“Cut to the Chase” by Kathy Kallick

Kathy Kallick
Cut to the Chase
Live Oak Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Kathy Kallick is a versatile recording artist. Folk, bluegrass, Americana, pioneering trailblazer…labels have never meant too much to Kallick, have never limited her creativity.

“She was a nice Jewish girl living near Chicago,” is not the way most bluegrass biographies could begin, but those are the words Murphy Hicks Henry elected to use when beginning her chapter on Kallick within Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass. A California resident for forty years, she and like minded compatriots founded the Good Ol’ Persons in 1974 and Kallick has been at the center of the dynamic West Coast bluegrass movement. The Good Ol’ Persons produced five albums including the essential live retrospective Good n’ Live.

She has recorded songs of her musical roots (My Mother’s Voice),  albums for children (including the inspired Use a Napkin, Not Your Mom), an album of duets with Laurie Lewis (Together), and straight ahead bluegrass (Call Me A Taxi). Since the late ’90s, the Kathy Kallick Band has produced several albums of jaw-dropping, unfettered bluegrass starting with Walkin’ In My Shoes through to and including 2012′s Time. In my opinion, their Warmer Kind of Blue is all kinds of marvelous. (See Kallick’s discography from her website here.)

Alternately and frequently simultaneously, she has crafted albums bridging the unsettled ground between folk and country, releasing tremendously well-executed albums including Reason & Rhyme and My Mother’s Voice.

Having written a collection of new songs that will come to stand with her finest, with Cut to the Chase (which I mistakenly read as ‘Cut to the Case’ for about three weeks) Kallick provides ample demonstration that she continues to hone her art. I argue that my reading error was an honest one, as Kallick’s assertive, clean lead guitar playing is as central to the album as her remarkable voice and erudite lyrics.

The album’s lead track insightfully crafts a roadmap for Cut to the Chase, as the protagonist comes to the realization that “Tryin’ So Hard to Get to You” is a long journey toward heartache and frustration. While there may be benefits to giving oneself over to the power of another, it’s best to determine one’s own course, to “keep your feet on the ground,” to borrow from another song. The catchy “Same Ol’ Song” has a similar theme, but different mood. The influence of Hazel Dickens on these songs and “When”  may only be apparent from my perspective.

Whether inhabiting others in “Persephone’s Dream” and “Franco’s Spain” (with beautiful mandolin lighting the way) and exploring the psyche and worlds of her creations, or describing the life shaped by a boy’s fascination with a train’s whistle—”Not As Lonesome As Me”—Kallick brings forth honesty and experience to fashion tactile personalities.

“Ellie,” a song that dates back to the Good Ol’ Persons, is given new life closing this set. Apparently long unavailable (the original version is on I Can’t Stand to Ramble, which I don’t own), hearing the song for the first time I fully understand why Murphy Henry highlights the song as “the timeless classic” from the GOP’s second album.

Determined to be a good girl in her mother’s eyes, Annie makes some choices that might be disappointing. “As the baby grows, she learned to tell a lie, that’s easier to do to keep Mama satisfied” is just one of the foundational thoughts captured in the beautifully written song, with fiddle—presumably from Kallick band member Annie Staninec—tempering the ‘true life’ harshness of the lyrics with the acceptance of mournful reflection.

While Kallick wrote the majority of these songs by herself, three are co-written with Clive Gregson, long ago of new wave band Any Trouble and collaborations with Christine Collister, and himself a notable folk presence for the past few decades. “Get the hell away from me,” the affirming refrain within the album’s forceful title track, certainly cuts to the chase, while their “The Time Traveler’s Wife” requires listeners to immerse themselves in the song’s rich lyrical path.

Kallick’s hand-picked core band is a gathering of trusted colleagues. In addition to Staninec, members of the Kathy Kallick Band— Greg Booth (resonator guitar), Tom Bekeny (mandolin), and Cary Black (bass)—serve as the instrumental foundation for the album, while Good Ol’ Persons John Reischman (mandolin) and Sally Van Meter (Weissenborn lap slide), Bill Evans (banjo), and others also appear. The album is cohesive, with a consistency in sound that unifies the assembled story songs.

