“Red Horse” by Red Horse

Red Horse
Red Horse
Red House Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

With three of the most appealing voices in modern folk, Red Horse is composed of Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, and Lucy Laplansky.

For this exciting collaboration, each of the singers selected a favoured number from their colleagues on which to take the lead. They also revisit one of their own songs within this harmony-rich setting. Sung by Gilkyson, “I Am a Child” is a familiar highlight, but the writer’s own material is not overwhelmed by the Neil Young classic.

There is a focused gentleness about the project indicative of the mastery these singers bring to their craft. Mature and thoughtful, not a word is wasted and neither is an instrumental ornamentation misplaced. Gorka’s resonant voice at turns contrasts and blends with his companions. Gilkyson carries within her voice the wisdom of the ages while Kaplansky brings some pop nuance, softening the largely introspective lyrics.

The only new song is Gorka’s “If These Walls Could Talk,” a haunting piece that fits nicely with the mood generated by Kaplansky’s interpretation of “Sanctuary.” The aura of Stan Rogers surrounds “Coshieville,” sung by Gorka.

Reminiscent of a folk festival session captured for posterity, Red Horse brings together wonderful songs, voices, and instrumentation to celebrate the hopefulness that must permeate the heart of the troubadour.

“Nights” by Nu-Blu

3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

We all evaluate the discs that find their way to our CD players. The simplest evaluation is whether you like it or not. If not, you probably won’t play it much if ever again.

The next step for some might be, “Do I want to perform any of these songs myself?” or “Would I give this to Charlie, would he like it?” This is when typing by genre becomes an issue. It’s also an issue for reviewers because (hopefully) we have some influence on the buying public. If you give the impression that the Old Crow Medicine Show is a Larry Sparks clone you’ll fast lose credibility.

Nu-Blu kicks off Nights with “I Won’t Be Around,” a number penned by their fiddle player, Greg Luck. Lead singer Carolyn Routh has a good bluegrass sound and the instrumentalists are doing a good job. Later they give a good rendition of “Red Haired Boy,” on old tune that isn’t recorded as often as it should be. They can do bluegrass.

And, in general it’s pretty good bluegrass. “Genre-defying” Nanci Griffith has always seemed to be out on the fringes of bluegrass and her “Spin On a Red Brick Floor” isn’t very ‘grassy and sounds like a misstep compared to the other numbers. The other songs on the CD vary from close to a traditional sound to much more modern lyric patterns and cadences, but you can identify them as bluegrass. The two numbers penned by Mark Brinkman are strong songs, what you can expect from him. “Try and Catch the Wind” is a hard-driving number with Levi Austin’s banjo pushing it along from start to finish, with two good instrumental breaks. “Lonesome Mountain” tells a tale of sadness with a dark, brooding sound and minor chords. This is good music.

So when does the sound go sideways?

Daniel Routh sings lead on “Lonesome Mountain” and does a credible job, but his singing is an issue on some other numbers. His voice has so little inflection from start to finish on “My Sweet Carolyn” that it just fails to excite me, I lose interest. It doesn’t compare well to Carolyn Routh’s rendition of “How Do I Move On.” The other singing issue I have is their harmonies. Good bluegrass harmony can stop you in your tracks. On “River of Love,” for example, I can barely hear the harmony and nowhere on the CD does it really rise to the top, make me stop and say, “Wow!” The other problem is subtle, but there are a number of tracks that tend to lose the vocals in the mix instead of standing out clearly.

If you love traditional bluegrass – but it doesn’t have to be Ralph Stanley – you owe it to yourself to go to Nu-Blu’s website and listen to their demo track to decide if they are for you. Nu-Blu has promise.

“Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen” by Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Fiddlemon Music
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It all comes down to taste. One person may like Sigur Rós but think Hank Williams was just a country hick. A lot of people believe Hank was one of the best songwriters and singers who ever graced the Grand Ole Opry, and what is a Sigur Rós?

For my taste there is country music and then there’s country music. Country music is that subset of country that I like, and the same can be said of everyone. Taylor Swift’s cotton candy music is country music. Faron Young singing “Hello Walls” is country music. That doesn’t make Taylor Swift’s music bad; she’s selling millions of records. I just don’t like it and I miss hearing Faron on the radio.

