“So Much in Between” by Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge
So Much In Between
Mountain Home
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Reading the list of songs on the back of the CD may cause an arch in your eyebrows. It’s not often that you see the first four songs on a bluegrass CD with “love” in the title. When you associate that with their not-so-distant marriage you may detect a pattern.

This CD definitely leans towards the themes of sweetness, happiness and faith. Their website even calls them “the sweethearts of bluegrass.” There’s nothing wrong with that – the world could use a lot more happiness and faith – but bluegrassers tend to want to hear at least some of the harsher realities of life. Think of all the time-worn murder ballads, songs about mother (usually passed on), unfaithful lovers, drinking and missing home. We seem to embrace those themes. So Much In Between may fall a little too far on the happiness side for some, but don’t dismiss it out of hand.

Brooke and Darin Aldridge are talented performers. Brooke is relatively new to the life of a touring artist though she did have a CD on Pinecastle a while back. Darin, on the other hand, was a member of the last Country Gentlemen band before Charlie Waller’s death and has filled in with groups like Blue Highway and Blueridge. He plays several instruments but concentrates on mandolin these days. Both are very good singers and their harmonies are a pleasure to hear.

“Lonely Ends Where Love Begins” was co-written by Don Pfrimmer, a prolific songwriter with over four hundred songs to his credit according to ASCAP. “That’s Just Me Lovin’ You” is a country duet with a Dobro instead of a steel guitar and they sell it. If you could turn the clock back a few years and swap a couple of instruments you’d be thinking about some of the great duets of yesteryear, like Dolly & Porter.

The Dobro is played by guest Rob Ickes (Blue Highway). The regular band members include relatively unknown Dwayne Anderson on bass, Chris Bryant (Country Gentlemen) on banjo and Rachel Renee Johnson (Dixie Bee-Liners) on fiddle. They all turn in solid performances with Rachel helping on harmony vocals. Darin plays the guitar as well as the mandolin and no guitar player is listed in the band, which is unusual.

“Every Scar” switches course from the love theme, telling about how every scar tells something about your life and tying itself to the scars of Jesus. With “Things In Life” they break away from the mold of the first five songs with something that sounds more Monroe. It should because it’s from Don Stover, a Bluegrass Boy, the title cut on his Rounder LP from the ’70’s. I like what Darin and Brooke have on the CD but have to admit I welcome the change of pace here.

“Wildflower” is an interesting song, comparing the two lovers in various ways:

I’m a wildflower, by the highway

Up against the rain

And I’m an old man, growing tired

Getting used to the pain

Some interesting writing here and a very good song to listen to – more like country pop than bluegrass but that doesn’t take away from its beauty. Depending on your musical tastes, you may know about an equally beautiful and widely covered Wildflower, but they are different songs.

A surprising but interesting selection is Patsy Montana‘s giant hit, “[I Want To Be] A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” featuring Brooke doing some very good yodeling. “Jesus Walk Beside Me” and “Lord Lift Me Up” are traditional sounding bluegrass, the latter with some good harmony singing, and “He’s Already There,” with its minor chords and Dobro interludes, may be my favorite song on the CD.

This is good music, though I think the campfire pickers will like it better in the second half than the first. If the Aldridges can keep producing CDs of this caliber they should have a long career ahead of them.

“Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers” by the McPeak Brothers

The McPeak Brothers
Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers
Rebel Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Rebel Records continues to enrich their catalogue with the recent issuance of this well-collated disc of music culled from the McPeak Brothers’ three County and Rebel albums from 1977-1983. As have several recent Rebel releases, Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers provides insight into a period of bluegrass history too frequently overlooked.

Tim White’s expansive liner notes provide the biographical background and recording and performance insight one expects and appreciates from a retrospective package.

Coming out of Wythe County, Virginia, the McPeak Brothers emphasized three-part harmony in their arrangements, a feature White documents considerably. Further, by establishing positive relationships in Nashville, especially with Mel Tillis, the brothers recorded for RCA (as well as regional labels) before finding a long-term home within the Rebel family.

It appears the brothers’ bluegrass career was handicapped by the reluctance of Dewey and Mike to fully commit to the uncertainty of the music business. Unfortunate that decision may have been as the 14 tracks reissued here demonstrate that the group had all the elements necessary for considerable success within the industry: great voices, close ‘brother’ harmonies, powerful instrumentation, strong material, and an acute sense of what made a superior bluegrass performance, elements featured on almost every song contained herein including “Back to Dixie,” “Kentucky Road,” and Larry McPeak’s impressive title track.

