“The Distance” by Carrie Hassler

The Distance
Carrie Hassler
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The last time I saw Carrie Hassler in concert she seemed to be intent on a bluegrass career along with her band, Hard Rain. But, things change. In May 2010 her management company, Hope River Entertainment, announced that “… beginning 2011, [Carrie] would take a little time off to focus on her family and pursue several exciting new possibilities in regards to her career.” and that the rest of 2010 she would be sans Hard Rain (who continued on as Still-House).

2012 finds her still without a band but a new CD. The Distance seems like an indication that she’s looking for more of a country music sound. The CD is labeled as country (when you play it in something like Media Player) and some reviewers are calling it country.

The list of session musicians is impressive. With no criticism intended, having great session musicians may mean you had the money to hire them (they record their tracks for overdubbing and move on to the next gig), or it may indicate support of the star of the CD, an intent to help (in this case) her music. Most of the time, at least in bluegrass (or quasi-bluegrass) it’s some mixture of both. Steve Gulley’s name is all over the CD (producer, co-engineer, co-mixer, harmony vocals, composer) and he’s a great one to have behind you. Other well known bluegrass names include Tim Stafford (guitar) [Blue Highway], Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle) [The Boxcars], Mark Fain (bass), Alan Bibey (mandolin) [Grasstowne], Justin Moses (dobro, fiddle) [Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder] and Gulley’s new musical partner Dale Ann Bradley (vocals).
The presence of these bluegrass artisans makes a “pure country” label suspect.

But, on the pure country side is “Catch My Breath.” This is the kind of song that mainstream country music radio just won’t play these days. If you’re a fan of singers like Tammy Wynette and Dottie West, like I am, you’ll love it. When I hear a song like this it stops me in my tracks and passersby can hear me muttering, “now that’s country.”

“Luxury Liner,” the title song from Emmylou Harris’ 1977 #1 album, written by her friend and mentor Gram Parsons, is a fast paced number that plays well in either genre and here it’s banjo-backed bluegrass. “The Distance” is a quiet country ballad that tells the story of a woman who has to move on from a love affair and put distance between herself and her lover. It’s a good song that will touch a lot of hearts. “Eugene and Diane” (Carl Jackson) is another love song, sung by Carrie and Steve, but this time it’s unrequited love, two people who just don’t take the step towards each other that they should have.

The songs tend to be quiet and reflective rather than hard driving bluegrass, more country-like love (or unloved) songs with acoustic backing. “All I Have To Do Is Breathe” fits squarely in that category, a well written song by Gulley and Stafford, as does another Gulley song, “Keep Your Memory Warm.”

This CD follows the recent minor trend we’ve been noticing of being less than what most people consider a full album. There are eight songs and no instrumentals, a usual staple of bluegrass CDs but understandable when only session musicians are used. A smaller CD usually means a smaller price, and you can find this one for $9 to $11 and buy track-by-track on Amazon.

I like CDs and stage shows that move me from one state to another. Too many slow, sentimental songs and I get sleepy; too many breakneck banjo displays and I get worn out. I would enjoy another “Catch My Breath” or two on the CD. She does take me way down the sentimental path, though, with “Give My Love.” This is a story of a married couple, the wife passing first, and what they shared. It’s especially touching for me because it reminds me of my in-laws. They worked side-by-side on their farm for decades, a simple life, kind people. In his later years, Robert wasn’t comfortable going to sleep unless Ruth was there by his side, and just before he fell to sleep each night he touched her hand and said, “good night, old pal.” Two years ago we sat by his side as he faded away and her last words to him were “goodbye, old pal.” “Give My Love” is that kind of story.

“Life Goes On” by Musicians Against Childhood Cancer

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer
Life Goes On
Rural Rhythm Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Pages could be written about Life Goes On. The front cover tells us, “39 songs & 139 artists.” The two CDs are a musical experience, and one that shouldn’t be missed. These are live recordings made at the MACC festival. (For more on the story behind MACC, visit their website.)

Some cuts are by the artists who regularly perform them on stage. “Little John I Am” is by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, now one of their standards. The same is true about “Hard Times,” a perennial favorite by the Grascals, just as “Forty Years Ago” is a great song from David Parmley & Continental Divide. The variety of performers is one of the great things about compilations.

