“Lily May, Rosie and Susie” by The Coon Creek Girls

The Coon Creek Girls
Lily May, Rosie & Susie
Rebel Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

A musical genre isn’t born overnight. We tend to distill histories of music to some lowest common denominator when we can, and the farther removed you are from the genre, the lower the denominator.

Rock ‘n’ Roll? Elvis, the King, of course. Rock was born when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That’s the simple answer, but most anyone who was around back then knows it wasn’t that simple. The same is true about the “English invasion”
in the ’60’s. The first group that comes to mind is The Beatles, but they were just one of the most popular of many English bands that surged onto the rock scene.

When our ancestors started settling here they brought music with them. Some strains of that can still be clearly heard today, especially in the music of Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson, to name just two. Two names generally stand out when we start thinking about the histories of bluegrass and country music, and you can throw in old-time and folk to a great extent, too.

Jimmie Rodgers was on the road playing music by 1900, even though he wasn’t yet a teenager. Who knows what would have happened if his father hadn’t found him and brought him home. By 1927 Rodgers was back performing as well as working for the railroads and combating tuberculosis. Six years later he was dead, but his legacy continues today. Many country stars, including Ernest Tubb, pointed to him as a primary influence in their music. When Mr. Monroe auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry, one of the numbers he performed was Rodger’s “Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel #8),” recorded by Rodgers in 1931.

Another seminal influence was the Carter Family. They started recording in 1927 with the original trio disbanding in 1936. Various combinations of Carters stayed active for decades after that. If you look at the list of titles by the Carter Family and Rodgers you’ll see many songs that are sung and recorded even today. If you dig a little, you’ll also discover that some of them were composed by them (the Carters and Rodgers), but others emanated from traditional songs sung for generations that they put their names to.

While the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers are two of the most famous names of that early era, they most certainly were not alone. One of the groups that influenced (and still does) generations of country and bluegrass musicians was the Coon Creek Girls (not to be confused with the New Coon Creek Girls, a much later group). Centered on Lily May Ledford (1917-1985), the original group was called the “Red River Ramblers” and consisted of Lily May, older sister Rosie and brother Coyen, joined by a neighbor, Morgan Skidmore. They performed across several states playing songs like “John Hardy,” “Sourwood Mountain” and “Pretty Polly.” Do those sound familiar?

In 1935 Lily May caught the attention of John Lair and he brought her to the WLS Barn Dance, leaving the rest of the band to go home to Kentucky. There she joined Red Foley, Lula Belle and Scotty Wiseman and a host of other still-famous performers. Rosie rejoined her in 1937 and later that year Lair relocated the Ledfords and a number of performers to Cincinnati. There Lair introduced them to Esther “Violet” Koehler and Evelyn “Daisy” Lange. None of the girls had ever heard of, let alone been near, Coon Creek but Lair dreamed up the name because he thought it sounded “country.” By 1939 they were performing for two of their fans, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Time brought change, as it always does. This CD is a reunion of Lily May and sisters Rosie and Susie, recorded in the 1960s at a time when there was some renewed activity of the Coon Creek Girls during the folk music hey-day.

Their verbal music has an old-time sound while the instrumentation can be described as old-time or perhaps mountain music. Compare their version of “East Virginia Blues” to a 1992 Country Gentlemen version and then to a Carter Family version. It’s clear the music of the Coon Creek Girls remained traditional, roots music without a nod to the newer sounds of bluegrass. Two staples of Dr. Ralph’s repertoire are “Little Birdie” and “Pretty Polly.” The Girls’ version of “Little Birdie” is a close match to Dr. Ralph’s and sparks the comparison of their music to his “mountain” music form of bluegrass. The two versions of “Pretty Polly” differ some in the lyrics but they are still the same song. The lyrics of many of these roots songs are as varied as snowflakes and each performer’s version depends on what they’ve heard through the years rather than some lead sheet filed away in a cabinet.

While it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint where today’s performers first heard their versions of the songs the Coon Creek Girls were doing back in the ’30’s, ’40’s and 50’s, it’s probable many of them are familiar with the Girls’ music and count them as an influence. “Wild Bill Jones” has been recorded by a multitude of people from Dock Boggs to Alison Krauss. On this CD it’s a haunting song, only Lily May accompanying herself on the banjo as she does on “Red Rocking Chair.” “Hawk Caught the Chicken and Gone” is an excellent example of an old-time, frailing banjo. It’s a little rough in a couple of places and also serves as an example of a fairly common description of old-time music that comes from many bluegrass musicians: it sounds like the same eight bars of music played over and over fifty times. Old time musicians will quickly jump into that argument, of course, but you can judge for yourself.

A good example of the three sisters singing and playing together is “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat.” If you consider the environment they played in six decades ago you can understand the appeal of this song. (And if you want to see a way out in left field, modern day version, check out Split Lip Rayfield.)

