“This is My Crowd” by the Marksmen Quartet

Marksmen Quartet
This Is My Crowd
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Marksmen Quartet has been around professional music for four decades. Some of that time was spent more closely aligned with the southern gospel scene and most of their songs on this CD would fit well in southern gospel. In bluegrass a close contemporary is Paul Williams and the Victory Trio.

Dr. Earle Wheeler formed the Marksmen after some senior members from his first group, the Gospel Hearts, retired. For twenty-one years the group, with several different members but always anchored by Wheeler, worked the gospel circuit before making a segue to bluegrass gospel in the early 1980s. They are currently a five-member group with Wheeler doing vocals, Davey Waller (vocals, mandolin and guitar), Darrin Chambers (vocals, bass, guitar and dobro), Mark Wheeler (Earle’s son; vocals, lead guitar and banjo) and Mark Autry (vocals, bass, guitar). They are joined on the CD by other musicians including Bryan McDowell

There is a mixture of songs on the CD. One of the most suprising may be “Reuben.” It shows off the picking skills of the band and guests but seems odd to be included on an all-gospel album. The same can be said of “The Mule Song” which has a little in common with gospel music. (Trying to track down the origin of this song, I’m reminded—and showing my age—of Death Valley Days and the 20-mule team the sponsor showed hauling borax out of the desert. There seems to be forty or more versions of something called “The Mule Song,”) “Rock of Ages,” on the other hand, is as traditional as they come, presented in a minimalist arrangement, just a singer and guitar plus some background harmony. This is as good and effective an arrangement of this old song that I’ve heard.

“Matthew 24″ is a Cliff Waldron song. The vocals here don’t blend as well as on “Rock of Ages” but there’s still that good, traditional gospel sound. They reach for the heartstrings with “Don’t Take Your Life (Take Mine),” about a man ready to commit suicide until he hears Jesus say, “don’t take your life, take mine.” While some people may dismiss a song like this as maudlin, others will tell how it represents their own life’s story. That makes a good song, one that touches life’s stories.

“The Vail Is Gone” will meet any standard for a gospel number while “The Upper Room” is a down-to-earth story of a man recovering from a bout of drinking, listening to a preacher talk about the upper room where Jesus visited while he and others sit in the Upper Room Mission Home. Another song about life with which too many can identify. Another of those is “Last Saturday Night,” the story of a man on the wrong path who was saved in the jail last Saturday night, too late for this life but not life eternal:

He lived in the darkness now he walks in the light

Saved in his cell last Saturday night,

Saved in the jail last Saturday night

Open the gates, let him come in

Heaven is waiting, the chair’s not the end

Live in the darkness, now he enters the light

Steps into heaven, what a beautiful sight

He’ll be in heaven next Saturday night

I have a friend who is part of a prison ministry. Songs like this touch a nerve.

If you like bluegrass gospel done the traditional way, you’ll enjoy this CD.

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“Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler
Thirty Tigers

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

As a child through the 1970s, I was raised with the Little House on the Prairie television series. When I discovered the public library  during the summer between grades four and five, among the dozens of books I devoured were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. In the years since, and despite the contextual racism and other challenges presented by the novels, both overt and subtle, they remain favorites; without doubt Little House in the Big Woods remains one of the coziest novels to read on cold winter evenings. Further, for years I have hoped to visit Mansfield, Missouri and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, and this coming spring it just may finally happen.

Therefore, I come to this set predisposed to positivity.

When I reviewed a previous volume (The Arkansas Traveler) in this continuing series several years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how song titles carelessly skimmed over while reading as a youth brought to life memories of the novels. That album, while serving as a historical retrospective, was a dang fine listen. With Pa’s fiddle at its heart, it was not surprising that the old-time music collected therein prominently featured fiddle—lively and light, then mournful and introspective.

Unlike that previous set, which featured masterful vocal performances from the likes of John Cowan, Elizabeth Cook, Andrea Zonn, and Jeff Black, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is an album of instrumentals. As before, Matt Combs ably handles the fiddling. Missed here are the contributions of Butch Baldassari, in who’s memory the album is dedicated. As Pa’s Fiddle Band, the musicians bringing these songs to life include familiar bluegrassers Shad Cobb (banjo), Dennis Crouch (bass), Matt Flinner (mandolin) Bryan Sutton (guitar) as well as Buddy Greene (harmonica) and Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle, and piano).

