“Daybreak” by Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull
Daybreak
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The bluegrass world recognizes the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth in 2011. While many have paid tribute to the master by both duplicating his sound and taking his music in new directions, few have accomplished so much at a tender age as Sierra Hull.

Bluegrass is a music of youthful protégés, and few have impressed to the degree that Sierra Hull has since her Rounder debut appeared three years ago: confidently maturing, Sierra Hull is poised to provide artistic leadership for many more.

Daybreak is a powerful bluegrass recording. It will not appeal to all, and it will likely receive criticism from some for being too smooth, too Krauss-like in its approach to acoustic music, and darn it, too girly.

From its opening notes, the album certainly sounds similar to the distinctive qualities most closely associated to the recordings of Alison Krauss & Union Station. The mentorship—from near and far—that Hull has apparently received from the Union Station crew no doubt contributes to this influence.

Barry Bales steps into the producer position on this album, a post Ron Block previously held. Block adds guitar to a couple tracks while Dan Tyminski sings on a couple others. With Bales maintaining the bottom end on most of the songs, it should surprise no one that there are similarities to Hull’s and Krauss’s music. Heck, there is even a John Pennell song (but no Robert Lee Castleman) included!

Still, Hull most obviously has developed an individual musical personality, and this comes through on almost every cut. Hull wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s twelve cuts, and her songs are as memorable and enjoyable as those of songwriters many years her senior.  “All Because of You,” a fine Hull original, has a lovely folk-tinged vocal performance, while “Bombshell” is a sweet and playful little instrumental that features the tight quartet of Hull and Bales joined by Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan.

The album reveals Hull’s flexibility and dexterity. “The Land of the Living” is a gorgeous bluegrass/country gospel performance, and “What Do You Say” has the effervescent spirit that so much of the finest bluegrass of the past decade has possessed. “Best Buy” explores swing while the title cut reveals Hull’s modern pop side.

The album and artist benefit from the support received by the bluegrass heavy-hitters mentioned, as well as the like of Shawn Lane, Ronnie Bowman, and Randy Kohrs. Hull’s Highway 111 band is also represented, performing both as a unit and with additional musicians. It seems appropriate that they close the album together—with absolutely no noticeable drop-off in performance—on Kevin McClung’s “Wouldn’t Matter to Me.”

Daybreak is an admirable collection of bluegrass and acoustic music, standing with the very best the genre has to offer. As does the sunrise, Daybreak also provides promise for what may follow.

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“Almost Home” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Almost Home
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Some singers – Steve Gulley and David Parmley come to mind – could easily jump back and forth between country music and bluegrass. Marty Raybon, who was a star in country music (Shenandoah) could probably sing some blues. I can’t imagine Larry Sparks playing anything but bluegrass, and he’s done it so well for nearly five decades.

The many times I’ve seen him on stage he’s always had good musicians with him, though often young and just starting to make names of their own in the business. I’m not sure who is in his band at the moment because his website appears to be sadly out of date. Playing on this CD are his son, Larry D. on bass, Ron Stewart (who is still with the Boxcars as far as I know) on fiddle, and Lonesome Ramblers Tyler Mullins on banjo and Carl Berggren on mandolin. Adding harmony vocals are Jeff Brown and Don Rigsby.

Included on this CD is an old gospel number. “Somebody Touched Me.” The picking on this and all the songs is excellent. Ron Stewart is one of the best fiddlers in bluegrass today, Larry D., Tyler and Carl are good musicians and Larry’s distinctive guitar style is always a treat. I’m struck by the difference in the harmony – not good different or bad different, just different. I last reviewed the Al Wood reissue and loved the harmony singing. They had a good blend with the singers equally represented in the mix. On the other hand, Larry’s strong voice (and the way this is mixed) dominates the harmony singing so the others sing behind him more than with him. Other singers use this technique but, of the two, I like the blended style of Al Wood better.

