“Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions” by Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart
Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
Sugar Hill Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you’ve been watching Marty Stuart’s excellent program on RFD-TV, you’ve probably heard many of these songs performed by Stuart and his almost-peerless band The Fabulous Superlatives, namely Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums) and Paul Martin (bass). Ghost Train also includes the revolving efforts of several great steel guitar players.

Their sound on the show, and on this album, is classic 1960s country, with equal parts honky tonk and rockabilly with a little bit of country rock thrown in.

Stuart had a hand in writing all but three songs on this 14-song, 44-minute effort, which includes standout versions of Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock & Roll,” Warner Mack’s “Bridge Washed Out” and an instrumental of “Crazy Arms.”

Originals like “Branded,” “Drifting Apart,” “A World Without You,” “Ghost Train Four-Oh-Ten,” and “I Run to You” are all good songs performed flawlessly. The slight problem is that they all feel like not-quite-as-good versions of country songs already written and performed by others.

“Little Heartbreaker” breaks out of this mold, as does an ominous co-write with Johnny Cash called “Hangman” and “Hard Working Man,” which namechecks Hag’s “Working Man Blues” and does that troubadour proud.

Though I’ve never been a fan of recitations, “Porter Wagoner’s Grave” is an interesting addition to that subgenre, and “Mississippi Railroad Blues” reminds us that Stuart is every bit as dangerous on a mandolin as he is on a guitar.

It’s tempting to rate such a well-executed traditional country album higher given the current state of things, but one has to measure even such strong gestures by the yardstick of history, not just the last few years.

It would be very interesting to see Stuart, who produced this disc, team up with another producer (not Rick Rubin or T Bone Burnett) who could bring a little better material to the table and get this expert unit to stretch out a bit.

 

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“The Boxcars” by The Boxcars


The Boxcars
The Boxcars
Mountain Home (Crossroads)
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It’s difficult to find a CD without some fault. The only fault with the debut from The Boxcars is their failure to include twenty-five songs instead of thirteen, but I guess that wouldn’t be good marketing.

Adam Steffey is one of the top mandolinists in bluegrass music. He recently won two IBMA awards: Mandolin Player of the Year and Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year for “Durang’s Hornpipe” (from his 2009 release, One More For The Road). He has been a member of several great bands, including the Lonesome River Band, Mountain Heart, Union Station and the Dan Tyminski Band. In addition to his picking, he sings harmony vocals and lead on “You Can Take Your Time” (by former bandmate Ron Block), a fun song about a jilted lover who finds being left isn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He also sings lead on “I Could Change My Mind”.

Ron Stewart epitomizes the versatility of bluegrass musicians. His first recording experience was at age nine, a guest appearance with Lester Flatt on a live album. He grew up in southern Indiana, part of a musical family, and the only bluegrass instrument he doesn’t lay claim to is the resophonic guitar. He was IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year in 2000 and has been nominated every year since. He appeared on stage with JD Crowe for six years and was part of Grammy-nominated Lefty’s Old Guitar. His chief role with The Boxcars is banjo but he may end up playing anything. He’s a talented singer, singing harmony vocals and lead on the self-penned “The Hard Way.” His composing talents stand out on this album with credits on four of the songs.

Ronnie and Adam are joined by three very capable bandmates. Bassist and singer Harold Nixon, a JD Crowe bandmate of Ronnie’s, leads a very active second life at the other end of the recording studio. John Bowman (fiddle, lead and harmony vocals plus banjo and guitar) spent time with Doyle Lawson’s band, Union Station, and a number of years with The Isaacs. He’s married to Becky Isaacs. Keith Garrett was nominated as IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006. He was a founding member of Blue Moon Rising and provides the majority of lead vocals as well as playing the guitar. Keith is also a talented songwriter, contributing five songs that are on the CD.

So, we have five talented pickers and singers in this new band. The other key elements to a great CD are the technical aspects of recording and the song selection.

