“Sounds of Home” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
Sounds of Home
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

If you’re a regular reader of the Lonesome Road Review, you’ll notice that this is my first review in quite a while. I never plan to take these hiatuses from music writing, but life and work sometimes intervene.

Writing about music is the hardest kind of writing for me, especially in a short review format. It’s hard to avoid the same format, the same adjectives and the same verbs. But I love doing it, and I’m back on the job.

Blue Highway’s Sounds of Home was the disc I was listening to when I got sidetracked, so even though it been out for months, I’m going to review it. Also, you just can’t ignore anything these guys put out.

Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals), Shawn Lane (mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals), Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals), Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin) and Rob Ickes (Dobro, lap steel guitar) have been one of my top five bluegrass bands since I first heard their 1999 self-titled album (which was actually their fourth effort and the only one that featured Tom Adams, rather than Burleson, on banjo).

Burleson is key on this album, their ninth of all-new material. As the band continues to get better and better as writers—at least one band member has a hand in writing eleven of the twelve songs here; an old-time drone/groove on the traditional “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” is the other track, my favorite of the bunch—Burleson’s firm right hand on the five keeps things from getting to singer-songwritery, and on his own instrumental composition he and the band prove they are indeed still masters of the hard-edged sound of real bluegrass.

Recalling, consciously, one presumes, 1999’s album-opening “Born With a Hammer in My Hand,” this set kicks off with Lane’s yearning tenor promising “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” while the band is in full flight, with Ickes and his sinewy Dobro nailing the first break and galloping neck-and-neck with Burleson.

Lane also sings lead on the finely nostalgic “Sounds of Home,” another work song in “Restless Working Man,” and the defiant “Storm,” a more primal version of “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”

Taylor’s deeper, more sonorous lead marks the simple nature poetry of “Bluebird Days” and “Only Seventeen,” which, sadly, is about coal mining and not young women. Taylor also writes and sings “My Heart Was Made to Love You,” a straight-up country song that would make Ernest Tubb proud, especially with Ickes on twangy lap steel. I hesitate to mention “Heather and Billy,” another of Taylor’s leads. It’s the type of song many love as a heartfelt tearjerker, but others, including yours truly, recoil from as emotional manipulation of the crudest kind.

I’ve always wanted more of Stafford’s earnest lead vocals on Blue Highway albums, and this one is no different. He sings bouncy, taunting “If You’ve Got Something to Say” and the secular gospel meditation “Drinking from a Deeper Well,” a song a little too well-written to get picked up by a country star.

Looking over my past reviews and ratings, I think I’ve been a little too generous. That said, this one would score higher if it were from an average band, but these guys can be more exciting and fresh than this.

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“Sing Me a Song About Jesus” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Sing Me a Song About Jesus
Mountain Home Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Doyle Lawson has always included a lot of gospel music in his repertoire, so it’s no surprise to see a gospel recording from him.

Another trademark is strong musicians, and the lineup for this CD is the same as on last year’s Drive Time. Josh Swift plays Dobro and lap steel and sings bass. Doyle hired him in 2007 after he left Carrie Hassler. It’s interesting to note that the credits include Josh playing a lap steel. If you’re not familar with a lap steel, it falls somewhere between a resophonic guitar and a steel guitar: a steel guitar without pedals. The Wikipedia page lists some familiar lap steel players (Jerry Byrd [Ernest Tubb's band], Jerry Douglas and Junior Brown) but also some surprises like Chuck Berry and John Lennon. Including it in a Quicksilver album is another example of Doyle stretching his music without worrying much about traditional definitions of bluegrass. I’ve seen some people get upset over these things but other bands identified as stalwarts of bluegrass experimented (and experiment) with instrumentation and song selection, some even shunning the bluegrass appellation at times: Flatt & Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse.

Another example of this stretch is Carl White on percussion. He joined Quicksilver in 2007 when Jaime Dailey left but later moved to percussion. Did this make the bluegrass masses happy? Not all of them. John Lawless on Bluegrass Today said in early 2011, “It’s worse than we thought: We’ve reported of late on the disturbing news about Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver touring with a live drummer. It’s something we might expect from Mountain Heart, who were formed after a collective internship with Quicksilver, but not from the man himself!” and “OMG – he’s done it again! … So what’s next for DL&QS – touring with a South African choir?” For me, it’s harder to see the drummer on stage than to listen to him. His use of the drums is unobtrustive and, in my opinion, less damaging to the bluegrass sound than the use of an electric bass. Speaking of electric basses, Corey Hensley plays an MTD 5-string bass. Doyle has long favored an acoustic bass guitar over the traditional upright bass, at least for his road show, but this is a solid body bass like you would see in a country or rock band. He’s not the only bluegrasser to use one but I have yet to hear one I like in bluegrass – and I can’t associate this CD any other way than with bluegrass.

Jason Barie plays fiddle, Mike Rogers is on guitar and lead vocals and Jessie Baker playes banjo and guitar. The bluegrass world has watched Jessie grow up from a sometimes awkward mid-teen with Karl Shiflett to an accomplished stage performer. An announcement this week tells us he is leaving Doyle to join former QS standout Jaime Dailey with Dailey & Vincent.

“Be Not Afraid” has a great traditional sound. Written by Jeannie C. Riley, from her 1979 Wings To Fly album, this makes a great song for QS. Doyle is also known for his acapella gospel numbers and “Going On Home” and “The Greatest Creator” are two more good ones. These underscore the fabulous harmony singing that QS always features. The backstory on the latter song takes us back to the Dixieaires, a black gospel group from the ’40′s who had a hit with “Joe Louis Is a Fightin’ Man” (Doyle hasn’t recorded that one, yet). (Going from the interesting to the surreal, check out this Dixieaires upload.)

The title cut is a toe-tapping number co-written by Doyle, Mike and Corey and “The Rich Man” is another hard-driving song made more interesting by its chord pattern. Both songs illustrate the picking abilities of the QS band. “It Took a Man Like That,” “God Can” and “Jack Of All Trades” are all at a slower pace but good message songs. I like all the songs on this CD but my favorite is a Dee Gaskins number, “I Saw Him Walk Out of the Sky.” The pictures the song paints touch me, and isn’t that what gospel music should do?

Doyle and Quicksilver deliver again. Despite some criticism thrown his way for trying new things, like the drums, Doyle Lawson will always have and deserve a legion of supporters and he knows where his music is headed: his way. (But I still wish he’d use an upright bass.)