this is the sort of music that Jakob Dylan has been trying to make on his last few albums.

Beginning with the gentle insistence of “Thirteen Falls” Pitney draws you in with an elegantly wistful, yet slightly rugged, vocal style that wraps around repeated phrases with gentle ease. “What Will Love Recognize” crunches along on a supple guitar figure with pop-flavored melody and harmony floating on top.

“October Fire” has a folky feel, with Pitney’s vocal more open and its geographical name checks evoking Gordon Lightfoot, while “In & Out of Place” is a perfect piece of Americana pop. “Power Lines” rocks a little bit not unlike The Jayhawks, rounding out an impressive survey of styles in just five songs.

The 20 minutes spent with Pitney is an intimate experience with a budding talent we’re sure to hear more from in the coming years.

“Sweet Lonesome” by Matt Urmy

Matt Urmy
Sweet Lonesome
http://www.matturmy.com
4.5 stars (out of 5)

When I first encountered Matt Urmy’s music earlier this year—on the superior compilation East Nashville Vol. 3: More Music from the Other Side—I felt inadequate having never previously heard this spellbinding poet, lyricist, singer, and musician. Sweet Lonesome executive producer David Hererra lets me off the hook in his brief liner note, identifying Urmy as “one of the best undefined and undiscovered artists in [Nashville.]” Obviously, I’m not the only one who overlooked this incredible talent.

With Sweet Lonesome, all that should change because this is one of the strongest recent visions of what Americana can be.
Without abandoning hooks or accessibility, Urmy has created a powerful album that fuses words and melody with deeply held convictions of honesty and candidness.

Within this music, one hears shadings of masters—Chip Taylor’s ability to twist phrases into popular sentiment, Jim Lauderdale’s sense of timing and rhythm, Rodney Crowell’s gift for creating fiction from experience, and Guy Clark’s need to keep things plain but memorable. On “Helpless Fool” Urmy not only has created a song that vaguely recalls Clark’s “Old Friends” but drops a line that GC would likely be proud to call his own: “I don’t mind getting lost inside a lonely afternoon/‘cause in a world like this I just can’t complain about feeling blue.”

Although cloud seeders may argue, when he sings on the album’s opening song “Stone in the River” that “you can build a fire but you can’t change the weather,” Urmy places his art into perspective: he can write the words, he can sing the songs, but it is up to the listener to react to the challenges he illuminates.

With a broken whiskey glass-scarred voice somewhere near where Greg Brown, Johnny Dowd, and Tom Russell meet, Urmy is immediately appealing. His masculine rasp houses that elusive element that lends every word authenticity.

Recorded in a two-day blast at the refurbished and famed Quonset Hut studio, Urmy is joined by three recognizable Nashville voices on select cuts. Jonell Mosser provides vocals to a trio of songs, subtly enhancing Urmy’s creations.  Ashley Cleveland guests on one song as does Mary Gauthier; trading lines with Urmy, Gauthier’s contributions to the title track lift the song toward timelessness.

A multifaceted project, tunes such as “Bring It Back (I Rely on You),” “Night on the Road,” and “Violence in Love” are closer to traditional country songs than many of the pieces. Elsewhere, including “She Said I’m a Hotel” and “The Old Photograph,” Urmy touches on material and approaches seldom encountered within mainstream music, exploring relationships and human existence with a philosopher’s touch. Additionally, Urmy punctuates his songs with brief recitations of verse, providing the project with additional heft.

That’s not to say that Sweet Lonesome is a bleak, overly introspective tome of self-flagellation and judgment. The intelligent, frequently profound writing is buoyed by instrumentation that positively rocks, with a full band framing Urmy’s creations with sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on any Drive-By Truckers or Bottle Rockets release.

Whether viewed as a populist Cohen or a hillbilly Waits, Matt Urmy’s third album reflects his continuing development as an artist and reveals a rare creativity pulsing within this Tennessean.

by Donald Teplyske

“The Voice of God” by Don Rigsby & Midnight Call

Don Rigsby & Midnight Call
The Voice of God
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Fans of the Lonesome River Band, Longview and his solo work already know that Don Rigsby is one of the most soulful singers in the bluegrass universe no matter the material. He’s able to live up to that billing here on a 14-track, 49-minute all gospel effort that hits all the expected bluegrass notes while extending past the genre in some gutsy ways.

