“New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches” by Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press

Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press
New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches
Rural Rhythm Records

4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Bluegrass takes care of its legends, if only in praise. We hold up the champions of the music as icons and revere their every word. When they walk by, we pause and fall silent. To the broader entertainment business, they may be mere footnotes within the histories of WSM, the Grand Ole Opry, WWVA, and hillbilly music. Within the bluegrass community, the names Sonny and Bobby are as recognizable as Waylon and Willie.

When Sonny set aside his banjo several years ago, his elder brother Bobby was provided the opportunity to carry on the Osborne sound. Since 2005, he has done so with every bit of the precision and flair he brought to his first 55 years in the music. Now well past 60 years as a bluegrass music professional, Bobby Osborne shows no signs of slowing down.

His most recent album, and his fifth since 2006’s Try a Little Kindness, is New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches. And boy, is it a good one!

The first thing one may notice while listening to this rather brief album is the timbre of Bobby Osborne’s voice. The vocal nuance and flexibility he has always brought to his music remains. His approach to a song is as distinctive as ever. Listening to “Heartache Looking for a Home” one would swear that it is a performance from the Seventies. It sounds so recognizable and is of such quality that it appears to be of that now classic era. (It should seem familiar, as Bobby and Sonny recorded the song for MCA before Charlie Sizemore used it as the title track for his under-heralded album last year.)

Still, it is obvious that Bobby isn’t the 37 year-old youngster who recorded “Rocky Top” in 1968. His vocal chords aren’t quite as elastic as they once were, but one accepts this with the same realism that—at some point—one greets each day.

Another song from the catalog of the Brothers O is “Muddy Waters,” the often recorded Phil Rosenthal song. I’ve never been fortunate to hear the Osborne’s 1974 take of the song, but I can’t imagine it being more intense than the version here. An old Jake Landers song “The Old Oak Tree” is given a beautiful refreshing, while another Landers song “I’m Going Back to the Mountain” kicks off the album in fine style; like “Muddy Waters,” this is a song the Osbornes recorded in May, 1974 but which wasn’t released by the label.

“The Last Bridge You’ll Burn” is a song Bobby Jr. (Boj) found within his father’s archives. How a song this good could be misplaced is beyond me—if I ever write anything half this good, you can be sure it won’t be sitting in a dusty closet!

The vocal arrangements are largely trios with Boj most often singing the baritone and Glen Duncan the low tenor. The musicianship is impressive with Bobby taking care of the mandolin (listen to his picking on “Low and Lonely” and prepare to be impressed) while Duncan handles the fiddle and Boj the bass. Joe Miller contributes some very nice guitar while Mike Toppins is featured on the six(!)-string banjo.

I purchased New Bluegrass & Old Heartaches shortly after it was released this past May, and was pleased when the album was assigned to me this month. It is an album that deserves considered listening, and while not perfect in every aspect one overlooks minor faults within the bounty that is another stellar recording from a bluegrass legend.

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“American Story” by Bearfoot

Bearfoot
American Story
Compass Records

4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

It has been a year since I first wrote about Bearfoot’s fifth album, American Story.  At the time, I felt quite strongly about the album. Rare is the album that contains no filler, but that was the case here: a testament to determination and musical integrity, American Story was just the latest chapter to be written by one of the most interesting outfits working the bluegrass and Americana circuits.

By now, I’ve been following Bearfoot for more than a decade. I first saw them in Tacoma as a talented group of energetic teenage Alaskans bringing more exuberance than vision to their music. I was undoubtedly unjustly harsh in some of my early writing about the band. As I listened to 2003’s Back Home this past week, and while I stand by my general thoughts of that album—that the kids were trying a bit too hard—the album provides a fine blueprint of where the band would go.

Over the course of life experiences and a few albums, the group developed. The smiling, sweet teens matured into exceptional players and vocalists. The music became more complex, comfortably acoustiblue rather than straightforward bluegrass. As the band changed, their producers supported them and their sound progressed. By the time 2009’s Doors and Windows was unleashed, the metamorphosis was complete. Still the band’s pinnacle recording in my opinion, on it Odessa Jorgenson and, to a lesser extent,  Angela Oudean proved themselves to be stunningly impassioned vocalists. The results were spectacular.

