“Songs of the Grateful Dead” by Jesse McReynolds & Friends with David Nelson & Stu Allen

Jesse McReynolds & Friends with David Nelson & Stu Allen
Songs of the Grateful Dead
Woodstock Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

When Jesse McReynolds mentioned this project during his set with Bobby Osborne at IBMA Fanfest this fall, I immediately thought it was a bad idea. But I requested the project from the kind folks at Woodstock Records anyway and received one of the pleasant musical surprises of the year.

Subtitled “A Tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter,” the guitarist/vocalist and lyricist for the legendary touring band, respectively, the project actually makes a great deal of sense. After all, McReynolds and his brother Jim famously covered Chuck Berry on one of their bluegrass albums, and a lot of the Dead’s music lends itself well to the laid-back country-rock arrangements favored on this project.

The clear, bell-like tones of McReynolds’ mandolin kick off the album with “Black Muddy River.” Then comes his familiar, incomparable voice that, without its famous foil, sounds both mournful and optimistic. The result signaled that this endeavor was indeed a success.

McReynolds sings with real feeling—passionate on “Franklin’s Tower,” wistful on “Standing on the Moon,” defiant on “Loser”—in unfamiliar territory, and that famous mandolin navigates through several rock-style (as contrasted with more concise bluegrass breaks) solos with ease amid twisting electric guitars and understated drumming.

A yearning “Fire on the Mountain” (not the bluegrass fiddle tune) and a funky “Deep Elem Blues,” which features Buck White on piano, are standouts, as is the rockabilly “Alabama Getaway,” which recalls some of Jim & Jesse’s forays into that territory.

The album ends with “Day by Day,” a song written by McReynolds and Hunter especially for the project, bringing it to a close with the grace of a setting sun.

“Strange New World” by Blue Moon Rising

Blue Moon Rising
Strange New World
Rural Rhythm Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Blue Moon Rising has had quite a bit of success the last few years, but a series of lineup changes has left them with (if my scorecard is correct) only talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and mandolinist Chris West in the band, but firmly at the helm. Brandon Bostic (mandolin, guitar) and Tony Mowell (bass) both have a softer, more tenor approach to lead singing than West’s booming, rich voice, and both are welcome additions. (However, the liner notes don’t say who sings lead on which track, so I’m at a loss on identifying the non-West lead vocals.) Owen Platt’s banjo, when featured, is strong.

Strange New World is heavy on well-written ballads of medium tempo, which all feature fine lead singing: “Hard Luck Joe,” “Stone by Stone,” “My Sittin’ Window” and “Second Best” among them.

“Never Happy Till I’m Full of Sorrow” is the song that has stuck with me most from this disc, with West at his best on a poor, pitiful me lyric delivered with authority over a simmering arrangement.

“Hearts to Stone,” “Time to Be Movin’ On,” Becky Buller’s “Ain’t No Way,” and “Barely Hangin’ On” are all well-executed, harder-driving bluegrass numbers.

“He’s All Around Us” eschews the bluegrass framework entirely with grating harmonica, drums and a sing-songy melody that carries the West-penned and -sung tale of the devil’s many temptations. West redeems himself though with “Living Water,” a simple hymn of the saving power of God, recorded with a chorus-like effect on the lead and harmony vocals.

“What a Helluva Way to Go” is another of the growing number of songs emerging that describe woes of the current Obama economy with West coming through with an understatedly emotive performance with a stark guitar-and-bass arrangement.

“Crash Course in the Blues” by Wildfire

Crash Course in the Blues
Lonesome Day Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The foremost thought in my mind whilst listening to the latest from Wildfire, a band that has been around about a decade by now, is what an underrated lead vocalist Robert Hale (guitar) is. His singing is both sensitive and sturdy, with a little bit of a classic rock edge to it, making it easy for him to put across the varied material selected for this 12-song, 39-minute effort.

The only other original member of this unit is (I believe) bassist Curt Chapman, who booms out the bottom end on each track, but the rest of the picking remains strong with Matt Despain (Dobro, vocals), Steve Thomas (mandolin, fiddle, vocals) and Johnny Lewis (banjo).

