“I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow” by Various Artists

Various Artists
I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow
Red Beet Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The creative mind is a mystery.

Of all the Tom T. Hall projects that could have been undertaken by Eric Brace, Peter Cooper, and their raggle-taggle band of Nashville buddies, recreating the very successful (#3 on the country charts with a #1 song, “I Care”) Songs of Fox Hollow album would most likely have never occurred to most of us.

Good on them, then.

Hall, undoubtedly one of the most successful country performers and writers of the 1970s, has previously received the tribute treatment.

More than a decade ago alt-country and roots performers including Kelly Willis, Calexico, Iris Dement, and Whiskeytown were featured on Real: The Tom T. Hall Project. That album remains a personal benchmark all other tribute albums are measured against.

A few years after that, bluegrass singer Charlie Sizemore released The Story Is…The Songs of Tom T. Hall. In ways entirely different from the Real project, Sizemore’s recording conveyed the magic that great Tom T. Hall songs contain.

Creating music for children is a challenge few can meet. One must have the knack of appealing to their senses of rhythm, rhyme, justice, and humour while ensuring that the songs stand-up to repeated listening. A difficult task compounded by the desirability of making the music equally attractive to the parents who make the purchases.

Few children’s albums recorded in the country music field have been as successful as Songs of Fox Hollow. “I Love” had been recorded and released a year earlier, traveling quickly up the charts to #1 (and #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100). “I Care” and the album followed and were among the final, highest charting successes Hall would experience.

Listening to the album almost forty years after its release, one is struck by its lack of condescension; the songs, their sentiments (and sentimentality), and their arrangements make little allowance for the youth of its intended audience. The overarching themes—acceptance, caring, ecology, and silliness—are universal and as relevant today as they were when Peter Cooper first heard them as a child.

I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow was recorded last summer at Tom T. and Miss Dixie’s Fox Hollow. Conceived by Cooper and Brace, the call went out and their friends gathered for what sounds like was a great few days in the country.
As was the original album, the tribute project is ideal. Starting with a base of songs that are damn near faultless in tone and content—“Sneaky Snake,” “Oh Lonesome George the Basset,” and “The Barn Dance” amongst them—the foundation couldn’t be more solid. Imagine having Duane Eddy along to lay down signature licks while Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin sing “Sneaky Snake” and the bar appears fairly high.

East Nashville’s finest are involved. Elizabeth Cook and Tim Carroll lay out a lovely rendition of “I Wish I Had a Million Friends” while Jon Byrd reveals the logic of “How to Talk to a Little Baby Goat.”

The album’s strongest track may be Jim Lauderdale’s interpretation of “I Like to Feel Pretty Inside.” His matter-of-fact recitation of Hall’s observations surrounding self-acceptance, kindness, and truth toward others captures the album’s intent in less than three minutes.

Peter Cooper’s gentle rendition of “Everybody Loves to Hear a Bird Sing” deserves to be heard by the masses and Eric Brace and & Last Train Home’s “The Mysterious Fox of Fox Hollow” balances the innocent mysteries and dark menace of nature.

Every track and performance offers something of value. Gary Bennett’s “The Barn Dance” and Mark & Mike’s “The Song of the One-Legged Chicken” embrace the frivolity of word play while Bobby Bare’s “I Care” and Patty Griffin’s “I Love” are sincere in their sentimentality.

A new Miss Dixie and Tom T. Hall song is amended to the original album’s track listing. “I Made a Friend of a Flower Today” features Tom T. joining Fayssoux Starling McLean. Starling McLean’s voice is pure and true and serves as a reminder of how note-perfect her album of a few years ago (Early) was.

The house band for this recording include Nashville’s finest: Lloyd Green takes care of the pedal steel guitar while Jen Gunderman (keys), Mike Bub (bass), and Mark Horn (drums) are also consistent in their presence.

As are all Red Beet projects, this one is beautifully packaged. Julie Sola’s woodcuts are beautifully rendered and embrace the natural spirit of the recording.

Conceived in respect and gratitude, I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow is another recording in which the team of Peter Cooper and Eric Brace can take great pride; someday they are bound to fail, but they haven’t so far.

