“Traveling Light” by Cliff Waldron & the New Shades of Grass

Cliff Waldron & The New Shades of Grass
Traveling Light
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Yet another retrospective Rebel digital re-release is Cliff Waldron’s Traveling Light, dating back to 1971. You can see the original LP at Bill’s Blog.

Waldron, a West Virginia native, moved to the DC area in 1962 and became an important part of the Washington-area bluegrass movement that included the Country Gentlemen. These groups helped keep bluegrass alive during a time that rock-‘n’-roll was the monster about to push country, bluegrass and folk aside to oblivion. His partnership with Bill Emerson was important but Waldron continued on after Emerson’s departure, eventually releasing twelve albums for Rebel before retiring from music in 1974. He, like so many others in the music business, needed to find a job that paid better and offered more stability for his family.

He came back to bluegrass in 1996 and released a couple of albums. Unforunately, he had some health issue a couple of years ago and has again retired. Fans can email him at CliffWaldron@earthlink.net or send cards and letters to 321 Hinsons Ford Road, Amissville, VA 20106.

This release featured some well-known names in bluegrass, though they were a bit less famous in 1971. Waldron is on guitar and vocals. Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene) was on Dobro, the late Dave Auldridge on mandolin (a rhythm player, not playing lead parts), the late Jack Auldridge on snare drum. Ben Eldridge (Seldom Scene) played banjo, Ed Ferris (Country Gentlemen) was on bass and Bill Poffinberger played fiddle. This was a great lineup of musicians and makes for good listening. (Mike Auldridge tells me that Dave and Jack were his brothers, three boys from a family of seven boys and two girls. Jack was primarily a jazz drummer but took the pictures on several of Mike’s recordings.)

Mike Auldridge kicks off “Rock Bottom” and illustrates why he is known as one of the best Dobro players in the business. This is a rocking instrumental, though the mix on Eldridge’s banjo is a bit strange, sounding like he was standing distant from the microphone as he played. Eldridge is right up front on the classic “Bill Cheetham”. It’s too bad they cut it so short – only Eldridge and Poffinberger taking breaks. Considering the time this was made, an era when a number of bluegrass bands edged closer to a country sound, and the bands home ground of Washington, where bluegrass music was edgy and often escaped the boundaries established by Bill Monroe’s music, the use of a snare isn’t surprising. You can hear it very plainly on “Rock Bottom” even though Auldridge stayed in the background.

This album has its share of instrumentals with “Red Apple Rag” rounding out the list. It’s another lively tune but by this time you begin to notice the missing mandolin on the breaks.

Waldron is a passable singer and the harmonies are good. It’s easy to see the country influence on this record. “The Sunny Side of My Life” and “Silver Wings” are both Merle Haggard songs. Waldron goes flat on a few notes in the latter but I prefer that to the pitch corrected attempts at perfection sometimes heard today. You’re hearing the band, not some computer enhanced clone of the band. “Ice Covered Birches” was written by Carl Hoffman, known as the “Father of Alaska Bluegrass” who was seriously injured in 2010. “Falling Leaves,” written by the late Grandpa Jones has become a standard in bluegrass.

Kris Kristofferson penned “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and they do a good bluegrass version of it here, but I’ve always felt this song has to be done as a sensuous ballad, the way Sammi Smith did it the same year as this LP was released. “Close the Door Lightly As You Go” (Eric Andersen) works well in a bluegrass setting while having some overtones of the folk music movement so popular at the time. “Then I’ll Miss You” sounds like a Glen Campbell song but it was written by Bobby Bond and was on the B side of a George Hamilton IV 45.

You have to take this release in context, looking back forty years, part of the DC scene when bluegrass was heavily influenced by country music. It features great musicians and good songs. It’s good to have it available again.

