“Country Funk: 1969—1975” by Various Artists

Various Artists 
Country Funk: 1969-1975 
Light in the Attic
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Before seeing advertising for this album, I’m not sure I had read the term “country funk” anywhere. I may have, but I don’t recall doing so. Country soul, yup. Country swamp. Memphis country. Delta country. I had heard of them all, but country funk is as good as any of them, I suppose. I knew what type of music would be on an album called Country Funk: 1969-1975: a bass throbbing, guitar-riff rich, sultry and lusty amalgam of reality, equal parts inner city blues and Chickasaw County kissin’-cousin country.

Larry Jon Wilson’s performance of “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in Heartworn Highways may have been my gateway into this music, but having spent 30-plus years listening to country, rock, and soul music, I was more than primed to fall under its spell. Following paths from Clarence Carter, Kate Campbell and Bobbie Gentry to Spooner Oldman, Charlie Rich and Tony Joe White, I’ve amassed a huge appreciation for music that combines the grittiness of real country with the effortlessness of thoughtful soul.

I resisted downloading Country Funk simply because I decided early on that this was an album that I wanted on vinyl. It just seemed to be appropriate to hear this album on a turntable. I’ve not ‘gone back’ to vinyl with the enthusiasm others may have for two simple reasons. One, I never completely left vinyl behind: it is tough for me to pass by a garage sale without looking for a box of records. I don’t know if vinyl sounds better than digital versions of music, but I know I appreciate it more and have recently lugged my twelve or thirteen boxes of records around the new basement more times than I should have. Secondly, regularly spending $25 or $30 for a vinyl album has never made sense to me. I have bought a half-dozen contemporary releases on vinyl—Mark Davis’ Eliminate the Toxins and the Del McCoury Band’s Bill Monroe tribute immediately come to mind—but it is still a special occasion when I buy new vinyl.

Based on my experiences with the Karen Dalton and Kris Kristofferson packages of a few years back and their more recent Louvin Brothers album, I knew Light in the Attic releases were well done. It therefore made sense to me that I would lay down $24.99 plus tax for this rather concise examination of a music I’ve felt a kinship toward.

Before we get to the music contained on this two-album set, a word about the package. Gatefold sleeve with an illustration that absolutely does justice to the 12×12 format; Jess Rotter’s line drawings and colours work beautifully to set the scene for these (mostly) early ‘70s recordings. Jessica Hundley’s notes provide some context, most importantly pointing out that no one was setting out to make music within a genre: people were just making music. She highlights Bobby Darin’s place within the compilation, and uncovers insights from artists including Dennis Caldirola, Dick Monda, Jr., and Tony Joe White. I would have liked more information about Larry Jon Wilson, Bobbie Gentry (whose name Hundley misspells as Bobby), Johnny Adams, and especially Gritz and Jim Ford, but what is contained provides a starting place.

The music is ’bout what you would expect. Album cuts and singles from various labels. Sixteen tracks, from the familiar and readily available (Jim Ford’s “I Wanta Make Her Love Me,” Tony Joe White’s “Studspider,” and Bobby Charles’ “Street People”) to entirely new, to me at least. Dale Hawkins, who I only know from “Susie Q,” gets things started with the shout-out “L.A. Memphis Tyler Texas.” Choice cuts include Johnny Adams’ brilliant “Georgia Morning Dew” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone,” a track that reveals more in four minutes than every version of “Rumble” I’ve ever heard. While Cherokee’s “Funky Business” doesn’t really go anywhere, it is a cool little tune, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more from them.

An album project such as this one should introduce listeners to under-appreciated artists, and this set does that through the music of Gray Fox (Dick Monda, Jr.), Dennis the Fox (Dennis Caldirola), Gritz, and John Randolph Marr. Caldirola’s “Piledriver” captures the drive-in movie sensibilities that I recall from the early to mid-seveneties, and yes, I went to a lot of drive-in movies with elder siblings and cousins in those days: the song doesn’t really come together into a coherent song, but seems ideal as written for a trucking exploitation movie that was never made: I can see Susan George as the “mean, mothertrucker of a girl.”