Still, that lineup didn’t last. By now Bearfoot mainstays Jason Norris and Oudean are well-used to the tribulations and vagrancies of the professional bluegrass world. Founders of the troupe, the pair have seen vocalists and musicians arrive and depart. Yet, Bearfoot’s sound remained individual and identifiable, freshened by new insights and influences focused about an acoutiblue attitude that is modern and challenging. With the addition of Nora Jane Struthers, in 2011 the affable quintet produced another most fully realised release.

With a Natalie Maines twist in her annunciation along with Patty Loveless matter-of-fact vocal honesty, Struthers brought Bearfoot to yet another level artistically, no small feat considering Jorgensen did something similar on Doors & Windows. From the opening lines of her original “Tell Me A Story,” Struthers revealed a sultriness that mergered beautifully with the group’s artful blending of bluegrass’s roots and branches.

Struthers and Oudean share the leads on the flirty “Come Get Your Lonesome” from the pen of another relatively recent addition Todd Grebe, who also contributed the excellent “Mr. Moonshine” and “Midnight in Montana.” The album’s centerpiece number is the lusty, band-written “When You’re Away.”

Utilizing the acoustic instrumentation frequently associated with bluegrass excepting banjo—the five-string makes only a couple appearances—on American Story Bearfoot worked around the edges of the music to create an atmosphere is charged with excitement.

While it appears that the bluegrass business has absorbed some of the “business” trappings of other musics—the hype machine, the weekly airplay charts, the constant updates on the Facebook and the Twitter—bluegrass remains a place where folks can discover and become enthusiastic about an album many months after its release. While things move faster than they used to, it is still a place where we appreciate something long-after it was ‘new.’

American Story is one such album. If you missed it the first time around, give it a listen now.

O, by the way. The Bearfoot merry-go-round continues with Struthers recent decision to focus once again on her own projects. Bassist P.J. George departs with her, leaving Oudean, Norris, and Grebe to again reinvent the group.

Editor’s note: This one got lost in the mess of my desk for several months, but I thought it was too good to not be reviewed once I found it. Sorry to Bearfoot and Compass Records for the long delay.

“New Day Dawning” by the Roys

The Roys
New Day Dawning
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

New Day Dawning, the new CD by brother-sister duo the Roys, has an easy feel to it. The songs are well written, the musicians are excellent, but the songs are more gentle, have a softer feel than the fine-grit sandpaper of, say, a Darrell Webb CD. That’s not bad, just different. They crack the mold with one hard driving song, “Still Standing.” Written by them (one or the other is a co-writer on every song), it’s a song about overcoming adversity. Sung by Elaine, it’s a wake-up after the two tracks that precede it.

Close relatives singing together often means great harmony and the Roys won’t disappoint you. Adding a third harmony voice is something they might consider to give their sound more variety.

They use a great selection of musicians to back them on the CD. Andy Leftwich (Kentucky Thunder) plays mandolin and fiddle, Randy Kohrs plays Dobro, Cody Kilby (Kentucky Thunder) on guitar, Mark Fain (Kentucky Thunder) adds bass and Justin Moses (Kentucky Thunder) is on banjo. While percussion in bluegrass is sometimes controversial, but hardly novel, it does seem more people are using it and they have Steve Brewster adding percussion on some numbers. Rounding out the group is Jeff Taylor (Time Jumpers) on accordion on two numbers and Luke Skaggs (Ricky’s son) playing baritone guitar on one song.

“My Living Scrapbook” is a song we can all take to heart.

My living scrapbook are the pages of my life

The years keep rolling but the moments are frozen in time

The older we get the more we appreciate the truth of that. Their title song is upbeat in tempo and message, talking about the things in life that get you down but things can turn around and a new day dawns. This fits well with their general theme of a positive outlook on life.