If you’re into the history of bluegrass and country music or love that old-time sound, you’ll certainly applaud the release of these tracks.

“The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Columbia Records
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The main character in Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked is a woman whose boyfriend is obsessed with a Dylanesque musician who made a few albums about 20 years ago, including one masterpiece, before fleeing fame and becoming a recluse.

One day, she opens her boyfriend’s mail to find a promo CD for a forthcoming release of an unplugged demo version of that masterpiece, Juliet, which is to be sold as Juliet, Naked.

The boyfriend greedily devours the disc, declaring it superior to Juliet in a rhapsodic Internet posting that is eagerly read by the other members of the online cult devoted to Tucker Crowe.

The girlfriend disagrees, posting her own critique that dismisses the unplugged version as an incomplete version of a great work.

Bob Dylan has been generous with his vault material, releasing now the ninth volume of his Bootleg Series, this one titled The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. But I don’t think anyone could take the boyfriend’s position on this two-disc collection of 47 tracks.

Not that there’s not any great music here. Click the link, look at the track list. The songs you recognize are good solo guitar versions of the great solo guitar version from Dylan’s albums.

The track names you don’t recognize are songs that weren’t good enough to be included on those classic albums, and for good reason. They just don’t have the wit, craft and flow of the work we know from him. It proves that he was a great editor and judge of his own work, and that that work was so great that some feel there’s a market now for that which was once unreleasable.

“Everyone is Someone” by Dala

Everyone is Someone
Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Canada’s vocal sweethearts are—at tender ages—veterans of the road and studio. Having toured the frozen north countless times and recorded three previous albums, the Ontario folk-sweethearts are ready to conquer the United States.

Already familiar through extensive appearances from California to the northeast, and to PBS audiences for the Girls from the North Country production, Dala’s 2009 release Everyone is Someone is now widely available through our friends at Compass.

It is apparent that momentum is building for the duo of Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine. Recently they’ve been mentioned in American Songwriter and heard on NPR’s Mountain Stage. A Canadian Folk Award came their way this autumn as Vocal Group of the Year and just this past week they were nominated for a Juno Award. Could a comic book be far behind?

With no shortage of Canadian girl groups crowding the folk marketplace—The Wailin’ Jennys, The Be Good Tanyas, and The Good Lovelies being but three—Dala requires significant quantities of talent and spunk to distinguish them from the pack. Fortunately for this pair who originally met during a high school music class, they have those qualities, and more, in abundance.

As they did on 2007’s Who Do You Think You Are, Dala keeps things in-house on this recording writing all the songs either together, alone, or with frequent collaborator and band-mate Mike Roth. What is increasingly apparent is that Dala is finding ways to delve a little deeper into the mysterious realms of human relationships.

Always a little flirty, the duo continues to mix their frivolity with a bit of introspection and maturity. “Levi Blues” transcends pun and is a rare and heartfelt declaration of intimacy and fidelity that becomes a treasured favorite after a solitary listen.

“Alive” contains bittersweet sentiments almost every woman- and most men- can appreciate: “I dance in the snow and I sang to the stars, ‘Cause we lost our power just to find our hearts.” And who among us can’t relate to the pivotal line of “Face in the Morning:” “I love to make promises when you’re asleep”?

While the mood of the album is gentle—bordering on sedate—things never slide into indulgence. Sparse instrumentation is the norm, and the acoustic guitars, mandolins, piano, and unimposing percussion lovingly embrace and support the duo’s vocal harmonies and clear leads.

Everyone is Someone may be a little off the dirt road for many readers of the Lonesome Road Review, but those who appreciate diverse offerings of music may well consider searching out this latest release from Dala.

“Low Country Blues” by Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman
Low Country Blues
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Gregg Allman is at a distinct disadvantage when making an album, and has been since the death of his legendary brother, Duane Allman, in 1971. The pairing of Gregg’s growling, bluesy voice with Duane’s fluid, singing side guitar is one of the most exciting combinations in the history of rock and American music. When you hear one, your ear is conditioned to hear the other.

But Gregg Allman has much to offer, as that amazing voice of his seems to have withstood the proverbial ravages of time and his passion for infusing blues with a rock sensibility is unabated on this 12-track, 53-minute album.

Delving into the blues is a priority here, as signaled by the booming opening track, Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge,” Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman, which begins with solo Delta guitar and blooms into a full band stomp, and rollicking romp through Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”

“Blind Man,” “Please Accept My Love” and “Tears, Tears, Tears” have the swing of a 1950s-style show band, while “My Love is Your Love,” “Just Another Rider” and “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” veer closer to the Allman Brothers’ sound, and all benefit from heartfelt vocals, especially “Just Another Rider.”

The final track is a seven-minute, ominous “Rolling Stone” filled with swampy drums and slinky guitars drawing to a close to a fine album by a still-vital artist.