Cut To the Chase is several steps away from the music of the Kathy Kallick Band, and allows Kallick to continue to develop her own style of acoustic Americana. It is a beautifully constructed album of personal and poetic music that should appeal to all who have appreciated Kallick’s music and insights.

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“Dancin’ Annie” by Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie    
Dancin’ Annie
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

So many albums from notable bluegrass pickers these days feature the headliner with an assortment of other similarly famous pickers, and the results are usually satisfying—but that they are satisfying in the same way gets old after a while.

It’s refreshing to see banjo legend Bill Emerson (Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron) sticking to the tried and true approach of leading an actual band and trusting them to do great work in the studio.

Sweet Dixie is filled out by Teri Chism (bass), Wayne Lanham (mandolin), and Chris Stifel (guitar), all of whom play and sing with the effortless precision that we have long enjoyed from Emerson’s banjo. They split the vocal leads just about evenly, and their harmony singing and instrumental breaks are done in service of the song. Like I said: an actual band.

Stifel penned and sings a smooth lead on the bouncy title track, while the rest of this 12-track 39-minute CD features songs from other writers. The three on which Chism sings lead are particularly nice fits for her voice and this band: the hard-driving—both lyrically and sonically—”Two Hands on the Wheel,” Liz Meyer’s “The Only Wind that Blows,” and a simple, sweet version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

The three gospel numbers manage to be fresh and meaningful, rather than trite or preachy, and the two instrumentals—Emerson’s own “State Line Ride” and Lanham’s “Whistle Stop”—make this one a fun listen in the car.

The two best tracks here are “Days When You Were Mine” and “This Heart You Have Broken,” which isn’t surprising when you see that they’re both previously unrecorded songs from the songwriting team of Pete Goble and the late Leroy Drumm.

This approach to album-making has its roots in the 1970s, but Emerson and Sweet Dixie prove it still works.

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“I’d Do It All Over Again” by the Easter Brothers

The Easter Brothers
I’d Do It All Over Again
Pisgah Ridge Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I’d Do It All Over Again”—the Easter Brothers version, not Crystal Gayle’s lost love lament—is a song about years of labor for God, years of serving through music. Their faith is still strong and they’d do it again if they had the chance. This is the kind of message that you don’t sell without some history (like a singer belting out “I Did It My Way” before his thirtieth birthday) The Easter Brothers have sixty years of history in the business. You may have seen them on a Gaither show and people in the gospel world will make a connection because of Jeff and Sheri Easter, popular gospel performers and members of the Gaither troupe. Jeff is James Easter’s son and they recorded a video in the church James’ father started in 1963.

The musicians include a drummer (Steve Schramm) and pianist Les Butler. Butler is a very active, multi-instrumentalist in gospel music while Schramm is the bass player for The Easter Family, the only non-Easter member of this group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren. The other musicians are familiar names, all top-drawer musicians: Byron House (bass), Cody Kilby (guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin) and Justin Moses (banjo, Dobro). Numbers like “Let The Hallelujahs Roll” are a fusion of bluegrass instrumentation and gospel styling with brothers trading vocal leads on the chorus. It would be hard to find a bluegrass or gospel crowd that didn’t like this music.

“The Lost Sheep” is one of many numbers written by the brothers. This number, the story of a man who had lost his way in life, features narration in a voice just a bit used by age, the perfect setting for a story of trials and tribulations. Time takes its toll on vocal cords and we’ve heard it in many voices: Johhny Cash, some of the performers on Country’s Family Reunion, some of the bluegrass legends still on the circuit. These changes in voice seem to make no matter to the fans and the Easter Brothers do remarkably well with their singing. Their voices havechanged some with the years but are as good as ever. “Old Fashion Talk With The Lord” is another number where they swap leads and fill the choruses with their dead-on, excellent harmony. This song has a clear and unquestionable message:

Do you feel all alone, with burdens and sorrows

And is your heart heavy, too?

