“John Duffey: The Rebel Years: 1962-1977” by John Duffey

John Duffey
John Duffey: The Rebel Years: 1962-1977
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I never had the opportunity to see John Duffey in a live performance. He passed away December 10, 1996, a period when I was still immersed in country music. I’m sorry I missed the opportunity because he has become one of bluegrass’ legends, as much for his stage persona as for his singing.

His father was an opera singer but John loved Appalachian music as a young man. His opportunity to perform professionally came in 1957 when Buzz Busby was injured in an auto accident. Busby’s bandmate, Bill Emerson, wanted to keep the band going so he made contact with Duffey and Charlie Waller. With the new lineup the band took on a new name: the Country Gentlemen.

While no one can pin down an exact date when “bluegrass” came into existence, by 1957 it was only twelve to fifteen years old. There were many influential men in those early years, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse, but the music was very Monroe-centric. Perhaps the Stanley Brothers represented the most important offshoot with their mountain-style music. But bluegrass – and country – music was about to face a great and nearly devastating challenge: rock-‘n’-roll.

In an effort to survive those lean years of the Elvis explosion, some bluegrass bands changed their style and leaned more towards folk and country music. Despite the decline of country music, it still had a wider audience than bluegrass. Flatt & Scruggs was playing folk music festivals, Jim & Jesse used an electric bass and made country-sounding records. Mac Wiseman and the Osborne Brothers leaned heavily towards country music. Bill Monroe struggled. And there were the Country Gentlemen.

With Washington DC as their locus they were geographically removed from the bastions of bluegrass. With their song selections, they became artistically removed, too. They had a traditional bluegrass lineup of instruments and they mostly sang like bluegrass singers, yet they were reviled by some bluegrass purists while loved by many in the DC area who simply liked their music and didn’t worry about the rules or what it was called. While Waller proved to be the mainstay of the Gents, guiding them until his death in 2004, the big personality in the group (and later in the Seldom Scene) was Duffey. He was never afraid to speak up from the stage, no matter what was on his mind, and often dressed in clothes wildly different from his bandmates and bluegrass musicians in general.

This new release centers on the voice and mandolin of John Duffey within the settings of the two bands he helped form and lead into bluegrass history. Despite the feelings of some in the bluegrass crowds of the ’60s and ’70s, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene became two of the big draws on the bluegrass circuit. The Scene remains a top name today, despite their relatively light schedule. The Country Gentlemen are still around but things just haven’t been the same since Charlie died and his son, Randy, took over leadership of the band.

Representing the CG years is “Bringing Mary Home,” one of their biggest hits from 1965. “Some Old Day” has become a bluegrass standard but “Girl From the North Country,””This Morning At Nine” and “I’ll Be There Mary Dear” are not frequently heard these days. “500 Miles,” on the other hand began life as a folk song and has been recorded many times, sung by artists like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. “I’m Working On a Road” is an excellent example of Duffey’s vocal range and how well his voice melded with Charlie Waller’s.

“Silence or Tears” is a song I don’t remember hearing before, and I’ve listened to a lot of CG songs. It is an excellent example of Tom Gray‘s excellent but frenetic bass playing. Playing the bass in bluegrass tends toward keeping the tempo, playing a fairly simple combination of notes (often called 2 – 4) with an occasional run into a different chord. Tom, on the other hand and at least in his early years, never heard a note he didn’t like and played more of them in one performance than most bass players would in a year. Another song unknown to me is “The School House Fire,” not a bluegrass murder ballad but a song of gruesome tragedy. Rounding out the CG group is “The Young Fisherwoman” from 1963. Compare that to what Bill Monroe was doing then and it’s easy to see why bluegrass purists looked upon them with disdain.

After a dozen years with the Country Gentlemen, Duffey left the music scene for a while. He left just as the band was getting ready to tour Japan, apparently uncomfortable with flying but, some say, never that happy with touring in general.