Making a living playing bluegrass is a tough row to hoe. If you’re lucky enough to have a hit or two in country music you may sell a few million records and make some money (though the ratio of those who make it big to those who try is pretty low). When it comes to bluegrass, Dr. Ralph is one of the few performers who has made it really big, and that came on the heels of O Brother Where Art Thou. Rumor has it that the Cherryholmes family is getting some big money for shows, but, as good as they are, they have moved away from the center track of bluegrass music. So, many bluegrass musicians have other vocations. Harold Nixon is heavily engaged in the control room side of recording and provided the recording equipment for this CD. He and Ronnie Stewart shared recording engineer, mixing and mastering duties. Some of the mixing and overdubs were done at Stewart’s Sleepy Valley Barn in Paoli, Indiana. Stewart, Nixon and all the others on the technical side of this CD know what they are doing. The recording quality is topnotch.

The song selection is interesting. They manage to put a fresh face on mainstream bluegrass. The only recognizable old song in the bunch is “Log Cabin In The Lane” allegedly written by the late Jim Eanes and recorded by him on Starday Records. It was also recorded by Bill Monroe on his 1970 Kentucky Bluegrass LP, Jim & Jesse and Bill Keith (several times each). It’s interesting to note the variation in the lyrics as recorded here compared to the lyrics used by Monroe.

Rebel Records has just released a Lost & Found retrospective CD. To my surprise, I find “Log Cabin In The Lane” as one of their numbers off a 2002 Rebel release. The lyrics sung by Allen Mills are very close to the Bill Monroe lyrics reported above. In this case, though, the composer is given as Will Hays. What’s up with that?

A search at the Harry Fox Songfile website on the song title finds only one entry, credited to J. Eanes. No entry for Will Hays is found in Songfile.

That’s probably because it’s likely now in the public domain. The song was written in 1871 by Hays. According to the notes in the Bluegrass Picker’s Tune Book by Richard Matteson, Jr., page 151, the song was the second best country music seller in 1923, a version by Fiddlin’ John Carson. In 1926 Ernest Stoneman’s version was the fith best selling country music record. The YouTube version leaves no doubt it’s the same song. The song has a long history of recordings and soundalikes.

We’ll probably never know why Eanes became credited with the song three decades after these releases, eight plus decades after it was first penned. But, this isn’t unusual in the music business where songs are sold by down-on-their-luck composers for a pittance, borrowed – knowingly or not – or slighly altered and newly copyrighted.

The heart-grabber is “In God’s Hands.” This is the story of a mother who must make a choice about the unborn baby she carries. She refuses, saying that the baby’s life in in God’s hands. She loses the baby, but the song goes on to say, if the baby could send them a message, it would be, “I know that you’ll understand the day He calls you home, it was best for me to be in God’s hands.” That should cause any parent who has watched over a sick child to stop and reflect.

“Never Played the Opry” is the story of a musician who should have been great, but he never made it to the big time. It’s a good song, has a great country music feel to it, and guest Alan Jackson sings the lead – except it’s not Jackson. Garrett must be chanelling Jackson on this song. “Old Henry Hill” is the story of a rounder who loses his woman and features some great harmony, while “I Went Back Home Today” is a fresh take on a theme that’s been repeated countless time in bluegrass music. Can they drive an up-tempo number? Don’t doubt it for a minute. “Jumpin’ the Track” is a Stewart instumental while “Take Me On The Midnight Train” is a Garrett composition.

At the top of the bluegrass mountain you’ll find several bands that, when you listen to them, you’ll swear the music just couldn’t get any better. The Boxcars are camped out there with the best in the business. If the music gets any better than this we just won’t be able to stand it.

“Down on Sawmill Road” by Lost & Found


Lost & Found
Down On Sawmill Road
Rebel Records
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Lost & Found has been around since 1973, so they are obviously doing something right. Since the death of Dempsey Young, Allen Mills is the only remaining founding member. Down On Sawmill Road is a compilation of songs from previous recordings.

I like their music. It’s good, traditional bluegrass. Unfortunately, I’m not crazy about this CD.