And it looks like the Savior is a million miles away

It’s not the Lord that’s drifting, it’s you

Their message of being changed by faith and a life devoted to faith sounds in song after song. “I Didn’t Leave Like I Came” is a fast-moving number that is a message of change and happens to be excellent bluegrass. “The Crossing” touches the inevitable we all face and the promise of salvation. I’m writing the words down to sing this one in my church.

Great singing and harmony, excellent musicians, the good message. What more could you want?

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“One Evening in May” by Laurie Lewis

Laurie Lewis
One Evening in May
Spruce and Maple Music
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Laurie Lewis’ brave and challenging One Evening in May will likely confound some listeners as much as it impress others. This album is unconventional, surprising, and no little bit excellent.

Lewis’ new live album is both brave and challenging for good reason. She leads a trio that includes long-time collaborator Tom Rozum and electric guitarist Nina Gerber and has elected to capture songs recorded live on a single evening at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage.

Not only that, but she has chosen to build the bulk of the album around newly written songs. Therefore, few of these songs will have been heard by any but the most ardent of Lewis’ listeners. I’ve been intently listening to Lewis for more than a dozen years, and nothing sounded familiar to me. Well, almost nothing; more on that later. No “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” No “Tall Pines.” No “The Wood Thrush’s Song.”

This album then is a whole new listening experience, one that captures Lewis and her cohorts in a very comfortable setting, and I imagine this will be what confounds some who experience this album expecting the tried and true. As most who have listened to Lewis for longer than a festival weekend will attest, it is this very unconventional approach to music that has helped Laurie Lewis remain at the fore of string-band influenced, modern folk.

While there is little to connect the music contained within One Evening in May with bluegrass, neither is there a great deal beyond instrumentation removing it from that world. The themes Lewis explores are definitely ‘grass-friendly, and it is to her credit that she effortlessly breaks the confines of genre. More Blossoms than Skippin’ and Flyin’, those attracted to Lewis’ warm personality and charming music will find One Evening in May very attractive. Select songs also feature harmony from the T Sisters, and a pair have fiddling by Tristan Clarridge, providing a more fully enveloped context.

While the songs are unfamiliar, they don’t remain that way for long. “Arson of the Heart” and “Garden Grow” are jumpy little numbers that allows the trio to rock out, joined on the latter by the exuberant Tietjen Sisters. After this bit of frivolity, Lewis settles into one of the album’s most significant songs.

“Sailing Boat” could have come from Guy Clark or Mary Chapin Carpenter, and now that I think about it, so too could have “Garden Grow.” Like many of Lewis’ compositions, “Sailing Boat” uses finely hewn lyrical phrases to create vivid images and a contemplative mood that remain fixed in the psyche long after the chords fade. The metaphor is indeed a boat bound for the reef, but the human relationship is unambiguous.

“Barstow” is quite wonderful, a short story in song deserving of a literary label. Her personal compendium of “Kisses” balances the density of the songs that surround it, while simultaneously revealing a depth of consideration that may escape notice within clever wordplay. “En Voz Baja” and “The Crooked Miles,” a song of joyful reflection, would not be out of place on Emmylou Harris albums of the 70s.

I quite appreciate the spritely banjo tones that Lewis brings to the rousing album closer, “With Me Wherever I Go.”

Mandolinist Tom Rozum is afforded considerable space within this recording, providing his impeccable rhythm and tone throughout. He takes the vocal lead on “Down to Tampa” and “One Sweet Hello,” but it is the colorful fills and supportive notes he provides on songs such as “Barstow” and “Kisses” that are his most true contributions. Nina Gerber is allowed to showcase her playing on the instrumental “Winthrop Waltz,” and like Rozum she is a gifted collaborator whose talents are essential within this trio. She cuts loose on “I Missing You Tonight,” laying out classic-sounding guitar lines.