The title track takes us to the very un-bluegrass venue of Hollywood & Vine (and features Scott Vestal on banjo), but the troubles that ensue there are the same you could meet with in a beer joint in Hazard or Harlan. Hale’s “Lies That You Told” and the traditional “Paint This Town” are similarly hard-edged, with the hard-driving Lewis back in the driver’s seat. “She Burnt the Little Roadside Tavern Down” is also likely to get its share of airplay as it effectively straddles the line dividing honky tonk from modern bluegrass.

Vince Gill’s “I Wanna Know Your Name” has a Lynyrd Synyrd-like boogie beat that suits Hale just fine, and the band also does justice to Gill’s “Lifetime of Nighttime,” a ballad about the hardships of blindness.

Two more highlights are a wistful reading of Keith Whitley’s “Daddy Loved Trains,” a truly great bluegrass song, and a heartfelt turn on the gospel chestnut “When He Reached Down His Hand for Me,” with Hale injecting just the right amount of country soul.

“The Rounder Records Story” by Various Artists

Various Artists
The Rounder Records Story
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I got bit by the bluegrass bug in November 1997 when I heard Bob Dylan sing the Stanley Brothers song “I’ll Not Be a Stranger” in concert in Columbus, Ohio. Less than two years later, I was training to take over the hosting job on Bluegrass Breakdown, a Saturday-night, four-hour live radio show on WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In the interim I had been listening to host Steve Allen, whom I was to replace, been listening to CDs from the library and from the Borders Books & Music record section in which I worked, and had been reading up on bluegrass music, most notably Bluegrass Breakdown by Robert Cantwell and Bluegrass: A History by Neil V. Rosenberg. Allen was impressed at the amount of bluegrass history I had absorbed.

But when I took the helm of Bluegrass Breakdown in December 1999, I was still nervous about what songs to pick, fearful that more knowledgeable fans would bombard me with calls belittling my choices.

However, I had a plan for whenever I wasn’t sure what next to slide into the disc player: just pick a Rounder CD and cue it up to any sing title that sounded cool. It always worked, and I always grabbed more than a proportional share of those CDs with disctinctive, uniform spines when I was doing show prep. Other labels soon became trusted as well, but Rounder was always, as Jim Eanes would say, my old standby.

This four-disc, 87-track set, complete with exhaustive liner notes, shows not only that Rounder has been an impeccable source of bluegrass music for 40 years, but for all kinds of Americana, roots and even pop and rock music. From the old-time strains of George Pegram and Ed Haley, to the blues of Charles Brown and Gatemouth Brown, to the Cajun of Beausoleil and D.L Menard and the Louisiana Aces, to the rock of Robert Plant and Rush, Rounder has covered it all.

Rounder’s approach has been the opposite of labels from the past like Atlantic, Motown or Stax, which pumped out high-quality product that all bore the unmistakable stamp of their in-house studios, producers and songwriters. They instead have sought affiliations with uniquely individual artists and, for the most part, let them create.

The result is that this varied boxed set is a tossed salad of great music, each bite with a different combination of flavors, but great taste in every one. Some great, sometimes unexpected morsels for this taster include: “Killing the Blues” by Woodstock Mountains Revue, a perfect song picked up by Rounder artists Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for their album Raising Sand more than three decades later; “Jula Jekere,” a haunting groove from Alhaji Bai Konte; the yodeling bluegrass of Joe Val’s “Sparkling Brown Eyes;” the original version of “Mama’s Hand” from Hazel Dickens; Jimme Dale Gilmore’s mournful “One Endless Night;” and Linda Thompson’s lush “Versatile Heart.”

Del McCoury and his band, who recorded a handful of classic albums for Rounder in the 1990s, are absent from the collection for some reason, and I could have stood for more bluegrass on the later discs, but this set is a perfect gift for anyone who truly enjoys good music and will serve as a jumping-off point for many a fruitful explorations into a vast catalog of treasures.

“Rural Rhythm 55 Year Celebration” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Rural Rhythm 55 Year Celebration
Rural Rhythm Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

You never know what to expect out of a live recording, especially one made outside with a number of bands who are including guest performers.

