Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford
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.