Two years later Duffey, making his living as a musical instrument repairman, started attending some jam sessions with former bandmate Tom Gray, banjoist Ben Eldridge, guitarist and singer John Starling and respohonic guitarist Mike Auldridge. They clicked but none of them were willing to give up their day jobs to start touring. They did play regularly in the DC area and recorded seven albums in their first five years together before switching record labels about the time Starling left the group. Duffey would stay with them twenty-five years, until his death.

From the Scene years Rebel has included a handful of songs. Perhaps the most recognizable to today’s bluegrass generation are “Heaven” and the Louis “Grandpa” Jones-penned song, “Falling Leaves.” “Small Exception of Me” is an excellent example of how Duffey could sing lead as well as blend with the harmony. His high tenor is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard even a small sample of his work. “Reason For Being” and “I Haven’t Got The Right To Love You” are the other Scene songs on the CD.

Time grinds everything to dust but we’re fortunate that John Duffey’s voice was captured for generations to enjoy after his passing. He can never be replaced, but he can still be appreciated and Rebel has just made this easier for today’s bluegrass fans.

“Celilo Falls” by Rachel Harrington

Rachel Harrington
Celilo Falls
SkinnyDennis Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Before listening to Rachel Harrington’s outstanding third album Celilo Falls, before even researching anything more than a single Google hit about the Oregon native, I suspected I was going to enjoy what she had to offer.

No, it wasn’t the heartworn portrait gracing the front cover, as attention-grabbing as that is. It was the fact that her publishing and label name is SkinnyDennis. Now, I don’t know if this is intended as a tip of the hat to Dennis Sanchez himself or simply acknowledgement of Guy Clark’s brilliance (“Here’s to you ol’ Skinny Dennis / The only one I think I will miss / I can hear your low bass singin’ / Sweet and low like a gift you’re bringin'” — “L.A. Freeway”). Either way, I’m in.

Still, it takes more than a cool moniker to impress me. Heck, it takes more than having Ronnie McCoury drop by on mandolin, although that certainly helps.

What’s it take to impress?

Let’s start with a baker’s dozen songs exploring the heart of matters, songs that illuminate to reveal the beauty of shadow, songs that are actually from the writer’s experience and speak to her surroundings. All but one is written by Harrington with the lone cover being a retooling of an exceptional Art Hanlon song.

Factor in a considerably commanding vocal presence, one that brings to mind the finest of singers from the wide-open Americana field — Eliza Gilkyson, Tracy Grammer, Pieta Brown, and the like — while being individually distinctive. Whether raising her voice in magnificent anticipation (“He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today”), purring with playful flirtation (“You’ll Do”), or soaring with measured hope (“Where Are You”), Harrington commands listeners’ attention.

Establishing a rich soundscape built largely from acoustic instruments is another positive to consider. Dan Salini does double duty on fiddle and pedal steel and he contribute greatly to the rustic atmosphere of the album. Colby Sander’s banjo and Dobro similarly color Harrington’s songs.

Inspired by conversation with her grandfather, “Bury Me Close” contains a sentiment that could have only emanated from a lifetime of experience: “Bury me close beside her / I know in her arms I belong / My only true love / O you should have seen her dance.” While slightly awkward in print, when sung the lyrics are sincerely haunting.

Harrington finds further motivation in the words of her other grandfather when she sings “He started building my mansion in Heaven today.” Crafting an elaborate tapestry of spiritual inspiration from a conversational phrase takes exceptional talent and Harrington reveals herself to be a master throughout both the album and accompanying libretto.

“The Last Jubilee” follows a comparable theme, revealing that “We got John and June in the backup choir / and Hank is drunk on love” in the celestial jam that follows the evocation that is “Don’t be blue if you don’t wake up today / just pick up your harp and play.”

Not every song contemplates what follows this mortal coil, although such is a common refrain.