Sure to be enjoyed by all fans of old-timey sounds, this latest volume sounds a bit more “uptown” than the previous set. The arrangements are more refined with the full-band presenting a less rustic interpretation of the tunes. Perhaps the tunes, including a personal favorite, the spritely picked “The Yellow Heifer,” received interpretations such as those included here in the 19th century, but I wouldn’t bet on it. These, therefore, are not faithful reproductions of the music heard by Laura, Mary, and the clan, but rather relatively modern interpretations of a selection of tunes mentioned throughout the Little House series.

The performances are dynamic and fully enjoyable. The doleful sounding “Golden Years are Passing By,” played by Bryan Sutton, causes one to reflect on passing days while the full-band reprise of the tune intensifies the ache into something even more pensive. The old fiddle tune “Polly Put the Kettle On”, featuring Joe Weed on fiddle, is closer in spirit to what I ‘hear’ when reading the novels. Some tunes bring a religious element, omnipresent within the Little House series, including “My Sabbath Home” and “Jesus Holds My Hand.”

The song notes of Dale Cockrell, which places each tune within both historical and Little House contexts, are superb, concise and interesting.

There are but two elements of the album that give me pause.

There first is simply a matter of preference. If these recordings are built on the legacy of Wilder’s writing, I do wonder why the songs are presented as ‘band’ recordings as Pa usually played unaccompanied. While I very much appreciate the performances contained within Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler, when listening I don’t strongly hear Wilder’s sense of place or voice.

My second hesitation around the project concerns the stated intent of this recording is to “place [Charles Ingalls] among the first rank of old-time fiddlers whose music is foundational to so much in American music.” This goal seems to be revisionist to my wee historical brain. While Ingalls’ playing is woven throughout the Little House novels, it seems to me that that was the limit of his influence.

I am willing to be corrected, but in my admittedly limited reading of fiddle playing in American history, the name Charles Ingalls isn’t prominent. I might suggest, as is hinted in Cockrell’s notes, that Ingalls’ influence didn’t extend past his family and immediate circle, and as such he is simply one of likely thousands of fiddle players whose music informed and entertained his family, but didn’t have historical relevance; the difference being, of course, that their daughters didn’t write about the experiences as widely as did his.

Quibbling aside, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is a very enjoyable, supremely played collection of songs that further illuminate the importance of the Little House series in our understanding of American history and the place music serves within it. And, it is a dang fine listen.

 

“Hard Country” by Audie Blaylock & Redline

Audie Blaylock and Redline
Hard Country
Rural Rhythm Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Audie Blaylock is one of many graduates from Jimmy Martin’s school of music. Martin, never one to mince words, must have been impressed by young Blaylock (who joined the Sunny Mountain Boys at age 19) because they were together for nine years. You can’t play them too fast or hard for Blaylock’s rhythm guitar playing and he has a bluegrass singer’s voice: some edge, uncultured (no Jim Nabors’ crooning here) but dead-on with each note.

“Hard Country” is meant to showcase the close relationship between bluegrass and what many call “real” country. Singers have chosen many songs supposedly of one genre and released them to fans on the other side and, if you listen close, you can hear elements of both genre in these songs. “A Real Good Way To Lose” has a fast tempo with the bass driving the song and underlined by Blaylock’s tenor voice. It sets the bar of musicianship high, something bluegrass fans simply expect. Band members Patrick McAvinue (fiddle/vocals) and Russ Carson (banjo) are both young and new to the bluegrass road, but they make their mark with this CD. Jesse Brock (mandolin; the Night Drivers, Lynn Morris and Dale Ann Bradley bands, Flamekeeper and a host of other stars) is recognized as one of the great mandolin players on the current bluegrass scene. Rounding out the recording group is Jason Moore ( Mountain Heart; James King), a great young bass player.

“14 Days” and “On the Road” are truck drivers’ songs with that distinct bluegrass beat, the bass pushing them along until you can almost feel your pulse jump to keep time. These numbers prove the point that there’s a difference between speed and drive. People outside bluegrass often think it’s all about breakneck speed but, while speed is sometimes an element, drive is most important. Another number with lots of drive is a Harley Allen number, “A Natural Thing” but the other Allen number is a slow ballad. Blaylock is known for his hard driving bluegrass but he does just as well with a heartstrings song like “Home Is Where The Heart Is.” The line “home is where the heart is and that’s why I leave it there” is one people should listen to—it would sure save a lot of heartache in the world and maybe a fewer songs about sitting at the bar and drinking my blues away. This song also has some beautiful harmony singing.