Beyond the overall quality of the production—the sound recording and both the understated album packaging and graphics (kudos, Mr. Rozum) are immaculate. What is readily apparent with this recording is that Laurie Lewis continues to peak. Her albums stretch back more than thirty years, and among them are several bona fide classics including The Oak and the Laurel, True Stories, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Skippin’ and Flyin’, and Guest House.  I would suggest that we add One Night in May to that list.

The one familiar note in this work of remarkable originality? A stout take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to kick things off.

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“Things Left Undone” by Darren Nicholson

Darren Nicholson
Things Left Undone
Bearded Baby Productions
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Not to be overly philosophical, but I’ve found that reflections on how I’ve lived life increase as the decades roll by. The title song of Darren Nicholson’s new CD is a song I might have listened to but not heard at one time, sung without thinking. Now, I need to find somewhere to put this track so I can hear it on a regular basis.

When a stranger came knockin’, did you let him in?

Was there food on your table for a down and out friend?

Did you hide in the shadows? Did you walk in the sun?

Or do you regret the things left undone?

Good arrangement, good song.

While I’ve heard CDs that I felt had a wart or two, it’s rare to listen to a bluegrass CD that has anything less than superb musicians. This one isn’t pure bluegrass but ‘grass is its base and it meets the test. Nicholson plays mandolin and lead guitar plus doing the lead vocals. His list of accomplishments is long and he’s also a part of Balsam Range. He’s joined by a bevy of guests and Darren Nicholson Band members including Steve Sutton (banjo), Carl Jackson, Tim Surrett, and Aaron Ramsey plus others. How could you expect anything but good music from this lineup?

“Travelin’ Teardrop Blues” is a number about life on the road. It’s not traditional but it’s bluegrass, featuring Kevin Sluder on bass, Griff Martin on guitar and Tony Creasman on wallet box. It tells us about the tension between loving to travel but leaving behind loved ones. “Give Mother My Crown” has been covered many times, going back to its origin with the Bailes Brothers and a few years later by Flatt & Scruggs. Sparse, just a guitar and bass with Nicholson, Eddie Rose and Audie Blaylock doing the vocals. You won’t get much grassier than this, or the “Bluegrass Stomp,” one of Mr. Monroe’s compositions, featuring Steve Thomas on fiddle, and “Sugar Creek Gap,” a blazing instrumental.

They also dip their toes in country. “Way I’ve Always Been” is a Tom T Hall song from his 1997 Home Grown album, though they do it (with Sluder on lead vocals) twice as fast as TTH did. “In A Perfect World,” co-composed by Milan Miller, gets the full country ballad treatment with Jeff Collins playing some Floyd Cramer-tinged piano and David Johnson working overtime with guitar, fiddles, strings and beautiful steel guitar. If you like classic country ballads, this is as pretty as you’ll ever hear. “I’m Not Going There Today,” featuring Rhonda Vincent and Jennifer Nicholson on vocals and Miller on electic guitar, is another excellent classic country number.

Does your taste run to country, like Guy Clark’s “Rain In Durango?” Perhaps you like hot modern bluegrass: listen to “Dancin’ In The Kitchen.” They offer some rock-’grass fusion with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” in a bluegrass conversion. And then there’s the traditional side of their music. This CD isn’t pure bluegrass but it’s pure fun, and that’s what is important.

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“The Nocturne Diaries” by Eliza Gilkyson

Eliza Gilkyson
The Nocturne Diaries
Red House Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eliza Gilkyson is no overnight success. The Austin-based songwriter and singer has been releasing albums of significance for longer than many of those being afforded headlines and cover stories today have been alive.

Her string of nine albums recorded for Red House Records since 2000, including the trio album Red Horse, serve as a testament to her consistency and the magnitude of her talents as a vocalist, songwriter, and instrumentalist. If this were a competition, these albums would stand alongside and surpass those recorded over a similar period of time by Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, and John Hiatt.

Yeah, she’s that danged good.