The two songs that introduce the album — “House of Cards” and “Here In My Bead” — look at the abandonment of love in different ways and each of these are dissimilar to the European tour-of- memories that is “Goodbye Amsterdam.” “Pretty Saro” is artfully reimagined and serves as an extension of Harrington’s “Let Me Sleep in Your Arms Tonight,” sharing more than a little of the yearnsome mood of that original composition.

More elaborate and muted perhaps than both The Bootlegger’s Daughter (2007) and City of Refuge (2008) but as impressive and engaging, Celilo Falls is also more fully realized than those previous releases. It reveals Rachel Harrington to be the equal of some of the most lauded singer-songwriters of her generation, including Kasey Chambers with whom Harrington shares more than a passing stylistic similarity.

Much like the Columbia River falls drowned beneath a reservoir from which the album takes its title, Harrington’s album is rich in story and memory: while features remain hidden, one is provided hope that secrets and history will one day again be revealed.

“Faith & Family” by All4Hym

Faith & Family
Rural Rhythm Records
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This band is centered on the (I think) husband and wife team of Chester and Terri Kreitzer and their son Cory. (Their website doesn’t share these details, but that’s how it appears.) Chester sings and plays rhythm guitar, Terri sings lead and Cory sings and plays mandolin. Dan Murphy plays and sings bass while his brother Aaron plays lead, resophonic and steel guitar. Troy Stangle on banjo and resophonic guitar rounds out the group. I can’t remember listening to a bluegrass CD that featured less than really good musicians and this one won’t disappoint you.

They show a heavy reliance on a few composers. Dee Gaskin provided two songs, her son Dick Gaskin two and Brink Brinkman four. A highlight is an a cappella number, “Even At The Door” with Terri singing lead, Cory tenor and Chester baritone and bass. Terri has a beautiful voice and their harmonies are very good. Chester turns in a good performance with “Bought and Paid.” Not all the cuts are that inspiring, though. Cory sings lead on “Learning To Be Like You” and he sounds a bit flat. He’s better in “Old Sinner Like Me,” and the song is nice and bouncy, but I still don’t hear the resonance and feeling I do when Chester sings.

Chester and Terri have some good love songs on the CD. “After All These Years” is a beautiful song and message about love – a true ballad. “Fifty Years Together” is another good one, and with the use of an electric guitar it sounds a lot like a country ballad rather than bluegrass. “Grandpa’s Table Grace” and “Inside a Prayer” are a pair of faith-based Brinkman songs. An excellent songwriter, these are both very good songs, words and melodies to be enjoyed.

I like listening to this CD but I find it a little too laid back. I would like to have heard two or three upbeat, driving numbers to change the pace. There are some gems on the CD, but overall it just doesn’t grab me to keep me reaching for it over and over.

“Wood and Stone” by Tara Nevins

Tara Nevins
Wood and Stone
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

A founding member of Americana mainstays Donna the Buffalo, Tara Nevins has delivered her second solo album more than a decade after her first, Mule to Ride (1999). Both her songwriting and her voice are inviting enough, but bringing Larry Campbell on board as producer elevates this 13-track, 44-minute album. Campbell, multi-instrumental sideman for Bob Dylan and producer of Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, brings just enough crunch into the mix to make it tastier than the average Americana singer-songwriter release.

The title track has one of the catchiest grooves I’ve heard in a while, while Nevins’ fiddle slipping in over Campbell’s driving guitar lines as she sings about dirt lanes, maple trees, grandma’s applesauce and other touchstones that make up “the better part of me.”

When Campbell’s lead guitar is not featured, his pedal steel often is, again working with Nevins’ fiddle on nicely built songs that are equal parts modern Americana and classic country, tunes like the Cajun-flavored “All I Ever Needed,” the good-natured put-down “You’re Still Driving That Truck,” and the gospel-tinged cheatin’ song “The Wrong Side.” “Who Would You Tell” and “Snowbird” start out with more primitive arrangements before working up to the full-band sound, while “What Money Cannot Buy” stays in a rustic fiddle groove and features Nevins’ vocals at their most sensitive. Nevins also reaches down to her roots with “Nothing Really,” an original old-time fiddle tune, and “Down South Blues,” a party number.

