“Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)” and “Hand to the Plow” by Marty Raybon

Marty Raybon
Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)
Rural Rhythm Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

and

Hand to the Plow
Rural Rhythm Records
3.5 stars (out of 5) 

Of all the country stars who have migrated to bluegrass music over the past decade and a half, former Shenandoah frontman Marty Raybon seems among the most sincere. His genuine vocal style has graced more bluegrass stages than most other CMT refugees, and he continues to put out good records with plenty of bluegrass flavor, most recently Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today).

He’s  simultaneously released what you would call a contemporary country gospel album, Hand to the Plow, on the same label, showing his interest in promoting that message to as many as will listen.

Of more interest to the readers of this space is the latter effort, a dozen-song effort recorded with a revolving lineup of Nashville bluegrass studio regulars, most notably Bryan Sutton on lead guitar.

“Dirt Road Heartache” and Rodney Crowell’s “Long Hard Road” are a nice fast-then-slow combo to show the uninitiated Raybon’s ease in handling diverse material, and the “road trilogy” is tidily completed by a swinging pass at Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues.”

There’s more first-rate first-gen bluegrass here, with “White House Blues,” “Home Run Man,” “Prayer Bells of Heaven,” and “Down the Road” making welcome appearances.

A soaring “Beulah Land,” the catchy “Next to You, Next to Me,” and “Ghost in this House,” one of my favorite all-time contemporary country performances when done by Raybon or Alison Krauss, are also familiar from Raybon’s days with Shenandoah.

Which is to say that there’s some pretty nice stuff on here, but it seems like we’ve heard it before when we’d maybe prefer a great singer like this stretching his legs over some unfamiliar territory. If you haven’t, or just want a handy package of Marty at his best, by all means get this record.

I’m not going to take a stab at a full review of Hand to the Plow, which features five of 10 tracks penned by Raybon. Songs of faith are very hard to do well, and the results here are a touch too oversweet for my taste (though I am a believer), though well within the range of what seems poplular in similar circles these days.

Raybon’s singing is, in any case, better than the material, and the bluesy romp through “I’m Working on a Building” with T. Graham Brown, Jimmy Fortune and Trace Adkins had me tapping my toes more than once.

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“There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” by McCamy’s Melody Sheiks featuring R. Crumb

McCamy’s Melody Sheiks featuring R. Crumb
There’s More Pretty Girls Than One 
Arhoolie Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

First off, if you haven’t seen director Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, do so now.

Having done that, you know who Robert Crumb is and why it’s not surprising that this American expatriate to France who digs old records is a guest artist on Ian McCamy’s fiddle project for the indispensible Arhoolie Records. You also know why There’s More Pretty Girls Than One is an apt title.

Crumb plays an easy rhythm guitar on all but a couple of the disc’s 17 tracks (he plays tenor banjo on the opening cut “Home! Sweet Home!”) and sings in a pretty straight old-time style on a a couple of familiar numbers: Charlie Poole’s “Goodbye Booze” and the the title track, which sounds fresh here for having been taken at more languid pace than is usual these days.

McCamy and his band—Stephen Harrison (piano, double bass, five-string banjo) and Ilan Moss (fiddle, five-string banjo)—are the real treat here, making this 51-minute pass down the memory lane populated by long-lost 78-rpm records a pleasure for devotees and newcomers alike, hopefully prompting the latter to track down some of the names in  the liner notes for further listening.

McCamy’s fiddle tone and approach are perfect for this project, grabbing all the old, woody tones without overplaying the nostalgia. When Moss joins on twin fiddle, as on “Old Molly Hare,” “Drunken Hiccups,” and “Sail Away Ladies, Sail Away,” it gets even better.