Like “Piledriver,” some of these songs have novelty appeal. Others, like Larry Jon Wilson’s “Ohoopee River Bottomland” and Johhny Jenkins’ “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” are timeless. The Bobbie Gentry track, “He Made a Woman Out of Me” was the second most successful single off her Fancy album, but never came close to the country top 40 and isn’t likely to be heard on classic country radio. Its sophisticated arrangement seems at odds with ‘country funk,’ but her voice and what sounds like an amazing band pull off this “Strawberry Wine” forerunner; I would love to know who was playing on this- and every- track, but no session notes are provided.

The biggest surprise on the album for me was the inclusion of Mac Davis, who I am only familiar with from a couple country hits and as a guest star on various 70s and 80s variety shows and movies. “Lucas Was a Redneck” is culled from Davis’ most successful album Stop and Smell the Roses, and is a killer track. Here, singing unsympathetically of a Tupelo boy born “one half stupid, the other half dumb,” Davis sounds a little like Larry Jon Wilson. This scathing indictment of southern bigotry and self-limiting behavior makes me want to investigate a singer I’ve never given more than a passing thought toward.

I was very satisfied with my purchase of Country Funk: 1969- 1975 on vinyl. I will enjoy listening to the album several more times and I know I’ll be sent on wild journeys as I seek out the music from most of the included acts. As mentioned, information about the backing musicians would have been appreciated, and I was especially disappointed that a download code wasn’t included with the album, a feature that I mistakenly believed was a ‘given’ with modern vinyl releases as I’ve received one with every other recently purchased vinyl package.

“Camilla” by Caroline Herring

Caroline Herring

4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

As I’ve written before, I’m a fortunate person. Since I started writing about music a dozen years ago, I’ve been sent hundreds of albums for review. While the surge has slowed to a trickle over the past few years—more labels are offering downloads for review rather than physical copies; even more have simply stopped servicing ‘little folks’ like me—there is still enough music coming my way to keep me excited about writing reviews.

Caroline Herring’s new album Camilla arrived unsolicited earlier this summer. Prior to this release, I had never knowingly heard Herring. Years ago, Kate Campbell, Carrie Newcomer, and Mark Erelli were introduced to me under similar circumstance: a plain brown envelope arrives and is opened; a beautifully assembled CD package slips out and a CD is placed in the stereo; life-altering music is experienced within seconds. It is a beautiful thing to discover a ‘new favourite’ who has built a career upon stellar albums, recording that can be freshly explored all at once now that they have (finally) entered your world.

As it turns out, Camilla is the Georgia resident’s sixth album, and I had indeed heard her before, although I had forgotten. Her “Song for Fay” was likely my favourite song on the Bloodshot tribute to author Larry Brown assembled by Tim Lee, Just One More. While I had forgotten that performance, listening to Camilla (and doing a little research for this piece) brought back my appreciation for that standout song. (Guess what album is going to be listened once I’ve finished writing this piece?)

Camilla is gorgeous. Hard-hitting throughout, Herring’s gentle and understated approach serves to frame difficult subject matter—civil rights, environmental ignorance leading to human disregard, innocence, war—with poetic imagery that should initiate an internal dialogue within every listener.

Much like Diana Jones and Campbell, Herring frequently writes of the experiences of the past and their influence on the present. “Camilla,” about the perseverance of Marion King who was beaten so badly by a sheriff’s deputy in 1962 that she miscarried, and “White Dress,” inspired by Frances Moultrie’s participation in the 1961 Freedom Ride, speak to the struggle for civil rights five decades ago. Based on a traditional ballad, “Black Mountain Lullaby” stands as tribute to a little boy crushed in his sleep by a boulder dislodged by a work crew above his Wise County, Va. home. “Summer Song” provides a bit of faith for times of struggle, while “Flee As A Bird” offers words of salvation.

The instrumentation is overwhelmingly acoustic, and it is through these pure, almost sacred sounds that Herring communicates her emotional statements. Her words often leave room for interpretation, but the music is more direct. One appreciates the contributions of Fats Kaplin (pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo) and Bryn Davies’ upright bass playing serves as the album’s tender pulse. Canadian (and lead Duhk) Leonard Podolak’s banjo colours “Black Mountain Lullaby” with mournful shades that highlight the tragedy of a senseless death.