“Gunfighter’s Revenge” is the only bluegrass gunfighting ballad I’ve ever heard and the only one Sparks has ever done (at least on a record). The standard for this kind of song was pretty well set by Marty Robbins with songs like El Paso and Billy Walker’s Cross The Brazos At Waco, but Larry’s tale holds up well in comparison. If there’s any doubt about it being bluegrass all you need to do is check the composers. Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm are one of bluegrass’ most prolific and widely recorded songwriting teams. “Back Road” is an instrumental that Sparks wrote on a banjo. This is a good one. If you like “Jerusalem Ridge” then you’ll enjoy this driving number. He reaches to the country side for Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On.” He gives it a bluesy feel which I like as well as Locklin’s version.

“Lines On The Highway” is a fast-moving road song with some good picking – if you’ve never heard Larry Sparks pick the strings off a guitar on a fast-tempo song, he does it here – but I don’t find the lyrics memorable. As a bass player I have to like “Blue Mountain Melody” with its bass kickoff and tag. Bluegrass bass tends to be understated, supporting the rest of the band without calling undue attention to its lines. This is Tom Gray style bass playing on the chorus. I also like Stewart’s bluesy fiddle.

I listened several times to hear the next Larry Sparks’ signature song, like “John Deere Tractor” or “Love of the Mountains.” There are songs that local and regional bands – and jammers – will do that reach back across the years. “Love of the Mountains” is one (too many people can’t figure out the chord structure of “John Deere Tractor”) but I don’t hear that song on this CD except for “Back Road.” “Almost Home” comes close but I don’t think it will stand the test of time except in Larry’s shows.

Good music, but not his most memorable songs.

“Sing a Bluegrass Song” by A.L. Wood & the Smokey Ridge Boys

A.L. Wood & The Smokey Ridge Boys
Sing A Bluegrass Song
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Rebel continues to reissue classic LPs as digital-only releases. This gives bluegrass fans old and young, new and veterans alike to hear some great music from the past. Check Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives for images of the original jacket and LP.

This collection dates back to a Rebel LP issued in 1974 (but recorded in 1972). The Smokey Ridge Boys included Wood on banjo and lead vocals. He’s changed a little from 1962 to today but is still active playing bluegrass. Older brother Odell Wood was on bass, Dewey Farmer (Carl Story’s Ramblin’ Muntaineers) on mandolin and Lester Deaton, Dewey’s nephew, (Country Gentlemen, Bluegrass Cardinals) on guitar. Not credited as a band member but shown on the original jacket as a musician was Ronnie Freeland on the drum. While I can’t find anything current on him, an entry at ibluegrass.com dating back to the end of 2001 reported Freeland would be going into surgery in July 2002 for a brain tumor. It goes on to say, “Ronnie has always championed bluegrass music even during the lean years. He is best known for his engineering efforts on those classic Rebel records of the 1970s.”

If you like hard driving, Monroe-style bluegrass then you’ll love this CD. The recording quality is very good, especially considering the technology of the early ’70s. The band members were expert instrumentalists and they had good arrangements. A big plus is you’ll hear songs you’ve not heard dozens of times on various records. With the exception of “Pretty Polly,” a Ralph Stanley number he does in most of his stage shows still today, these are all original numbers. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard Dr. Ralph sing “Polly” (the linked version has Patty Loveless singing with him) and, no matter who is singing it, expect something like mountaingrass style when I hear it. Wood’s version is more of a ballad and, with his banjo fill behind the singing, sounds a lot like a Country Gentlemen recording. This one is going into my favorites playlist.

The Wood brothers penned the rest except “Lonesome Smokey,” a high-speed mandolin number from Farmer. There’s nothing intricate about it and I don’t find it very interesting.

I love their harmony and Al, who does most of the lead singing, has a good tenor voice, although he gets close to the top of his range a time or two (“Mountain Man”). The longer I listen the more I make comparisons to The Boys From Indiana and the Country Gentlemen, in the type of material and their harmony and instrumental work.