“One Prayer Away” signals a rich vocal and instrumental approach to the more familiar-sounding material, with Dale Vanderpool’s banjo setting the tone. “The Gospel According to Luke” is a ballad of a street preacher that recalls Graham Greene’s whiskey priest from The Power and the Glory, while “Then Y’Ain’t,” by Tom T. And Dixie Hall, and “The Voice of God,” co-written by Larry Cordle, have Rigsby singing the words of great writers on songs that show this album is about ideas, not just religious catch phrases.

“He Put a Breeze in Me” and “Leaning on the Son” also have traditional bluegrass backing, while “Charged With Being Christian” is another clever concept song, this time to the strains of a finger-picked guitar in the manner of many Flatt & Scruggs gospel hits. “This World is Not My Home” is the best of the bluegrass tracks, a perfect brother-style duet vocal with guitarist Clyde Marshall.

“I Am an Orphan Child” is the only misstep among the bluegrass numbers, but only because Rigsby decided to add to and change the lyrics of a perfectly good Gillian Welch song. “Send Me Wings So I Can Fly” is also a failure, being the excessively maudlin type of song that some bluegrass fans love to latch onto even though, in this case, the song lacks a bluegrass arrangement.

The four other envelope-pushing tracks are what lift this album above a normal bluegrass gospel effort. “He Done What He Said” ups the ante with an a cappella quartet arrangement that recalls the Golden Gate Quartet and over which Rigby’s tenor soars with exceptional power.

“Mary Magdalene,” a duet with Beth Castle, could serve as a companion piece to Dolly Parton’s “He’s Alive, while “Forgiveness,” a duet with slide guitar blueswoman Rory Block, pairs two soulful voices in an intense gospel-blues setting.

But the solo, Old Regular Baptist-style “The Lord Will Provide” proves that Rigsby needs nothing but that voice to be spellbinding.

Addendum: I got an e-mail from Don Rigsby on July 26, 2010 clarifying the genesis of the song “I Am an Orphan Child.” Though it is credited in the liner notes as co-written by Gillian Welch, Don wrote the entire song on his own before discovering that it was very similar to Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” which he had not previously heard. Legal advice prompted Don to add Welch to the song credit to avoid any possible legal issues. This certainly changes my view of the song, which is fine as it is. And none of this changes my opinion of Don Rigsby, who is, in my personal experience and by reputation, one of the most talented artists in bluegrass, and one who is known for integrity and class.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story” by Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright

Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright
Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story
Word of Mouth Press
5 stars (out of 5)

Several years ago, when the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass week was still held at Louisville’s delightfully seedy Galt House hotel, I was heading toward the elevators on the ground floor when Tony Rice walked through the door leading down to the parking garage. He was tall, gaunt and looked a little frail, but had a regal bearing and was dressed impeccably, suit and tie as usual. He was alone and carrying his guitar and no one else seemed to notice him.

Though I usually disdain going out of my way to meet famous people, especially for an autograph, which seems so contrived and invasive, I had to do something. This was Tony Rice. So, making an exception I have since made for baseball heroes Johnny Bench and Eric Davis, I simply asked to shake his hand. He offered that hand—the right hand known for its peerless picking technique—barely smiled, shook, said thanks and kept moving.

Until this remarkable book by Tim Stafford (a great guitarist, singer and songwriter in his own right) and Caroline Wright, I knew little of the man who has stood as the master craftsman of the bluegrass and acoustic guitar for about 40 years, taking time to also carve out a niche as one of the finest bluegrass lead singers ever.

I didn’t know of his childhood playing in a band with his brothers in California under the tutelage of their father, a legendary welder, part-time musician and sometimes drunk. I didn’t know how he ended up in J.D. Crowe’s legendary New South lineup that cut Rounder 0044, why he left to play more progressive styles with David Grisman and others, or why he came back to traditional bluegrass with the Bluegrass Album Band. And I didn’t know what had happened to that formerly clear, cool voice that has made it impossible for him to sing over the last decade or so, or about the physical toll that a lifetime of hard work has taken on those hands. All of those questions are answered in this book, which also gives detailed insight into Rice’s character, personality, hobbies, instruments and playing style.

