“The Heart of a Song” by Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice
The Heart of a Song
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

With all the recent viable and necessary discussions within the bluegrass world about big tents and “bridging the gap to the bigger acoustic world” (see Chris Pandolfi’s blog), a complementary perspective is welcome to those who feel that the word ‘bluegrass’ should actually mean something.

When an album kicks off with a fiddle and these words, a stylistic gauntlet is being dropped:

It’s hard to tell which way the music is going,

And sometimes I wonder how long it will last.

I still listen to all the words and the music,

But it ain’t nothing like it was in the past.

As Pandolfi so acutely described, citing Bill Evans, in his 2011 IBMA keynote address, the essence of bluegrass is more impactful than some real musical standard. Both that essence of bluegrass and bluegrass’s real musical standard are front and center on The Heart of a Song. 

As a respected bluegrass songwriter and through stints of various lengths with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, the original Ramblers Choice, The Lost & Found, and Blue Ridge, Junior Sisk has established himself as one of bluegrass music’s most distinctive and vibrant vocalists.

Now on his third album as Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, and with the core of the band stable, The Heart of a Song solidifies Sisk and his crew’s presence as a premier outfit within the very crowded bluegrass fold.

True, Sisk’s long-time singing partner Tim Massey—who plays bass on this album and who co-wrote the album’s popular opener (#1 on a recent Bluegrass Today airplay chart) “A Far Cry from Lester & Earl”—has recently amicably departed the group. What matters is the quality of this album and The Heart of a Song is as a strong an album from start to finish as one is likely to encounter in the autumn of 2011.

The instrumental virtuosity and singing traditions of bluegrass are well-represented on The Heart of a Song’s dozen tracks. As he should, Junior takes that majority of leads with Massey taking a pair and Jason Tomlin a single track. Junior Sisk always sounds wonderful and his ability to channel contemporary bluegrass through traditional sounds frequently seems magical.

In addition to “A Far Cry from Lester & Earl,” several tracks provide tremendous evidence of Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice’s mastery of the music. The Stanley sound is all over this album. “String, Eraser, and Blotter” comes from The Stanley Brothers while other songs, such as “The Devil’s Old White Well,” simply sound Stanley-made.

The bluegrass standard “Sea of Regret,” previously recorded by any number of artists including Joe Val, Ralph Stanley, Whitley & Skaggs, and Dave Evans, features the vocal trio of Massey’s lead, Sisk’s tenor and Tomlin’s high baritone and provides that modern bridge to the sounds of the past. Billy Hawks’ fiddle establishes the mournful mood of “Cold Heart” and Sisk’s lead takes the song straight into plum pitiful territory.

A new Dixie and Tom T. Hall song features Sisk singing alone. One of the more disturbing songs to come along recently, “The Grave Robber” is pure atmosphere. With only Sisk’s guitar providing instrumental texture, he calmly recites a story that is mountain dark. In Tom T.’s words, an epic tale.

“The Sound of Your Name” is a plaintive bluegrass-country ballad that sounds a bit out of place amongst the album’s more masculine pieces. Rhonda Vincent’s vocal presence greatly softens the song and this may broaden the song’s appeal. “Another Man’s Arms” is a prison song that has been told before, but Jason Davis’ driving banjo sets this one apart.

Junior Sisk has long been one of bluegrass music’s strongest voices. With three albums fronting his own band, and his latest being quite exceptional, one hopes The Heart of a Song garners the attention and sales it deserves.

“Tall Grass & Cool Water” by Michael Martin Murphey

Michael Martin Murphey
Tall Grass & Cool Water

Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Okay, let’s get the bluegrass thing out of the way.

I’m willing to accept a fairly wide range of music as “bluegrass.” This CD beyond the pale as far as I’m concerned. I’m just guessing here, but maybe Murphey likes bluegrass or maybe the marketing people thought they could find a niche by adding the label, but I’ve never heard anything that I call bluegrass that sounds like this – and I don’t care how popular this CD or its predecessors might be. I’ve always wanted to include “Cool Water” or “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” in a bluegrass show, but as a novelty item that I think the crowd would like, not trying to sell that adding a banjo makes them bluegrass.