“The Hills of Home” is a great song. Today’s bands should listen and pick this one up. Good melody and chord structure, good lyrics, good instrumental breaks. The lead instruments for the band were the banjo and mandolin with Deaton providing solid rhythm and Lester Flatt G-runs. I especially like Wood’s banjo playing, syncopated and driving the music.

During this era truck driving songs were popular and they’ve included a good one, “Lines On The Highway.” I like the chord pattern with that odd change they throw in to keep things interesting. If you have trucks then you need trains, so they wrote a song about the Chesapeake & Ohio’s FFV (Fast Flying Virginian or Fast Flying Vestibule), a train that operated from the east cost to the midwest for seven decades. “Story of the F.F.V.” retells a story earlier told in “Engine One-Forty-Three,” a folk tale with many versions, the most popular one recorded by The Carter Family. It’s the story of engineer George Alley (Georgie in the song) trying to make up time after a delay. The train hit a rock slide near Hinton, West Virginia on October 23, 1890, killing George while the fireman jumped to safety. Most train wreck songs have a lot of similarities, but “F.F.V.” tells a good story and makes a good listening song.

“Do Unto Others” is moralistic (as the title suggest) without being a gospel number. Once again, I love the harmony. I can hear just a little of Charlie Waller as I listen. The end of the song, though, is one of the strangest I’ve heard in a bluegrass song: one second they’re driving along then they hit a cliff and hum a couple of ritard bars to the end. It seems like half of all bluegrass songs have the same tag at the end, but you’ll listen for a long time without duplicating this one. “Sally The Rogue” is another one that reminds me so much of TBFI and the Gents. Wood doesn’t bother with a three-chord song, he makes it interesting and, broken record or not, those harmonies!

The other instrumental is “Hombre” and I’m surprised I’ve never heard it before. This is a good banjo – mandolin piece that’s as good as the instrumentals I hear today (and better than most). The only lyrics I’m ambivalent about (and note I said lyrics – the melody and structure is just fine) is “Sing a Bluegrass Song,” though it would make a great theme song as it tells about what is good about bluegrass and names several popular songs in the lyrics.

No warts here, at worst a chigger-bite bump. It’s a shame they didn’t (and, since he’s still active, they don’t) have more records for us to hear.

“Paper Airplane” by Alison Krauss & Union Station

Alison Krauss & Union Station
Paper Airplane
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The woody guitars of Dan Tyminkski and Ron Block, the occasional driving banjo from the latter, the slashing Dobro of Jerry Douglas, the expertly chosen, arranged and sequenced songs and, of course, the voice. All these are hallmarks of what we call an AKUS album, Paper Airplane being the latest example of an all-too-infrequent occurrence.

The title track, written by longtime Krauss tunesmith Robert Lee Castleman, is a fine choice to get things started, with the title metaphor of a precariously borne relationship supported by Krauss’ famously diaphanous vocals.

Tyminski, as seems to be the custom, takes the lead vocal on the second, and heavily bluegrass, track, seemingly to remind the faithful what a powerhouse AKUS can be when they want to. It doesn’t hurt their cause that here Tyminski turns in perhaps the best vocal of his career on a sinewy take on Peter Rowan’s “Dust Bowl Children.”

“Lie Awake,” with its brooding guitar figure, could have been written by Richard Thompson—more on him later—and shows that Krauss can be sweet and lonesome at the same time. “Lay My Burden Down” also has the sweet/sad thing working for it, so much so that it cries out for a spot in the next Southern melodrama to get the major motion picture treatment. “My Love Follows You Where You Go” is a break-up song having a bit more of an edge to it as the previous two tracks and about as close as we’re going to get this time of Krauss singing bluegrass.

Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day”
is next, the album’s centerpiece literally and figuratively. Even more vulnerable than Linda Thompson’s original performance, Krauss can now claim the definitive cover of this much-done song.

Tim O’Brien’s “On the Outside Looking In” has Dan and the boys back at the bluegrass plow, with a particularly strong turn by Barry Bales on upright bass framing precise work from Block’s banjo and Douglas’ Dobro.