From a technical standpoint, they did a good job. As you listen to the introduction by Kyle Cantrell (XM Radio, Channel 14) it’s obvious they are not in a studio, but the recording quality of the music is very good and who is going to complain if it’s not audiophile-perfect? This is the next best thing to being there.

The celebration was held at Graves Mountain, located 85 miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia as the crow flies (just a little farther as the RV goes), home of the well known Graves Mountain Festival of Music in June. The music was recorded on June 4, 2010, during the festival.

Kicking off the celebration is the Crowe Brothers doing “More Pretty Girls Than One.” If you think you hear a familiar voice on the verses, you’re on the money. Russell Moore (IIIrd Tyme Out) joins them as well as Sammy Shelor (Lonesome River Band) (banjo and vocals) and Mike Hartgrove (fiddle, LRB). They also do the Louvin Brothers 1955 hit, “When I Stop Dreaming” with Russell again singing tenor. Besides appearances by other LRB bandmembers Andy Ball, Mike Anglin and Brandon Rickman scattered through the CD, LRB contributes two songs. “Hold Whatcha Got” is an old Jimmy Martin song that’s been recorded by dozens of artists. Audie Blaylock (Audie Blaylock & Redline) helps them on this cut. LRB also does another old number, “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with the Crowe Brothers helping out. At the risk of sounding like a bluegrass purist, I just don’t like the sound of Anglin’s Fender electric bass on these cuts or when I see them live. I wish they would find an old Kay to start carrying with them.

To make my point on basses, listen to the transition from “Hold Whatcha Got” to Christy Reid (Lou Reid & Carolina) on Carter Stanley’s “Lonesome River.” This is fabulous bluegrass music. The harmony on the choruses (Reid, Shannon Slaughter and Russell Moore) will send shivers up your spine. Listening to them sing together is worth the price of the CD by itself.

Audie is scattered all over the CD (much like Russell). From a rousing version of Lester Flatt’s “Get In Line Brother” including (guess who) Russell Moore and Carrie Hassler (Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain) to Bill Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield”, with Wayne Benson (IIIrd Tyme Out) helping out and a beautiful rendition of “Once More” with Russell Moore and Lou Reid singing harmony. I can still remember Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton singing this as the title song from their 1970 LP, but it’s rarely been done as well as these three do it here. In the introduction, Russell mentions they’ve never done this song together before. You’d never guess that by listening.

Carrie Hassler and Brandon Rickman team up with Brand New Strings for another popular Lester Flatt song, “Head Over Heels.” Also inlcuded are two more instrumentals, “Home Sweet Home” and Earl Scruggs’ “Ground Speed,” both well played with Sammy Shelor and Carl Jackson shaing banjo duties.

To pay tribute to their host, Graves Mountain, Carl Jackson wrote an ode that has eight verses and three choruses and is sung at one point or another by most of the stars on the show, plus the only appearance by Mark Newton. It’s interesting and Jackson should be applauded for accomplishing a difficult task (condensing 400 years of history into a doable song) but I doubt it becomes a bluegrass classic.

This is a very good CD that showcases some great names in bluegrass and demonstrates one of the fun parts of the genre: how artists can mix-and-match with each other with little or no advance preparation and still put on a great performance. The only downsides, for me, were the lack of liner notes to tell us something about Rural Rhythm – after all, this was a celebration of their anniversary; some sloppy editing of the printed material; and it seems a little short. There are only twelve vocal tracks (plus twelve short intros). For such an auspicious occasion it seems they could have used up a couple of sets at the festival and made a more inclusive CD.

But it is a great experience. In Russell Moore’s words, ENJOY!

“Sounds Like Heaven to Me” by Lou Reid & Carolina

Lou Reid & Carolina
Sounds Like Heaven To Me
Rural Rhythm Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When Bill Monroe and others started playing this adaptation of music we call bluegrass, they kept it closely tied to their religious roots.

True, “How Mountain Girls Can Love” has no gospel under- or overtones, but it’s a rare record/CD or live performance that doesn’t include at least one gospel number. How many times have you watched as bandmembers remove their hats and step up to touch your heart with their songs of faith? And many of them are quick to mention that their faith is the foundation of their lives. Not many are as outspoken as Larry Sparks has become, or Ricky Skaggs, but few take pains to hide it.