I don’t like reviewing albums without a solid background of knowledge, but I truly don’t know the McPeaks from Adam. I do know this: I want to hear more of their music, especially more sung by whichever brother absolutely destroys “Bend in the River.” Another stellar performance is the Civil War ballad “The Last Time.”

The band obviously had great ears for material as several of the tracks on this compilation have become jam and stage standards including “Livin’ With the Shades Pulled Down,” “Shelly’s Winter Love,” “Lost River,” and “Shoulder to Shoulder.”

The McPeaks may not have been first to record some of those songs, but their renditions are exceptional examples of mid-period bluegrass. Those who come to bluegrass a little later than some others (and this includes me) may be surprised to hear the group’s rendition of “Steel Rails,” the Louisa Branscomb song that Alison Krauss made so popular in the early 90s; while Branscomb’s band Boot Hill recorded the song the previous year, it was the McPeak Brothers’ 1978 rendition that brought the song initial success. Who knew?

Jerry Douglas and Jim Buchanan are featured on Dobro and fiddle on several cuts while Ricky Skaggs and Rickie Simpkins appear on both mandolin and fiddle in select places.

Those who already own the McPeak Brother’s Classic Bluegrass (1992) collection already have all these songs; Yesteryears has almost the same running order as that set with the significant difference being the exclusion of two additional songs (“Ring of Fire” and “Don’t Laugh”) included on the original package.

With classy cover art and packaging (kudos to Sue Meyer), informative liner notes, and an outstanding selection of songs, Yesteryears: The Best of the McPeak Brothers will ably fill a gap in many bluegrass collections.

I look forward to full-album McPeak Brothers reissues from Rebel.

“Mountains & Memories” by the Virginia Squires

Virginia Squires
Mountains & Memories
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Virginia Squires band dates back to the early 1980s. They were definitely a hot band during their day, but eventually broke apart to follow separate paths to fame if not fortune (monetary fortune and bluegrass music are not usually mentioned together). While you may not be familiar with the band’s name, most dedicated followers of ‘grass will know the members of the band.

On guitar and vocals is Mark Newton. He’s been in and out of the spotlight since the Squires disbanded but is active now and recently toured Japan. “A Beautiful Home,” from his 2003 album No Boundaries, is one of my favorite songs. Rickie Simpkins, on fiddle and mandolin, was a veteran of the McPeak Brothers and, after the Squires, played with the Tony Rice Unit (seen here in May 2011), the Lonesome River Band (a duet with Shelor) and the Isaacs. Brother Ronnie Simpkins on bass had been with the Bluegrass Cardinals and later went on to also be a part of the Tony Rice Unit as well as a member of the Seldom Scene since 1995. Sammy Shelor, on banjo, joined the Heights of Grass, the precursor to the Squires that all four were part of, at nineteen. After the Squires broke up he joined the Lonesome River Band in 1990 and has been there since, its leader for the past few years.

Mountains & Memories, released in 1984, was the first of the band’s five albums. They were part of the newgrass movement, sometimes pushing the envelope of bluegrass to expand beyond the traditional sounds of Monroe and others of the first generation. While part of this was undoubtedly an effort to reach a broader audience (which equates to more money), part was just wanting to play music that appealed to them. This album is mostly just good bluegrass, though, and no more edgy than most of what is released today.

“Only A Memory Away” is very pretty song about the memories of youth and makes a good bluegrass number. The only thing I don’t like (and this applies to the entire album) is the use of a Fender-style bass. I suppose it’s just me but I dislike that sound more than the soft sounds of a piano on a bluegrass album. I saw Ronnie Simpkins with the Scene a few years back and I believe he was playing an electric upright then. You can set up the feed on one of those so it doesn’t sound a lot different than a doghouse bass. That’s tougher to do with a Fender-style bass or a flattop bass. For me, it just takes away from the bluegrass sound.

Another bluegrass songs on the album is “Girl I Left In Sunny Tennessee.” This was on Norman Blake‘s 1976 Whiskey Before Breakfast album where it’s listed as a traditional (i.e., no copyright) song. That’s a good measure of a bluegrass song. “Nighttime Lady” is a country ballad (and a different song than the one Ricky Nelson did) and “The Sky Is Weeping” is another good one. “Macclenny Farewell” is an obscure number in a minor key – a good song that fits well with the high lonesome sound of bluegrass.

Then there’s “Ticket To Ride.” I don’t believe it’s impossible to take a rock number and make a good bluegrass song out of it. One of my favorites is Blue Highway’s version of Sting’s “I Hung My Head” (also covered by Johnny Cash). But with “Ticket To Ride” they’re just trying to play rock with acoustic instruments. Their version of “Honky Tonk Women” is saner than the Rolling Stones version and has some good playing in it. I can picture a lot of bluegrass bands throwing this in the mix just to make things interesting. (Remember, “Fox On The Run” came to life as a rock song.)