“This angel’s bound to stray,” Krauss unapologetically sings on “Miles to Go,” yet another tearful goodbye number, though by no means unwelcome. “Sinking Stone,” whose melody oddly matches his title, presents Krauss with a bit more of a challenge, one which she of course conquers with ease.

Apparently because Block has no lead vocal on this project, Tyminski gets a third turn, and “Bonita and Bill Butler” is the happy result, an insistent seafaring ballad that’s also crying out for the big screen treatment.

“My Opening Farewell” is another perfectly chosen tune, perfect to close another perfect album (though wouldn’t you like to hear Krauss take a shot at “The Pretender?”) of gorgeous music that belies the pain in the material and heals the real pain that such material reflects.

“Drive Time” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Drive Time
Crossroads/Mountain Home Records
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Doyle Lawson has been around bluegrass for a long time and is one of the great stars of the business. Drive Time, though, may leave bluegrass fans scratching their heads.

There is some controversy that goes along with it. Doyle has added a snare drum to his band and bgrass-l, the bluegrass listserv, was alive with comments about this – both pro and con – a few weeks ago. You can hear the snare but it’s played tastefully and I have no objections hearing it. Seeing it on stage might make me wince, but so do raggedy jeans and tee shirts that some performers want to wear.

I didn’t see a lot of conversation about his choice of basses. My preference is the big upright, but the band endorses Eminence stick (electric upright) basses and the CD package shows Corey Hensley holding a Copley Fender-style bass. Given that on the stage the bass is often amplified, anyway, any of these choices do an acceptable job in the hands of the right bass player and whoever is playing on these tracks makes it sound good.

The most curious thing about this CD has nothing to do with the quality of the product, it’s the number of tracks. There are only seven. Seven tracks on a CD if it’s a jam band (like the Grateful Dead) is one thing – the Dead could almost fill a CD with seven tracks – but these are all standard length numbers. In fairness, though, the price is reduced. Doyle’s website lists it for $13.00 compared to $18.00 for most of his other CDs. He’s using a folding CD package which probably reduces his cost a little, but it still seems he could have gotten (and given) a little more bang for the buck with a few more tracks.

Doyle plays mandolin, mandola, guitar and banjo and adds harmony vocals. Jessie Baker, late of Flamekeeper and now with a another band (Sierra Hull) that he left Michael Cleveland for, plays banjo. I first saw Jessie at Bean Blossom playing with the family band, The Baker Boys. He was with Karl Shiflett for awhile, taking lessons in showmanship.

Josh Swift (Carrie Hasler & Hard Rain) plays the resophonic guitar, bass, drums and sings bass. Jason Barie (Rocky Top X-Press, Larry Stephenson) plays fiddle while Carl White, who was with Doyle for a while in 2009, plays bass on some tracks. Corey Hensley plays bass and sings while Mike Rogers (country artist Craig Morgan) plays guitar, drums and sings. It’s interesting that the CD cover shows Doyle with six band members, the same six that appear on his website, but his website’s bio section only lists five people and Carl White is listed as a former member. That’s confusing.

The CD kicks off by ripping through Paul Simon’s (yes, that Paul Simon) “Gone At Last.” This is proof positive that you can make good bluegrass out of songs from many genre. This songs follows the old Hank Williams / Fred Rose formula of keeping the lyrics simple:

The night was black, the roads were icy
Snow was fallin’, drifts were high
And I was weary, from my driving
And I stopped to rest for awhile

The bookend is another screamer, “Gone Long Gone,” co-written by Mike Rogers. This is a hard-driving song with great harmony singing. In between is a slow, touching version of “Precious Memories” with a haunting Dobro kickoff. I’m already planning on how to use this version with my church’s praise team. “Leavin’ and Lovin’ You” (again co-written by Rogers) is a great country-tinged song – back when it was still country.

There’s another song from Rogers’ pen, “Country Store,” a song that describes the kind of country store I remember as a teenager. I like what the songs says, I like Rogers’ singing, but there’s something about the song that makes me think more of hot new country than bluegrass. Staying with that kind of song – rock ‘n’ roll gone country – they’ve included Dan Seals’ “Love On Arrival.” It was a chart topper for Seals two decades ago but I didn’t like it then, either. You can take some songs and make good bluegrass, but this isn’t one of them.

