“Heartland” by the Downtown Mountain Boys

Downtown Mountain Boys
Heartland
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

If you like bluegrass the way Bill Monroe did it, you’ll get excited as soon as you hear the first notes of this CD, “Riding On the L&N”. This is a Bluegrass Cardinals’ number from the ’80’s and the Boys do it well. Staying with the railroad theme, they offer a Seldom Scene number from four decades ago, “Raised By The Railroad Line” and a tune many have heard from the Lonesome River Band, “Like a Train Needs a Track” with guitarist Don Share singing lead. Speaking of Mr. Monroe, included is one of his compositions, “Old Ebeneezer Scrooge.” This is a great instrumental that should be played more often. Paul Elliott plays fiddle and does an excellent job. He’s performed with a number of well-known acts (Alison Brown, John Reischman) and is also a composer. The mandolin is the centerpiece of this number, of course, and Tom Moran turns in a masterful performance.

Animals have cropped up in bluegrass through the years (“Molly & Tenbrooks,” “Echo Mountain” and, of course, “Old Shep”) and now there’s another song that should join that group. Bassist Terry Enyeart wrote and sings lead on “Shannon’s Last Ride,” a story about having to “put old Shannon down.” The old horse has been around thirty years and it’s just time. The number was inspired by Enyeart using his backhoe to bury a neighbor’s favorite horse. A song based on a lifetime of stories is “Timber.” This number has an old-timey sound and was written by Enyeart based on stories told him by his logger camp fiddler grandpa and grandmother, a cook in the camp. It tells a story you might expect, including the man who was killed by a falling limb then covered by a gunny sack while the work went on. Elliott composed the fiddle music and also composed the title song. It’s a bit unusual (on a mixed vocal-instrumental CD) to name the CD after an instrumental, but this is a beautiful number.

Banjoist Dave Keenan sings lead on a “Up and Down the Mountain,” another number traced to the Bluegrass Cardinals but performed by a long list of bands through the years. There are no bad songs on this CD but my favorite is “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.” Played in a minor chord, it’s another murder song but it’s a pretty one. It’s been recorded by such diverse artists as the Steeldrivers (band members Chris Stapleton and Michael Henderson composed the song) and Adele. This goes on my “gotta learn it” list.

The band is from the northwest and their schedule shows their touring limited to that area. If you’re lucky enough to see them in person, grab the opportunity. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this CD if you like traditional bluegrass.

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“These Tears I’ve Cried” by Steve Scott Country

Steve Scott Country
These Tears I’ve Cried
self-released
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Here is another good entry in the country-rock field, songs called country by the radio stations and people who buy the records, but sound like rock music. There are any number of rock bands from some decades ago—like Credence Clearwater Revival—that you could plug into the playing of these tracks and no one would miss a beat. In that vein of music, Scott has come up with some good songs (all written by him). The title song is a ballad with the steel guitar the primary lead instrument. A good steel player can reach out and grab your heartstrings and the steel in this song has that sound, it just doesn’t match what he’s singing. He doesn’t touch you with the lyrics.

One issue for me is Scott’s elocution. He breaks out of the soundalike clutch of “country” singers on the radio today but his pronunciation is unusual. It’s not a twang, it sounds more like an affectation but seems to be his normal way of singing. It takes some getting used to before it stops stealing your attention from the song.

“Thoughts On Fire” is a love song that has some nice touches with an easy beat on a flattop guitar and some steel and fiddle in the background. It lapses into country-rock mode on every verse, though, with a wall of sound that makes it hard to sort out the background instruments. The music follows the country-rock formula with a bit of diversity in the kickoff then a lot of licks strung together through the rest of the song. It would be interesting to hear a country record with the instruments having space in each song, playing some creative fills and lead breaks that are more than just bending strings and making a lot of noise.

“Geronimo (You’ve Got Me Wonderin’)”has an unusual kickoff. Scott sounds like he’s down in a well doing some swamp rock, reminiscent of the theme song to Justified. This one has some interesting stuff in it. The lyrics don’t grab my attention and I could do without the thud-thud back-beat of the drummer, but there’s some resophonic guitar and very bluesy keyboard/organ work in this number.

“Don’t Say You’ll Walk Away (Tonight)” mixes some interesting, quiet mandolin work mixed with loud guitars crashing in the background. The guitar break is more of a formula than a solo. Like many of his songs, you have to work to piece together a cohesive story from his lyrics. This doesn’t seem unusual for this style of music so there are undoubtedly significant numbers of people who can get into this groove. I have to admit I miss songs like “Lonesome 7-7203.” They told the story; you didn’t have to piece anything together.