This was good music in the ’80s even though it probably raised the eyebrows and ire of traditionalists. It’s good music today.

“The Time it Takes” by Kayla Luky

Kayla Luky
The Time it Takes
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Arriving unheralded earlier this summer was the third album from Grandview, Manitoba’s Kayla Luky.

A full-blown alternative country release, The Time It Takes doesn’t waste any time in establishing itself as a revitalizing shot of natural sounding, roots music. From the initial seconds of the album’s opening track “Cowboys are Coming,” one suspects that the album is going to be something special.

And it is.

Similar in sound and approach to recent and excellent recordings from Kim Beggs, Ruth Moody, and Kate Maki, The Time It Takes marks Kayla Luky as an artist for whom we should keep an ear open. Swinging into Neko Case territory on “You Won’t Find Me” and “Arizona,” Luky takes on the fair-haired child of the Americana scene and wins an uncontested victory.

Among the many things one appreciates about this recording is the quality of Luky’s enunciation. While several noted artists have in recent years started slurring their lyrics in an attempt at (one supposes) poetic mystery, Luky lays everything out clearly.

“Lonesome Ranger” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Uncle Earl disc, and closes the album with energy and attitude.

This music could have been made anywhere, I suppose. But knowing that it comes from a group of friends gathered in small town Manitoba this past winter, living on liquor and lottery tickets, makes it all the more appealing and authentic.

Kayla Luky has an ache in her heart, but through music transforms it into something joyful.

Luky is touring eastern Canada through September; you may want to check her out.

“I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me” by Bill Harrell

Bill Harrell
I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me was Bill Harrell’s first release for Rebel Records, recorded in 1979. Rebel has released it again as an mp3 album, making it available for legions of new bluegrass fans.

Bill Harrell was originally part of the east coast urban bluegrass movement, playing in the Washington DC area. After some time in the service and almost a year in the hospital after a serious auto accident, he formed the Virginians. They appeared in several states around Washington and guested on the Jimmy Dean Show (with Buck Ryan and Smitty Irvin in the spotlight). Harrell then joined forces with Don Reno as Reno & Harrell when he was thirty-two years old, taking the place of the ailing Red Smiley. After a decade he re-formed the Virginians and led that group for two decades. Harrell passed away in 2009.

Harrell was an easy-going singer with a voice that could easily cross the boundary with country music, at least back in those days. Listening to him sing “Lonesome With Heartaches” reminds me of one of his contemporaries, Mac Wiseman. Their style of singing is different than the edgier sound of, say, Dan Tyminski. Both styles are a bluegrass treasure to hear but the Harrell-Wiseman style wasn’t far removed from mainstream country before the big-band sound of Ray Price, Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves started changing the country landscape.

As you listen to the music you can hear its age but no one will be complaining. The debate I hear these days is whether bluegrass is going down the same path country went and becoming a little too smooth, over produced with pitch correction and all the glitches ironed out. (Let me emphasize “debate” and the subject can’t be addressed here.) This is classic bluegrass from one of the stars of the end of the 20th century.

Harrell, singing lead and playing guitar, is joined on this CD by Larry Stephenson on the mandolin, a band member for four years before leaving for the Bluegrass Cardinals, and so young here you can barely recognize him on the album cover; Ed Ferris (Country Gentlemen) on bass; Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene) on resophonic guitar; the late Carl Nelson (Johnson Mountain Boys) on fiddle and Darrell Sanders on banjo. All excellent musicians and their harmonies are a delight to hear on this record. The instrumental breaks are clean with whoever is playing setting on top of the background music. Listen to “I Want To Go Back To The Mountains” to hear an example of their harmony singing and outstanding instrumental breaks.

Other than the venerable “When The Saints Go Marching In,” to me an odd choice for this collection of bluegrass songs, I haven’t heard these songs in recent years. That’s a shame because they included some good numbers. “Something In the Wind” (not to be confused with the Chris LeDoux song of the same name) is a tale of lost love, and you’ll clearly hear Larry Stephenson chiming in on tenor. Harrell pays homage to a favorite bluegrass subject, mothers, in “A Visit To Mother’s Grave.” The title song tells us how his home state is calling him home while “Green Rolling Hills” tells of the beautiful, rolling hills of neighboring West Virginia.

