“I Wasn’t Born to Rock’n Roll” by Roland White

Roland White
I Wasn’t Born to Rock’n Roll
Tompkins Square
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Roland White has been a fixture in bluegrass music for more than five decades. He formed the Kentucky Colonels in the late ’50s but the band began making bluegrass waves in the early ’60s and is still a widely recognized name among the bluegrass faithful.

Bluegrass musicians struggled in the ’60s, in part sharing the fate of sister country music as the music world rocked-and-rolled with Elvis. During this time bluegrassers became allied with the folk music movement and the Colonels were no exception, including a well received appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1963. As the Colonels fell on hard times, Roland joined the Bluegrass Boys playing guitar and then Flatt & Scruggs as their mandolin player. He decided to reunite with his brother, Clarence, in 1973 to form the New Kentucky Colonels but then Clarence was killed when struck by an auto. Roland then joined Country Gazette for thirteen years and, in 1989, replaced Mike Compton with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He left NBB in 1999 (with Compton coming back) but still performs with them on occasion and stays busy with his own projects.

In 1976 Roland’s solo project, I Wasn’t Born to Rock’n Roll, was issued by Ridge Runner Records. He was backed by Country Gazette bandmates Alan Munde on banjo, Kenny Wertz on guitar, Roger Bush on bass and Dave Ferguson on fiddle. This was a group of accomplished musicians and they add a tight, polished backdrop to Roland’s vocals.

The Wikipedia entry for Alan Munde includes an interesting and telling sentence (emphasis added): “Munde joined the legendary bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin in 1969. He played with Martin as one of the Sunny Mountain Boys from October 1969 to October 1971, and in the meantime earned his living by working as a school teacher in Nashville.”

This record featured traditional tunes. Included is the old Carter Family gem, “The Storms Are On The Ocean” and “The Prisoner’s Song,” first made immensely popular by Vernon Dalhart in the ’20’s and recorded by countless artists since.

White has always been interested in a variety of genre. “I Saw Your Face In The Moon” has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists, including Mac Wiseman, but has more of a swing/pop sound than bluegrass, while “If I Should Wander Back Tonight” is pure bluegrass, perhaps learned from his days with Flatt & Scruggs. Roland included a bluegrass marathon that leaves you wondering when he found time to breathe, including “Love Please Come Home,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Shackles and Chains,” “Live and Let Live,” “Doin’ My Time, ” and “Sittin’ On Top of the World.”

“Same Old Blues Again” was done by Country Gazette (as were all of these songs) but isn’t a current staple of bluegrass bands. “Kansas City Railroad Blues” has been played by many musicians through the years, including Chubby Wise. With the exception of a never before released “Powder Creek” (written by Roland and Clarence), these are mostly tunes you’ll recognize.

While the LP didn’t break new ground back in 1976, today it offers us a chance to hear again Country Gazette (for this is that band, just with Roland White front and center). It’s great bluegrass from one of the second generation pioneers.

“Hymns from the Hills” by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Hymns from the Hills
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Hymns from the Hills is a phrase that has special meaning for those of us lucky enough to live in or around southwestern Ohio, where Paul “Moon” Mullins in 1964 on WPFB radio in Middletown dedicated an hour of early afternoon airtime to a country and bluegrass gospel program of that title. The tradition continued on WBZI in Xenia; son Joe has kept the torch alive since Moon’s death.

For about three years now, Joe has fronted the Radio Ramblers, a fine bluegrass and gospel unit that showcases his considerable talents as a banjo player, singer and arranger. This star-studded all-gospel project is their finest effort yet, with 47 minutes of music split between seven band-only tracks and seven which feature special guests.

The Ramblers — Tim Kidd (bass), Evan McGregor (fiddle), Adam McIntosh (guitar) and Mike Terry (mandolin) — are top-notch. McIntosh wrote the celebratory album-opener “He Loves Me” and sings lead on the Tim Stafford-Jon Weisberger composition “Be Jesus to Someone Today.” Terry leads a call-and-response version of “Rock of Ages Keep My Soul” and on “Worth It All,” an ebullient view of Heaven.

Mullins’ clear-as-a-bell lead tenor makes highlights of “Fallen Leaves,” which has been previously recorded by Grandpa Jones and the Primitive Quartet, and “Fair Weather,” a tuneful story from the Book of Job by songwriter Mike Ramsey. The band’s best track, however, is a blend of all their voices, the grand, a cappella chorus with a Celtic tinge, “O the Love of My Redeemer.”