There’s good music here for fans of the country-rock-indie (the CD was #32 on the Roots Music Report for November 2013), lots of crashing guitars and a strong drum beat so you can dance. If “Come Sundown” is one of your favorites, you’ll be disappointed.

 

“Fiddle” by Smoke Dawson

Smoke Dawson
Fiddle
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The violin—or rather, for our purposes, the fiddle—has carried the implication that it is the devil’s instrument long before the Charlie Daniels pop-country operetta “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” From the legends surrounding Paganini on back to an ancient Greek music critic by the name of Aristotle, the fiddle has evoked suspicion and curiosity.

Some attribute this to apprehension at the debauchery that comes with drink and dance—the skilled fiddler for centuries before turntables and synthesizers performed the function now manned by the likes of Avicii and Skrillex, with wine or moonshine lubricating the proceedings as molly and mushrooms now do for many.

But I suspect that the fiddle is regarded as fiendish because of the visceral reaction only it can provoke. Neither the piano nor the guitar—and certainly no horn—can approach the infinite range of microtones and timbres possible with strings grabbing and scratching and pulling over a fretless fingerboard. Our ears can hear so much from a fiddle, and its sounds are often familiar and frightening in the same moment.

I was playing a digital copy of this reissue of this record—Smoke Dawson’s privately pressed “Fiddle” LP from 1971, with fascinating liner notes by Josh Rosenthal—the other day, and someone in the next room later remarked on the Celtic music they had heard.

It’s more the American folk or Appalachian style of fiddling that Dawson does here, but he’s definitely calling up the ancient tones and voices that poets like Bill Monroe and Van Morrison are always going on about.

“John Brown’s Dream,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—indeed most of the 17 tracks here—have melodies recognizable to even casual listeners to bluegrass and American folk and country music—sometimes those melodies are known by other names, which underscores the magpie nature of the fiddlers that have passed them along—renaming, stealing, reworking, and reinvigorating at every pass. Dawson’s “Pretty Polly” is every bit as bracing as Ralph Stanley’s version, right down to the plucked-string kickoff that mimics the sound of Stanley’s banjo. If you listened to each version side by side for the first time with no context, you couldn’t say which was older or even when they were recorded.

Dawson also played the bagpipes, which make a striking appearance here on the third leg of the “Connaughtman’s Rambles/Devil’s Dream/Marche Venerie” medley.

“The Minotaur” closes the album with stutters and hums and an unworldly aura made more affecting by the knowledge it’s coming not from Satan but from one of us.

 

 

“Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray” by Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick

Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick
Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray
Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (Out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

“Now come, let’s gather round me, here’s what I’ve got to say,

About this blue grass music, I know it’s here to stay;

Can’t you hear that 5-string talkin’, that lonesome fiddle whine,

Take off your hat, hang up your coat: we’re gonna have a time!”

-“Blue Grass Style”

Vern Williams and Ray Parks were an influential west coast bluegrass act from their formation in 1959 until their dissolution in the mid-70s. Their lone album, 1974’s Sounds of the Ozarks, is a rarely heard but much sought after slab of Ozark mountain-raised, California hewn bluegrass. Following Vern and Ray’s disbanding of their group, the Vern Williams Band remianed a prominent presence in bluegrass, especially on the west coast.

Written by band member Clyde Williamson and Cal Veale, Vern and Ray’s song “Cabin On A Mountain” is rightly considered an exceptional bluegrass performance, with the song going on to be recorded numerous times including by Larry Stephenson, the Spinney Brothers, and Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass. Longview, Open Road, and many others have recorded their songs.

Possibly no two individuals have more confidently and consistently beat the drum for Vern & Ray than Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Themselves leading denizens of the California bluegrass scene, Lewis and Kallick frequently pay tribute to Vern & Ray and their ongoing influence in concert. They come together here for their second album of duets (following 1991’s Together, which was dedicated to Vern & Ray) by releasing a wonderfully touching and musically significant tribute to the duo that so impacted them.

Critiquing Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray is patently silly. It is incredible from start to finish. There may be finer bluegrass singers than these inspirational stalwarts, but such scaling would be foolish. Songs have few better friends than these two; whether singing lead or harmony, their voices know each other so well as to make their efforts appear unrehearsed and familial.