The same is true when you talk bluegrass. There’s bluegrass and bluegrass. It’s a repeated topic on BGRASS-L, the bluegrass listserv. Some say it’s all good, you can’t define it, you can’t pigeonhole it. Others worry bluegrass may go the same way as country. The good side of the trends in country, of course, is country music’s increased popularity and the additional millions of dollars flowing to its stars (whoever they may be). In the context of bluegrass, I believe the majority of fans like traditional music. I can think of several prominent names who have used the same set list for the past decade, or so it seems. But the same people sit in the same spots in front of the stage and applaud like they’re hearing them for the first time. Bluegrass fans like their traditions.

Most fans and practitioners of bluegrass agree on six basic instruments: banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and resophonic guitar. Not all bands carry six musicians – the money isn’t that good – but it’s rare to see a professional band without at least four and the resophonic guitar is the rarest of the six. Recordings often sport “guest” musicians to help fill in the blanks. Dirty Kitchen’s members are excellent musicians. Leader Frank Solivan doubles on mandolin and fiddle and guest Rob Ickes supplies resophonic guitar on three tracks. The liner notes call them “super pickers,” but that description is getting frayed around the edges. The truth is there’s a gob of bluegrass musicians out there that play like angels sing, and trying to compare them to determine who is best is like comparing a box of kitchen matches to find the best one.

“Ominous Anonymous” is an interesting instrumental, hard driving with some complexity while “Line Drive” flies. Both will be copied by grassroots bands across the country, challenged to play it like you hear it on the CD.

They can do bluegrass. They do an a cappella version of “Paul and Silas” that is excellent. Their harmony is much tighter than, as a comparison, a Merlefest performance by Earl Scruggs (especially interesting because Earl is fingerpicking a flattop). Solivan and crew nail the song.

Solivan is the lead singer for Dirty Kitchen. He spent six years with Country Current and has played with some of the biggest names in the business. The mixes on the numbers that feature him tend to bury him in with the background while the harmony passages soar above the instruments. His vocals just don’t interest me. He’s not a crooner like David Parmley or a powerful tenor like Russell Moore. Switching lead singers on some songs would have made the project more interesting, and a better mix on Solivan’s leads would have also helped.

This CD grew on me. The first few passes were mostly uninspiring because of the difficulty picking out the lead vocals and hearing what Solivan was singing. With some concentration it can be done, but you should be able to enjoy a bluegrass CD without working at it. “Hello Friend” is more likable if you concentrate when you listen. One way I measure a song is to mentally substitute the band performing it. I’m a IIIrd Tyme Out fan, so, can I hear 3TO singing “Hello Friend”? I think so. The arrangement is good, it has interesting interludes, not just timeworn IV – V – I turnarounds. “The Note That Said Goodbye” is pure bluegrass from the first intro notes from the banjo. It’s interesting to note the different mix on this song. Solivan sounds much better singing lead here.

“Driftin’ Apart” drifts into the broader bluegrass category. It just doesn’t sound like bluegrass despite the acoustic instruments. It’s a struggle to understand the words and so the message is lost. The same is true of “Together We’ll Fly.” It just doesn’t sound like bluegrass so, if you like traditional music, you’ll hit the button to forward to the next song. Then there’s “July You’re A Woman” which may be the only bluegrass-targeted song with the repeating line, “na na na na na na na” in it. Sorry, but to borrow from Bill Monroe, “That ain’t no part of nothin’.”

To nitpick, someone goofed in post production. When you load the CD into a player like Windows Media Player, you see titles like “July your a woman,” “The note that said goodbye,” and “Poul and Silas.” Proper capitalization and spelling isn’t that difficult for twelve song titles.

If you’re a bluegrass fan you’ll like the CD but probably not love it because of the mixing issue. If you’re a bluegrass fan you’ll rip three or four songs off to put on a compilation CD then put it on a high shelf.

“Where I’m Bound” by James Alan Shelton

James Alan Shelton
Where I’m Bound
Sheltone Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Having played guitar with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys for some 16 years, the name James Alan Shelton is well-known within bluegrass circles.