Early in our marriage, I was listening to some old Ray Price album when I asked my wife if she liked the song that was playing. To put this into perspective, Ray Price is (in my opinion) one of the greatest country singers to ever caress a microphone. I especially like his pre-orchestra days, before songs like “For The Good Times” and “Danny Boy.” This LP was one shuffle beat song after another and I was in hog heaven. My wife’s comment: “They all sound the same.”

That’s the problem with this CD: the songs all sound about the same. Allen Mills does most of the lead singing and he’s not a bad singer, just laid back. Take “That’s What Country Folks Do.” It’s an okay song but their take on it isn’t hard driving, it doesn’t make you pat your foot, it doesn’t tug at your emotions, it’s just, well, okay.

A CD is a performance. In a live performance you have some leeway. People don’t hear mistakes, they enjoy the stage patter (if you’re smart enough to have some), they get distracted by the people sitting next to them. Not so with a CD. You need to have your performance nailed. You need to get your listeners’ blood pumping on some banjo-crazy, hard driving number, then rip into their hearts with a tearjerker, then touch something deeper with a gospel number. Then you hit them with another tune that makes old men want to dance a jig. You can put Down On Sawmill Road in your CD player then sit down and read the newspaper and never lose your train of thought.

The song that drives that point home for me is “Log Cabin In The Lane.” There’s not much to set it apart from most every other song on the CD. By coincidence, I just reviewed the new Boxcars CD and they do the same song. It may be the same words (sort of, but that’s a discussion in the Boxcars review) and the same tune, but the Boxcars sell it. The first thing that crossed my mind when I heard the Boxcars’ version was, “I want to learn that song!” The Lost & Found version doesn’t do much for me.

The closest thing to hard-driving is “Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday,” an old Carter Family song. I like their version of “Sweet Rosie By The River” – the melody interests me and the harmonies are good. Exciting harmony singing is something else that is missing from most of their songs. The harmony is there, but it doesn’t grab you. The best harmony is on “Peace In The Valley” with Steve Wilson doing a credible job of singing bass.

I know it sounds like I just don’t like Lost & Found. That’s not true. But this CD doesn’t interest me enough to keep putting it in my CD player.

 

“Under a Wasted Moon” by Ben de la Cour

Ben de la Cour
Under a Wasted Moon
Self-released
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Here’s the problem. I can’t get totally excited about music I receive for review when it arrives via the wireless medium. Such music tends to sit in my inbox, and once in a while—like last August when I received Under a Wasted Moon—gets forgotten about.

There is so much more to an album than the music, and as convenient as downloads are for immediate listening something of significance is lost when one doesn’t hold the compact disc in hand. For example, who is playing what? Where was the album recorded? When? Who wrote the songs and under what circumstances? And don’t get me started on the lack of album art and packaging.

With a reminding email from my editor as impetus, I finally downloaded Ben de la Cour’s debut release on a chilly fall afternoon. Sometimes, things work out beautifully.

While I’m sure I would have enjoyed Under a Wasted Moon during mid-summer, de la Cour’s is an autumn album, one that laments the past while looking toward a challenging future. Much like Justin Vernon’s For Emma, Forever Ago this is a lyrically rich collection of songs framed by just the right amount of instrumentation.

The overall mood of the 11 pieces is consistently bleak, poetically gentle, and thoroughly engaging. Names such as Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Townes Van Zandt have been bandied about when reviewing this album elsewhere, and while all may be appropriate in some ways, such are a bit of a reach for an artist whose previous excursion in music was fronting a London-based doom metal band called Dead Man’s Root.

Ray Lamontagne might be a better leaping point. Like Lamontagne has, there is a primitive soulfulness in de la Cour’s voice although de la Cour’s is admittedly not as smooth. The vocal presentation is where Van Zandt comparisons would be most apt; one can easily picture Townes exploring these themes in a similar vocal style.

With several of the songs feature little more than de la Cour and a guitar, this is an album that leaves a lot of room for words and chords to float. “Rabbit Starvation” is a banjo-based tune that takes minimalism to a bit of an extreme, but elsewhere things are more embellished.

The lead off numbers “Sobriety and the Woman” and “Down in Babylon” set a rather high bar in performance and writing. Singing in a voice not far removed from the shattered glass of which he sings, de la Cour pulls listeners close with the first song. Singing of a departing lover, “Down in Babylon” is a number that contains shadows of Van Zandt’s legacy.