That both are exceptional musicians—Kallick plays lead and rhythm guitar on all but one track, Lewis handles all the fiddle (augmented with frequent Kallick collaborator Annie Staninec on a pair of twin fiddle numbers) and bass—is indisputable. With their instrumentalists—primarily Tom Rozum (mandolin) and Patrick Sauber (banjo), but also Vern & Ray acolyte Keith Little (banjo) and Sally Van Meter (resophonic slide)— the duo naturally captures the passionate spirit Williams and Parks brought to their music.

A definite highlight is their interpretation of “Thinkin’ Of Home.” Featuring twin fiddles and lead vocals from both Lewis and Kallick, this Williams/Park co-write (from their debut Starday extended play recording of 1961) is reinvented by these formidable female voices. Whereas Williams’ voice cut across the melody in the most wonderful way, Lewis and Kallick gently support each other through the song’s desolate isolation, while simultaneously singing with no little bit of starch.

One of Vern & Ray’s most authoritative recordings was their take of “Touch Of God’s Hands.” Here Keith Little takes the lead with the ladies provide soaring harmony. “To Hell With the Land” is perhaps my favourite Parks composition, and here Lewis reminds us that there remains causes for the home place being abandoned.

The originals were incredible performances, under heard perhaps, but powerful and deserving of a wider audience. Lewis and Kallick, by recording these in such a redoubtable manner, have provided opportunity for more people to become familiar with the music of Vern and Ray.

It has been said that there is nothing better than the sound of bluegrass when performed by friends. Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick—with their compatriots—have created a recording a long time in coming, one that certainly gives Vern Williams and Ray Parks their bluegrass due.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Side by Side” by Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II
Side By Side
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), “Side By Side” is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy.

The selection of songs—four of which feature Ralph in strong lead voice—are almost exclusively older and well-known: the album kicks off with “Wild Bill Jones,” goes “Walking With You In My Dreams,” asks “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” and concludes with “I’ve Still Got 99.”

The musicianship is classic sounding—fresh and relaxed with a professional sheen that doesn’t get in the way of the emotions of the music. Clinch Mountain Boys alumni John Rigsby (fiddle and mandolin), Randall Hibbitts (bass), and Steve Sparkman (banjo) are the core band, with Two doing double duty on lead and rhythm guitar. Dr. Ralph lays out clawhammer-style on a solitary track, the aptly titled “Battle Ax.”

Doubting the senior Stanley’s vocal capabilities? Don’t. Instead, give “Don’t Weep for Me” a listen, or appreciate his excellent tenor contributions to any number of these songs including “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” “Nobody Answered Me,” or “Carolina Mountain Home.”

Two has become a fine singer in his own right, one of my favorites. If you haven’t heard him before, also consider his album of a couple years back Born To Be A Drifter. “White & Pink Flowers” is a sentimental weeper, while “Dirty Black Coal” is more my style. Start to finish, Side By Side is a superior album of bluegrass.

Perusing these song titles, it is readily apparent what Two and co-producer Rigsby had in mind—a celebration of the Stanley mountain music legacy. And they have pulled such off in a significant way. “Side By Side” is cause for celebration. We all know Ralph Stanley had planned on retiring this year, but with his continuing good health delaying that decision one of the last true ‘first generation’ bluegrass singers continues to make appearances. And his latest album is as good as anything—and certainly superior to some—he has recorded in the past 20 years.

I would suggest that Side By Side is among the strongest bluegrass albums that has been released in 2014.

“Dream Big” by the Darrell Webb Band

The Darrell Webb Band
Dream Big
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When Darrell Webb takes the stage he owns it. He stalks back and forth, puts a leg up on the front rail as he sings and plays, moves to a musician taking a break to share with him or just watch. He’s energetic and intense. He doesn’t just play, he performs. I reviewed Bloodlines four years ago and started by saying, “As soon as “I’m Bringing Home Good News” kicks off you know you’re in for a ride and it’s on a bluegrass train. Darrell Webb took a good Merle Haggard song and gave it a triple shot of Red Bull.” Fifteen hundred days later, hundreds of shows later, he hasn’t worn off his edge.