“I [Can] Get The Blues When It Rains,” played here as an uptempo number, was borrowed from other genre. Jim Reeves recorded it as well as Judy Garland (lyrics had some minor variations). Then there was the Ink Spots from the ’50’s, Annette Hanshaw (1929), Riley Puckett, a blind country music pioneer from the same era as Hanshaw, and Jerry Lee Lewis (1969 – and he makes it sound bluesy!). This is a song that’s been around. Harrell’s version isn’t all that bluesy but you get to hear Stephenson’s tenor as well as some good instrumental work, especially by Auldridge.

The music may be three decades old but it stacks up with what is being produced today. This will be an excellent addition to any fan’s library.

“American Legacies” by Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band
American Legacies
McCoury Music and Preservation Hall Recordings
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Gerald Early famously said in Ken Burns’ 1993 Baseball documentary that “the Constitution, jazz music and baseball” are what America will be known for two thousand years from now. All three have roots in the Old World, but are uniquely American because of the innovations Americans added to old ingredients. Bluegrass music is often overlooked as a unique American contribution to world music, mostly because it has not influenced culture as much as jazz, but it is perhaps even more purely American than its more popular cousin.

The bands collaborating on this recording are standard-bearers in their genres, with the McCoury’s outfit having brought more innovation to theirs than the Pres Hall band, which keeps the torch burning for traditional jazz. Both are exciting to see live, where the joy they bring to their craft is immediately palpable, but their recorded effort sounds more like a staid compromise than a synthesis of two vibrant styles.

“The Band’s in Town” kicks off the disc with plenty of promise, with Del McCoury and Pres Hall’s Clint Maedgen trading vocals and introducing great players like Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Jason Carter (fiddle) from the bluegrass side and jazzer Charlie Gabriel (clarinet). Gabriel’s clarinet, Mark Braud’s muted trumpet and Del’s matchless voice combine to make “One Has My Name” a diverting breeze and one of the best tracks here. Del also shines on “Jambalaya” and “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry,” one of the very few times that Rob McCoury’s impeccable banjo is allowed to speak up.

Maedgen, Gabriel and Braud share the vocal duties from the Pres Hall side, but, like all mortals, they just don’t stack up to Del. On the instrumental side, the Pres Hall band dominates, both on solos and they tempo and feel of each track. It’s all trad jazz with the McCoury band pitching in here and there. Nowhere is Pres Hall tested by a hard-driving bluegrass beat, even on “Banjo Frisco,” an instrumental for banjo written by Del or “Milenberg Joys,” a jazz tune that bluegrass founder Bill Monroe converted into a mandolin showpiece.

It might have been a better idea to just record Del singing with Pres Hall while the rest of the boys were out as the Travelin’ McCourys. The result instead is like a beignet from Cafe Du Monde with no sugar sprinkled on it.

“Rollin'” by Bill Grant & Delia Bell

Bill Grant & Delia Bell
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske
Of the digital-only albums to come our way from Rebel and County in these past months, the one that made my heart pitter-patter the quickest was Rollin’. With Bill Grant and Delia Bell music rarely being spotted for sale, the reissue of this 1981 album is welcome.

Bell’s voice is the centerpiece of the album; like the late Hazel Dickens, Bell has a voice that is as natural as it is beautiful: you can hear the working girl blues in every syllable of “No One Else.” “Moods of a Fool” is one of those lonesome bluegrass songs that define the genre.

Bill Grant’s voice blends wonderfully with Bell’s and his lead work is top notch. When he sings, “When I hear that trumpet blow / someone will call my name” in “Goin’ to See My Jesus” or “It’s you and only you” in “Only You,” one would be hard pressed to identify that he’s from the mid-western plains rather than the hills of Kentucky.

Don’t get me started on their renditions of “The Rock Pile,” “The Girl at the Crossroads Bar,” and “Stone Walls and Steel Bars.” Wonderful singing, beautiful playing.

While listening to Rollin’, an extended fiddle break within “Take My Hand and Tell Me” caught my ear, I thought, “That sounds like Benny Martin.” It doesn’t happen with me very often, but when it does I feels like I may actually know something—turns out, it was indeed the Big Tiger fiddling on this Josh Graves-produced album.

Credits aren’t provided with the download, but research tells me that Joe Stuart played lead guitar throughout with Gordon Reid on banjo. Joe Pointer manned the bass.

I believe we turn to bluegrass for self-affirmation, an assurance that our lives are tolerable partly in recognition that others are experiencing challenges similar to our own. If true, such evidence is present in almost all of this album’s music.

Recorded a few years before Bell’s Emmylou Harris-produced Warner Brothers album, Rollin’ is crucial listening for those who like to hear more than a little Oklahoma country in the mix.