Where a Los Angeles-based, Brooklyn-raised, transplanted Londoner hears about the first sanctioned hanging to happen in the land now called Alberta is one of those mysteries I hope I never have uncovered. What de la Cour has done with “The Ballad of John Runner” is recreate with deft word selection a story 130 years in the telling.

Cree guide Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin was convicted of slaughtering and cannibalizing his family during the winter of 1878 just a few dozen miles from where I was born and raised; while de la Cour takes liberty with place names and pronunciation, he has crafted a haunting folk song that is every bit as nuanced as Eliza Gilkyson’s “Ballad of Yvonne Johnson” and Ian Tyson and Tom Russell’s “Claude Dallas.”

“The River Song” is comparatively up-tempo. In times lyrically awkward (“She’s sweet enough to make the willow tree bend” begins one couplet), de la Cour’s innocent earnestness appeals. With sentiments that could be found equally often on a Louvin Brothers album or within a Springsteen classic, the bones of a lasting song are obvious.

Not perfect, and likely not for everyone, Under a Wasted Moon provides a deep, devastating, listen that will not soon be forgotten.

“Band of Joy” by Robert Plant

Robert Plant
Band of Joy
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Not being as familiar with Robert Plant’s influences as others may have been, I was stunned with fear in early 2007 to hear whispers of his coming project with Alison Krauss. Upon hearing Raising Sand I was forced to take back all youthful, uninformed, and disparaging words spoken about Plant and his caterwauling with Led Zeppelin; still not a huge appreciator of the lead balloon, as I delved deeper into his recorded legacy, I found much to appreciate and respect in Plant’s singing.

Even with a band centered about the twin forces that are Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, one may not have anticipated that Robert Plant’s second foray into the roots-country-Americana field would be as entirely successful as Band of Joy most obviously is.

As on his previous, award-winning collaboration with Krauss, Plant surrounds himself with the finest talent and songs that money, influence, and friendship can solicit. This time out Bekka Bramlett and Patty Griffin serve as Plant’s female foils, although their contributions are less consistently present than Krauss’ were.

Vibrant and full, the instrumentation on this album swirls into dirges that are almost trance-inducing. Reworking songs from key writers — Hidalgo & Perez, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt — as well some less familiar and those whose names are lost within traditions, Plant and album co-producer Miller have created a bold, sonically challenging and sturdy interpretation of modern roots music.

“Silver Rider,” one of two Low songs included, most directly ghosts the sound of Raising Sand. Layered harmony is gently filtered through a swirl of sounds owing as much to north Africa as Memphis and Nashville. “You Can’t Buy My Love” perhaps comes closest to exploring the sounds most frequently associated with Plant pre-Raising Sand; the Barbara Lynn track is stretched out a little while being given a rock ‘n’ roll cover that should stand as one of the album’s crowning achievements.

“Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, familiar to all who embrace traditional folk music, have never likely sounded quite like they do here. Plant gives “Cindy” an erotic overtone absent on previously heard recordings.

While a thoroughly engaging album in its own right, albums like Band of Joy can lead one in new directions. Much as listening to an early Emmylou Harris album did, this one sends listeners on a search to learn more about the writers and artists covered, like Barbara Lewis, Low, and Milton Mapes, a fairly obscure outfit whose “The Only Sound that Matters” allows Plant to revisit the thrill of discovering the music that will maintain a significant presence for the rest of one’s life.

What a joyful thing it is to hear afresh songs long familiar.

“Carried off by a Twister” by Sweet Sunny South & “Honey Don’t” by Honey Don’t

Sweet Sunny South
Carried off by a Twister
2Dolla Reccas
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Honey Don’t

Honey Don’t
2Dolla Reccas
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I love this vocation.

Every few weeks I receive in the mail an album from someone I’ve never heard of before, would never have encountered without having been given the opportunity to write about roots music. More often than not, those unfamiliar sounds become favorites, at least for a little while.