With The Nocturne Diaries, success has found Gilkyson overnight. These songs came to her in the dark, the muses disturbing her slumber and coaxing these songs from the writer. Appropriately, several are shadowy and no little bit sinister, providing inspiration and positive focus only when considering their contrasting natures. It is in the small hours that we allow our conscious thoughts to drift to places we generally disavow, and Gilkyson has embraced the magnitude of this energy without allowing herself to be held prisoner within their grasp.

As Gilkyson writes in her notes, “…the challenge today is to remain human when everything around us compels us to shut down. The Nocturne Diaries is a journey through the dark night of the soul that ends at the light of dawn with a sense of gratitude, a renewed commitment to care, and a stubborn little ray of hope.”

Co-producing the album with her son Cisco Ryder, Gilkyson chooses to illuminate her songs by enlivening them with melodies frequently belying their nature. “An American Boy” is possibly the most upbeat sounding song on the album, starting with pictures being posted on a Facebook site. The song goes along with a pleasant, poppy beat, while the teenaged protagonist considers the whispers in his head, staring at the key hanging beside the gun case. There’s a cheery, radio-friendly three-minute song for ya.

Within “The Ark,” Gilkyson considers Noah’s predicament of saving humanity and the earth’s lifeblood while realizing the skies are darkening, and “there is nothing we can do now for the ones who will remain.”

Contrasts abound. “The Red Rose and the Thorn” is, as best I can tell, a devotional to one’s potential murderer…all the while stalking he who will possibly do the deed. The confessional verses—including an interpretation of a familiar childhood prayer—soar, and the song surges into a Hammond B3 (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and electric guitar (via Gilkyson) frenzy. Elsewhere, Gilkyson gets her acoustic on as “Eliza Jane” is a near-bluegrass romp, replete with mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and URB…and drums.

“Fast Freight,” written by Gilkyson’s father Terry and recorded by the Kingston Trio on their debut album in 1958, does more than provide a bridge to those who established the foundation for the modern folk music experience. The song reveals how close we are in those early hours of sleeplessness to the person we know we should never allow ourselves to be. Ray Bonneville’s harmonica and Mike Hardwick’s slide work make those dark possibilities more apparent.

No doubt, Eliza Gilkyson has a beautiful voice. On “All Right Here,” when she sings of the choices she has made, the opportunities she has not pursued, and the resulting blessings she has received, there is crystal-clear precision. At that moment—within each of The Nocturne Diaries‘ 50 minutes—there isn’t a stronger, more suitable voice to carry these songs than Gilkyson’s. Time has been kind, and when I listen to this album alongside 1993′s Through the Looking Glass—as good as that Eliza was—the mature Gilkyson of today is the voice I prefer. There is a gravity present, a soft gruffness that provides each of these twelve songs the substance they demand.

For all of its heaviness, and The Nocturne Diaries has no little bit of emotional heft to it, one doesn’t come away from the album feeling depressed. Gilkyson has a manner about her that infuses optimism into each song. Rather than feeling defeated, listeners of this album will come out the other side assured that they have found strength within the challenges Gilkyson sketches.
Eliza Gilkyson, more than anything, in each song seems to be saying, ‘Take the risk, face the dark, persevere.’ The Nocturne Diaries are truly about having “wasted not our precious time.”

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“Gathering” by Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey
Gathering
Omni Artists Productions

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Stephens submitted this review in July 2013, but I must have hit the wrong button after I edited it, which caused it not to post publicly. I’m very sorry for this error, especially over such a fine project. —AKH

Aaron Ramsey is an excellent mandolin player. He debuted in a family band with his father, Michael, but by his early twenties he was (and is) playing with Mountain Heart, taking the spot vacated by Adam Steffey. Making the transition from being a band member to leading a project isn’t always easy, but Ramsey has made the leap to Gathering in fine style.

