“Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail” by Noam Pikelny

Noam Pikelny
Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
Compass Records

4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

A wise man I know once stated that virtuosity without soul is simply talent.

I think what he meant was that there are many talented musicians born and created, but it is the few who manage to bridge the gap to listener in a way that creates a lasting connection.

Such an association is deeply personal and that the person in question was listening to a very highly regarded bluegrass outfit at the time—and was about to walk out of their performance—speaks to the individuality of music appreciation. How does a performer satisfy artistic and creative impulses while simultaneously creating a bond with an audience that is largely incapable of speaking the language of the performer?

As an artist one can’t satisfy everyone, so you may as well please yourself. One presumes that on Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail Noam Pikelny has met his own expectations and is comfortable realizing that there are many who will not understand or appreciate his musical soul.

At 45 minutes and 12 tracks, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is a generous allocation of music that should challenge and be appreciated by most listeners of modern acoustic, stringband music.

Using several core band configurations, Pikelny and producer (and fellow Punch Brother) Gabe Witcher employ Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Mark Schatz (bass) on about a half-dozen tracks each, often together but occasionally in a trio or other setting. The resulting sounds are charming and soothing, restful in their assuredness and yet engaging as a result of their stellar execution.

Instrumentally, the album takes several distinct turns while traveling a boundary-challenging road. “The Broken Drought,” one of several Pikelny originals featured, would not appear out of place on the recent Goat Rodeo Sessions album. On the other hand, the song that comes just before it—Art Stamper’s “Pineywoods” featuring Stuart Duncan in duet with Pikelny—is as down-home as music gets, an expansive meditation of rural life.

Despite its artistic challenge, tradition is not far away throughout the album. Steve Martin joins Pikelny for a duo-performance of “Cluck Old Hen” and Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton form a trio with Pikelny for the old-timey sounding “Bear Dog Grit.”

Two vocal tracks are included and each challenges the decision not to include additional singers. Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) sings Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird,” the seafaring song of unattainable love. An aching reading, O’Donovan creates tradition out of a contemporary song, providing three-hundred years of history within her hushed performance. Tim O’Brien’s languid take on Henry Thomas’ “Bob McKinney” is augmented by Mike Compton’s mandolin as well as Duncan and Schatz, crafting the bluesy, ragtime song to excellent effect.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail arrived in my mailbox. That the album bridges the musical language barrier that exists between this listener and someone of Pikelny’s obvious ability is but one indication that there is more than a little something powerful going on within these highly refined and yet soulful tunes.

“Prime Tyme” by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
Prime Tyme
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske 

Over the last two decades, the evolution of IIIrd Tyme Out has been gradual. Starting off with a bang as, for the time, the most revered vocal group within the bluegrass industry (seven consecutive Vocal Group of the Year nods from the IBMA beginning in 1994), the group has seen founding and long-term members retire and move onto other projects (and others return) all the while maintaining a consistent sound that has never grown tired-sounding.

Prime Tyme is a 14-track collection of straight-down-the-middle bluegrass. There are no pretentions within its 43 minutes, no ambitions of expanding the large tent of bluegrass. The band’s lineup hasn’t changed since the release of Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out two years ago: Moore (guitar), Steve Dilling (banjo), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Justen Haynes (fiddle), and Edgar Loudermilk (bass). Moore continues in the lead vocal position with Dilling and Loudermilk handling the majority of the vocal harmonies.

The selected material helps make the set a winner. The chart-topping “Pretty Little Girl from Galax” is just the starting point for an album with an abundance of memorable songs. While not terribly original, the lead track, Dave Carroll’s “Old Kentucky Farmers” contains the expected list of rural elements that bluegrass listeners continue to appreciate: from neighbourly assistance in times of need to “callused hands and blisters” and “cornbread on the woodstove,” Moore’s lead vocals and especially Haynes’ fiddle work take us to a time well in the past.

A gentle bluegrass treatment of Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Goodbye Old Missoula”  (previously recorded by Jimmie Dale Gilmore) is a welcome touch. A pair of David Norris songs—the exceptional “Dusty” and the swinging “Moon Magic”—establish a firm foundation for the rest of the album. Renditions of “I’m Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” “Sugarfoot Rag,” and “Carroll County Blues” serve to connect to the traditional country roots of IIIrd Tyme Out’s sound. Additional highlights include a lively take of Bill Castle’s “Big Muddy” and Billy Boone Smith and Bill Gordh’s “Whippoorwill.”