Based in the Rocky Mountain community of Paonia, Colorado, Sweet Sunny South and Honey Don’t are bands that share a common core: the production of acoustic Americana within an honest, organic context.

The husband-and-wife team of Billy Bowers (guitar, vocals, mandolin, banjo) and Shelley Gray (bass and vocals) appear to be the foundation of both outfits with Powers providing much of the original material, which the discs have in abundance.

Sweet Sunny South is a string band with an old-time focus embracing bluegrass, jugband, country, and Cajun fiddling overtones. The playing is focused and tight. Cory Obert’s fiddle is the strand that weaves together many of the tunes, not the least of which is the instrumental title track. The quartet isn’t worried about conventions as they invite guests to introduce coronet, trombone, and even sitar to select tracks.

The strongest cuts are “Mississippi,” a love song to the great muddy river and the Opry lovefest, “Ghost of Gram” which name-checks a flurry with the “pick of the litter of back-up singers, Me and Emmylou Harris, Julie Miller, Gillian, Loretta, Kasey Chambers, too” and includes “Bill Monroe playing mandolin for me!” Heck, Elvis, Willie, The Beatles, and Uncle Dave Macon drop by for this songwriter’s dream.

The entire project leaves one with a loose, positive vibe that lasts long after the listening is done, and is reminiscent of recording from both The Wilders and Chatham County Line. Nicely done.

Honey Don’t rolls a little harder than Sweet Sunny South; if Sweet Sunny South is afternoon, Honey Don’t is late evening. More country-blues influence is obvious amongst the thirteen tracks comprising Honey Don’t, but the music is every bit as delicately crafted.

The songs contributed to this collection are even stronger than those comprising Carried off by a Twister. “Sixty Years” looks back on a relationship destined to last three score “and a million more;” Ryan Drickey’s fiddle and Powers’ mandolin provide the coloring to this delicately constructed number. One could easily hear Tim O’Brien or Gillian Welch taking a run at “Ellia Jewel,” while “Who Took the Jukebox” is a lighthearted lament of what happens when the music disappears after BMI calls and ASCAP goons are sent around.

The tradition is explored with invigorating takes of “Pallet on Your Floor” and “The Cuckoo,” the first of which continues to reveal the gentle strength of Powers’ voice. Gray’s “The Cuckoo” shows that she has the chops to take the lead more frequently.

Like Carried off by a Twister, Honey Don’t is a marvelous wee album just waiting for discovery. Tastefully presented, the band embraces the music they love and deliver a charming, lively, and original interpretation of their influences.

“Mosaic” by Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs
Mosaic
Skaggs Family Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Mosaic is a departure for Ricky Skaggs, who made a second (or third) career of his rerun to country music from the crumbling genre of country music with 1997’s Bluegrass Rules! This album was advertised in promotional materials and in, if my memory serves, an ad that popped up on my Facebook page, as a Ricky’s return to a “full band” sound. I can’t think of anything more insulting to the legacy of his bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder, which has won several awards over the last 13 years as perhaps the most accomplished and powerful unit in a generation of American acoustic music.

Leaving aside that remarkable slight, Mosaic is a highly listenable gospel/pop/rock album that shows Skaggs is a great singer outside the rules of country and bluegrass and showcases the talents of songwriter/producer/instrumentalist Gordon Kennedy, who has worked with Eric Clapton and Garth Brooks, among others.

Those who have not appreciated Skaggs’ occasional testimonials from the bluegrass stage about his faith may not like this album, whose main theme is a return to God and which seems an extension of the call Skaggs had to return to the traditional sounds and themes of bluegrass, but they might, as most listeners will, find this setting more palatable to hear his message.

At times this album’s sound is like something Mark Knopfler might write and produce, and the songs are all gorgeous, including the Celtic-tinged redemption ballad “Instead,” the ebullient “My Cup Runneth Over,” complete with guitar solo from Peter Frampton, the hymn-like “A Work of Love” and the soaring “Someday Soon.”

As one who especially enjoys Skaggs’ bluegrass work, I hope he returns to that vein, but this 14-track, one-hour project is a worthwhile and meaningful side trip.