Speaking of heartache songs, the Louvin Brothers did some great ones. Ira Louvin co-wrote “Stormy Horizons” and it was recorded by, among others, Jim & Jesse. Another old number with a good arrangement here is “Philadelphia Lawyer.” This one has been recorded by a long list of artists on both sides of the bluegrass/country fence (I remember a Jim Reeves version) and Redline does it justice on this CD.

“A Grandmother’s Love” tugs at your heartstrings, especially if you’re a grandparent:

A grandmother’s love is greater than gold

She prays for her children with heart, mind and soul

Her heart can’t be measured, can’t be bought or sold

‘Cause a grandmother’s love is greater than gold

Blaylock can write as well as he sings.

Audie Blaylock has the credentials, the voice, the music and he keeps putting out CDs worth the money to own. This is one of them.

“Rough Edge & Ragged Hearts” by Linda McRae

Linda McRae
Rough Edge & Ragged Hearts
42 RPM

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

A few years back, a wag working to deadline dubbed Linda McRae “The Queen of Canadian Country Music,” a crown I’m not sure anyone should aspire toward. McRae relocated to Nashville five or six years ago with the release of her third tremendously impressive album Carve It To the Heart. In the intervening years, McRae has not had any of her rough edges buffed and maintains more in common with Jean Ritchie and Betty Cody than she does to anyone chasing commercial charts; this is a woman at home in true country music.

Linda McRae is nothing if not consistent. Every five years, she can be counted on to release an album that is even more impressive than that which came before it.

McRae has been recording as a singer-songwriter since 1997′s Flying Jenny appeared on the Stony Plain label. That album was an awe-inspiring debut in no small part because of the inclusion of the title track, a devastating and honest look at the relationship of Charlie and Ira Louvin. The Gurf Morlix-produced Cryin’ Out Loud followed several years later and again displayed a collection of strong originals supported by a top-notch studio crew. 2007 saw the release of Carve It To the Heart, an album that garnered significant notice and served as demonstration of the breadth of McRae’s talent.

McRae has adjusted her approach only a little on her new album Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts, but has misplaced none of her intensity. Playing acoustic guitar and banjo and giving us just taste of accordion, McRae delivers nine self-penned songs as well as a wickedly original interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man.” The album’s only other non-original is a take of Charlie Stephenson’s “In the Valley Below;” this is a very impressive song, full of images that convey senses of people and places, and McRae’s homey voice ties together the tale together impressively.

The focal points of this new album are the five songs written in collaboration with spouse James Whitmire. “Deck of ’52″ is as loving as a tribute as Townes Van Zandt has received since his passing; has it really been fifteen years? “Hope It Lasts Through Supper” is a nicely constructed song of romantic challenge: “For six months it’s been high and low; our friends are wearing frowns. We’re just trying to get our neuroses down; I just hope it lasts through supper.” “Three Midnights,” a song of addiction and recovery, is about as dark as it gets with the light of hope blurring its edges; Ray Bonneville lays out some sweet harmonica lines on this one.

McRae doesn’t have a pretty voice, but it suits her matter-of-fact rural poetry. Of her contemporaries, Gillian Welch and Kathy Mattea are, I suppose, appropriate places to start comparisons but she is truly her own self. Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts is an album of collaboration, with the contributions of Doug Cox, Marc L’Esperance, Stephen Nikleva, The Sojourners, and others—whether large or fleeting—important to the overall production.

Linda McRae is an artist. She doesn’t fit into a neat little genre box and she is definitely not for everyone. She is the genuine deal if you are looking for entertainment from an artist who is committed not only to her craft but to sharing something of herself with her audience.

 

 

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“FoxFire” by Conor Mulroy

Conor Mulroy
FoxFire
Melmac Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Music writers often say it, but it’s true. It never stops being nice that occasionally in your mailbox appears sounds from a promising musician you never would have discovered otherwise. This, which is largely the work of artists and good publicists, is even more crucial as multi-artist labels are not as often part of the process.

Conor Mulroy, a Massachusetts native who plays mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, and piano, is my latest unsought musical discovery. On what looks to be his fourth solo recording, FoxFire, Mulroy confines himself to the mandolin in leading a small unit—Tristan Clarridge (fiddle), Corey DiMario (double bass, tenor guitar), and Rob Cimitile (steel string guitar)—through 46 minutes of his own compositions divided into three songs and two multi-part movements.

“5 Tone Reel,” “Tenant’s Harbor,” and “Taylor’s Ridge” are swift and Celtic-tinged, notable for Mulroy’s clean-picked, insistent melodies and Clarridge’s exquisite tone, both when he’s out front and filling in.