But you also get to hear some ad hoc groups and that only adds to the experience. Old friends Paul Williams, Doyle Lawson and J. D. Crowe team up for “Paul’s Ministry,” a song often done by Williams and the Victory Trio. I’ve watched these three bluegrass icons perform together and it’s always a treat. Doyle also teams once again with Russell Moore, Jamie Dailey and Josh Swift for an a cappella version of “Beyond The Sunset For Me” and this is a great blending of voices.

If you like Dudley Connell, he pops up several times. Sally Connell (Dudley’s wife) sings lead, Dudley harmony on Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love To Rose,” accompanied by Adam Steffey, Marshall Willborn and Ron Stewart. Dudley sings lead on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” along with Randy Barnes and Randy Kohrs, and he also appears in a reincarnation of the Johnson Mountain Boys, along with JMB alumni Tom Adams and David McLaughlin, joined by Jessie Baker, Jesse Brock (on bass!) and Michael Cleveland to sing JMB’s “Goodbye To The Blues.”

This project is also a great illustration of the variety of music that can be heard on a bluegrass stage without sparking arguments (well, not many arguments, at least) about “what is bluegrass?” You have great gospel numbers like “Where The Soul Never Dies” (Josh Willams and Don Rigsby) and “Shouting Time In Heaven” (Kenny & Amanda Smith with Rhonda Vincent singing harmony) to mention just two. You get to hear excellent instrumentals and instrumentalists like Tony Rice and crew playing “Manzanita,” Lonesome River Band playing “Struttin’ To Ferrum” and Sierra Hull & Highway 111 on “Smashville.”

Bluegrass numbers (just listen to them) are pulled from country music: “Give My Love To Rose” (Johnny Cash) and “At The End of a Long Lonely Day” (Marty Robbins), “Tennessee Whiskey” (George Jones) and the heart-touching “Old Violin” (Johnny Paycheck). And don’t overlook “Fraulein,” Bobby Helms’ great hit. Blues? Sure. “I Got A Woman” (Ray Charles) and “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (Muddy Waters). And there’s pop: “Please Come To Boston” (David Loggins). Of course, these songs have been hopping genre for years, but bluegrass fans seem especially sensitive to labeling.

You get to hear about a relationship with God (a beautiful rendition of “Precious Memories”), loneliness (“I Should Have Called”), the perils of drink (“He Died A Rounder At 21”), mother (“Memories of Mother”), unrequited love (“The Likes of Me,” “Rain and Snow”), secrets (“Forty Years Ago”), a vision of the end (“Old Violin”) and hope in times of sorrow (“Life Goes On” with a symphony of artists on the stage). You even get to pretend you’re at a Grateful Dead concert since “Nothing But A Whippoorwill” has a 3:20 jam lead-in.

Variety, the best musicians and the best singers, and a great cause. Every bluegrass fan should own these CDs.

“I Couldn’t Make It Without Him” by Jay Armsworthy

I Couldn’t Make It Without Him
Jay Armsworthy
Blue Circle
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Jay is not a nationally known bluegrass figure but that doesn’t stop him from giving us a good gospel CD. His sole national exposure was a long-ago summer (1995) touring with David Davis and the Warrior River Boys. He has appeared (in the Northeast) with Ernie Bradley and the Grassy Ridge Band and hosted a radio bluegrass show in the Maryland area for seven years.

Jay’s website tells us his band is Eastern Tradition and it appears the other members of that group are Mike Phipps, Marc Bolen and legendary bassist Tom Gray. Phipps has appeared with County Gentlemen bassist Bill Yates on Country Gentlemen tribute albums and Tom Gray played with the Gents and the Seldom Scene and is still very active in bluegrass circles.

For this project, though, Jay went with session musicians and he picked some of the best. The Bensons – Wayne (IIIrd Tyme Out) and Kristen (the Grascals) add mandolin and banjo, Jason Moore (Mountain Heart) plays bass, Aaron Till (Mark Chestnut) fiddles, Greg Luck adds baritone and bass vocals while Don Rigsby sings tenor. That’s quite a lineup. We expect excellent musicianship on our bluegrass recordings and this group never disappoints us no matter who they play with. You’ll appreciate Rigsby’s great tenor singing, too.

Armsworthy is a good singer and rhythm guitarist and he has a good selection of material. Veteran composer Dee Gaskin contributed “His Coming Is Nigh At The Door” and “I Couldn’t Make It Without Him.” The latter has a swinging, country sound. For pure bluegrass, listen to his rendition of an old Stanley Brothers song, “Wings of Angels” or “Don’t Let Go Of My Hand,” a Tom T & Dixie number.