Throughout the album, IIIrd Tyme Out’s distinctive combination of powerful five-piece instrumentation and vocal trios are well represented. Moore continues to be one of bluegrass music’s strongest and most nuanced lead singers; even setting aside his two most recent IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year designations, there can be little disagreement about the personal flavour he brings to each song.

Closing the album is the frustration-fueled “What’s The World Coming To.” This Ronnie Bowman cowrite (with Michael Garris) asks the questions many of us are considering including, “Times are hard for everyone from carpenters to teachers / Why’s the money rollin’ in for politicians and Wall-streeters?”

With exceptional instrumentation performances, great vocal presence, and strong material, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, with Prime Tyme, have again delivered a superior bluegrass album.

“Country Hits: Bluegrass Style” by Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs
Country Hits: Bluegrass Style
Skaggs Family Records
1 star (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

This is both the easiest and the hardest review I’ll write in 2011. When I received this disc in the mail, I was thrilled. What could be better than Ricky burning his way through many of the hits, including eight or so #1s, of his mainstream country years?

I thought it odd that his award-winning bluegrass band Kentucky Thunder wasn’t credited on the cover, but sometimes review copies don’t contain the final artwork. When I played the disc, I ejected it and reloaded it to make sure I wasn’t hearing things.

By no stretch of the imagination can these 14 tracks be considered “bluegrass style,” unless you’re using the word “style” to mean something less than the promised bluegrass, especially considering the standard that Skaggs himself has set the last 15 years or so.

There are drums, steel guitars and accordions here, and the arrangements are laid back and loose, lacking the intensity and drive Skaggs usually musters. It is a listenable disc, but the blatant lack of respect for the bluegrass fan—often the most discerning and loyal music fan in a dwindling music marketplace—exhibited by the misleading title of this project makes it very, very disappointing, especially coming from such a talented and respected artist.

“Follow Me Down” by Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz
Follow Me Down
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Listening to this 20-year-old Texan’s second album, it’s hard to believe she isn’t a bigger star. She’s gorgeous, a multi-instrumentalist (mainly mandolin, guitar and different styles of banjo here) and possesses a voice that moves comfortably through higher registers while maintaining a rich beauty at moderate pitches.

And she can write, having a hand in nine of the 11 compositions here, with one of those being a “cowrite” with none other than Edgar Allan Poe on “Annabelle Lee,” on which her clawhammer twines with Stuart Duncan’s fiddle to evoke just the mood the late Bard of Baltimore was aiming for. The other two songs are by Bob Dylan—she, Jerry Douglas and Vince Gill make the apocalypse sound inviting on “Ring Them Bells”— and Radiohead—she renders “The Tourist” intelligible and evocative with help from the Punch Brothers.

Jarosz’s own creations do not pale in comparison. “Come Around” is perfect progressive bluegrass, with Jarosz laying a groove on octave mandolin that enables Bela Fleck’s banjo to double the gentle insistence of the lyric.”Run Away,” which opens the 40-minute disc, is well chosen: it signals that, in spite of the rustic setting, there is something much more many-layered going on here.

Co-producing with Gary Paczosa, Jarosz has given Follow’s aural texture the same supple warmth inherent in her material and performance. This is one of the best releases of any genre this year.

“Bill Monroe: Live at Bean Blossom” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Bill Monroe: Live At Bean Blossom
Rural Rhythm Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This one is special to me because I was there. My wife and I were sitting thirty feet from the sound tent where Dale Perry (Bluegrass Cardinals and a host of other bands) was recording the music, and we were watching as the various artists contributed their parts over several days of the 2011 festival.

This was a celebration of Mr. Monroe’s 100th birthday. If not in Rosine, where better to celebrate than Bean Blossom. Purchased by Monroe in 1951 and operated by him (with the help of brother Birch and others) for forty-five years, it is an iconic spot for bluegrass music. You will find us within ten feet of the same spot – under the shade trees – every year.

Only a fraction of the music recorded found its way to the CD. Hopefully, more of this will surface in coming months. The artists are all members of the Rural Rhythm family.