Adding appeal is the participation of three favoured vocalists. Mary Chapin Carpenter sings backup on two numbers, including the lovely “Traveling Shoes” on which is joined by Aoife O’Donovan, while Claire Holley sings on a pair of songs.

I’ll continue to listen to Camilla in the months to come, and I won’t be forgetting Caroline Herring this time. With five more albums to explore, I am going to enjoy delving into the back catalogue of this intriguing and riveting vocalist, musician, and songwriter.

“Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down” by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
Sugar Hill Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV is one of the few havens for good music of any sort on television these days, as the multifariously talented and ever-genial Stuart, along with His Fabulous Superlatives—Kenny Vaughan (guitars), Harry Stinson (drums) and Paul Martin (bass)—create a genuine sense of fun with their love for, and mastery of, country music.

This ten-track disc captures some of that fun, but not all of it. The 32 minutes spent with this aptly named band are like having a couple of drinks in a bar on Broadway where the band happens to be really good, but you won’t be thinking about it the next day.

“Tear the Woodpile Down” has the boys at their best, with a driving rhythm and bumblebee Telecasters buzzing everywhere, and “Sundown in Nashville” perfectly evokes the heartbreak that so many wannabes must feel every night in that town of half-met dreams.

“Hollywood Boogie” is a Tele tour-de-force which should get some Grammy attention for best country instrumental performance.

But the rest of the material is merely good, played and sung expertly, but without that spark and smirk that Marty can bring to the performance.

“Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” with Hank III joining Marty on one of the Hillbilly Shakespeare’s maudlin sermons, falls just a little flat too. For two of country’s hardest rockers not to rip their way through one of Hank’s hard-edged numbers is a missed opportunity.

Perhaps on record where his natural charm isn’t as prominent, Stuart would do well to employ a co-producer that would press him toward some riskier choices that, more than anyone in Nashville I can think of, he’d be capable of conquering.

“Chronology – Volume Two” by the Lonesome River Band

Lonesome River Band
Chronology – Volume Two
Rural Rhythm Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The second volume of the chronology, representing LRB’s second decade in the business, has some strong picks from those years, as well as a new song.

The songs haven’t been just re-mastered, they’ve been re-recorded. That presents a challenge. As a band plays popular numbers over and over through the years they introduce changes, some subtle, some not. They may develop as players, may learn new licks, may just get bored with playing the same songs a hundred times. So when you decide to record the songs again, do you stick with the original version (more or less) or go with the way you’ve been playing it today? Gene Watson recently commented on this when he recorded a hits CD and he tried to stay true to the original versions which meant, he said, learning some songs all over again. LRB has followed that path, not trying to emulate the originals note for note (almost impossible since the band’s lineup has changed) but not straying too far from the originals. The result is a CD that longtime fans will enjoy and newer fans, who may not have the old versions, will want to grab.

The lineup for Volume 2 hasn’t changed from Volume 1, except guest Michael Cleveland is missing. Band leader Sammy Shelor is still picking banjo, while Brandon Rickman provides excellent guitar and vocals. Randy Jones plays mandolin and does a number of lead vocals including the new song, the Rickman-penned “Barely Beat The Daylight In,” a song you’re certain to hear if you catch one of their shows. Mike Hartgrove (IIIrd Tyme Out, Quicksilver) plays fiddle and Barry Reed is on bass and harmony vocals.

From One Step Forward (1996) Rickman sings “Flat Broke and Lonesome.” If you’re so inclined you can group voices into families and I’d put Rickman in the same vocal family as Dan Tyminski. When I hear either one of them sing my mind always pops up the bluegrass flag and I have to stop and listen.

Most bluegrass fans must love murder and love-gone-wrong songs becuase bluegrass music is replete with them. In 1998 (Finding The Way) Ronnie Bowman sang the lead on “Perfume, Powder and Lead” and Brandon Rickman’s 2012 version is dead-on.