The book’s format took a chapter or two to get used to, as it’s not a straight-ahead third-person biography. After a brief introduction by the authors, each chapter contains a section of Rice’s reminiscences of the period in question, followed then by a section of relevant comments from friends, family members and colleagues. Interspersed throughout the book are dispatches from time spent with Rice on the road, driving to and from shows.

The result is that, sometimes, material is repeated. But this usually serves to flesh out the story, as Rice’s recollections are reinforced, shaded or supplemented by others. Thus the book seems a lot longer—a good thing—than its 272 pages of text before about 40 pages of reference material, including a discography of his work on albums by Rice and a host of others.

In short, this book—which is exceedingly well-made and attractive—is everything you ever wanted to know about a musical giant, with the material presented clearly and readably by Stafford and Wright. It will send you to your record collection for the Rice that you do have, and to eBay, County Sales or the record store for what you don’t. It’s a major piece of bluegrass and acoustic music scholarship that belongs on any music fan’s bookshelf.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine
Oh Boy Records
4 stars (out of 5)

In a world too full of tribute albums and cover projects, few distinguish themselves, seldom lingering beyond the cycle of stories and reviews encouraged by pressies and ad buys.

There have been memorable tribute projects. However, for every Real and Por Vida, there have been two or three Timelesses, Tammy Wynette…Remembereds, or Skynyrd Frynds.

I’m not sure where Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows will eventually end up, but I suspect it will be closer to Lonesome, On’ry and Mean than I’ve Always Been Crazy. Not only is the artist representation relatively fresh and intriguing—no Sheryl Crow, no Emmylou Harris (as much as I love her), no Kid Rock or even Willie Nelson—but the songs reinterpreted are a pleasing cross-section of prime Prine classics and deep album cuts.

Envisioned by Oh Boy staffers, the album embraces the current slate of youthful (from where I’m sitting) modern folk and Americana festival mainstays performing songs of their choosing and arrangement. Prine’s voice and appreciation for melody are present in every song—no one has turned their song inside-out simply for the sake of originality. Instead, the dozen performers take Prine straight-on, giving the songs and their original singer and writer appropriate consideration.

To be honest, I have only a more-than-passing familiarity with four or five of the artists featured. To me, Conner Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Deer Tick, and Josh Ritter are names skimmed-over in music mags and blogs. Of the artists I was familiar with only the Drive-By Truckers and Sara Watkins could be considered personal favorites.

This distance helped me appreciate Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows. Rather than approaching with a preconceived notion of Rosanne Cash or Jim Lauderdale interpreting “Paradise,” I could encounter each performance and each performer on their represented merits.

On the album’s opener, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) assumes Prine’s voice in so eerie a manner that one could be forgiven for believing Prine is singing “Brusied Oranges (Chain of Sorrow).” While Vernon’s track is entirely satisfying, it is fortunate that none of the other performers sound much like Prine.

Overall, the album is—much like a Prine recording—fairly laid back. The DBTs convincingly kick things up with a modern-sounding, Southern boogie interpretation of “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin.” Conner Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band give it a good try with “Wedding Day in Funeralville.” Unfortunately, their attempt to interpret the Common Sense track as The Band might have fails to be convincing. The Avett Brothers’ take of “Spanish Pipedream” is more successful.

Deer Tick with Liz Isenberg perform “Unwed Fathers” with considerable success. The tracks from Watkins (“The Late John Garfield Blues”), Josh Ritter (“Mexican Home”) and My Morning Jacket (“All the Best”) succeed mostly because the artists recognize that they have to add nothing to Prine’s song but themselves.

The only track that completely fails is also one of the weakest of the Prine catalog, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”; the appeal of this one has always escaped me, and Those Darlins fail to reveal the song’s relevance.

Tribute albums—cover projects of any kind—are fickle things. One is never certain who they are intended to attract. Fans of the originals may decry the interpretation of timeless favorites by upstarts. Those more familiar with the interpreters may not feel a necessary connection to the songs.

At best, they provide an opportunity for important songs to be exposed to listeners who may have not yet found the originals in their parent’s vinyl stacks.

Each listener will have to decide for themselves if Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows improves upon the Prine story or merely expands it. For me, I’ll err on the side of the former; overall, these interpretations of songs I’ve heard dozens of times are not only enjoyable, but revealing within themselves of Prine’s ability to capture Truths in deceptively simple ways.

by Donald Teplyske