“Daddy To Me” is a poignant song, my favorite on the CD. It’s the story of a man who has died and his family and friends are gathered to remember him. We hear about the man from different perspectives of friends and family but, to the singer, this was his daddy. Listeners of any age can appreciate the song but I think being able to look back through your own years and losses brings a different outlook for songs like this. That’s also true of “Grandpa’s Barn.” Images of a rusty tractor, an old calendar, bits and pieces and memories … I know the song evokes memories and images in my mind and shouldn’t a good song do just that?

There are only seven cuts on the CD but it is priced right and provides good listening. If you can survive without murder songs and the piney hills of old Kentucky, you should listen to the Roys.

“Old Gold” by Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers

Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers
Old Gold
Signature Sound
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Through the efforts of an area radio host, I’ve been following the music and career of Seattle’s Zoe Muth for a couple years. Favourably reminiscent of early Emmylou, Muth also has elements of Iris DeMent and Kelly Hogan in her voice, as well as Heather Myles, minus a bit of the tonk.

I fall in love with voices easily if infrequently. That means I’m selective in what I truly embrace, but once I’m in, I’m in. That’s how I’ve felt about Muth since day one, and nothing I’ve heard since has caused me to reconsider that position.

First came the eponymous album of 2009 or thereabouts. Songs like “You Only Believe Me
When I’m Lying,” as strong a career kick-off as one could hope for, and the more evocative “The Last Bus” with its tale of a guy who hasn’t really thought out the next step, only that it isn’t going to be taken in Harlan, served as solid foundations for a career that has slowly built momentum.

Last year’s Starlight Hotel had a bit more of the south mixed into its mood, but maintained the presence of the steel guitar. Muth’s voice only gained from the assurance that comes from having a bit of success, however that is measured. The album sported one of the finest song titles a High Fidelity fan could ask for: “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart)”; that the song lived up to the billing was entirely a bonus: “When I heard that jukebox start / I knew that Cupid’s dart had missed its mark.” As the second product, the album may have been unfairly taken for granted, not given the due granted of its predecessor.

Now comes the release of an EP with five covers and a single original. Given that Muth 
has released two albums of very strong original material, one may be a bit surprised that she has gone to the well of covers this early; it took Steve Earle a dozen albums and twenty years before he ran to ground with Townes. Still, covers seem to be a comfortable and popular position of fallback of late so one isn’t going to judge Muth harshly, especially considering the quality of the music contained on the 22-minute Old Gold.

The disc opens with a beautiful rendition of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel” that does nothing to lessen the Emmylou Harris comparables. Listening to this up-tempo, spritely take, one realizes that Muth has reinvented the mood of this melancholy piece into something approaching classic country; she has turned the unthinkable into a radio sing-a-long: “They say that death is a tragedy, it comes once and it’s over / But my only wish is for that deep dark abyss, ’cause what’s the use of living with no true lover.” Quite lovely, given the circumstance.

For contrast, Muth gets positively maudlin with a tremendous reading of “I’ve Been Deceived,” Charlie Feathers’ first single from 1955. Pure-country, that. Her own “Walking the Line” complements the selected offerings and includes one of those lyrical combinations that just lingers: “Sometimes when I can’t find the truth / I just have to make believe.” It is a country narrative that again evokes the use of the word “classic,” only this time it isn’t the sound or the approach under consideration, it is the performance.

The second side of the EP (because I still picture an EP as an extended vinyl 12″) kicks off with John Prine’s (who Muth had name-checked in the previously mentioned “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter…”) “Maureen, Maureen,” and does her hero proud, I’m sure. She again picks up the tempo with a splendid “Country Blues,” though she brings plenty of uptown to the Dock Boggs tune. The disc closes with Muth taking on Janis Joplin on “Get It While You Can,” but as elsewhere the song is more reinvented than interpreted.

The mini-album ends too soon, leaving the listener longing for more—where would Muth had
gone next given another six songs? Satisfying still and completely enjoyable, Old Gold allows listeners another opportunity to find a gateway to the magical voice and music of Zoe Muth.

