“Somewhere in Glory” by Common Strings

Common Strings
Somewhere in Glory
Rural Rhythm Christian
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

When the gentle strains of “When the Redeemed Are Gathering In,” led by Sammy Shelor’s banjo and Vanessa Nichols’ delightfully Appalachian voice, kicked off this disc, I was immediately taken back to my grandparents’ little white church house in the Kentucky foothills and to my own home church in Ohio as it was 30 years ago, with the smell of red-backed hymnals rising up as people clapped against them while singing their simple, yet gorgeous, harmony parts.

Vanessa (guitar, lead vocals) is joined by Darron Nichols (mandolin, guitar, vocals) to make up Common Strings, and together with Shelor, they produced this this 12-song, 40-minute effort, which relies heavily on public domain classics like the aforementioned album opener, a banjo-driven romp through “Nothing But the Blood,” a Carter Family-style solo-guitar reading of “Twilight is Fading,” a waltz-time “Paul’s Ministry” featuring some stout fiddle from Mike Hartgrove, and the duo of “Preachin’ by the Roadside” and “The Message of His Coming,” both with catchy clawhammer banjo from Mac Traynham.

One of Vanessa’s prettiest vocals comes, appropriately, on Albert E. Brumley’s “Prettiest Flowers,” while Darron contributes two original tunes that fit right in: “Glorious Power” and “Golden Streets of Home.” The album closes with “The Revelation” with lonesome vocals from Vanessa matched by foreboding fiddle from Hartgrove.

With additional guests like Dale Ann Bradley (harmony vocals), Steve Gulley (harmony vocals), Phil Leadbetter (Dobro) and Brandon Rickman (guitar) playing supporting roles, this is an enjoyable listen for any bluegrass fan and a must-own for fans of this type of gospel singing and playing that is, thankfully, not yet a part of the past.

“Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album” by Joe Diffie

Joe Diffie
Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

“Lonesome and dry as a bone” sings Diffie on the song of the same name. It’s a song of the type he was born to sing, and, because the honky-tonk type of recording he might be even more at home at is even less marketable than bluegrass, he sings it backed by an all-star studio band of bluegrass musicians including Aubrey Haying (fiddle), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Rob Ickes (Dobro), Charlie Cushion (banjo), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Mark Fain (bass).

But bluegrass, a vibrant art form since its inception just after World War II, has always been more about the music than the money, and Diffie, too “old” and too “country” for today’s limping country music establishment, joins the ranks of country stars who have followed Ricky Skaggs back “home” to bluegrass.

That Diffie’s voice is experienced and rustic along with being strong enough to front such a robust band makes this homecoming a satisfying one. He does Flatt & Scruggs (“Somehow Tonight”), Garth Brooks (“Fit for a King”) nostalgic (“Route 5 Box 109,” “Rainin’ on Her Rubber Dolly”), corny (quite literally on “Tall Cornstalk”), sensual (“I Know How It Feels,” with The Rascals) and alcohol-soaked (“Lonesome and Dry as a Bone) and menacing (“‘Til Death” with equal aplomb.

“Free and Easy” and “Stormy Weather Once Again” would be radio hits in my imagined alternate universe in which things like radio and real country music still mattered. And, finally, Diffie wins my undying allegiance with a dashing cover of The Black Crowes’ classic version of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”

“Love Potions and Snake Oil” by D.B. Rielly

D.B. Rielly
Love Potions and Snake Oil
Shut Up & Play
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

An album with as many personalities as Love Potions and Snake Oil could be an uneven, discombobulated mess. So dynamic and focused is D. B. Rielly that this sparkling debut instead serves as a superior survey of Americana.

From zydeco and blues to southern swing and darkly-humored stalker ballads, Rielly wrings emotion from his squeezebox while singing sad songs that sound happy and then, just to change it up, a few that are even sadder. Obviously influenced by Zachary Richard, Rielly plays with words while keeping verses concise.

At a lively 3:46, “One of These Days (You’re Gonna Realize”) kicks off the album with a blazing interpretation of Lousiana-inspired dance music. Other songs, including “Don’t Give Up On Me” and “One Day at a Time,” come at devotion from a different direction utilizing country guitar sounds to propel relationship sagas.

“We’re All Going Straight to Hell” is a rewrite of “Rocky Top,” substituting damnation for moonshine. Elsewhere, “Save All Your Kisses” collapses from the mass of its confection, revealing the comparable strengths of the remaining material.

A highlight must be “I’ve Got a Girlfriend.” Disturbing in its buoyancy; a tale of abduction and dismemberment is lightened by a Cajun-beat that conjures Mary Chapin Carpenter-Beausoleil frivolity.

With a New York City zip code, Rielly sounds like he would be as comfortable on the bayou or in a holler. Soaked in traditions, his music is nothing but original; if Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch, The Gibson Brothers, Mike West, and Joe Whyte are on your shelves—or within your digital storage areas—I’m guessing D.B. Rielly’s Love Potions and Snake Oil will find a home with you.