Larry Sparks offers lead vocals on two tracks: “Come On,” which features a mellifluous blend of his voice and Mullins’, and “That Little Old Country Church House,” where this time the dust is on the pulpit and Sparks’ mournful lead laments the sad fact.

Jimmy Martin alumni Doyle Lawson and Paul Mullins make essential contributions, the former on a Louvin-style duet with Mullins on “I’ll Never Go Back,” the latter with “Hold On to the Old Gospel Way,” an old-sounding new song co-written by Williams and Mullins.

The venerable Ralph Stanley contributes an old man’s perspective to the children’s classic “Jesus Loves Me,” complete with children’s chorus, while Rhonda Vincent adds a woman’s touch to Aubrey Holt’s “We Missed You in Church Last Sunday.”

“Sweet Hour of Prayer,” which has vocals from Mullins, Williams and Vincent, closes the disc, a great song not often recorded. In fact, most of the songs on this disc are a long way from becoming the type of chestnut that it becomes a chore to listen to. But the greatness of this disc will see to it that this great material will touch hearts and captivate listeners for years to come.

“Heartache Looking for a Home” by Charlie Sizemore

Charlie Sizemore
Heartache Looking For a Home
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve enjoyed watching Charlie Sizemore’s stage show the past few years. I spent an hour a few feet away from him during a workshop, watching as well as listening. He seems like a quirky, offbeat person, at times quick with a sharp, witty remark, but more often seeming reticent, careful with his words. I always get the feeling that what he says is only a small fraction of what is going on in his mind.

He may be the only practicing attorney who is also steadily on the road with a bluegrass band. He spent nine and a half years with Ralph Stanley then, at age twenty-five, went out on his own paying bluegrass while raising a family and going to college. That’s a full-time schedule for anyone. He took a hiatus from 2002 – 2007 (maybe; it seems everyplace I read about Charlie the time period differs) then started touring again. (For more on his life, go to his web page and watch the Gaining Wisdom video.)

Charlie Sizemore is a bluegrass singer. You’re never in doubt about the roots of his music. He’s backed on Heartache Looking For a Home by Danny Barnes (Continental Divide, Pine Mountain Railroad) on mandolin and vocals, Josh McMurray (Larry Sparks’ Lonesome Ramblers) on banjo and vocals, Matt DeSpain (now with J D Crowe) on Dobro and vocals, and John Pennell (who has apparently left the band) on upright bass. Ronnie Stewart guests on fiddle as well as Dr. Ralph Stanley singing on “Red Wicked Wine.”

One of the more cerebral songs on this CD was penned by a master of story telling, Tom T Hall. “Pay No Attention To Alice” is, according to Charlie’s introduction, based on an actual experience in Tom T’s life.

“Pay no attention to Alice, she’s drunk all the time

Hooked on that wine, bunches of it

And it ruined her mind”

Now that’s quite a departure from:

“There’s a happy childhood home in my memory I can see

Standing out upon the hill ‘neath the shadow of the tree”

(“Cabin On The Hill”)

But it’s a great song, a slice of life that’s real and Charlie carries it off as well as Tom T. could.

The title cut was done by the Osborne Brothers back in 1975 (Pickin’ Grass and Singin’ Country) and Charlie wanted to do it Jimmy Martin style. He nails it and the songs lyric lends it to a Jimmy Martin rendition:

“You’re a heartache, lookin’ for a home like a groundhog

Lookin’ for a hole like a hound dog, huntin’ for a bone”

Okay, next song.

One of my favorites is “Red Wicked Wine,” bluesy and with great instrumental work. He first recorded it (as “Wicked Wine”) back in 1986 on Ralph Stanley’s Lonesome and Blue album but in a much different style. I like this version much better. The story of this song is also interesting. It was written by John Preston, composer of “I’ve Just Seen The Rock of Ages.” He’s Charlie’s cousin and, in Charlie’s words, “He’s probably spent about sixty years in prison.”

“No Lawyers In Heaven” is a cute (and pretty close to the mark) commentary on lawyers, especially fitting given his through-the-week vocation. That’s not the only play on words in this collection. Listen to “Walkin’ The Floor Over Me,” a play on the title of Ernest Tubb’s hit, and “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” the 1982 John Conlee hit. I’m still puzzling over the comment by Larry Nager, who wrote the liner notes for the CD: “‘Walking the Floor Over Me’ is by obscure Nashville singer-songwriter Alan Jackson.” Quoting from Wikipedia, “More than 50 of his [Jackson’s] singles have appeared on Billboard’s list of the ‘Top 30 Country Songs’. Of Jackson’s entries, 25 were number-one hits.” I can think of hundreds of writers and singers who would love to be that obscure.