“The Greenbriar Hop” rounds out this short set. It does hop right along and it has a pretty good resophonic break in it, but the beginning and end sound more like Joe Maphis than bluegrass.

No doubt Doyle Lawson has a plan and no doubt he is happy with the music because he is a perfectionist. The parts I like I really like but that makes the CD even smaller than its seven numbers. Drive Time leaves me more puzzled than satisfied.

“Legacy” by the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
Legacy
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Like the sight of a well-groomed baseball field, the styling of a Fender Stratocaster or the strength of a 1965 Ford Mustang, the sound of Peter Rowan’s voice to me represents freedom, and a particularly American brand at that. Half-controlled, half-wild, that voice can convey the high lonesomeness of bluegrass (Rowan was indeed once a lead singer/guitarist for Bill Monroe himself) as well as the liberation of the sort of rock that has influenced bluegrass.

The band he’s chosen—Keith Little (banjo), Jody Stecher (mandolin) and Paul Knight (bass)—supports his supple voice well, preferring to trade off tasteful licks rather than rip blistering breaks. Rowan, who wrote or co-wrote 10 songs on this 13-track, 48-minute effort, kicks things off with two strange but memorable songs over simmering grooves: “Jailer Jailer” and “The Family Demon.” In the former, the prisoner asks to remain imprisoned, among other strange sayings, and in the latter, the narrator matter-of-factly relates his travails with alcohol and abuse.

The gentle, plaintive mourning song “Father, Mother” gives way to “The Raven,” a rollicking tune in all the ways that its namesake by Poe is precise and measured. “So Good” is just that: a hippified ramble with Gillian Welch singing backup and David Rawlings cross-picking his Epiphone. (Though for some reason he doesn’t get to take a full solo.)

“The Night Prayer” is another aptly named tune, a gentle nostalgia for the traditional child’s bedtime prayer, while “Don’t Ask Me Why” is a woodsy, loping tune that ends up being a guide to living and loving.

Stecher steps to the fore with a growling vocal turn on the traditional “Catfish Blues”—one of the better blues/bluegrass crossovers I’ve heard—and on his self-penned “Lord Hamilton’s Yearling,” on which Tim O’Brien appears as guest fiddler.

While Little’s lead vocal does credit to Carter Stanley’s “Let Me Walk Lord by Your Side,” Rowan includes a couple of great new gospel tunes: “Turn the Other Cheek” and “God’s Own Child,” a gorgeous quartet featuring Ricky Skaggs and the inimitable Del McCoury, dog-whistle tenor in fine form.

“Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)” closes the album, a nature tune that mimics the rhythm of the free horseman in the lyric, giving Rowan a chance to mix in a little Buddhism with his Americana classic.

“Take Me Lord and Use Me” by Mike Scott

Mike Scott
Take Me Lord And Use Me
Rural Rhythm
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There are a couple of varieties of gospel music heard on Take Me Lord And Use Me. There are acoustic gospel songs. “Driving Nails” is a good example. This song has a message about events leading up to the crucifixion. It’s a moving song, a compelling message, well performed, well written with sparse accompaniment by the mandolin, fiddle and resophonic guitar taking turns with fills. The next number, “Just Like The Bible Says,” has more of a bluegrass gospel sound with the banjo playing a prominent role and a long, multi-intsrumental break, much like “Sing, Sing, Sing” even though it was written by Hank Williams. A highlight of this number is a bluesy fiddle break halfway through.

Mike Scott has been around for a number of years. He played with Jim & Jesse 1983-86. For an excellent example of bluegrass gospel (and a much younger Mike Scott) check out this version of “A Beautiful Life.” He worked with a handful of bands before that, including Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers. He made guest appearances with Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass and, since, 2001, has been a member of The Reno Tradition. He’s married to Brenda Marshall of the Marshall Family (best noted on Judy Marshall’s web page).