Two surprises on the album are “Stars Fell on Alabama,” in which Nevins turns the ‘30s jazz standard into a bleak, gothic soundscape, and “Tennessee River,” an even more desolate turn recalling the best of Lucinda Williams. The album closes on a suitably grand nostalgic note with a yearning take on Van Morrison’s “Beauty of Days Gone By” aided by the characteristically expressive drumming of guest Levon Helm.

“Time to Go” by Erin McDermott

Erin McDermott
Time to Go
No label
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Vermont singer-songwriter Erin McDermott picked up some of Nashville’s best acoustic pickers for this 12-song, 52-minute outing, and the results are satisfying, if a little unexpected. Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle and cello), Byron House (bass), Brent Truitt (mandolin) and Scott Vestal (banjo) back McDermott’s strong vocals on fine slice of progressive bluegrass on the album’s opening cut “Going Home.”

The rest of the album inhabits that hard-to-classify space that many singer-songwriters inhabit somewhere between rock, folk, country and even pop. The several flavors are created not just by the acoustic musicians, but by the addition of electric guitar from Truitt, drums from John Garner and pedal steel from the incomparable Paul Franklin.

The main ingredient, though, is McDermott’s rich voice that at times packs enough punch to out-sing all three Dixie Chicks at once. Some of that sass is evident on tracks like “Time to Go,” “Fowler Farm” and the delightful second-chance celebration “Louise.”

McDermott’s more subtle side is evident on tough relationship songs “Sometimes” and “Before Love Passes Us By” and on the heart-wrenching tale “Truth of Suffering,” perhaps the best-written of a fine batch of songs. “Already Leaving” is the best-arranged, with a shimmering steel interlude from Franklin leading into the song’s soaring second half.

“Weeping Willow,” a song from the tree’s point-of-view, “40-Acre Holocaust,” about the battle of Antietam and “Baker Street,” an ode to small-town country life, round out the album, giving some extra texture to a fine effort.

“Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot and Ravelin'” by The Grascals

The Grascals
Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot and Ravelin’
BluGrascal Records
3 stars (out of 5)

The Andy Griffith Show is a standard in American culture that I am sure almost anyone can remember watching at some point in their lives. The Grascals, no doubt honored at the chance to give some new life to some Mayberry standards, have partnered with Mayberry’s Finest Brand Foods to produce this seven-track EP.

This is not a typical Grascals release, but rather a novelty tribute album with close attention paid to the preservation of the integrity of the show’s original music.

Over the years The Grascals have made a name for themselves taking bluegrass standards and mostly traditional bluegrass sounds and adding just enough of their own flair to the equation to create a unique, modern bluegrass sound. However, this EP leaves me scratching my head in that respect. I feel like an opportunity was missed to bring a more modern feel to these great old favorites, following their own formula of past success. Instead the band stuck to the roots of the music chosen for this collection and the results are serviceable, just not all that you would expect from The Grascals.

That said, the musicianship on this album is above average and holds true of what you expect from The Grascals as far as musical execution. The picking on “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” and “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” especially, is great, and the entire EP flows well together and really captures the nostalgic feeling of The Andy Griffith Show.

The biggest area of weakness this EP has is its brevity. With seven tracks and roughly 14 minutes of music, the lowest price I found was $6.97 plus shipping. Not the best value, unless you are specifically looking to fill the collection as a fan of either The Grascals or The Andy Griffith Show, but good music nonetheless.


“Live at the Down Home” by NewFound Road

NewFound Road
Live At the Down Home
Rounder Records
4¾ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Seeing a live performance where several of the songs on a new CD are performed gives you a different perspective of the music. The best performers will make mistakes in a live show that can be corrected in a recording but, on the other hand, weaknesses may be overlooked in the enthusiasm of a good performance. I recently saw these four young men live at Bean Blossom and, if they made any mistakes, I didn’t hear them. Their performance was strong and won many new fans including my wife, who is more of a bluegrass liker than bluegrass lover. I made my way to their record table to buy my copy of their new CD, Live At The Down Home as soon as their set ended.