His cross-picking has enlivened many a Stanley recording. When appearing in concert, Shelton never fails to impress an audience with tasteful playing without overshadowing his boss or fellow band members. While he has made numerous solo albums, the albums Shelton recorded for Rebel in the early aughts are textbook examples of how a sideman can present his music without resorting to showboating.

Unlike previous albums, Shelton handles almost everything on this latest creation himself. Utilizing his home studio, Shelton has spent much of the past three years tracking guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo parts for these songs. While his inspiration toward this method of recording appears to have been to achieve a personal challenge, Where I’m Bound is a fully listenable and overwhelmingly impressive album.

With only three vocal tracks, the album obviously has an instrumental focus. Shelton’s achievement with this album is much more remarkable as one would be hard pressed to claim an ability to discern that the album wasn’t created with a full band, live in the studio. There is nothing stilted in the arrangements or execution that betrays the recording to be anything but an extremely well-played Americana recording.

Overall, the tunes have a solid bluegrass feel. Shelton’s love of folk music is obvious in his selection of material which comes from the likes of Donovan (“Catch the Wind”) and Tom Paxton (“Where I’m Bound) as well the traditional tune “Home Sweet Home.” Seasonal standards “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “Auld Lang Syne” are also included, with the latter being played at an accelerated tempo that removes the maudlin qualities associated with it.

“Rose Conley,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” provide additional variety to the recording. A playful and bright reinvention of “Buckaroo” is a highlight; while maintaining the melody and tempo of the Buck Owens/Don Rich performance, Shelton’s picking is so clean that it almost sounds like an entirely different song.

With an abundance of well-chosen material from the songbooks of others, Shelton’s “Riding on the Clinchfield” may present as the strongest performance. A full-bodied banjo tune, this one has would fit within any contemporary bluegrass set. The banjo maintains the melody while Shelton’s bass establishes a solid bottom end. Dewey Brown adds fiddle throughout the album, contributing especially rich flavors to this one.

Also appearing on the album is mandolin player Audey Ratliff. Vocalist Dan Moneyhun adds a bit of tenor and youthful vocalist Savannah Vaughn gives “Catch the Wind” a notable rendering.

With bright sounds that positively leap out of the speakers, James Alan Shelton has managed to out-do himself with Where I’m Bound. Play it loud!

“Get Low” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Get Low
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The presence of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray is enough to get me to buy a ticket to Get Low when it comes to my corner of the American hinterlands. Likewise, the presence of Alison Krauss’ first new track since 2007’s A Hundred Miles or More should be enough to get you to grab this soundtrack CD. Written by Aoife O’Donovan and featuring Dan Tyminski (mandolin), Barry Bales (bass), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Jerry Douglas (Dobro), “Lay My Burden Down” seems the perfect tone-setter for a tale of a man who hosts his own funeral before he dies. Krauss’ voice is as dreamily eloquent as ever, and leaves you wanting more, much more.

Krauss’ fellow Rounder recording artists The SteelDrivers contribute four selections to this 16-track, 46-minute soundtrack: traditional bluegrass instrumentals “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” “East Virginia Fast” and “Angelina Baker” along with “Jesus Come for Me,” which features the spine-tingling lead vocals of Chris Stapleton, who has since left the band.

Jerry Douglas contributes some incidental music for the movie, some self-penned (“Sitting Mule/Drive to Town”), some in collaboration with Stuart Duncan (fiddle) (the rustic “No Haircut” and “North”), or Russ Barenberg (guitar) and Edgar Meyer (bass) (the exhilarating “Monkey Bay”) and some composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (“Drive to Town for Clothes”).

With some period nostalgia added in the form of selections from The Ink Spots, Gene Austin, Paul Whiteman and Bix Beiderbecke, this soundtrack aptly sets the stage for what looks like a nice film.

“Just a Little Closer Home” by Paul Williams

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio
Just A Little Closer Home
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass, just as any genre of music, has fans and practitioners who are Christians, atheists, agnostics and Buddhists—and who knows what else. This can make discussions and stage shows a little uncomfortable if “too much” religion gets in the mix.