Mike plays banjo on the CD and he’s joined by Jesse Cobb (Infamous Stringdusters) on the mandolin, Ferrell Stowe (Cedar Hill) on resophonic guitar, Jason Carter (Del McCoury) on fiddle and Dennis Crouch on bass. Mike is the lead singer and he’s joined by some of the best singers in the bluegrass/country/gospel business on harmony: Vince Gill, Carl Jackson, Sonya Isaacs, Claire Lynch, Shelton Feazell, Rhonda Vincent and Ricky Skaggs.

All the ingredients are there – does he deliver good music?

You bet he does. He’s included old hymns like “‘Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus,” and “Since I Laid My Burdens Down,” which has been recorded in so many genre (and under so many titles) that it defies pigeonholing. “Is Not This the Land of Beulah” is another old gospel song, here featuring beautiful harmony by Jackson and Lynch (coincidentally a hit by the Isaacs at one time). For a more acoustic (as compared to bluegrass) sound, there’s “Take Me Lord and Use Me,” written by Mike and Brenda. The understated solos by mandolin and resophonic guitar help make this song. It’s not that he strays far afield from bluegrass with songs like this, just that “that’s bluegrass” probably won’t be the first thought you (and my wife) will have when you hear it. Of course, “When The Angels Carry Me Home” can’t be anything but bluegrass since it’s a Bill Monroe tune.

There’s one thing that keeps this set of music from perfection. On some songs, his voice dulls a bit, sounding like he’s just a little outside his comfort range, just a little too low. You can hear it on “‘Tis So Sweet.” Think of the clear sound of a bell as it tolls, then think of that same bell if someone laid a hand on it to dull its ringing. But, you have to listen closely and it’s so minor that it will mostly go unnoticed.

He closes with a Geoff Moore song, “When All Is Said And Done.”

What a great ending.

When the music fades into the past

When my days of life are through

What will be remembered of where I’ve come

When all is said and done

There is food for thought, delivered when the music of this CD is fading away.

It’s obvious he loves and is committed to his Christian walk, and he’s delivered a beautiful CD in support of that.

“A Mother’s Prayer” by Ralph Stanley

Ralph Stanley
A Mother’s Prayer
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

At age 20, Ralph Stanley’s voice had the wear and worry of a 70-year-old woman. At age 84, it’s not as keening, rather rich and regal, like a old prophet emerging from his cave to impart one last word of wisdom.

However, the vigor and spirit displayed by the king of mountain music on this 14-track, 41-minute project suggest that this is but one of many more he has left in him.

The current Clinch Mountain Boys are comprised of Dewey Brown (fiddle), Jimmy Cameron (bass), James Alan Shelton (guitar), Ralph Stanley II (guitar) and Steve Sparkman, who handles all the banjo work in a style right in line with the traditions of the ancient master, as evidenced on tracks like “That Home Far Away,” “It’s Time to Wake Up,” “Let Him Into Your Heart,” “I’ll Not Be Afraid” and “What Kind of Man,” all with classic Clinch Mountain picking.

Grandson Nathan Stanley plays guitar on “He Suffered for My Reward,” one of the youngster’s own compositions and another in that classic Stanley groove. The title track, written by Ronnie Bowman and Shawn Lane, is another new song that fits in the traditional style.

The best non-traditional song on this project, however, comes from the pens of Sara Evans and Billy & Terry Smith: “Let It Go,” an emotional story of the difficulty of faith.

The big highlights for me, though, are the traditional songs “Come All Ye Tenderhearted,” “Prince of Peace,” “Lift Him Up, That’s All,” “That Wonderful Place” and “John The Revelator,” all done either a cappella or with minimal instrumentation, letting one of the greatest voices ever recorded reach out in all its fullness.

“Rare Bird Alert” by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Rare Bird Alert
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When I’m assigned an album to review, it gets a minimum of two listens. Frequently, up to five thorough listening sessions are held before putting fingers to keyboard.