“God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise” by Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs

Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs
God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise
RCA Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

After hearing his debut album, I wrote that Ray LaMontagne sounded like a shy Otis Redding. Since then he’s released two more fine albums before this, his fourth, and that soul singer voice still hasn’t quite come out of its shell. Which is a good thing, because its that sometimes-soft, always-pained voice that creates the intimacy needed to experience what he has to say lyrically.

This is LaMontagne’s first try at producing an album without the help of Ethan Johns, but the sound remains within the ambit of what we expect: a little bit of The Band, some SoCal CSNY mixed with some Van Morrison-at-Woodstock (the town, not the festival).

The album-opening “Repo Man” is the type of love-gone-bad song that LaMontagne does so well, but its almost-funky arrangement doesn’t quite work. “New York City’s Killing Me” is a different story, with a warm arrangement, reaching vocal and a bright steel guitar. “Just outside of Nashville / I met the woman of my dreams” may not seem like a great lyric, but it’s heartbreaking when LaMontagne sings it.

The gorgeous steel is back on “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise,” but the tune doesn’t sound like one with the title of a saying commonly heard in the country and bluegrass realms, but it is a dreamy cowboy song. “Beg, Steal or Borrow” is a fairly pedestrian admonition to a young man to make his way in the world set to a Joni MItchell-type melody. “Are We Really Through” and “This Love is Over” are two more of those great love-gone-bad songs, the former with a guitar figure reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” the latter with a brooding arrangement and shaken-reed vocal.

A crinkling banjo kicks off “Old Before Your Time,” which could be autobiographical, with the pleasing country chord changes and the lyric “I was raised up poor / but I wanted more.” “For the Summer” is the albums best melody and vocal, and the most CSNYish, so much so that it could be Stephen Stills picking the acoustic.

“Like Rock & Roll Radio” is another tune about the difficulty of love, but sees LaMontagne in a more searching, less angry place, and it makes for one of the project’s better songs. “The Devil’s in the Jukebox” is another country song, this one slightly raucous, aided by LaMontagne’s blowtorch harmonica.

Much of this 10-track, 45-minute effort sounds comfortable and familiar, not just in the context of the singer-songwriter-producer’s previous work, but in the influences that he wears on his chest as bold as merit badges. That’s a good thing, but the lack of the intense emotionalism LaMontagne is know for, merely makes for a good, not great, album.

“Still Learning” by Lonesome River Band

Lonesome River Band
Still Learning
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

LRB has been around the block a time or two and this new CD, Still Learning, demonstrates why they are a perennial favorite of bluegrass fans.

“Goodbye Wheeling” is from the pen of Mel Tillis and he had it out on his Are You Sincere LP back in ’79. This is a turbocharged version of Mel’s release. Sammy Shelor’s banjo is strong as ever and the band lineup for this CD provides strong support for him. Andy Ball on mandolin has played with several top bands and contributes vocals. Mike Hartgrove (fiddle), whose bluegrass experience goes back to the Bluegrass Cardinals, helped start IIIrd Tyme Out and spent time with Doyle Lawson. Brandon Rickman has rejoined LRB after spending a few years pursuing his songwriting career. He’s a featured vocalist on this CD, co-wrote three of the songs and plays guitar. Mike Anglin has been with the band for some time and plays bass.

Another famous name shows up in the list of composers, Merle Haggard. Haggard’s Red Bandana is transitioned to bluegrass in fine style. They easily shift from traditional-based, hard driving songs like “Jack Up The Jail” to the more relective “Record Time Machine” and the title cut with ease, never losing that bluegrass feel.

Following what seems to be bluegrass tradition, they have a gospel number that takes a listen or two before you realize it’s gospel. The band drives “Forty Days In The Desert” with Anglin’s solid bass work. The other part of the tradition is including an instrumental and they close with a traditional fiddle song, Pretty Little Girl.” (There’s a transcription available at Old Time Fiddle Tunes if you’re interested.)

You have to wonder if a band’s selection of songs ever reflects their own lives. They were kind enough to include the lyrics in the CD insert (their proofreader needs to learn how to spell “Satan”) but there are no personal messages to give you insight into their process for putting together this CD. “As Wild As I Get” is a ballad about a man who still hangs with his buddies and plays music at a honky tonk, but he’s really a stay-at-home family guy. As a contrast, “Don’t Cry Blue” kicks off with Shelor’s banjo and a Lester Flatt G run and tells the story of a man called by the road who manages to get home now and then. This provides a nice contrast of emotion that helps keep things interesting. The emotional shifts of the songs, switching between ballad and hard driving bluegrass, excellent musicians and good harmonies keep this CD interesting from start to finish.

“Any Ole Time” you want to hear good bluegrass you can turn to LRB and this CD ably carries on their tradition.

