“The Boys in Hats and Ties” by Big Country Bluegrass

Big Country Bluegrass
The Boys in Hats and Ties
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Cramming 15 tracks into a CD of less than 40 minutes signals that Big Country Bluegrass is serious about making the kind of music they mythologize in the title track: straight-ahead bluegrass tunes played with country soul that clock in under the three-minute deadline imposed by old-school deejays.

Lead producer and fiddler Jeff Michael’s reedy tenor leads on seven tracks, including the quick-stepping “Black Mountain Special,” Tom T. & Dixie Hall’s  sentimental “The First Rose,” the poignant “Lonely Old Man,” and the plaintive classic “Wreck on the Highway.”

Rock-solid guitarist Teresa Sells boldly sings lead on the bluegrass encomium “Music for the Soul” and the Jimmy Martin chestnut “In Foggy Old London;” Johnny Williams brings his slightly more modern lead singing to “Pages of Time,” the self-penned “You Don’t Have Far to Go” and “I’m Gonna Walk the Streets of Gold,” upbeat numbers all.

Lynwood Lunsford (banjo) and Tommy Sells (mandolin) contribute much to the traditional band sound, and show their estimable chops on instrumentals “Prodigal 5,” “Top Hat Ramble” and “Rendezvous.”

Though they’re not often remembered at awards time, Big Country Bluegrass proves yet again that they are among the best when it comes to purveying the pure stuff.

“Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies” by Donna Hughes

Donna Hughes
Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies
Rounder Records
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This CD is about Donna Hughes. She wrote all fifteen songs (co-writing one of them). She sings all of them. There are “background” vocals rather than harmony vocals and it’s a shame more mileage wasn’t made out of the background vocalists. They include Ben and Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Cia Cherryholmes (whose website, apropos of nothing, is headlined by some of the best essence-catching head shots I’ve ever seen on a bluegrass site), and the father-daughter team of Buddy and Melonie Cannon. That is an impressive lineup of singers whose talents are drastically underused.

If you’re going to put out a CD that’s all about you there are some strengths you have to find. The backup singers are underutilized, so what’s left? I suggest four things: the lead singing, the writing, the musicians, and the production values.

All the elements of a CD are often dropped into some convenient genre. This helps identify a target audience and helps the audience identify CDs that might interest them. I, for instance, would never stop at the rap section in a music store. Basing your musical choices on genre alone can sometimes be disappointing. You may buy something that’s labeled as “country” only to find it’s anything but. You may pass over a CD that, if you’d just listened, would have delighted you.

Good or bad, there’s no neat genre to drop Hellos Goodbyes & Butterflies into. Most tempting is bluegrass, for good reasons mentioned below, but this isn’t a bluegrass CD. To quote Jon Weisberger’s liner notes, “[this is] a singer/songwriter fronting a bluegrass band.”

One reason to think of it as bluegrass is the musicians. Hughes’ band is comprised of Brian and Maggie Stephens and Patton Wages (Marty Raybon), all members of Lost Horizon. Brian plays guitar on most of the tracks here while Maggie plays bass on three. Patton is a no-show in favor of Scott Vestal (Larry Sparks, Doyle Lawson, Continental Divide, Sam Bush). Dobro is covered by either Rob Ickes (Blue Highway) or Randy Kohrs, mandolin by Adam Steffey (The Boxcars). In addition to Maggie on bass is Barry Bales (Union Station), with Joel Keys playing guitar and Aubrie Haynie and Jenee’ Fleenor (Terri Clark) splitting fiddle duties. That is an impressive lineup of musicians and they do excellent work on this CD.

The excellent musicians and singers underline a potential problem for Hughes. She has a following of Donna Hughes fans who would probably listen to her sing newspaper ads. On the other hand, if I was going to a bluegrass show that included her – and had listened to her CD – I would expect music that approximates what I heard on the CD. She won’t be able to do that with a three-piece band. The flip side of that is when I see a band on a show and then buy a CD from their table, I expect to hear what I heard on the show. She’s chosen to have separate identities and some people may not like that.

Another reason you might be tempted to think of this as bluegrass is the producer, none other than JD Crowe. But, no, that doesn’t make this bluegrass. In fact, Crowe is quoted as saying about the CD, “it’s different.” The mix (by Crowe and associate producer Steve Chandler) tends to bury Hughes’ voice just a bit, but that can also be attributed to her not having a voice that cuts through the mix; it doesn’t have an edge. On the plus side, the lyrics are included in the folder as well as musician attributions for each track. One small gripe is the song names don’t come up when playing the CD in something like Media Player. That makes it more difficult than it needs to be to figure out what you’re listening to.