Perhaps the most widely recognized Monroe tune across many genres is “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It’s done by another performer who was there close to the start, Bobby Osborne. “Footprints In the Snow,” which I learned (if memory doesn’t fail me) over forty years ago off a Jim Reeves album is another Monroe favorite. Both songs have been recorded and performed more times than anyone can accuately count with the Lonesome River Band doing the honors on “Footprints” here.

There are so many Monroe favorites, and each person has his or her own list, that it may be impossible to call any song his signature song, but “Uncle Pen” comes close. Composed about his early days with his uncle, James Pendelton Vandiver, Monroe included it in most appearances since he composed it in 1949 and hundreds of bands have sung it in honor of Monroe. Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out performed it at the festival for the recording (we heard it more than once) with Wayne Benson doing a fine job of emulating Monroe’s mandolin stylings. Another well-known favorite, “(With) Body and Soul,” perhaps covered most famously by the Seldom Scene, was performed by Blue Moon Rising.

Space doesn’t permit detailed descriptions of every band on the CD, but they are all accomplished musicians giving the kind of performances the bluegrass world expects from the best.

One of my favorites, “Molly and Tenbrooks,” has some puzzling credits. It’s listed as “Wasson and McCall (featuring J.D. Crowe). J.D. and the New South didn’t do anything differently than the other bands so I’m sure why the credits are different. Rickey Wasson introduces the song, as he does most every New South number, and Dwight McCall sings it, as he does every time I’ve seen them perform it. The only addition to the band is a guest appearance of former bandmate Ronnie Stewart (now heading up the Boxcars with Adam Steffey) on fiddle. Always sung at breakneck speed, this is a long song and takes some stamina to finish.

The CD includes two favorite Monroe instrumentals, “Bluegrass Breakdown” performed by Ronnie Reno & The Reno Tradition, features three mandolins. Ronnie learned the song from Mr. Monroe during a visit to the Reno home. “Big Mon,” a nickname some had for Monroe, is performed by the Bentley Brothers.

They, of course, didn’t forget about gospel music. Gospel music was always a part of Monroe’s shows and I’m sure all who ever saw him peform will remember him sweeping off his ever-present hat as the song was introduced. “This World Is Not My Home” is credited to Jimmy Martin and Paul Williams (probably for an arrangement) but pre-dates their earliest times in music by decades. It’s performed here by Carolina Road while Grasstowne added an acapella version of “Were You There” featuring the fine lead singing of Steve Gulley.

Rounding out the CD is Lou Reid & Carolina giving us “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and Audie Blaylock & Redline singing a now rarely heard “Six Feet Under The Ground.”

This is great work by superb bands honoring the father of bluegrass music.

“A Skaggs Family Christmas – Volume Two” by Ricky Skaggs & Family

Ricky Skaggs & Family
A Skaggs Family Christmas – Volume Two
Skaggs Family Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ricky Skaggs needs no introduction to the bluegrass or country music worlds. People familiar with bluegrass will recognize The Whites as a part of the family (Ricky and Sharon White have been married thirty years).

This is a bonus package, both a CD and DVD are included. The CD is a ten song set of Christmas favorites like “Joy To The World” and “Christmas Time’s A-Coming.” A special treat, though, is hearing some family members who are not so familar to us.

Molly Skaggs has been appearing in some shows with her dad since she was a child, but she’s hardly a household name to fans. She is featured in a sparse arrangement of “What Songs Were Sung” (just her on piano and vocals and Tom Roady on percussion). This is a beautiful number that should be included in any grand collection of Christmas songs. Luke Skaggs, who, like Molly, is involved with Morning Star Ministries, offers an instrumental he wrote, “Flight to Egypt,” and sings and plays guitar (along with Molly and Rachel Leftwich [daughter of Cheryl White, married to Andy Leftwich]) on “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” “Flight Into Egypt” is comprised of multiple movements, going from a quiet introduction to much more dramatic movements as it follows this biblical story of Joseph and Mary taking baby Jesus into Egypt. It’s obvious that Luke is an accomplished guitarist and Andy Leftwich is superb on the fiddle.

Molly and Rachel take turns singing lead and harmony as they perform “Emmanuel.” Their lead and harmony singing is well done and beautiful and the minimalist accompaniment (Luke playing guitar) underscores the vocals and lyrics.