Given that I’ve always bought Muth’s music via download, I don’t know if the line-up of the Lost High Rollers has changed since their debut, but things sound consistent when compared to Starlight Hotel. There is pedal steel from Dave Harmonson everywhere, and that is of benefit.
The drumming (Greg Nies) is for the most part unobtrusive, and Ethan Lawton lays out some
nice mandolin, especially on the closing number. (There is a reason I don’t read press clippings and one-sheets before listening and starting to write—they take the best lines, including my comparisons to Emmylou and Iris DeMent—not that
those were a huge stretch or anything, but still….)

“Putumayo Presents Bluegrass” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Putumayo Presents Bluegrass
Putumayo World Music
3 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

A long, long time ago when there were such things, I worked at a Borders Books & Music in the CD department. We sold a lot of Putumayo World Music samplers, especially when we played them on the store stereo. The strange sounds would pique a shopper’s interest and they’d ask us for a CD.

It was around that time that I developed my interest in bluegrass music, and since then, I’ve been making the contention that bluegrass should be regarded as an American, indeed a Southern, contribution to world music.

It comes from a certain place, it has a set of cultural experiences that accompany the music (festivals, jamming, house concerts, etc.), and there remains pure variants of it while other strains grow wild.

It’s hard to encapsulate that in 13 tracks and 50 minutes, but Putumayo has done a fair job.

Kicking off with Alison Krauss’ “Every Time You Say Goodbye” is a no-brainer, as her voice is the most accessible and world famous to emerge from bluegrass music, while this arrangement is a classic example of modern bluegrass. Another killer track is the Seldom Scene’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” which was an oft-requested number in my days as a deejay. Bluegrass stalwarts Tim Stafford (vocal) and James Alan Shelton turn in a workmanlike “Shady Grove” as well.

Another well-known cut is Peter Rowan’s loosely swinging “Man of Constant Sorrow,” as different a take from the O Brother version as can be imagined, but one in keeping with the jam band bent that is one of the strongest running through this album. Railroad Earth, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and Town Mountain join Sam Bush and the hallowed duo of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on the list of that hard-to-define but easy-to-market variant of bluegrass and Americana.

Andrea Zonn and Alison Brown (“New Night Dawning” and Frank Solivan II (“Across the Great Divide”) contribute what I would call some nice easygrass, but one can’t help but think a couple of shots of the hard stuff might be a better on an introduction to a music whose more easily palatable tastes are amply represented.

“No Part of Nothin'” by Alan Tompkins

Alan Tompkins
No Part of Nothin’
Bluegrass Heritage Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Who is Alan Tompkins?

Alan is a Kentuckian transplanted to Texas where he works as a lawyer. He is also the founder and president of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, an organization whose mission is to “… preserve and promote the heritage of bluegrass music in America, with a focus on promoting bluegrass music in Texas.”

There are cuts from this CD that will go straight to my favorites folder for listening on my iPad. Of the twelve songs on the CD there’s only one I would cut out, and in great part that’s because I rank Marty Robbins as one of the best ever and I like his version as a ballad rather than an uptempo song like Alan does it here. Back in 1966 Marty had a hit with “Count Me Out,” composed by Jeanne Pruett (then the wife of Marty’s guitar player) before she rose to fame.

The list of session musicians is a good one. Kenny & Amanda Smith add their talents as do Randy Kohrs on the resophonic guitar. Greg Cahill and Ned Luberecki are two well-known banjoists appearing on the CD.

Gerald Jones plays mandolin on several cuts, with Sam Bush appearing on others. Gerald and Alan co-wrote two of the songs. “Blue Kentucky Waltz” is a traditional-sounding waltz number that includes Ron Stewart doing quadruple duty on fiddles, banjo and guitar. Alan proves a good singer with a voice for ballads more than the down-home sound of Dan Tyminski. They also co-wrote “No Part Of Nothin’ Blues” and Alan shows off his URB skills. This is a flowing, swing blues number that keeps your toes tapping while you have visions of couples on a dimly lit, smoky dance floor. Great stuff.

Speaking of waltzes, “Shenandoah Waltz” has always been one of my favorites and Ron Stewart’s fiddles make the perfect backdrop for this number. Also in the traditional theme is “Angelina Baker” (aka “Angeline the Baker”) and “More Pretty Girls Than One” as well as the slightly time-worn “Lonesome Road Blues,” all good, traditional bluegrass music that’s well-played here.