“Look to the Light: Songs of Faith from the Pen of Rick Lang” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Look to the Light: Songs of Faith from the Pen of Rick Lang
Rural Rhythm Christian
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ask most classic country music fans to name five songs recorded by Merle Haggard and they can answer in a snap. Ask them to name five songs that Haggard wrote and they’ll start scratching their heads, but a search at BMI shows four hundred songs attributed to him. (The true count is actually less than that as the list has some obvious duplications, but there’s still well over two hundred discrete songs listed there.) “Tennessee Waltz” has been recorded by a bevy of artists including Patti Page, Sam Cooke and Emmylou Harris, but who composed it?

So, it’s not a surprise that Rick Lang is not a household name even in bluegrass circles. He has been around the bluegrass music scene for two decades and his songs have been recorded by groups like IIIrd Tyme Out, the Lonesome River Band, Front Range and Southern Rail. “Look To The Light” is the product of Lang, Jesse Brock and John Miller and showcases fourteen of Rick’s compositions.

A major accomplishment of producers Brock and Miller was bringing together the talented lineup to make these recordings. They lent their own talents and recruited well known performers like Russell Moore (IIIrd Tyme Out), Dale Perry (now back with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver), Ron Stewart (now with The Boxcars), Michael Cleveland, Junior Sisk and Dale Ann Bradley – and that’s just half the stars on this CD. Accomplished musicians and singers all, just a glance at this lineup and you know the CD has to be good.

Even the best singers need good material. Every old farm boy and girl knows you can’t make good hay out of a field of weeds. If you like traditional bluegrass gospel (not that any of the songs strays far from traditional) you’ll enjoy Junior Sisk’s renditions of “I’ve Been Redeemed” and “His Loving Care.” “Sailing On,” with Russell Moore singing lead, features Dale Ann Bradley and Dale Perry (bass vocals) on harmony and is a nice, upbeat tune to close out the CD. The longer you listen the more you realize there isn’t a cut to be heard that isn’t really, really good. As an added bonus the insert includes song lyrics as well as notes from Lang about the inspiration for each song. The only thing I would change is making the harmony vocals stand out more. The harmony singers are there and they are great singers, but they barely stand out above the instruments. Bluegrass is famous for its great harmonies (“Eternity Has Two” as an example) and I would enjoy a different mix on those.

If you like bluegrass gospel music then this is a CD you can’t afford to miss.

“Dogwood Winter” by Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford

Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford
Dogwood Winter
Rural Rhythm Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

As a music reviewer, certain records you know are going to be classics the instant you tear them out of the mailer some record company (or artist) has been kind enough to send you. When I saw the names Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford side by side on the cover of Dogwood Winter, I knew this one would surpass the mark.

With Blue Highway’s Stafford (guitar) and Gulley (bass and rhythm guitar), who’s worked with Mountain Heart and now Grasstowne, sharing the singing and all the songwriting on a 14-track, 44 minute album, a studio band of Adam Steffey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle) and Justin Moses (Dobro, fiddle) is the proverbial icing on the cake.

Lead vocal duties are split fairly evenly, with Gulley stepping out front on disc-opener “Why Ask Why?,” an easy-rolling admonition to chill out and stop worrying, and its follow-up “Just Along for the Ride,” an uptempo fingerburner about dealing with change. “On a Day Like This” and “You Hurt Me All Over Again” are songs of love and different kinds of loss that have Gulley at his vocal best, sensitive and expansive. He also nails “Dying Won’t Be Hard at All,” a dark, brooding relationship song that takes the album up a notch in intensity.

Gulley also leads on the project’s three “non-bluegrass” songs: “Nebraska Sky,” which could have had Jimmy Webb as composer and Bruce Springsteen as lyricist, and which has great piano work from Michael Alvey and backing vocals from Dale Ann Bradley; “Torches,” the greatest song James Taylor never wrote; and “Angel On Its Way,” a tender, fingerpicked ballad of kindness.

As great as Gulley is, and he’s one of the best, this reviewer is especially satisfied with the abundance of vocal leads from Stafford, of which I’m always wanting more when I listen to Blue Highway CDs, as great as they are. The first verse of “Dogwood Winter” t begins with faux record scratches, but the connection to Dock Boggs and the long line of Appalachian soul the lyrics touch on is firmly established by Stafford’s rustic vocals and woodsy guitar break. “Just Another Setting Sun,” a ballad of gunslinger Doc Holliday, has a gentle, insistent vocal from Stafford and another killer guitar break (among a series of great instrumental turns on this one). “How Did That Turn Into My Problem?” is a swinging put down to “best mistake I never made,” and you can practically see the crooked smile on Stafford’s face. “Snow” and “Deep End Man” are two more tracks that just leave me wanting even more of the same.

“Sixteen Cents,” a hobo ballad in the form of a Skaggs & Rice-style duet, is a microcosm of the album, simply but clearly illustrating how well these two voices and talents fit together.

Dogwood Winter is highly recommended and should be the front-runner for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s recorded event of the year next fall.