Do I like the CD? I do, but as a good example of western/cowboy music. So let’s use that as the starting point.

I like to put cowboy-western music into four categories:

  1. cowboy songs
  2. western ballads
  3. story songs
  4. GSS (genre-spanning standards)

This CD has some of all of these.

“Blue Prairie” is a beautiful lament ballad penned by Bob Nolan, Vern “Tim” Spencer” (whose most famous song is “Room Full of Roses”) and Jim Taft. I can listen to this song over and over. It has a bluesy, easy-going feel to it with a theme tied to the western landsacpe – and some great fiddle playing by Andy Leftwich. “Springtime In The Rockies” is another easy-listening ballad. A duet with Carin Mari, this is a song that’s been a hit for a host of artists including Slim Whitman, Hank Snow and Tex Ritter. These songs fit so well with the acoustic background provided by Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle), Pat Flynn (guitar), Charlie Cushman (banjo) and a host of other musicians, some well known and others talented but not famous.

Still in the ballads mode, “Partner To The Wind” is simply beautiful, both in its prose as well as its music and arrangement. The acoustic instruments fit it perfectly. It could as easily fit into a classical country setting as a cowboy music arrangement, though it doesn’t sound much like bluegrass.

“Trusty Lariat” is a ballad story song. It’s all about a cowboy working on a train and – you just need to hear it. It’s a yarn you can imagine being spun around a campfire with the sounds of cattle and horses nearby. It was written by Harry McClintock, probably best remembered for penning and recording (1928) “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Also included is a trio of story songs about the James Gang: “Frank James Farewell,” “The Ballad of Jesse James” and “The Ballad of Cole Younger.” “Cole Younger” has some wicked picking in it and could likely pass muster at most bluegrass shows. It has a soumd that reminds me of theme songs for some of the newer TV shows – a fun song to play. “Frank James” is a pretty song but it is definitely intended to tell a story more than just being fun to sing and hear.

“Texas Cowboy” is a cowboy song. all about ropin’, ridin’ and roundin’ up the strays. Loosely tied to an 1881 poem by the same name, it’s a celebration of the cowboy life. It will probably be a mystery to anyone who hasn’t a clue what it’s like to ride the prairie and work cattle. “Railroad Corrall” is the same model as is “Way Out There,” but the latter features some great yodeling by Carin Mari.

And then there’s “Cool Water.” I’ve never witnessed this song performed but what the crowd loved it. Written by Bob Nolan, who appeared in so many westerns and I grew up listening to the Sons of the Pioneers sing it and it will forever be on my list of favorites. Murphey and crew do it justice. The fiddle adds much to the arrangement and you’ll hear the guitar playing a riff here and there. Listening to this arrangment, the ony thing I would change is letting the instrumentalists experiment a little more with riffs and fills.

I still don’t understand why it’s labeled bluegrass, but I do love the music.

“David Wood Country” by David Wood

David Wood
David Wood Country
No label
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

David Wood’s website tells us he grew up in Los Angeles around sixty years ago. Beyond that, there’s not much information on his musical past – or present.

His blog says “Ride the Wild West (Cowabunga)” was #1 on the New Music Weekly Country Main Chart for the week of September 9, 2011. It must have taken a precipitous fall beause the current chart doesn’t show it down through #30. This is a song that I suppose Toby Keith might sing in his current version of himself, but without any of Keith’s enthusiasm. At one point Wood gives a “yahoo” that’s just flatlined – no inflection, nothing.