The five-part “Movement 1″ follows, and is a bit confusing as labeled. Each of the five tracks has enough of it’s own flavor, often provided by Cimitile’s guitar approach, to be distinct, but there didn’t seem to be a strog enough thread linking them. Labelled differently, I might not have even noticed this, but as it is, it would have been better to let each segment become more of what it could have on its own.

The eight-part “Movement 2″ includes Gary Feldman on marimba, adding a rich, yet subtle jazzy texture to what has been a decidedly rustic affair thus far, freeing up Mulroy and Clarridge to stretch their legs while providing the cohesion that “Movement 1″ may lack.

It’s nice to hear a young talent like Mulroy being ambitious with album-length concepts when singles and EPs are what we’re getting more of. Let’s hope that he and this unit, especially fiddler Clarridge, keep pushing themselves to create for attentive audiences.

“The Gospel Side of Dailey & Vincent” by Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent
The Gospel Side of Dailey & Vincent
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

My earliest musical memories are from the Pentecostal church I was raised in, and still belong to, and from the Southern Gospel singings that we attended when groups like the Cathedrals, the Paynes, the Kingsmen and others would come through the Dayton area, usually to Memorial Hall.

I remember the atmosphere being pretty powerful, with the crowds and performers being thrilled to be in on something so expressive, intimate, and fun. I’m guessing if my more sophisticated and jaded musical self could travel back there, I might have some other reactions, but that’s what stayed with me.

It was a similar feeling present in my initial reactions to bluegrass music. Along with the virtuosity of the players and the camaraderie within bands, there was a true sense of connection to the audience that went beyong the ticket sale. At one of my first bluegrass shows, a bill at that same Memorial Hall headlined by the supergroup Longview and including the Seldom Scene and Ralph Stanley, I was shocked when I asked a little guy in rumpled jeans for a CD at Ralph Stanley’s record table and realized it was Ralph himself selling my the disc, slitting the plastic with his pocketknife and signing it for me.

Dailey & Vincent have, more than any other group I’ve seen, embodied that bond between the musician and the music lover. Their shows have increasingly featured non-bluegrass elements like keyboards, percussion and Southern Gospel arrangements along with what they do best to create a product that anyone with the slightest inclination toward what they’re doing can instantly become immersed in.

What better to extend that brand than another disc with Cracker Barrel to follow their perfect Statler Brothers tribute? Jamie and Darrin, along with band regulars and studio ringers (Bryan Sutton, Andy Leftwich, Scott Vestal, Stuart Duncan, etc.) serve up twelve tracks in forty minutes that fly past in what seems like half the time, though there are a couple of more contemporary slow sentimental arrangements that had me tuning out or skipping ahead.

“Living in the Kingdom of God,” “Cast Aside,” and “Cross Over to the Other Side of Jordan” will keep the bluegrass faithful happy with the Doyle Lawson-like balance between great singing and picking. Buck Owens’ “Eternal Vacation,” Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible,” and Carl Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass” appeal to the country stalwarts, and piano rave-ups “Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord” and “The Fourth Man in the Fire” lay the mine the gospel foundation and feature the Brobdingnagian bass voice of Christian Davis.

“All In” by the Boxcars

The Boxcars
All In
Mountain Home Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Boxcars are a group that you can enjoy on CD or in person. Excellent musicians, they also understand putting on a performance, not just standing on stage and picking. Adam Steffey is a good front man and excellent mandolin player and Ron Stewart is always interesting as he switches effortlessly between banjo and fiddle.

And that takes nothing away from the rest of the band. Harold Nixon provides support on the bass as Keith Garrett sings and plays guitar. John Bowman rounds out the group with his fiddle and guitar work. Superb musicians one and all.

The band shows off their song writing skills on this CD. Coon hunting has long had an association with bluegrass, notably Jimmy Martin and his coon hunting stories. Reminiscent of “Brown Mountain Lights,” Keith Garrett gives us the story of Jeffrey (“Jeffrey’s Hell”) and his lost coonhound. Jeffrey tells his wife it’s okay, he knows the woods and will find him, but “she never held him in her arms again.”

See that lamp burning bright, he’s there another night

Listen close and you can hear him yell

Keep your lamp turned low, there’s not much more to go

As he walks another night in Jeffrey’s hell

Having spent many a night looking for lost hounds I can appreciate this song even without the good tune and great picking.

