“I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” by Audie Blaylock and Redline

Audie Blaylock and Redline
I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Jared Ledford

This year has brought us many Big Mon tribute albums, each of which has held its own among the others. I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky is an album that does right by the man and the music. When listening to a tribute album it is very easy to get lost in comparisons with the originals, Redline does themselves justice in this regard giving just the right amount of twist to set their versions of these Monroe standards apart from the originals while still giving true respect to the source.

Out of the gate Redline proves the album’s worth with a great rendition of the title track “I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky”, featuring precise fiddle work from Reed Jones and impressive guest vocals from Lou Reid making this a favorite on the album. The rest of the disc is perfectly paced, with a mix of fast and slow tunes presenting a well-chosen introduction to Monroe’s music.

Special guest vocalists Bobby Osborne, Del McCoury, and Carl Jackson provide a great addition to Blaylock’s powerful emotional readings of familiar songs, making them fresh and fun. Redline banjo player Russ Carson is featured and impresses on almost every track on the album. Guest mandolin player Ronnie McCoury (featured on every track) truly shows why he was picked for this project as his work has a bluesy bite needed for the Monroe style.

BEST OF THE BUNCH: Track 4—“On the Old Kentucky Shore”

“Little Bird” by Kasey Chambers

Kasey Chambers
Little Bird
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Over several months during 2001, I became aware of Kasey Chambers. First was a chance listen on the radio, a snippet of voice and sound that blended perfectly within the vibrant Americana sounds of the day while being so original, so unusual, that one noticed and asked, “Who is that?”

Then came second and third fortuitous encounters, eventually leading to some research to find out who was singing:

“And you be the Captain, and I’ll be no one

And you can carry me away if you want to,

and you can lay low,

Just like your father and if

I tread upon your feet you just say so,

‘Cos you’re the Captain, I am no one,

I tend to feel as though I owe one to you.”

I listened to a lot of Kasey Chambers over the next couple years, covers found on the Internet, The Captain album and its follow-up Barricades & Brickwalls. I was intrigued by the repeated connections to Fred Eaglesmith- she covered both “Freight Train” and “Water in the Fuel”- and Paul Kelly, as well as her penchant for Gram Parsons’ songs. Of course, there was that voice- somewhere between Rachel Sweet and Emmylou Harris circa 1978 and yet wholly unlike anything I had heard before- fresh and bold, plaintive and yet as warm as a cinnamon bun and just as fragrant.

But, strangely, I didn’t get past those first couple albums and onto those that followed. I never sought our Wayward Angel or Carnival and I’m not sure if I even noticed any of their songs. Either I lost interest in what she was doing or I became so overwhelmed by other music that I didn’t notice when they came out.

Still, I returned to the fold and purchased Rattlin’ Bones, her stripped down collaboration with spouse Shane Nicholson, and it became one of my favorite albums of 2008. When I found an import copy of Little Bird early this past spring, I hesitated only momentarily before paying the hefty ticket price. I wasn’t disappointed then and those positive vibes remained through several more listens throughout the summer and fall of 2011.

Little Bird received its North American release this past July.

Recorded in early 2010, Little Bird features 14 tracks (when the brief, hidden song appended to the album is included) recorded with a fairly consistent core band and several guest (mostly backing) vocalists of which only Patty Griffin’s name means anything to me.

There is a healthy dose of pop/rock influence in Chambers’ music, but it isn’t overbearing; the spirit of country and folk is alive and apparent in every song Chambers writes and every note she sings. Folks expecting anything more than fleeting connections to Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry, or Sugarland need to look elsewhere.

To my ears, Chambers’ sound hasn’t changed too much in the decade since I first heard her singing songs like “The Hard Way” and “Cry Like a Baby.” She sounds older and also wiser, more realistic, but every bit as vulnerable. This assuredness comes through plainly in the confidence- not to be mistaken for hardness- revealed on “Beautiful Mess.”

“I broke down like a babe with the hungriest belly / You make it all worth my while” could sound manipulative, but Chambers mixes sultriness with aggression revealing a strong inner core that plainly communicates that while she needs her lover, she is aware that he may not be the best for her: reciprocal loyalty counts for something.

Chambers doesn’t shy away from commercial considerations. “Someone Like Me,” I imagine, would sound at home on today’s country radio providing a bit of a palate cleanser from the more overt lite-pop inhabiting the playlists. Nicholson adds percussive brightness to a handful of songs- the album highlight “Devil On Your Back” for one- laying out some unpretentious, effective banjo fills.

The drumming on this album is pretty in your face; one imagines that John Watson has listened to more than a couple Waylon Jennings albums- Richie Albright’s heavy sound is all over Little Bird. Maybe this is the difference for me, what makes Little Bird a wonderful album to listen to while driving, what separates its obvious rock influences from the wimpy-arsed nonsense encountered on country radio. Like Elizabeth Cook’s Welder, this is an album recorded with some serious attitude. Balls, perhaps.

Even a song as gentle as “Somewhere,” the one featuring Patty Griffin on backing vox, brings a touch of realism and strength to its melancholy. As she sings elsewhere, the fairy tale is over.