But bluegrass arose from places and people with close ties to Christian denominations. Gospel music figures in the core of bluegrass, from shaped note singing to mountain congregations singing ragged but from the heart. Most bluegrass CDs include at least one gospel number and most bluegrass acts include at least one gospel song in each set they play. At least two prominent stars of bluegrass often take it a step further: Larry Sparks often brings his minister with him to the evening stage and gives him a few minutes at the microphone – and it doesn’t take him long to warm to the task. Sparks is never bashful about talking about his transformation. Ricky Skaggs is known to do some on-stage preaching from time to time, too.

Doing or including a gospel song is different than devoting your life to gospel music and that’s what Paul Williams has done. After years on the road with bluegrass groups like the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, Williams left the road for thirty-two years while still performing in churches and on the radio. Since coming back to the bluegrass circuit in 1995 his music is exclusively gospel music. (He will occasionally take part in a reunion show and perform secular songs from his early years.)

Paul Williams is all smiles on the stage and is never bashful about speaking of his love of God, though he doesn’t preach in his show. If you see him walking through the show grounds he’s willing to stop and talk and, like the majority of bluegrass stars, he’s friendly and approachable. If you look closely, though, you can see the years of travel and performing etched on his face. The professional music road leaves its mark.

With their latest CD they have reached out to a variety of sources. Tom T. and Dixie Hall contribute “Someone Made The Sandals Jesus Wore.” Tom T. needs no introduction but some familiar with his country music career may not realize the depth of dedication to bluegrass he has shown the past several years. Reaching way back, they include “Living the Right Life Now.” Written by Wade Mainer and first recorded by his brother J. E. Mainer in 1938 (Bluebird 7412) its message is as important today as it was seven decades ago. They also go to the realm of Southern Gospel with “I’m Longing For Home” by Squire Parsons (probably nest known for “Sweet Beulah Land”) and then look internally for Dan Moneyhun’s “I’ve Been Set Free” and Susie Keys’ “There’s Still Time.”

Moneyhun (guitar, lead and low tenor) and Keys (upright bass) prove to be capable musicians and songwriters. Four of the most telling lines ever written were penned by Keys:

There’s two dates on a gravestone

When we’re born and when we die

There’s a line in between them

Tells the story of our life

With Paul singing lead, tenor and playing mandolin the band is rounded out by Jerry Keys on banjo and bass vocals, Adam Winstead on guitar and baritone and Kevin Jackson on fiddle. Nothing shows off harmony singing better than a cappella gospel and “He Answered My Plea” and “I’m Longing For Home” demonstrate they can sing with the best of them.”

Paul Williams performs to entertain, but that’s second to carrying the message of salvation and this CD does both with excellence. Bluegrass music was blessed when Paul came back.

“Pizza Box” by Danny Barnes

Danny Barnes
Pizza Box
ATO Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

“Caveman” begins with a few banjo strums before bass, drums and slide guitar come crashing in along with five-string master Danny Barnes’ easygoing voice, making this track seem like a happy mixture of equal parts John Hartford and Dave Matthews, a combination of talents that hover over the rest of this 11-track, 41-minute CD.

The Matthews connection is the most direct, as Pizza Box is released on Matthews’ ATO label. Also, the superstar sings backup on three tracks: “Caveman,” “Sleep,” which has a definite DMB groove and “Overdue,” a soulful, banjoless love song that could have been written, horn charts and all, by Van Morrison.

But it, like all tracks on this album, was written by Barnes, who, like Hartford did, delivers a great sense of humor and the common touch along with his expressive banjo (or several types of guitars, piano, organ, bass and harmonica). Whether it’s about punk rock, beer, guns, meth, the Bible, Krishna or carnations in the dirt, Barnes can sell the lyric.

“Broken Clock” is a rueful, acoustic guitar-driven honky-tonk tale, while “Charlie” and “Miss Misty Swan” are bluesy banjo bounces, the latter with some scatting that matches a dissonant banjo break.

“Bone” also has some scatting, this time amidst another DMB-type slow groove, while “TSA” is the funniest song ever written about having sex with a government security guard.

The two best tracks are “Road,” which has a U2-like intro, some buzzsaw guitar, and a great rock hook, and the especially Hartford-like “Pizza Box,” a tender ballad with a smooth banjo figure that has Barnes reminding us that “us Southern boys are sentimental.”

This one can also pick the banjo, play the heck out of a guitar and write and sing great songs that make us smile.