On the gospel side he offers a driving “This World Is Not My Home” and “I’ve Been Redeemed” from the pen of Rick Lang. My favorite, though, is “Farther Along” with harmony vocals by Kenny & Amanda Smith. Stephen Mougin, who has worked with Bush and Lubereski, plays the guitar with Mike Bub (formerly with the Del McCoury band and once appearing with Phish) on the URB and Nate Lee on fiddle.

Traditional certainly describes “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”, composed by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, though he sounds more like Hank than Bill in this version (though not like Phish), but he goes off the bluegrass grid with his version of Dire Straits’ “When It Comes To You.” He may be off the grid, but he sure makes it work and it’s one of the best numbers on the CD.

While Tompkins may not try to combine careers as a lawyer and traveling bluegrass musician like Charlie Sizemore has, he’s put out a more-than-credible CD and it’s worth a listen by anyone who likes bluegrass music. You won’t be disappointed.

“Leave the Bottle” by Town Mountain

Town Mountain
Leave the Bottle
Pinecastle Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Town Mountain release their fourth album, and second for Pinecastle, this autumn. Leave the Bottle is a darn strong bluegrass album featuring original, band-written music, a powerful instrumental presence, and vocal diversity and dexterity.

From Asheville, N.C., Town Mountain has garnered considerable airplay with previous releases. As well, the still youthful group has traveled far and wide playing their music; they have appeared at IBMA, performed internationally, and toured with respected bluegrass and jam bands. Further, their song “Diggin’ on the Mountain” was featured on the recent Putumayo bluegrass compilation.

Town Mountain is a band that finds their inspiration both in the traditions of bluegrass—traditions that include both Jimmy Martin and New Grass Revival—and in the increasingly expansive world of the jam bands. Much like the Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain has found a way to bridge these seemingly disparate universes, appealing to audiences of all types.

Without doubt, this band has fine writing chops. Either as co-writers or singular offerings, eleven of the dozen songs originate within the group. “Lawdog,” written by mandolinist Phil Barker, is a law-breaking throwback to the days of the Osborne Brothers; with Barker singing high and plaintive on this one, Bobby O naturally comes to mind. This may prove to be the album’s most popular track.

Another Barker song, “Greenbud on the Flower,” is more meditative; sung by Robert Greer, this one comes near the conclusion of the album and is of the “hard times aim to movin’ on” variety. Barker also writes two songs with frequent collaborator Charles Humphrey III. “Don’t Go Home Tonight” closes the album and is a plea for the party not to end while “Lookin’ in the Mirror,” the album’s spirited lead track, perhaps tells the rest of the story.

Also presenting songs is banjo player Jesse Langlais with three including the album’s title lament. Sung by Greer and with nice mando fills from Barker, “Leave the Bottle” is a traditional “drinkin’ on the road” song: “Hey, bartender, leave the bottle, because the drink helps to keep her far away.” The song could be taken a couple different ways, depending on whether you’re the one leaning on the bar or are the one left behind. He also wrote the very excellent song of questionable decision-making, betrayal, death, and a cold, lonesome corpse, “Away From Home.”

Greer also contributes a cut. “Up the Ladder” reminds one of both “Hard to Handle” (the Otis Redding song later cut by the Black Crowes) and “White Lightning”: it is a hard times tune disguised as a romp. Fiddler Bobby Britt weaves a bit of magic on the album’s instrumental, his own “Four Winds.”

Whereas the band’s previous albums featured covers of songs written by Springsteen, Van Zandt, and Hank III, Leave the Bottle’s sole cover  is of more obscure origin. “Loaded” comes from the Wood Brothers featuring a laid-back, Chatham County Line approach that deviates only a few beats per minute from the original: a very effective tactic for a blurry-eyed song of self-destruction.

Robert Greer sings the lead the majority of the time. His voice and approach is every bit as distinctive as Chris Stapleton’s, and this certainly helps Town Mountain separate themselves from the pack.

Produced by Mike Bub with Scott Vestal handling the knobs, Leave the Bottle has every element needed to help Town Mountain expand their presence within their bluegrass world