“The Streets of Gold” shows off the harmony singing and is proof that a songwriter needs patience. Jay had held onto this song for a decade before recording it. Fans of the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Stanley Brothers may recognize “I’m Dying a Sinner’s Death,” a composition by Roy Acuff. If you like sad, listen to the story told in “Heaven’s Door,” a story about a little girl gone to heaven who appears to her brother with a message to the rest of the family.

If you like bluegrass gospel this CD has all the elements a bluegrass fan will enjoy. Don’t let the lack of name recognition stand in the way of your appreciation of this CD.

“Skippin’ and Flyin’” by Laurie Lewis

Laurie Lewis
Skippin’ and Flyin’
Spruce and Maple Music

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways few others have attempted. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, several Monroe ‘tributes’ have been released. Skippin’ and Flyin’ is easily the most impressive and understated.

Nowhere on the cover of Skippin’ and Flyin’ is Mr. Monroe mentioned or illustrated. Rather, Laurie Lewis appears in full-blown Blue Grass Boy regalia, dressed with the same precision of style and substance that has been her hallmark for the past several decades as one of bluegrass and acoustiblue music’s beautiful flowers.

Skippin’ and Flyin’ is not simply a collection of Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, the disc goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe’s music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences.

Laurie Lewis is no newcomer, having played almost every bluegrass festival there is and having recorded several excellent albums over the years. However, she has never narrowed her field of vision and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum The Oak and the Laurel and the under-heralded Guest House.

Throughout this recent album, Lewis doesn’t mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been affected by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the root of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted.

Skippin’ and Flyin’ takes its name from “Old Ten Broeck,” which opens this magnificent 55-minute album: “Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and gone away, Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and flyin’.”

Lewis has taken this precursor to “Molly and Tenbrooks” to its roots in the music of the Carver Boys and Cousin Emmy while working in elements from Mike Seeger and Monroe. (Thank goodness for artists, like Lewis, who believe in the value of song notes!)

She takes a different approach with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It is almost as if Lewis is saying, “This is Monroe, and we’ll honour him by performing it as he did.” Lewis takes liberty with the chorus, switching up the ‘left me blue’ and ‘proved untrue’ lines, but otherwise maintains the spirit of the early, pre-Elvis Monroe recordings of the song, including an extended, mournful fiddle feature and beautiful mandolin from Rozum.

The final ‘Monroe’ song included here is also the lonesomest. As recorded here by Lewis and her touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) “A Lonesome Road,” recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues,” a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.

A contemporary gem is Mark Erelli’s lyrically rich song of devastation, “Hartfordtown 1944.” Monroe never heard the song, but one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.

Songs from Del McCoury, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, as are fresh interpretations of “What’s Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me)” and “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Going back even further, “Fair Beauty Bright” has hauntingly ideal mandola offerings from Rozum.

Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded “better” ones than this. But none have been more important or have affected me more. By exploring Bill Monroe—his music, his tradition, his influences—in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.

“And So It Goes” by Don Williams

Don Williams
And So It Goes
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Don Williams, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, had 17 #1s from 1974 to 1986 followed by another 14 top ten songs before the radio hits stopped coming in the early ’90s. During the last decade, Williams hasn’t recorded too much and slipped into retirement in 2006.

Encouraged to record again and reunited with producer Garth Fundis, Williams returns with an album that is unlikely to top the charts but which will provide admirers with an unneeded reminder of his identifiable approach to country music.

With a voice as individual as Waylon’s or Willie’s, Don Williams can’t be mistaken for anyone else. His calm and understated approach to singing has long been popular, and And So It Goes consistently meets all expectations.

“She’s With Me” is a Williams original, and along with “Heart of Hearts” and “I Just Come Here for the Music” (with beautiful accompaniment from Alison Krauss), forms the solid backbone of an album where each song pulls the listener in a little closer. The specific events of songs may not always be familiar, but the related emotions and depth of experience are universal. Nothing is forced or false; every word lingers, each nuance rings true.

The fresh-sounding “Better Than Today” kicks off the album with hope and positive thoughts with the lively and classic Williams sound apparent. Beyond the trademark Williams groove—a shuffle of varying tempos—are messages, none of them terribly heavy but all sincere enough to provide the opportunity for mental rumination, regarding the possibilities of choices made. In addition to Krauss, Vince Gill and Keith Urban contribute harmony vocals and guitar.