“Baby, How Can It Be?: Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Baby, How Can It Be?: Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I’ve been listening to this one in the car for the last several weeks, struggling to decide what to say about it. With 66 tracks spread over three CDs and more than three hours, there’s a lot of material here, and all of it is simply engrossing.

And it all comes from the 78 RPM record collection of John Heneghan, one of those valuable souls whose gentle madness perpetuates these essential nuggets of recorded culture. The package s beautifully illustrated and presented in a fold-out box, with a centerfold illustration by (thankfully, not of) R. Crumb and liner notes by Nick Tosches.

The selections themselves are varied and inspired, with styles such as blues, jazz, pop, Hawaiian and what we now call old-time country. Some of it sounds like it could be one of those manic soundtracks to Tom and Jerry cartoons (The Broadway Bellhops with “Wimmin-Aaah!), some sounds like it could have been recorded in an old barn with just a fiddle and guitar or banjo (Fiddlin’ John Carson with “It’s a Shame to Whip Your Wife on Sunday).

In spite of all their differences, a few things emerge from this collection: the emphasis on musicianship serving the song rather than the ego of the performer, and the concept of the song as something that, even with just about three minutes to spare, should be given time to develop and grow, as evidenced by the fact that many of the instrumental introductions approach one minute or so.

There are some well-known names here like Bill Carlisle, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cab Calloway, Mississippi John Hurt, the Mississippi Sheiks and the Memphis Jug Band. But you’ve also got some racy fare in the form of Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys with “Pussy” and Hartman’s Heartbreakers with “Let Me Play With It.”

And you’ve got the Callahan Brothers with the haunting “I Want to Ask the Stars,” Laura Smith with the arresting “I’m Gonna Kill Myself” and Mississippi Matilda with an amazingly powerful falsetto vocal on “Hard Working Woman.”

There’s plenty more that will grab your ear if you take the plunge on a truly satisfying collection of rare and beautiful time pieces.

“Let’s Kick It” by Ross Nickerson

Ross Nickerson
Let’s Kick It
Bones Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ross Nickerson is not a household name in bluegrass – but he’s a very good banjo picker. It doesn’t take much listening to recognize someone who is a master of the instrument. A quick tour of his website shows a previous affiliation with Pinecastle Records and appearances at workshops around the world. He’s produced a library full of instructional books and DVDs and appears on the east coast with The Fast Brothers.

I can’t find any information on the Internet for Bones Records so I was wondering where readers might pick up this very interesting CD. It is available on Nickerson’s website but then the search took me to Amazon (of course) and what I found there has nothing to do with the quality of the music but does is a weird find. The CD just recently came our way but at Amazon the release date is shown as September, 2009 with the title Let’s Kick Some Ass. Play the CD in Windows Media Player and the pop-up down in the corner that names the song playing comes up with the racier title. Now that’s funny, I don’t care who ya are.

Joining him on the CD is Blue Highway, absent banjo player Jason Burleson. This is an unusual step. While members of most bands regularly appear as guests on various artists’ projects, to bring in an entire band – and no other guests – is something you don’t normally see, even on solo projects by some band’s member. If you’ve ever heard Blue Highway then you know the backup work is excellent. Scott Vestal, no slouch on the banjo himself, did the recording and mixing.

There are two Nickerson originals featured and he proves to be as good a composer as he is a picker. “Roundhouse” is an upbeat tune, the kind when the banjo can especially shine while “Feeling Low” is at a slower tempo but retaining all the drive of “Roundhouse.” “Feeling Low” has a nice, bluesy feel, punched along by Wayne Taylor’s solid bass line.

Most of the selections are familiar, though some are viewed as traditionally belonging to some other instrument. “Wheel Hoss” and “Old Dangerfield” come from Bill Monroe and are associated with the mandolin (though, obviously, the banjo took breaks on them when Monroe played). The old Flatt & Scruggs tune “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky” isn’t often done as an instrumental but Nickerson’s version is a good listening tune. He did decide to include a vocal track on two numbers. He gives a rousing version of “Little Maggie” with Wayne Taylor on the vocals and an equally upbeat version of “John Henry” featuring Tim Stafford.

A selection I find particularly interesting is the Gershwin melody, “Lady Be Good.” It’s been recorded many times and hails back to the 1924 Broadway show, Lady, Be Good! When you don’t have to worry about lyrics you can do a lot of genre-jumping and still appeal to bluegrass fans. “Jerusalem Ridge,” always a favorite of mine, began life as a fiddle tune (Kenny Baker / Bill Monroe) and Shawn Lane plays an excellent fiddle on this track, as does Rob Ickes on the resophonic guitar and Tim Stafford on a short guitar break. Nickerson plays a faultless lead on banjo.

Great selections, great playing. If you’re a fan of bluegrass instrumentals then you need look no farther for a great CD.