The Down Home is a club in Johnson City, Tennessee which is the heart of bluegrass country. As the title says, this was recorded live and they had another enthusiastic audience there. The band has morphed from a gospel band into a bluegrass band and has a stong lineup of musicians. Founder Tim Shelton, who plays guitar and sings lead, is an excellent bluegrass singer who listened to a variety of music growing up and the song selection for this CD reflects that. Brothers Joe (mandolin, harmony) and Jamey (bass, harmony) Booher and Josh Miller on banjo, lead guitar, lead and harmony vehicles (and dancing – you have to be there) complete the roster. They are excellent musicians and singers who stay engaged with the audience and put on a show, not just standing in front of a microphone and singing. They are joined on the CD by guest Jim VanCleve (Mountain Heart). One interesting comparison I can make now is their sound with and without the fiddle. While it’s easy to understand why many bands limit their size to four members, and most others to no more than five (scarce financial resources), I do miss the extra richness of the fiddle in the live performance.

With a CD you can fix mistakes made in recording and you can bring in guests, but you have a greater challenge attracting listeners (especially buying listeners) and holding their attention – which translates into buying future CDs and recommending your music to their friends. I’m obviously enthusiastic about them on stage, so how is the CD?

I love it. They went to a variety of sources but present them all in a way that keeps this a bluegrass CD. I don’t hear Lester Flatt singing all of them, but to my ear they make it work. Perhaps the farthest venture from traditional (like “Little Bessie”) bluegrass is Bill Wither’s hit from the early ’70’s, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” I have to admit that, depending on the artist, I might be singing the”this ain’t no part of nothing” lament, but I like it and here’s the advantage of seeing them live: I’m sitting in an after-dark crowd of die-hard bluegrass fans at the granddaddy of bluegrass festivals and I’m hearing a wilder response than I did to a good number of very traditional bands (i.e., it’s not just me that likes this tune). The three minutes twenty seconds mandolin intro is a bit much, not just in length but in composition (someting more like Tony Rice would have done [and did at Bean Blossom] would have been better) but you have to remember this is being recorded live. If this was a studio album it might have been done differently.

What’s a good bluegrass CD without at least one killing song – bluegrass is full of them? “Blackadder’s Cove,” written and performed by Josh, is a good one full of betrayal, revenge and lifelong regret. For their instrumental they give a solid presentation of “Ruben.” (Earl Scruggs called it “Lonesome Ruben” when he composed it and, yes, it’s Ruben, not Reuben.)

They can do ballads, too. “That’s How I Got To Memphis” was written by Tom T. Hall and was a hit for Bobby Bare and Charlie Sizemore. A great song and a great rendition here. And bluegrass has plenty of rambling man songs. If you don’t have a few decades of rock-‘n’-roll history you might never suspect “Please Come To Boston” was a 1974 hit for songwriter Dave Loggins and has been covered by country artists like Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney and David Allan Coe. I like NewFound Road’s version as well as any and Tim’s voice puts the bluegrass stamp on their cut.

While they don’t have a gospel number on the CD, “Try To Be” (co-written by Sonya Isaacs) talks about the singer’s efforts to try to be the right kind of man. It’s a good, medium tempo song with lots of drive. Speaking of drive, people outside of bluegrass who sometimes mistake speed for drive should listen to “Room At The Top of the Strairs,” a Randall Hylton song about troubled love that moves along at only about ninety beats per minute but has drive to spare, and did I mention what a great bluegrass voice Tim Shelton has?

From Jackson Browne (“These Days”) to Carter Stanley (“Lonesome River”) to Tom T. Hall, they cover a lot of ground in this CD. Strict traditionalists may have a bone to pick at a spot or two but I’ll be playing it until it until it wears out and, judging from the crowd reaction I heard, so will a lot of other people.