Mandolinist Barnes switches to clawhammer banjo and sings a Ralph Stanley standard, “Poor Rambler.” Also included is another Stanley standard, “Going to Georgia.” If you like good instrumentals you won’t be disappointed by DeSpain’s “Fords of Pittman.”

I don’t like every minute of the CD – I’ve never been a fan of “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” despite it being a hit for Conlee, and “Ashley Judd” is cute but I don’t much care if I ever hear it again – but Charlie liked them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. I’m certain of one thing, though. As long as bluegrass has singers and writers like Charlie Sizemore it’s in good hands.

“High Country” by Kenny Baker & Joe Greene

Kenny Baker & Joe Greene
High Country
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you’ve been around bluegrass for any time at all you’ll recognize Kenny Baker’s name. Known on the strength of his own work, he is also famous in the bluegrass world for his decades-long association with Bill Monroe. Mr. Monroe was a huge fan of Baker’s long-bow technique on the fiddle. He is widely considered by bluegrass fans as one of the masters of the fiddle.

Joe Greene is virtually unknown today. Fans who have been around bluegrass for a few decades still recall him as an outstanding fiddler but he disappeared from the bluegrass scene at some point. His only two known albums are this one with Baker (originally County 714) and a solo release, Joe Greene’s Fiddle Album (County 722).

On High Country Baker plays melody with Greene playing harmony. Other musicians on the album are Vernon Lee Brown on guitar, Bill Grimes on banjo, Glenn Isom on mandolin and Ray Hoskins on bass. I’m curious about this lineup, conspicuously absent of names that are still high (or even medium) profile today. We have to remember that bluegrass (nor country music) wasn’t faring well in the ’60’s and economy was important when making records so some of these men may have been local talent picked up for this album.

Vernon Lee Brown and Glenn Isom are unknown to me. The only mention I can find today of Bill Grimes is from the webpage of The Charlie Bays Unit, a regional band in Kentucky. His son, Larry Grimes, is their mandolin player and Bill is mentioned as “the great banjo player from London, Kentucky.” Ray Hoskins passed away only a month ago, January 10th, and had stayed active in bluegrass. He had a band called the Bluegrass Meditations and several accolades are mentioned in his obituary. He played at one time or another with Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers and the Stanley Brothers.

Rebel’s re-release of this great fiddle LP is only available by digital download. This is becoming more common as a means to reduce the cost of CDs (you can pick and choose the tracks you want) but, more importantly for the record companies, reducing their investment and overhead when a significant return on their dollars is questionable. This is not a comment on the great playing you’ll hear, but the re-release of a fiddle album that’s almost five decades old isn’t likely to generate the sales of the next Lady Ga Ga release.

The fiddle playing is exquisite. There’s never been a better bluegrass fiddler than Kenny Baker and Joe Greene matches him note for note. The other musicians are there just for the background fill and sometimes barely heard at all, and if there’s any criticism from today’s perspective it is the lack of involvement of the other musicians. If fiddle music drives you to a state of rapture then you’ll probably never notice, but I don’t think I’m unusual in enjoying the interplay of instruments during an instrumental number, each taking a turn at the lead.

Most of the tunes are not widely known and may be Kenny Baker compositions or evolved from old-time fiddle songs. Unfortunately, the information that’s readily available on the net doesn’t identify composers. Most listeners will recognize “Leather Breeches.””Stoney Creek” has been played by a number of fiddlers and “Callahan” goes back many years. “Reuben’s Ridge” is not as well known nor is “Friday Night.” a very pretty waltz tune. There are multiple versions of “Boating Up Sandy,” an old-time fiddle tune, out there and Kenny’s version is a lively one. “Live and Let Live” is an old Bill Monroe number (written by Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan).

Kenny Baker is an amazing fiddle player. Joe Greene was an amazing fiddle player. This CD that they recorded together is an excellent example of twin fiddling.

The problem I have with instrumental albums like this one is I get bored. I get bored playing tunes like this, too. I can’t guarantee that the sheet music I found for “Boating Up Sandy” is the same tune played on the album, but it is representative in one respect: it is thirteen bars long and two pairs of those bars (8- 12, 9 – 13) are identical. It’s bad enough when those thirteen or so bars are split up between the other instruments in the band and played a dozen times or so, but here it’s just the fiddles over and over again. I know some fiddlers who will like this better than hard cider at the church picnic, but I find my attention just drifting away.