“Sleep with One Eye Open” by Chris Thile & Michael Daves

Chris Thile & Michael Daves
Sleep with One Eye Open
Nonesuch Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I came to love bluegrass music in 1999 and in that year began attending the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass conference and Fanfest, which was at that time held at the Galt House in Louisville. One of the great attractions of that week was the incessant jamming in the hallways, rooms and lobbies of that grand but slightly seedy hotel. You never knew who you were going to happen upon. For a couple of years, the nucleus of what would become Old Crow Medicine Show played in the main lobby, and they were horrible. But they paid their dues and look where they are now.

A friend of mine reports a few different exciting encounters with a jamming Chris Thile, beginning with his days as a child mandolin prodigy on into his teen years. This two-instrument, two-voice album, recorded with master Brooklyn-based six-stringer Michael Daves in four days at Jack White’s Third Man Studio in Nashville, has the combination of playfulness and virtuosity that many of us were occasionally lucky enough to find riding the Galt’s service elevators (waiting on the ones in the lobby was for suckers) and roaming its hallways.

The duo’s sixteen-song repertoire is heavy on jamming standards from the songbags of Monroe (“Rabbit in the Log,” “Tennessee Blues,” and “Cry, Cry Darling”) , Flatt & Scruggs (“My Littler Girl in Tennessee,” “Sleep with One Eye Open,” “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “If I Should Wander Back Tonight”), Jimmy Martin (“20/20 Vision” and “It Takes One to Know One”), and early Del McCoury (“Rain and Snow” and “Loneliness and Desperation). All of these have the requisite hard edge, but there is a softer side too, brought by the gentle tenors of both singers.

The duet singing on the Louvins’ “You’re Running Wild” is simply gorgeous, as is “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” Frank Rodgers’ “Ookpik Waltz” is a masterstroke of instrumental taste and restraint from two pickers who can rip and run as hard as anyone, with Thile’s mandolin exhibiting the expressiveness of an expertly played grand piano.

The best bluegrass singing and playing is the kind that runs up to and shoves a shoulder into the limits inherent in the genre, and Thile and Daves do just that on a fully satisfying 50-minute effort.

“Let Him Lead You” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Let Him Lead You
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Of all the things that have remained consistent throughout the forty-plus year career of bluegrass legend Larry Sparks—from his opulent hair and distinctive sideburns, sharp clothing, and gentlemanly manner to his gorgeous voice, the maintenance of a nuanced, talented band, and ability to select just the rightsongs for his projects—what has remained perhaps most steadfast is his faith in the Lord and the importance of singing His praises.

As they have previously, Rebel has scoured their vaults to select 14 gospel songs from the extensive Sparks catalog. Featuring a number of performances rarely encountered, the material stretches from 1974’s “I Am the Man, Thomas,” taken from the excellent King album The Footsteps of Tradition (featuring Dave Evans, Ralph Meadows, and Wendy Miller) through to the mid-80s (represented by several songs including five from 1986’s Gonna Be Movin’) and ending at 2000 with a chestnut from the Special Delivery album, “Snow Covered Mound.”

Ricky Skaggs makes a couple of appearances, most demonstrably on the set closer “When My Time Comes to Go;” on this lively 1976 King cut, Skaggs is double-tracked on mandolin and fiddle and also contributes tenor. Skaggs also plays mandolin on 1977’s “Battle of Armageddon” where Chubby Wise lends his impressive fiddling to the mix.

Whether taking a solo lead, singing within a rich quartet, or singing an a cappella number in a trio, these selections provide ample evidence—not that such was needed—that Larry Sparks has few peers when delivering bluegrass gospel.

I love that Rebel has taken care with this compilation, but am not surprised; the label has, especially of late, proven pride in their recording legacy. With just more than half of the selections making their CD debut, Rebel has provided true value within this inexpensive set.

Add in Chris Jones’ fine notes—he writes with the same depth as he speaks—and it may be time to supplement some of those cherished old cassettes. Let Him Lead You is an excellent collection of Sparks-styled bluegrass gospel.