From lush arrangements like “Silent Night,” featuring Ricky, Sharon and Cheryl White, and the Nashville Strings to acappela numbers like “The First Noel,” this CD offers a variety of great Christmas music.

But you can hear all of these (though not necessarily the same musicians) and sixteen more on the DVD plus see the show.

The DVD kicks off with the family doing “Christmas Time’s A-Coming.” Kentucky Thunder is backing Ricky, The Whites are on stage as well as Luke and Molly Skaggs and Rachel Leftwich. People come and go but it’s constant entertainment with Ricky keeping up the patter between songs. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” with Buck White on mandolin and singing bass (the band is off stage) is a catchy, upbeat number and then The Whites do a Western swing Christmas number, “Hangin’ Around the Mistletoe” – and Chery is playing upright bass (you usually see her playing electric bass). Rejoined by Cody Kilby and Andy Leftwich, The Whites swing through “Winter Wonderland.” This is a fun show.

The second set includes the Nashville Strings. It kicks off with “Little Drummer Boy,” sung by Molly as she plays the dulcimer (with Ricky on the mandobass). Molly, Luke and Rachel do a beautiful job with “What Child Is This” followed by Cheryl, Rachel and Molly singing “Mary Did You Know?”

There are no flat spots here. This is top-notch entertainment from beginning to end, and you don’t have to be a bluegrass fan to enjoy it. Treat yourself and, as Rachel sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“Familiar Paths” by Rigney Family Bluegrass

Rigney Family Bluegrass
Familiar Paths
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Rigney Family Band evokes some comparisons to a better known name, the Cherryholmes: they are a family band, there is a mixture of the parents and the kids, and listening to some of the numbers on Familiar Paths I hear a strong resemblance to Skip Cherryholmes’ singing and material.

Mark (the father) played banjo as a teenager but laid it aside to meet family obligations when he proposed to Melissa. Seventeen years later Melissa gives him another banjo for Christmas and he was back in the game. Melissa learned to play the bass so she could be a part of the musical group.

Based on their website, sons Andrew (now 18) and Grant (15) started playing about the same time. Andrew plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, tenor banjo and bass and has won some prestigious awards. You can clearly hear that he is an accomplished musician on the CD but sometimes it’s fun to get a more personal view. Grant, another award winner, plays mandolin, fiddle and tenor guitar. Both of them sing in the band. The instrumental work is outstanding, though it is interesting to note that Andrew does more banjo work than Mark on the CD.

Familiar Paths features all original songs (i.e., no cover songs) from several composers. “Coming Home” is a story about a young soldier coming home from war. It’s a good story with a sparse arrangement that accents the lyrics. One of the things I enjoy about bluegrass is the number of recordings that feature the musicians and singers that you will see performing the songs live (allowing for the incessant movement of band members). When I see that Grant played mandolin and fiddles (at least two fiddle tracks are heard) then I wonder how they do these numbers in their live shows.

“That Path Familiar” is the lead song and right away I made the Andrew – Skip Cherryholmes likeness connection (that’s a visceral reaction, not some scientific comparison). This song definitely goes under my definition of modern bluegrass. Without the singer most bluegrassers would not doubt for a second this is something they might have heard Tony Rice doing back in his New South days. When you hear the singer, the topic (what he’s singing) and the meter don’t have a traditional sound and feel. That’s neither good nor bad, it just depends on what you like. I lean towards traditional, my wife towards modern.

“Hop, Skip, and a Jump” is an Andrew composition and has a very jazzy, David Grisman feel to it. It definitely underscores the abilities of Grant and Andrew while “Rose Petals,” another one by Andrew, is just as much bluegrass as, say, “Jerusalem Ridge.” These two young men are pickers!

“That’s How You Break a Heart” is a country-sounding love song featuring Mark on lead and Becky Buller singing harmony. Mark’s a good singer. Unfortunately, his vocals are a little lost in the mix. Even with that, it’s a good song. “Wind In The Valley” (boy, he and Skip sound alike) is good bluegrass with a touch of old-time and a rarity in bluegrass, a bowed (arco) bass; good sound, good song.

The Rigney Family are accomplished musicians and the songs are interesting. The production values are good. If you like a modern sound to your bluegrass, you’ll like this CD.