“My Dash” kicks off the CD, a story about how his life is described by the time represented by the dash between your date of birth and date of death. It’s half recitation and half singing and it’s not half bad but he doesn’t give a very inspiring performance then throws in a saloon-full of people (seven, actually, including the sole appearance of none other than Johnny Tillotson) as background vocalists with some trombone and trumpet music.It’s supposed to be a good-time song with a good-time crowd but Woods’ style doesn’t sell it very well.

There are some good songs on this CD. “Blue Light Lady” is a very nice song with a saxaphone and steel break that is done very well, but you never get the feeling that Wood has any range. There’s something about his voice that must be an acquired taste. That’s not unheard of in music. Willie nelson was an acquired taste back in his early days, talking as much as singing and there are hints of that in Woods’ singing. Willie is many years beyond that now, even though his style hasn’t changed that much, but he has reached the iconic stage. Woods hasn’t.

“Can’t Dance To The Blues” may be the best song in this collection, helped a great deal by background vocals by Kim Everett. This is a good country song and Woods does his best work here.

Appearing on the CD are Danny Borgers (who has worked with Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers and many other stars), Kathy Chiavola, Ronnie Guilbeau (Flying Burrito Brothers) and a long list of others performers. Ronnie’s dad, Gib (also with the FBB) composed “Can’t Dance To The Blues) along with famed Max D. Barnes. One of the strangest credits I’ve ever seen is for the background “singers” on “Ride The Wild West” where Jeff Foskett is listed four times. That gives a hint, I believe, to the conception of this CD: most if not all of it is overdubs to Woods’ vocals. While that isn’t unusual, the lack of any performance schedule on Woods’ website hints that he is making the CDs but isn’t on the road performing and that may be a clue to why his performance here doesn’t have a lot of lustre.

“Let Me Heal Your Broken Heart” is another beautiful song but Wood’s limited range leaves you wanting more.

A lot of possibilities here with the performers in the background and some of the songs, but he doesn’t do a good job selling the music to the listener.

“The Blu-Disc” by Nu-Blu

The Blu-Disc
Pinecastle Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Nu-Blu’s backstory is one that publicists salivate over.

A young band, founded by a couple soon-to-be in love and just starting their journey in the bluegrass world, is derailed by a life-threatening catastrophe only to persevere to be the initial signing of a resurrected label.

While it may not work as fiction, the tale of Nu-Blu’s Daniel and Carolyn Routh makes for captivating reading. Shortly after striking out on their own as Nu-Blu, Carolyn suffered a pair of strokes which cost her her voice, the use of her right side, and very nearly her life. During recovery, Daniel was a faithful companion and the pair married a few years later. With several years on the circuit under their belts, the North Carolina-based group was the first band to be signed when Pinecastle was re-launched a year ago.

Nu-Blu’s overall sound is hardly high and lonesome, but works well within the contemporary definition of bluegrass. With definite country overtones and a bluegrass approach that has been influenced by, one imagines, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Nu-Blu’s The Blu-Disc should appeal to a wide segment of the bluegrass population. Heck, “the storm is raging”—from the pen of Mark Brinkman but a line written for RV if there ever was one—even appears in “Must Be The Wind.”

“Any Stretch of Blacktop” and “Every Shade of Blue” are up-tempo songs that contain unrestrained bluegrass drive while “That’s Who I’m Supposed to Be” and “Look to You” feature more subdued approaches. Finely performed, the former song attempts to provide a face to the recent and ongoing financial crisis; instead, the song’s protagonist comes across as a self-deluding complainer and provides the album with its least-satisfying moments.

Coming from the same songwriting team—Marc Rossi and Donna Ulisse—that produced “That’s Who I’m Supposed to Be,” “The Guitar Case” is more successful. The story isn’t unique, but buoyed by Daniel’s vocal performance accompanied by lonesome fiddle from guest Greg Luck, the tale of lost affection, a motel room, and drinking resonates as genuine.

Among the album’s finest songs are two which feature Carolyn’s expressive vocals. “Family Quilt” is as the title suggests a retrospective of the memories and meanings of the fabrics that bind a family. “Roses and Rust,” paired with gravel and dust, provides insight to the life of one who outlives her peers.