As I type these words, I’m listening to Steve Martin’s astoundingly bright Rare Bird Alert for the twelfth or thirteenth time this week. With each listen, something new appears—a lick I hadn’t previously noticed, a progression that hadn’t registered.

It is entirely justified that the Steep Canyon Rangers are given co-billing with Steve Martin on this album as their contributions contribute to a cohesiveness that was lacking on Martin’s justifiably well-regarded bluegrass album of 2009, The Crow. Whereas that album had numerous guests dropping in, Red Bird Alert’s core is more stable: Martin and the Rangers with The Dixie Chicks, Sir Paul McCartney, and cellist Ron Clearfield appearing on individual tracks.

Additionally, the song selection appears more contemporary; unlike The Crow which contained Martin compositions dating to the late 60s and several of which had previously appeared on The Steve Martin Brothers album of 1981, the notes to Red Bird Alert would appear to indicate that it is comprised of fresher numbers.

Honed by months of road travel, the Rangers and Martin have most obviously developed chemistry. If there is an emerging star within this set it must be Woody Platt. The Steep Canyon Rangers’ vocalist has been notable for his fine voice—quite unlike any other within the bluegrass major league—and throughout Red Bird Alert he is provided numerous opportunities to impress. Hearing him sing “Yellow- Backed Fly” and “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” one is convinced that there are no limits to what he may attain.

Elsewhere, the competencies of the Rangers are apparent. If Platt is most noticeable from a vocal perspective, Nicky Saunders’ fiddling is an instrumental star; the arrangements are so perfectly attuned to the needs of the song that one can’t listen to these songs without noting Saunders’ brilliant work.

Graham Sharp contributes 5-string in complement to Martin’s playing; the two trade breaks in places (and my ears can’t stop the difference) and when Martin favors clawhammer-style, Sharp sticks to three-fingered rolls. Mike Guggino (mandolin) and Charles Humphrey III (bass) maintain the rhythm and step up for their own little flourishes when the time is right; in the liner notes, Martin rightly draws attention to Humphrey’s break on “Jubilation Day”

Without resorting to hyperbole, Rare Bird Alert contains 35-minutes of almost perfectly balanced bluegrass. The obvious instrumental prowess is augmented by tight harmonies; Martin’s vocal challenges are kept in check by the Rangers’ expertise in this area; up-tempo instrumental pieces are places alongside slower, gentle songs.

“Best Love” (featuring McCartney) and “You” (featuring the Dixie Chicks) could fit comfortably within adult contemporary radio formats and therefore will get much attention. The heart of the album appears to be Martin’s very fine instrumentals. Both “Northern Island” and “The Great Remember” evoke their ambiguities through the nuance of their notes.

Excepting the title refrain, “More Bad Weather on the Way” is a spirited instrumental showcase that affords each of the six principals an opportunity to play off others. “Hide Behind a Rock” and the title track bookend the bulk of the album and as such provide the framing to what is completely invigorating listen.

Martin saves his most blatant comedic moments to the album’s final two tracks, although “Jubilation Day” has its moments earlier on. Comedy may not be pretty, but it is individual so listeners will need to make their own determination of the value of the album’s final seven minutes. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” while guileful, isn’t clever enough to withstand multiple listenings. On the other hand, “King Tut” never gets old. Go figure.

Finally, the album packaging is terribly impressive. While others labels and artists are minimizing costs, Rare Bird Alert is provided a tri-fold housing and booklet containing elaborately decorated panels, elaborate notes from Martin, and 10 collector cards featuring the participants; excessive perhaps but well-appreciated in this time of belt-tightening and diminishing expectations. Kudos to the design team of G.Carr and Salli and Jim Ratts for making it work.

There are those who continue to challenge the motives of Steve Martin as he explores his love of bluegrass and the banjo. To those I would suggest, Get over it and actually listen! Rare Bird Alert is a spectacular, artistic creation that can only benefit the bluegrass community as a whole.