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“House on Fire” by Brian Wright

Brian Wright
House on Fire
Sugar Hill Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Texas-born singer-songwriter Brian Wright, who plays most of the instruments on this record, says on his website that he says he’s “somewhere between Woody Guthrie and Velvet Underground,” and the unnamed promo writer adds “there is also hints of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark fused with a bluesy slide guitar and a simple, but enchanting Paul McCartney like bass line.”

I didn’t really detect any of those notes, apart from the bluesy slide guitar on several tracks, most notably “Rich Man’s Blues,” which takes much of its tune from “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” and the obvious McCartney/Beatles influence on “Striking Matches,” “Blind April” and “The Good Dr.,” all pleasant pastiches.

Far more striking resemblances for me are Wright’s voice as a softer, more laid back version of Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill (especially on “Mesothelioma”) and many tracks’ sound and feel much like those on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, such as “Accordion,” “Had Enough” and the easy, simple “Mean Ol’ Wind.”

“If You Stay” is the album’s one big misstep, with a weird bass backup singer marring a potentially interesting song. Indeed, the simplest songs here, and those with the least instrumentation, are by far the best. Along with “Mean Ol’ Wind,” there’s the near-perfect Americana breakup of “Live Again,” the darkly sweet “Maria Sugarcane,” the slice-of-life “Pretty Little Pennies” and the album-closing, heartfelt “Friend.”

“Fired Up” by Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
Fired Up
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Crafted by one of the most impressive and well-regarded instrumental bluegrass groups working the circuit, Michael Cleveland’s third album since striking out on his own with Flamekeeper is every bit as formidable as its predecessors.

Each Cleveland album has brought a change in personnel and Fired Up is no exception. Gone from Leavin’ Town are impressive lead singer Todd Rakestraw and banjoist John Mark Batchelor. In their place is long-time Cleveland collaborator Tom Adams on lead vocals and guitar and Jessie Baker on banjo. Marshall Wilborn returns on bass and Jesse Brock remains as Flamekeeper’s mandolinist, a position he has held since the band’s inception.

Fired Up contains a freshness born of comfort and spontaneity. While these concepts may appear in dissonance, Cleveland and his crew understands their role in creating the positive atmosphere that produces exceptional bluegrass music.

Since performing as a member of the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars in 1993, Michael Cleveland has demonstrated that he is the face of tradition-based bluegrass fiddling. Eight-time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year (including a current streak of five years), he and Flamekeeper have also walked away with the last four Instrumental Group of the Year accolades.

On stage, no one enjoys himself more than Cleveland and he possesses the verve necessary to translate this energy in the recording studio. A country-influenced tune such as Tom Adams’ “I’m Yours” benefits from the mournful elements emanating from Cleveland’s fiddle. When things get fiery, as on Buddy Spicher’s “Goin’ Up Dry Branch,” Cleveland demonstrates yet again that few can carry a tune as efficiently as he.

Out of necessity, Tom Adams has re-crafted himself as a darn fine guitar player and a quality lead voice. When last heard as a lead singer on Bill Emerson’s Southern album, Adams displayed a serviceable but not terribly distinctive voice. Throughout Fired Up, Adams—augmented by Jesse Brock’s and Marshall Wilborn’s harmonies—sings like a man with something to prove. “The Nights Are So Long” and “Dixie Special” are just two songs that offer evidence that Adams has the qualities necessary to front a first-tier bluegrass outfit.

Marshall Wilborn takes a trio of sweetly-voiced leads, including on the album’s emotionally charged closer “Bigger Hands Than Mine.” Inspired to write the song by Lynn Morris’ journey recovering from a stroke, Wilborn is joined on this track by Vince Gill who offers subtle tenor vocals.  Truly a band effort, Cleveland’s fiddle weaves through the melody while Brock’s mandolin notes add texture to the song.

Awarded IBMA Mandolinist of the Year only once, Jesse Brock has long provided terrific mandolin playing in every band with which he performs. As a member of both the Lynn Morris Band with Wilborn and Dale Ann Bradley’s Coon Creek with Cleveland, Brock has demonstrated his abilities as an intuitive accompanist. On Fired Up, Brock’s abilities as a tenor singer are well-represented and his mandolin playing is second to none. Listening to his contributions on “I’ve Got the Railroad Blues,” “Slowly,” and David McLaughlin’s “Going Back to Old Virginia” one is aware we’re listening to a modern master of the mandolin.