Stewart contributes a bluegrass favorite, the murder song. In this case two young orphans are making their way in “Crawford County” when they are shot by a lawman in a mixed up affair. But there’s backwoods justice and the lawman soon joins them in untimely death. Coon hunting and murder – where else but bluegrass?

Stewart also writes about heartbreak in “Alone and Wondering Why,” a song that any of the great bluegrass stars of the past could have sung, bluegrass tradition at its best. Garrett was also busy with “Don’t Fall In Love With A Girl Like That,” one whose heart is “in shackles and chains.” Staying with love songs and adding in some drinking, we hear “Still Good At Crying Over You,” the story of a man still heartbroken after a decade of suffering over lost love. On the other hand, “[He] thought we’d make a perfect pair, my charming wit and your red hair” is the story of a man moving on in “I’m Over You.”

They give us a fast moving instrumental with a Steffey composition, “That’s What She Said” and they reach way back for a Flatt & Scruggs number, “I’ve Lost You.” The CD closes with a gospel song by Rebecca (John Bowman’s wife) and Sonya Isaacs, “Prison.”

There’s a lot of very good bluegrass music available to us, but you won’t find a better CD anywhere.

“Life Finds a Way” by the Grascals

The Grascals
Life Finds a Way
Mountain Home Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Grascals surprised me. I remember watching them when they first started touring apart from Dolly Parton and, though impressed with their sound, for some reason now obscured by time I didn’t think they would last. Bands change members about as often as a new mother changes diapers, but the Grascals have stuck together.

Their individual talents are unquestionable and their roots show in their music. Terry Smith, upright bassist, son of the well-known Nashville music journalist Hazel Smith, worked with Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers and Mike Snider and recorded with his brother Billy as the Smith Brothers before joining the Grascals. Kristin Scott Benson, IBMA banjo player of the year (2008, 2009, 2010) has recorded with a number of bluegrass stars and is married to Wayne Benson of IIIrd Tyme Out.

Jeremy Abshire plays fiddle. He came to the band from Dale Ann Bradley’s band midway in the band’s life and has proved a valuable addition while mandolin player Danny Roberts was there at the beginning, leaving the Reno Tradition to join the band.

The two boys from Indiana have a link to the Boys From Indiana, one of the top groups a few decades ago. Jamie Johnson grew up down the road from Aubrey Holt and appeared with BFI in the ’90s, then went on to help found The Wildwood Valley Boys with Tony Holt, Aubrey’s son. Jamie moved to Nashville and bounced around with some big Nashville names before helping to found the Grascals with his pal Terry Eldredge.

Terry, from western Indiana, started out with Lonzo and Oscar but went on to play with the Osborne Brothers and Lonesome Standard Time plus a list of other top acts in bluegrass and country. Terry and Jamie play guitar and do most of the lead singing.

The title track is an upbeat song about the trials of life and how “life finds a way” even when times are tough. This is the kind of song they often perform. Even if the basic premise of the song is sad there’s still an undercurrent of hope and an uplifting message. Then there’s “Bartender.” It’s hard to find an uplifitng message in this tale of a man still carrying a torch for Linda.

Bartender, pour one for Linda, I hate to drink alone

I’ll be drinking doubles each night with her gone

In the bottom of the glass her reflection I see

Bartender, pour Linda one more for me

Then one day it’s just gone. No more second glasses for the bartender to fill for the memory of Linda. Back in the day when country music was still country there’s a long list of artists that would have cut this song.

“Mystery Train” dates back to 1953 and Junior Parker but the biggest-selling version was released by Elvis Presley in 1955. Rock ‘n’ roll, country, bluegrass—makes no difference, this is a good song. And speaking of rock, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” isn’t your typical bluegrass number, but made famous (for bluegrassers) by the Seldom Scene on their Act 1 album. The Grascals give us another good rendition of this number.

A contribution to the album from Aubrey Holt is his well-traveled “You Can Mark It Down,” covered by a number of bluegrass artists since BFI did it. Leaving but positive about it, you can mark it down, then switch to a more melancholy “Still They Call Me Love.” If you’ve ever suffered heartaches you’ll appreciate:

I invented heartbreak

I came up with pain

How much can these fools take

Are they all insane?

If you like your bluegrass fast and driving, you’ll love “Lay That Hammer Down,” or country blues and booze then listen to “Honky Tonk Lullaby,” or a gospel number asking for help from above then you should listen to “Road To Surrender.” This newest CD is a potpourri of good songs and topnotch musicians. What more could you want?