I can’t believe what I have done

I killed them both with daddy’s gun

As their bodies lay entangled in our bed

He was the sheriff’s only son

To me she was the only one

I smell the perfume, the powder, and the lead

This song is BLUEGRASS.

From the same album is an about-face, a love song about “Sweet Sally Brown” sung by Randy Jones. From 2000 (Talkin’ To Myself) is an old Ralph Stanley / Curly Ray Cline number, “Dog Gone Shame,” that drives hard and fast. From the same album is another of my favorite LRB songs, “The Crime I Didn’t Do,” the story of a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time who pays the price for a crime he didn’t do.

Rounding out the eight song set is a pair of Harry Sisk, Jr. numbers from 1994’s Old Country Town CD, “The Game (I Can’t Win),” and the game is love and that has probably generated more songs in more genre than anything else. “Tears Are Blinding Me” is yet another classic story – the man who did his woman wrong, drinking and partying until she finds another man, another sad tale in the game of love. (Harry Sisk, Jr.? He’s better known to the bluegrass world as Junior Sisk.)

The only disappointments you may have is there are only eight songs and the CD insert is skimpy – both probably driven by cost factors.

The band made some great choices and everything about the music is first rate. This is a CD you should own.

“Down at the Well of Wishes” by Jon Byrd

Jon Byrd
Down at the Well of Wishes
Longleaf Pine Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

At the intersection of Solitude and the Bleeding Truth lives Jon Byrd. Not only does he write with honesty and heart, he embodies those elements. His is a voice that holds history within straight-up, neo-classic country.

Jon Byrd is a Nashville-based guitarist and writer (from Frisco City, Alabama) who has found favor within the ‘East Nashville’ music community. He has appeared on a number of Red Beet Music compilations over the years; it was within those volumes, including last year’s Tom T. Hall tribute—on which his version of “How to Talk to a Little Baby Goat” was one of the most acute performances amongst an collection of superior quality—that I first heard of Byrd. His Byrd’s Auto Parts, which I purchased as a result of hearing his version of The Byrds’ “Reputation” on  East Nashville, Volume 3, has become a much played favourite.

Readers familiar with Canadian folk singer David Francey may find similarity between their voices, while Willie Nelson—when he isn’t trying too hard to be Willie Nelson—is another possible touchstone. Whereas Byrd’s Auto Parts contained wonderful performances of songs from the country canon—Doug Sahm, Ferlin Huskey, Dave Dudley, Johnny Cash, and the aforementioned Byrds—Down at the Well of Wishes is a set of nine Byrd originals. And what a beauty set it is.

The title track is a complex lyrical trip (co-written with Doyle Primm), while the other Primm co-write, “In A Chest of Skin and Bone,” isn’t nearly as caustic as it sounds like it could be. Rather, the sincerity of the emotions are revealed within each and every line. I think that is where Byrd’s secret lays—his approach to life (and songwriting) could be wonderfully witty, dark, and acerbic—but he prefers a highroad warmed by late-afternoon sun.

“I Once Knew a Woman” serves as an alternate soundtrack to Steve Earle’s novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive: “Her heart cut like a razor / so I had to see her bleed.” “When It Starts to Rain” and “Alabama Asphalt” makes one feel not only as if they are in the south, but are of the south. “Another Day Gone” is a rare slice of time that you know you’ll never tire of experiencing: “they say a moving target, memories can’t find.” That’s the difference between loneliness and lonesome.

Musically, Byrd’s crew have it together. Adam Wright’s keyboards, including wonderful Wurlitzer phrasing, is central to the sound, as are Alex McCollough’s steel and the drumming tandem of Marty Lynds and Jimmy Lester. Byrd is an accomplished guitarist, and the notes just leap off this disc. Lovely stuff, and a testament to the production skills of R. S. Field and Byrd.

If you’ve never heard Jon Byrd, invest some time and find his music. Give it a listen. And then purchase Down at the Well of Wishes. In the words of co-producer Field, it’s “the nine song hammer.”