Carolyn Routh (bass and vocals) and husband Daniel (guitar and vocals) are augmented throughout by Kendall Gales (mandolin) and Austin Levi (banjo, reso, and vocals) who also takes the lead vocal spot on “Lonesome Heartache Blues,” another album highlight. Greg Luck provides fiddle on a number of cuts while Rob Ickes makes a handful of appearances on Dobro. Christy Reid sings harmony on “Other Woman’s Blues,” a song that has generated airplay.

Nu-Blu doesn’t play the brand of bluegrass I usually find appealing, but their ability on The Blu-Disc to engrain their music with a variety of voices, tempos, and approaches eventually won me over. It is most definitely an album that became more appealing with multiple listenings.

I’m glad I didn’t rush to judgement because Nu-Blu has certainly produced an album of which they can be proud.

“Catch 23” by the 23 String Band

The 23 String Band
Catch 23
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

On his very strong new album, Junior Sisk sings, “A Far Cry from Lester and Earl” and I suspect that outfits like The 23 String Band would be among those feeling his wrath for drifting too far from Carter, Ralph, and “the love of a sweet mountain girl.” Recent online treatises from Chris Pandolfi and Travers Chandler, reasoned as they are, provide further fuel to a misinterpreted belief that bluegrass must evolve away from itself to survive.

The 23 String Band would most likely find themselves agreeing with those on all sides of the big tent, and would encourage those seeking shelter there to stop talking (and writing) and get pickin’.

Like Joy Kills Sorrow, the Steeldrivers, and the Infamous Stringdusters, the 23 String Band doesn’t seem to much care about labels and genre constructs. Rather, their focus is on making music that seems to aggressively poke at the very core of bluegrass before revealing itself to have as much in common with the sound as it does stylistically and atmospherically with popular bluegrass-based acoustiblue bands, the ones that get lumped into the “jam band” category.

None of which would matter if the music didn’t hold up to repeated listening. Fortunately, with their sophomore album—and I’ll be buying that first album first chance I get—this Kentucky-based group has produced an album that entertains while it challenges.

Singing with bleeding-throat intensity softened by an awareness of bluegrass precision, Chris Shouse is the most obvious place to start when examining the 23 String Band’s sound. Always in control, in spots (“Fat Frankie”) Shouse pushes his voice while elsewhere—“Leave Everything to Me,” for example—he gently swings with an old-timey ease; apt comparisons might be Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) and Chris Robinson (Black Crowes).

From first listen, T. Martin Stam’s bass and Scott Moore’s fiddle provide a depth of texture that one isn’t accustomed to encountering on relatively unheralded acoustic Americana releases. Mountain Blues indeed is the term that comes to mind listening to tunes such as “Fat Frankie,” “Hey Pretty Mama,” and the title track, an extended instrumental.

Everyone in the band receives vocal credit although Shouse takes all the leads. Dave Howard (mandolin) and Curtis Wilson (banjo) more than round-out the band’s full-frontal aural attack. John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days” is just one of the songs providing ample evidence of Howard’s and Wilson’s talents: the mid-song instrumental interlude is almost trance-inducing.

With most of the eleven tunes being original, the traditions of the music are further explored through choice covers. “Cripple Creek” and “Raleigh & Spencer” are taken for rides. The obligatory rock n’ roll cred-check is provided with a more than satisfactory reading of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Listen to Her Heart.” Why do I always think of Lucinda Williams when I hear that song?

With so much music coming our way, it is often difficult for an album or band to distinguish themselves from the pile. With an affable quality of performance, The 23 String Band has solved their self-defined Catch 23.

Recommended for fans of Chatham County Line, The Earl Brothers, and Acoustic Syndicate, Catch 23 presents an impressive cohesiveness of style that bodes well for the future of the 23 String Band.