If you’re going to play bluegrass, you had better have a 5-string in the band, and Cleveland had found one of the best young players in Jessie Baker. Baker has since moved on to play in Quicksilver, but throughout this album one can hear why Doyle Lawson came a-knockin’.

A band of song hoarders, Flamekeeper have delved into their various notebooks and album collections to assemble a terrific set. Raiding their collective memories, songs from Tom T. Hall, Webb Pierce, Dudley Connell, and others are reborn in exceptional bluegrass performances. Tom Adams contributes five original songs with Wilborn, Brock, and Baker each offering up a single number.

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper have done it again. With Fired Up they have released an album that builds on the strengths of Leavin’ Town, furthering their vision of 21st-century bluegrass.

“One Foot in the Honky Tonk” by James Reams and the Barnstormers

James Reams and the Barnstormers
One Foot In The Honky Tonk
Mountain Redbird Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I read a remark a few days ago that James reminded the writer of Larry Sparks. I hear that now and then in this CD but I associate his music more with Karl Shifflett. (In fairness to James, you could say Karl reminds you of James, I’ve just heard lots more of Karl’s music.) This isn’t meant to imply the Barnstormers’ music is derivative of anyone else. They have been around almost two decades, playing their own style of music.

James’ music is hardcore traditional bluegrass and acoustic music. There’s no indication that he feels bound to the Monroe tradition and you’ll hear some old-time sound in his music, but if he isn’t in the same vein of coal with Monroe he’s certainly in the same coal mine. While many performers through the years have tried to reach associated crowds to broaden their appeal, from the country leanings of the Osborne Brothers to the folk music era for Flatt & Scruggs to the sounds of newgrass, you don’t hear that with James’ music. You have to take him as he is.

With James providing lead vocals and guitar accompaniment, he’s joined by Mark Farrell on fiddle and mandolin and adding harmony vocals, Doug Nicolaisen on banjo and Nick Sullivan on upright bass and harmony vocals. This CD includes guests Kenny Kosek on fiddle (on the tracks where Farrell plays mandolin) and Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin (when Mark is on fiddle). If you read between the lines, that implies they recorded as a band without overdubbing.

I divide my listening to a CD into four parts: production and engineering, song selection, the pickers and the singers. The production and engineering are good on this CD. You’ll hear a good mix of singing with supporting instrumental work without over-production.

I like the picking. Nicolaisen’s banjo is driving and clean. On “Susquehanna Getaway,” “Rocky Creek” and “Passamquoddy” he drives the song. The fiddle work is excellent and I’m impressed by the mandolin playing. You’ll hear some players who have a tendency to gallop on the mandolin but whoever is picking (Farrell or Mitterhoff) just picks the strings off of it. And while the bass is a foundation instrument, you’ll hear some interesting licks and slides that Sullivan adds to keep things interesting.

The harmonies are definitely background vocals. You won’t hear them often and James’ vocal is definitely setting well on top. James is an okay singer and his voice is something of an acquired taste. I can think of several bluegrass singers that almost everyone (judging by crowd reaction) loves to hear, Jamie Daley to name one, and others people like to hear but as a part of the total band package and that’s where I put James. He does better with traditional songs (than soulful blues) and that’s where he keeps the band rooted.

The song selection is an interesting mix. “Almost Hear The Blues” was penned by Stonewall Jackson who pitched it to James over the telephone. This is a great song with a great bluesy mandolin behind it and superb bass work. The other end of the spectrum is “Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea,” a traditional (old-time) song. Reams and Farrell have an interest and commitment to this type of music but this song seems out of place stuck in this collection all by itself.

“In The Corner At The Table By The Jukebox” keeps up the honky-tonk theme. Written by James Hand (and the song that plays when you go to his website), it features some classic fiddle work by Kosek and melodic banjo from Nicoaisen. It’s also a good example of what I said above: James’ singing can be an acquired taste. There’s lots of blues on this CD: “King Of The Blues,” “Almost Hear The Blues,” and “Florida Blues,” all fitting well with the jukebox and honky tonk theme.

If you’re a Barnstormers fan then you should love this CD. If you’re not familiar with them and you like traditional bluegrass-country, you should take the time to try them.