“Papertown” by Balsam Range

Balsam Range
Mountain Home
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Knowing how difficult it is to get four or five people together for practice, and (unfortunately) knowing the downside of no practice, I enjoy listening to band introductions and where people live—often many hours apart. As the introductions progress I wonder how they manage to sound that good. If you’re the IIIrd Tyme Out you don’t get together to jam and practice (so they recently said) but they are on the road so much, and are so experienced, that they can work on new stuff while on the road. I once watched the Cherryholmes practicing behind their bus and it appeared as intense as they always did on stage.

And then there’s Balsam Range, “… five men from Haywood County, NC.” That addresses part of the practice question, but these are men with credentials and, however they do it, they make great music.

Buddy Melton is a vocalist and fiddle player and has played bass with David Holt, Doc Watson and Jubal Foster. Buddy was seriously injured in March but fortunately recovered and has returned to playing music and making CDs. Banjoist Marc Pruett has been around the block, playing with Ricky Skaggs, Jimmy Martin, the Whites and James Monroe.

Tim Surrett (vocals, bass and Dobro) spent years singing with the Kingsmen, one of the best known southern gospel groups since 1956 and is in the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Caleb Smith adds vocals and plays guitar and Darren Nicholson (Alecia Nugent, Crowe Brothers) plays mandolin and adds vocals.

They do one of the hardest driving (and fastest) versions of Roy Acuff’s “Streamlined Cannonball” that I’ve heard and show off their great harmony singing. Staying with the railroad theme, there’s “Day In the Life of a Railroad Spike,” an interesting spin on railroads.

“Building The Fire” (also known as “You Built the Fire That Burned It All Down”) is a country-tinged, lost love song that also shows offtheir tight harmony singing. Further proof that they can do heartfelt as well as they do hard-driving is “Wide River To Cross.” Beautiful music (including a cello) and soulful lyrics make a good song.

Back on the driving songs side is Jimmie Skinner’s “Born Ramblin’ Man,” a song recorded by the Osborne Brothers over forty years ago. On the country side again is “I Could Do You Some Good,” reminiscent of Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley, and then they throw in some cheatin’-with-a-taken-woman blues, “One Way Out.”

This is one very good album from a very versatile group of excellent musicians. There’s just no way you can’t have fun listening to this.

“Stay Tuned” by Brand New Strings

Stay Tuned
Brand New Strings
Rural Rhythm Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This new CD from Brand New Strings is another of a seemingly growing trend of offering fewer songs, this time at the same price (on their website, at least) as their first CD (with 13 numbers) and the Live At Bean Blossom and The All-Star Jam – Live at Graves Mountain CDs.

Brand New Strings, formed in 2008, includes Mike Ramsey (mandolin and vocals) and Stuart Wyrick (banjo and vocals). They were both with New Road and here the information is confusing. The New Road website looks like they are still members while the Brand New Srings website implies they are have left New Road for BNS. It’s probably the latter with the New Road website just not being maintained. Randall Massengill (Blue Moon Rising, New Road) plays guitar and contributes vocals and Preston Schmidt plays fiddle. Tony Mowell (bass), apparently borrowed from Blue Moon Rising, rounds out the ensemble. On selected tracks you’ll hear Brandon Bostic (resophonic guitar – Blue Moon Rising), Cory Meuchel (percussion) and experienced steel guitarist Paul Niehaus.

It’s almost rote, but they do an excellent job on the picking side and are good vocalists as well with well blended harmonies. “Other Side of Lonesome” is a barn burner to kick things off and is one of five songs composed by band members. One of the exceptions, “Mustang Minnie,” is an upbeat story song written by Marshall Warwick. (Warwick composed one of my favorite Larry Sparks numbers, “City Folks Call Us Poor.”) The other number from outside composers is “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Waters,” recorded by a long list of bands and performed by even more. BNS drives it hard on this cut.

Their one nod to gospel is “Behold The Lamb,” still another song they drive along (their trademark on this CD – drive the songs!). With all of their associations with New Road I’m surprised this is the only gospel number.

A good band and a good CD. I saw them at Bean Blossom when they taped their part of the Bill Monroe tribute. Given their sparse appearance schedule (at least what’s on their website) they may be yet another struggling bluegrass band, juggling jobs that support their families with music that’s their passion. I hope they make it because they’re worth seeing and hearing.