Dating back hundreds of years, coins have been placed on the eyes of the deceased so they can pay Charon, the ferryman, to row them across the River Styx – even though most of us aim for the River Jordan. “Ferry Man,” co-written by fiddler Jim VanCleve, is pure bluegrass, all about a life of hard times and hard living that’s come to a sad end:

Mother died when I was young

Father drank to kill the pain

The way my father left this world

I sadly did the same

Webb plays mandolin and sings the lead, joined by VanCleve, Tim Stafford (guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo), Shawn Lane (tenor) and Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar) and Jason Moore (bass). Just a sampling of the great musicians on this CD, a who’s who of the groups Webb has been a member of through the years, the instrumental work is excellent.

Staying with pain and despair, “Bad Old Yesterdays” is all about love so good then love gone bad, she was “unfaithful with the one I trusted most.” Bandmate Jake Joines plays Dobro and former LRB bandmate Sammy Shelor plays banjo with Aaron Ramsey playing mandolin. Things go from bad to worse when he’s about to swing on the “Devil’s Rope.” Bandmates Jared Hensley (guitar) and Jeremy Arrowood ( NS Bass) join him while while Webb plays both mandolin and banjo.

“Flying South to Dixie” has been around a long time and recorded by a slew of artists. It may qualify as the song with the most composers based on a Google search. Cindy Walker (who is credited here), Hank Snow, Hank Locklin and Robert Weber all pop up as composers. This may have arisen from the old custom of registering variations in your own name. Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldredge join Webb on vocals on this on this swinging old country song.

Another nod to the past is a Dr. Ralph Stanley favorite, “Pretty Polly.” Webb’s interpretation and banjo playing are top-notch. Moving to a more modern sound, “So Far” is a love song that Ronnie Bowman helps to sing and Phil Leadbetter contributes resophonic guitar. “Folks Like Us” will resonate with most anyone listening to it, describing the chasm between the working man and the rich man, asking if there’s “a way to get ahead that doesn’t make us bleed.” After all the news of greed and grift among people and companies that make more in an hour than most of us do in a year—or a lifetime—a lot of people will hear this story. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent add vocals.

Webb and VanCleve composed “Mashtag,” an instrumental that starts off slow and reflective before kicking it up a notch. Another number that probably speaks more to older fans, those of us with enough years that we can look a long way back to the time when life seemed it would go on forever, is “More Life.” Co-written by Mike Reid, a great songwriter whose singing career didn’t last long enough, with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals, it’s the story of a man nearing the end of life. Thinking of what he will do “as soon as gets his back up to speed,” the nurse comes in “with something for the pain” and asks if there’s anything more he needs.

More life, more time

More faith and the presence of mind

To breathe deeper, love stronger

Stay in the moment one moment longer

Less anger, less worry, more life

Oh, my.

Darrell Webb will go down in the books as one of the great stars of bluegrass and this CD is just one piece of the proof.

 

 

“Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Larry Sparks is an undisputed bluegrass icon, as much for his prodigious talent—the mournful, masculine voice pitched a little lower than “high lonesome” and his commanding guitar technique—as his niche somewhere between bluegrass music’s first and second generations (as Carter Stanley’s successor alongside Dr. Ralph starting in 1966, he played a key role in that period of transition when followers of the founders started, ever so gently, branching out).

Fifty years a professional, he’s still as good a bluegrass (or country or gospel, for that matter) lead singer there is, and the band he’s got on this disc—David Harvey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (fiddle), Tyler Mullins (banjo), Larry D. Sparks (bass), and Jackie Kincaid (tenor vocals)—does him justice, especially Kincaid’s old-school harmony on the opening cut, Jimmie Skinner’s “Will You Be Satisfied That Way?” and the simmering gospel bluegrass of “We Prayed.”

Sparks offers up some more trad grass with tenor harmonies from fellow legends Ralph Stanley (on Carter’s “Loving You Too Well”), Bobby Osborne (“Letter to My Darlin’), and Curly Seckler (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”), while Seckler and Jesse McReynolds join in on Hank Williams’ gospel shouter “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.”

But Sparks’ vocal virtuosity is in his ability to master both more contemporary bluegrass songs and banjo-less gospel. Here, the latter style is represented by “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” (which never gets old, especially with Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall joining Sparks and solo guitar), and “Savior’s Precious Blood,” also with just bluesy guitar and that majestic voice.

Sparks again shows on the album’s three bluegrass story songs—the nostalgic “In Those Days,” the realistic coal mining ballad “Journey to the Light,” and the Southern gothic “Bitterweeds” how he can turn a good song into a great one.

The crowning touch of this 12-track disc is a 1995 live cut of Sparks joining Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on stage at Bean Blossom for “In the Pines,” which is predictably grand.