“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.

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“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.

“Pimps & Preachers” by Paul Thorn

Paul Thorn
Pimps and Preachers
Perpetual Obscurity Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The fictional Zorba the Greek spoke of embracing all that life has to offer, “the full catastrophe.” That attitude permeates Paul Thorn’s effort here, especially the opening track “You’re Not the Only One,” which also introduces us to Thorn’s strong and supple vocals that appeal equally to classic rock fans and those of CMT and the guitar of Bill Hinds, which bears favorable comparison to those David Lindley contributed to Jackson Browne’s classic work.

Thorn’s continues in that vein with “Love Scar,” “Ray Ann’s Shoes,” “Buckskin Jones’ Illegitimate Son,” “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love” and “Nona Lisa,” all of which find poetry, dignity, humor and beauty in the common, and sometimes the seamier, side of life.

The other great theme that Thorn embraces — one that has enriched the work of Elvis, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and more — is the confluence of the sacred and the profane. “Pimps & Preachers” recounts his apparently true experience with an uncle who was the former and a father the latter; “Tequila is Good for the Heart” is the greatest gospel song ever written about Mexican alcohol.

“Weeds in My Roses” is rocks harder than any song of this generous 13-track, 51-minute CD, while “Better Days Ahead” exhibits Thorn’s exuberant optimism.

The only track this writer has been skipping on his repeated plays of this album is “You Might Be Wrong,” a too-simplistic, song about religious tolerance.

But that lone misstep is more than made up for by gems like the humble “I Hope I’m Doing This Right” and “That’s Life,” a simple, bucolic summary of a thoroughly satisfying album.

“Bloodlines” by The Darrell Webb Band

The Darrell Webb Band

Rural Rhythm
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

As soon as “I’m Bringing Home Good News” kicks off you know you’re in for a ride and it’s on a bluegrass train. Darrell Webb took a good Merle Haggard song and gave it a triple shot of Red Bull.

Darrell Webb has been making a splash in the bluegrass world since he joined the Lonesome River Band two decades ago as a youngster. Stints with JD Crowe, Wildfire, Rhonda Vincent and Michael Cleveland’s Flamekeeper band, as well as a regular jam gig at The Station Inn have kept him in front of crowds for those twenty or so years, and now he’s formed his own band. When I think of him, though, I think back to the Galt House and IBMA. Music was being played in all the hallways, innumerable rooms, in every nook and cranny. There was smoke and beer (and more) and sore fingers. It was enlightening to see how many ways bass players can dress up their blistered fingers. And there was Darrell. He had traded in his mandolin (this was his Wildfire days) and was playing banjo. Like so many bluegrass musicians he is an excellent singer and can play multiple instruments with equal ease and ability. In bluegrass you can watch stars on the stage and a little while later be jamming with them in a hallway or around a campfire.

While it’s not uncommon in country music to use studio musicians on a recording and different musicians on the road, in bluegrass you usually hear the same people on the road as on the CD. With the exception of guest Jim Van Cleve on fiddle, this band is the band, on stage or in the studio. While Asa Gravely on guitar (Galax Little Leaves), Jeremy Arrowood on bass (Closer Walk), Chris Wade on banjo (Alecia Nugent band) and Tyler Kirkpatrick on resophonic guitar (Julia Ann & Laurel Ridge Bluegrass) are not household names across the bluegrass world, they don’t take a backseat to anyone. They can play and sing with the best of them. This a great band, from the instrumentals to the tight harmony vocals. (Tyler has left the band, replaced by Jacob Joines.)

Bluegrass has strong gospel roots. The Darrell Webb Band is no exception, with Jeremy coming from a gospel music band and Tyler appearing with some of the top names in Southern Gospel music. The liner notes all reflect their faith and they include two gospel numbers here. “Gonna Be Moving” (co-penned by the late Randall Hylton) is a fine example of their harmony singing and “If You Don’t Believe the Bible” (Carl Jackson/Glenn Sutton) showcases their vocals with minimal instrumentation.

This CD is also evidence of the close ties between bluegrass and country music. This isn’t surprising since they share common roots such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. “I’m Bringing Home Good News” goes back to Haggard’s 1968 “Pride In What I Am” album. “To See My Angel Cry” (titled here as “To See an Angel Cry”) was co-written by Harold Jenkins (Conway Twitty’s real name) and a giant hit for him as well as country artists like George Jones and Jack Greene. Darrell’s bluegrass adaptation is just as beuatiful as its country counterparts. Another example is “Heart Trouble”, penned by Jack and Jim Anglin and Johnnie Wright (Johnnie & Jack). The version here isn’t too far removed from the Johnnie & Jack’s version you would have heard a half century ago. Swap a few instruments and Darrell could be singing “He Can’t Fill My Shoes” at Billy Bob’s alongside Jerry Lee Lewis.

The title cut, “Bloodline,” stereotypes a “country” family:

Daddy’s daddy was a Baptist preacher

While Mama’s father made Kentucky ‘shine

While one was telling others of redemption

The other was in prison doing time

The song goes on to tell how the singer is just a product of his bloodlines – not a bad description of the yin and yang found in the rural communities that gave birth to bluegrass. He takes a different tack on “Kings of Orebank,” penned by Jimbo Whaley, who often writes beautiful songs just a bit off the centerline bluegrass track. A quiet, reflective tale of youth – “We could ride all day long on fifty cents of gas” – it tells a tale of growing up on Orebank Road. “You’d go to church then go to the store, and everybody knew your name.” That line alone is enough to take me back fifty years and my dad gone almost twenty years, my grandparents even longer. Yeah, that’s just the way it was.

This CD is nothing but great music, but what else could you expect from Darrell Webb?