“Kickin’ Up Dust” by Grasstowne

Grasstowne
Kickin’ Up Dust
Rural Rhythm
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Grasstowne’s lineup for this CD includes Alan Bibey on mandolin and vocals (IIIrd Tyme Out, BlueRidge), Steve Gulley – guitar and vocals (Mountain Heart founder), Justin Jenkins – banjo and vocals (Blue Moon Rising), Adam Haynes – fiddle and vocals (James King, Dailey & Vincent) and Kameron Keller – bass. Bibey, Gulley and Haynes have been around the bluegrass block more than a couple of times and are top notch musicians.

One of the things I love about bluegrass is the number of talented young people you see and hear at festivals and on recordings and Grasstowne has hooked a couple of them. As soon as you hear the kickoff of the lead song, “Blue Rocking Chair,” with Justin’s driving banjo and Kameron’s driving bass, you’ll stop and say, “that’s bluegrass.”

When I try to pin down what “bluegrass” means to me, I come up with four things: the instruments (and how they are played), the lyrics, the singers and the harmonies.

I’m not a strict purist. A banjo isn’t required in every song and I don’t blanch if there’s a steel guitar or some percussion in the background but, if nothing else will make a bluegrass song, it’s drive. I hear some music played at a frenetic pace and some people equate that with bluegrass, but it’s not the speed, it’s the drive. Listen to the banjo and bass on “Somewhere Between Givin’ In and Givin’ Up.” You feel them driving the song along. Bibey takes his break and drives the song. Listen to the mandolin chop in “Old Time Way” as it pushes the song along. Oh, yeah, this is bluegrass.

As important as the singer is to the song, in a sense they take a backseat to the instruments. The range of good bluegrass instrumental work is fairly narrow. Some instruments are simply rare, like the piano, others never heard. Can you imagine a Boots Randolph solo as someone sings “In The Pines?” But there’s a wide range of singers in bluegrass. David Parmley is a balladeer, Bill Monroe was a tenor, Leroy Troy is, well, Leroy Troy. I can’t imagine Jim Nabors doing bluegrass, even with a dozen banjos behind him. Faron Young’s and Ray Price’s styles wouldn’t fit, but Joe Diffie and Marty Rabon can do bluegrass and Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs have long straddled the country-bluegrass fence.

But Steve Gulley is as good as they come in the bluegrass world (and can do as much justice to country) and Alan Bibey is another great bluegrass singer. While the range of singers is wide, the importance of how they blend for the harmonies cannot be overstated. Great harmony singing is a trademark of bluegrass. Steve does a great job of singing lead on “I Don’t Worry About You Anymore” and then you get to the chorus and the harmony is dead-on. Alan’s lead and Steve’s tenor in “Old Time Way” are a perfect match and can they do quartet acapella? Listen to “Our Father” with Adam doing a great job on bass.

Traditional bluegrass lyrics usually talk about the mountains, religion, mother, prison, death, hard times, love (and lost love) or some combination of those topics. But I can “hear” bluegrass in a wide variety of lyrics if the elements mentioned above are there, too.

Melinda was mine ’til the time that I found her

Holdin’ Jim, and lovin’ him

Then Sue came along, loved me strong, that’s what I thought

But me and Sue, that died, too.

I can’t picture Neil Diamond with a resophonic guitar in his band (unless he was doing Hawaiian music), but I like those lyrics better than some traditional lyrics that are aimed more at rhyming than making sense:

And if you don’t stop your playing around

I’m gonna tear your ash hopper down

Dog bite your hide little hide then I’ll be satisfied

Then I’m gonna stand around and laugh

When you roll your eyes like a dying calf

Dog bite your hide little hide then I’ll be satisfied

“Dog Bite Your Hide” (Jimmy Martin)

I think I’ll pass on that one.

This CD is much more middle-of-the-road lyrically. From traditional-sounding “I Don’t Worry About You Anymore,” “Waves of Sorrow” and the screaming fast, driving “Run” to heartfelt gospel numbers like “Anchor In The Storm” to the plaintive Civil War painting of “Vicksburg,” this is a bluegrass CD you’ll play over and over.