Lou & Christy Reid are persons of faith and they have made a statement with this new CD. With Christy on bass guitar, Shannon Slaughter on guitar, Trevor Watson on banjo and, of course, Lou on mandolin, they are a solid group of musicians and singers. (Ron Stewart joins them on fiddle.) Their harmonies are tight with some very good bass singing included and the production values are excellent.

Lou Reid has been around. He played bass for Doyle Lawson, played with Ricky Skaggs, and has been with the Seldom Scene for many years, continuing with them now as well as fronting his own band. He and Christy have been married more than six years. She joined the band almost nine years ago.

Shannon has toured with some of the top bands in bluegrass, including Lost & Found, Larry Stephenson and the Lonesome River Band. Trevor has been playing since childhood, coming from a musical family and is an alumnus of the Carolina Opry.

“God’s Plan” is an uptempo song that underlines their faith. Covered in 2005 by Wildfire (Rattle of the Chains) and co-written by Harley Allen, the song is a litany of the problems we face but how they are all overcome as a part of His plan.Take a trip way back in time with Christy taking the lead on “Sweet By and By.” This is a good showcase for her, making the usual church version sound stodgy in comparison. Composed in thirty minutes back in 1868, the band demonstrates how old songs can have new life. They also demonstrate how a gospel number can have bluegrass drive with Shannon singing “Finally Made It Home.” Written by Stan Dailey (whose credits include Pickin’ On Def Leppard: A Bluegrass Tribute) this is a song that is as bluegrass as a song can be.

Nothing illustrates good harmony better than a cappella numbers and they bless us with two on this album. “Lord Have Mercy (On My Soul),” writen by Reid and bassist T. Michael Coleman, is an excellent quartet-style number with contrasting leads and a great background to Reid’s lead. “It’s Hard To Stumble (When You’re Down On Your Knees)” (co-written by Shannon) has some excellent bass singing with Christy’s tenor on the offbeat. Who needs instruments?

Another prevailing element in bluegrass music is mothers. Fathers are a mixed bag, as likely to be rounders as not, in prison or on the road, but mothers hold the families together. They manage to cover both. “Mama” is a beautiful if typical story about the mother who was the rock behind the wayward son, who “turned to Jesus when my ways were too much to bear.” This song is an excellent example of the power of the fiddle in bluegrass music and Ronnie Stewart is one of the best. “Daddy Tried” is the story of a humble man who tried to lead people to Jesus but couldn’t sway his son. By the time we hit mid-life, most men can look both back and ahead, remembering the times they disappointed their fathers while worrying about some of the choices their kids make.

After years of pain and heartache

He died old and tired and broke

And all he left me was a bible

Inside I found a note

It said, “Son, between these pages there’s a perfect father’s love

I did my best to be like Him, I just wasn’t good enough”

Son, I’m sorry …


Then there’s “Sunday’s Best,” the story of a drunkard’s funeral. It’s a song we all need to hear so we can think about things – and people – we take for granted now.

Good songs, very good musicians, timeless topics, great bluegrass gospel.

The Lonesome Road Review – Top 11 Bluegrass CDs of 2010

We’ve heard and reviewed lots of great bluegrass in 2010 here at LRR. Here are the 11 best:

1. The SteelDrivers—Reckless (Rounder)

2. Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford—Dogwood Winter (Rural Rhythm)

3. Dailey & Vincent—Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Presents: Dailey & Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers (Rounder)

4. Balsam Range—Trains I Missed (Mountain Home/Crossroads)

5. The Boxcars—The Boxcars (Mountain Home/Crossroads)

6. The Darrell Webb Band—Bloodlines (Rural Rhythm)

7. Paul Williams—Just a Little Closer Home (Rebel)

8. The Infamous Stringdusters—Things That Fly (Sugar Hill)

9. The Grascals—The Famous Lefty Flynn’s (Rounder)

10. Don Rigsby & Midnight Call—The Voice of God (Rebel)

11. Chatham County Line—Wildwood (Yep Roc)