“Train Wreck,” with flavors of surf guitar, could be an outtake from a Los Straitjackets guest session. “Invisible Girl” is perhaps a sister to “Not Pretty Enough” with its premise of one seeing right through, not noticing, another. I don’t think it would be legitimate to compare Chambers to Guy Clark, but his “Texas, 1947” came to mind as Chambers recited her memories of childhood on “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard.)”

A most satisfying creation from one of Americana’s (I know she’s Australian, dang it) brightest and most recognizable voices.

“Hold on Me” by Spring Creek Bluegrass

Spring Creek Bluegrass
Hold On Me
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The band is comprised of Taylor Sims (guitar, vocals), Chris Elliott (banjo, vocals), Dan Booth (bass, vocals) and Alex Johnstone (mandolin, fiddle, vocals). According to the band, their music is “rural and cosmic,” whatever that means.

Joining them on Hold On Me are Gabe Witcher (Punch Brothers) on fiddle, Jayme Stone on banjo and Sally Van Meter on resophonic guitar (and producer of the album).

Their music is a blend of styles and genre: bluegrass, Americana, folk, maybe pop. You can throw in country: one of their better numbers is “Way Back In The Mountains,” written by Merle Haggard. They do a credible job with it and it sounds good with acoustical instruments (I prefer the acoustical version to Merle’s). An apt song for today’s troubled world. They put thier own stamp on “Body and Soul,” pushing it towards a progressive sound that plays well once you get past the strangeness of hearing such a familiar song played a different way. (It’s unfortunate they don’t identify who is singing.)

“C. Bob Swing” delivers on its name, a nice swing, jazzy melody featuring all the instruments in the band. “Mockingbird” is a good, hard driving song though I’m not too sure what the lyrics are all about, somehow tying life’s hard knocks to a mockingbird’s song. While the lyrics are hard to pin down the music is good bluegrass.

While their lyrics may lean toward Americana or folk their instrumental work would be eagerly embraced by any bluegrass crowd. I find myself letting the lyrics of songs like “See Me On” float through my mind without snagging anywhere, forgotten as soon as heard, all the while thinking about the instrumental portion, “boy, I’d like to play that.” If you like bluegrass, listen to “Kimono Cowboy,” a great bluegrass instrumental number from start to finish. “Hold On Me,” written by Sims, is yet another with good instrumental work and the lyrics are okay, reminding me of incorporating Eagles music into a stage show.

Topnotch, acoustic, mostly bluegrass instrumentals, most lyrics leaning away from traditional bluegrass towards progressive/Americana – unless you won’t listen to anything but Dr. Ralph you’ll like this Colorado band.

“Trolley Days” by Thomas Porter & Copper River Band

Thomas Porter & Copper River Band
Trolley Days
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you Google Thomas Porter you’ll find a lot of material on the Internet, but you don’t find much that tells much about who he is. He’s based in Arizona and wrote (or co-wrote) all the songs on this CD. Going to his personal website reveals some things about him and I’ve never seen an artist’s website like his. He certainly has some varied interests.

Doyle Lawson recorded one of his songs on a recent project and it’s not clear if this CD is on the market for him as an artist or to primarily pitch his music. (From his website: This album has an all-star lineup and it’s all original tunes of mine that I’m trying to pitch to bluegrass greats.) There are no appearances listed on his website and no band info. Included with his multi-song CD is a single CD, “Simple Box of Pine” that’s dedicated to Vincent Collin Beach, though it’s not clear what their relationship was. Porter’s website shows he has been performing with the Providence Bluegrass Band in Arizona and X Train, although their website doesn’t mention him.

“Simple Box of Pine” features some great musicians. Besides Porter (lead vocal, guitar, bass) there’s Dan Tyminski (mandolin, harmony) and Ron Block (banjo) from Union Station and Molly Cherryholmes on fiddle. Porter proves adept with a pen and a tune, giving us a good song. The music is, of course, excellent (look at the lineup!) and it was co-produced by Anni Beach, Vincent’s wife. The end of the song features the Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band and their website hints at the connection between Porter and Beach. Unlike some background groups making an appearance this one adds to the song instead of leaving you shaking your head.

The Trolley Days CD features Porter on guitar and vocals, Bob Denoncourt (Joe Val) on bass and vocals, Dick Brown (Lost Highway) on banjo and vocals, Doug Bartlett (Quicksilver, James King), fiddle and vocals and Jim Govern playing mandolin. The musicianship on this CD is very good and Porter proves to be an excellent songwriter. I’m usually skeptical of a CD with all the songs written by the performer but there are no throwaway songs here.

Blame it on my love for classic country for my favorite song is “No More Room.” This could easily have made the country charts for any of the balladeers of the past. Porter can write an instrumental, too. “Chester Frost” has an interesting melody and he shows he can pick a guitar, including some well-placed chimes.

“Poor Sister Cry” is a chilling song about a man that harms two children and is killed by the son. What’s a good bluegrass album without retribution and death? “Echoes Of Your Name” is an easy flowing song about lost love while “Tool And Die” is a hard driving song about a working man.

Porter’s songs cover a variety of topics using a variety of styles: ballads to hard driving, banjo-laced music. This is a young man and a band that should be heard, a good, fresh voice in bluegrass.