He can sing as good as he plays the mandolin. The only familiar song that he sings lead on is “John Henry Blues,” an old Osborne Brothers song. He tears into it along with a distinguished group of accompanists, including bandmates Jason Moore on bass and James Van Cleve on fiddle, Patton Wages (banjo, Volume Five) and the great Tony Rice on guitar. There are two other familiar songs on the CD, “One Tear,” another Osborne Brothers song with Mountain Heart leader Barry Abernathy guesting as lead vocalist, and Bob Dylan’s “Fare Thee Well,” featuring Ricky Wasson (American Drive, New South) singing lead and including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jeff Partin (resophonic guitar, Volume Five), Rice and Brian (banjo) and Maggie (bass) Stephens.

Ramsey sings lead on the other cuts, several of them written by his father, Michael. Religious themes figure heavily in some of Michael Ramsey’s songs, including “The Healer” and “Seek Out the Lost” (featuring Ron Block [banjo], Randy Kohrs [resophonic guitar] and Tim Stafford [guitar]). But father can write and son can sell a good love-gone-wrong song like “Dark Days and Desperation.” “No Ones Found Her Yet” (Aaron Ramsey and Josh Miller) is a great mystery song, a woman disappeared and the man that loves her going crazy with loss while her killer runs loose. “The Streets of Abilene” strikes off in a different direction, telling the story of Marshal Tom Smith. The song, claiming Smith never used a gun, is slightly at odds with the Wikipedia version and fails to mention how he eventually lost his head, but it still makes a good story.

This CD underscores Ramsey’s strengths in songwriting, singing and on the mandolin, but it’s also a display of his versatility. On various numbers he plays sweep guitar, bouzouki (a mandolin cousin), upright bass, guitar, banjo and resophonic guitar in addition to mandolin. Listen to “The Souls of Pioneers” and you’ll discover he’s no slouch on any instrument he picks up.

This is a great CD by an impressive young musician. He needs to be in front of the mic and in the studio often.

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“Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver” by Special Consensus & Friends

Special Consensus & Friends
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

John Denver—like Olivia Newton John—is a divisive figure when discussing 1970s country music. Unlike his Australian counterpart, Denver was a slightly more natural fit for the genre, although that didn’t stop folks from ridiculing his blend of folk, country, and MOR pop. Within his timeless The Phoenix Concerts set, John Stewart even sets up a song by glibly quipping, “Sunshine on my shoulders… makes me sweaty.”

Despite three country number one singles, some twenty-plus appearances within the country single and album charts, and Entertainer, Male Singer, and Album of the Year awards from various industry organizations, Denver was always a county music outlier, ironically too pop for even Charlie Rich.

Those granny glasses and Muppet appearances likely didn’t help.

Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver is a very comfortable album, and there should be no negative connotations associated with that designation as one is not intended. Many of the selected tracks are instantly familiar, and their arrangements and presentations are uniformly appealing.

There is considerable diversity within the set, with Rhonda Vincent’s restrained lead vocals on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” complementing the sedate, emotive instrumental textures laid out by the Special Consensus. “Wild Montana Skies” features Claire Lynch and Rob Ickes, and sounds quite wonderful, with a bluegrass push kicking it up a notch. Lynch’s contributions are significant—she sounds great alongside Rick Faris—and the guitar playing of Dustin Benson is just this side of incredible.

In compiling this album, bandleader Greg Cahill and producer Alison Brown make several key decisions.

Presenting the ubiquitous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as an instrumental is just one of them, but a significant one. Of the Denver songs chosen, it is the one best suited to stand independent of lyrics, generating a different feel here than it would have with its (arguably) overly familiar refrains.

Supplementing the recording with several guests drawn from the Compass family of artists is another important choice. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate vocalist to sing lead on “Rocky Mountain High” than Peter Rowan, and the bluegrass sage absolutely nails his performance; the album’s closing track also features a chorus of singers including Lynch, Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley.