That leaves singing and writing. If you’re going to do a CD that features you on lead on every song – which you have written – you need to have a strong vocal presence and a talented pen.

Hughes is a talented writer. The problem with writing outside a genre is you’re hard to pin down. You’ll either really like her songs or you’ll just be puzzled and lay the CD aside.

“Autumn Leaves” has great lyrics:

On a hillside…back in the woods

Far away from town

There’s an old abandoned graveyard

Lost and forgotten all about

Now there’s a lead-in for a bluegrass or country song. Rob Ickes’ kickoff, Adam Steffey’s mandolin and Aubrey Haynie’s crying fiddle, the chord pattern – great work. Then there’s “Blackbeard,” with eight or nine verses (I’m still not sure which). I think I’ll skip that track from now on.

The instruments on the “Cut Your Losses” track grab you, have you tapping your foot, but the lyrics and true melody are not nearly as interesting as what’s being picked. Other tracks slip by without grabbing my attention except for the instrumental parts; her singing and lyrics just don’t get my attention. Songs like “Jesse” tell a good story when you read the lyrics but it’s a long story to sing. But wait – Track 7 (let’s see, that’s “The Last Thing I Need”) – it’s a dandy country song. I wish she had put a bunch more like this on the CD.

If you’re a Donna Hughes fan you’ll love this CD, but I doubt I’ll listen to it again.

“Wildwood” by Chatham County Line

Chatham County Line
Yep Roc
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Having maintained a stable lineup for four albums and countless road miles, Chatham County Line has with similar consistently explored the limits of their brand of bluegrass. One expects the band to challenge the conventions while embracing sounds and influences that may not be immediately identified with 1950s bluegrass.

In many ways, Chatham County Line is the contemporary apparition of The Byrds, minus the frequent personnel overhauls and hit singles, of course. Like The Byrds, CCL has an immediately identifiable sound and approach to music making while having never stood in any one place for too long.

On their fifth Yep Roc release the band continues to progress while maintaining that which has garnered them attention and, in some circles, acclaim.

The appeal is multifaceted, beginning with the vocals of Dave Wilson. With a dreamy drawl that first brings The Byrds comparison to mind, Wilson’s approach to a song is never hurried or frantic. Instead, he calmly communicates hope, aspiration, and anguish in equal measure, all the while leaving room for some of the most impressive and seductive harmonies within the ‘new’ crop of bluegrass performers.

As dramatic as Wilson’s voice and his bandmates harmonies continue to be, the CCL would not be the force it is without the instrumental chops of the entire unit. Chandler Holt’s banjo contributions of always appreciated; he has the knack for finding just the right space to drop in a gentle roll or fill. John Teer’s mandolin is used in a similar manner, further defining the quartet’s sound, while Greg Readling’s bass work provides an unobtrusive presence.

Much has been made of the inclusion of Zeke Hutchins’ drums to the mix of Wildwood. Having listened to the album countless times over the past two months, I propose that anyone who finds the inclusion of percussion offensive is working hard to find fault; so subtle is the sound that one would be hard-pressed, I believe, to identify which tracks feature drumming.

To ensure that time hasn’t warped my vision, I re-listened to CCL’s 2003 debut album, as well as select tracks from their other impressive releases. Has the sound changed? Certainly. Is it as strong and appealing as ever? Definitely.

Chatham County Line may not get the airplay of The Infamous Stringdusters or Cadillac Sky or the critical accolades of The SteelDrivers, but they remain one of the brightest forces within the next bluegrass generation.

Wildwood confirms the promise of their previous releases.

“Reckless” by The SteelDrivers

The SteelDrivers
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s hard to imagine a group’s sophomore album improving over something as good as The SteelDrivers’ self-titled 2008 debut, but this band has done it.

My only quibble with that fine effort was that most of the songs—as great as they were—sounded pretty similar, not taking full advantage of the range of expression offered them by their band’s greatest asset.

That asset is the voice of Chris Stapleton, who can out-sing any rock or country frontman within hundreds of miles of Nashville. Not only is his bluesy voice capable of what I termed a “full-throated holler” but it is unusually supple and expressive even when not at top volume, as evidenced on “Where Rainbows Never Die,” “Can You Run,” “You Put the Hurt on Me,” “Higher Than the Wall,” and “The Price,” which swings back and forth from quiet to raucous.

The rest of the tracks hew close to the line traced by The SteelDrivers, bluesy numbers propelled by Richard Bailey’s banjo, Mike Fleming’s bass, Mike Henderson’s mandolin and Tammy Rogers’ fiddle.

Indeed, the only thing wrong with this album is that it is apparently Stapleton’s last with the group, a major blow in light of the fact that he helps write most of the songs that he so soulfully sings.