Speaking of Bradley, the Kentucky songbird duets with Faris on the endearing “Back Home Again.” Singing lead on the final verses, Bradley amplifies the emotional density of the song, transforming egocentrism into self-awareness. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is faithfully performed by John Cowan, but with the benefit of his unconventional bluesy approach to all things ‘grass.
Another excellent decision was going deeper into the Denver oeuvre than greatest hits albums would suggest. “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (featuring Jim Lauderdale), “Matthew,” and “Eagles and Horses” are each given memorable treatments, and considering these are most likely not songs the majority of listeners will recognize speaks to the strength of Special Consensus’ performances.

The instrumentation of “This Old Guitar,” I believe, is unique. On this track, all four members of Special Consensus play guitar—and only guitar—creating a tribute not only to a great song, but to an essential bluegrass component.

Limiting the album to only ten songs may not have been the best choice. While not stingy at 42 minutes, there was definitely room for more music. Most significantly, it ‘feels’ as if there should be more here—Denver had a deep catalogue, and this seems a sparse representation of his diversity. Leaving us wanting more is always a good idea, but…

Three tracks feature only the members of Special C. The performances of these songs are uniformly excellent, suggesting that the group might have comfortably stretched themselves had they decided to tackle another couple. I am certain the band could have nailed “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” for instance.

The Special Consensus and Alison Brown—who produced the album and is credited with the arrangements—have created a bluegrass album from songs that, in their original form, were far from bluegrass. As Dave Royko points out in his expansive and informative liner notes, “many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.” What I don’t believe Royko mentions is that Denver’s interpretation of these themes was not close to bluegrass, in singing style, mindset, or method of execution.

There is no mistaking Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver as anything but a bluegrass recording. The mandolin and banjo are prominent, the guitar lines clean and varied, the bass drives the pulse of the music. While the Special C doesn’t employ a fiddler, they have friends—Michael Cleveland, Jason Carter, and Buddy Spicher—to further enliven select songs.

The Special Consensus is approaching their fortieth year with Greg Cahill at the helm, and after nearly twenty albums, they somehow continue to become stronger and more appealing. Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver isn’t a typical Special C album, but it certainly sounds like one.

Thank God they remain bluegrass boys!

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“Reflections” by Don Williams

Don Williams
Reflections
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Often when I dismiss most of what comes from Nashville these days as not being country music, people misunderstand. I think they’re inferring that I insist everything sound like the Carter Family, Hank Williams Sr., or Bill Monroe, or that I’m against any sort of elements from genres like pop or rock.

That’s not it at all. After all, the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash borrowed heavily from all sorts of other styles, but they’re rightly regarded as country originals. It’s not the addition of non-country elements that makes something not suitable to be called country, but rather the lack of individual artistic integrity. You can get away with a lot as long as your foundation is the proverbial three chords and the truth.

Don Williams is a classic country singer and songwriter, even though his sound would never be likened to honky-tonk. His sound isn’t twangy at all, but his simple words paired with his legendary, laconic delivery are as country as you can get, and 2012′s And So it Goes proved he’s as good as he’s ever been.

Reflections is an apt title for this collection of 10 tracks written by others, as it shows how the Williams style has both drawn from and help shape the best country songwriting of the last few decades.

Opening with Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Williams puts us out on a lonely highway dreaming of love at home, in the same place countless truckers experienced his music in the 1970s. Guy Clark’s “Talk is Cheap” takes us further toward the horizon with a gently ascending melody nudging along the chorus that serves as this album’s theme:

Talk is cheap

and time’s a-wastin’

get busy livin’

or at least die tryin’

Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” are the other two instantly recognizable songs, and Williams makes each his own with perfect, simple arrangements aided by co-producer Garth Fundis (Keith Whitley, Alabama).

The other six songs fit so well with Williams’ persona and the well-known covers—especially “Healing Hands” (with whispered harmony from the Issacs) and “Stronger Back”—that you’d assume they all came from the Gentle Giant’s own pen. The fact that they didn’t proves that, either as a singer or a songwriter, Don Williams is as country—and as great—as it gets.

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“Fruits of My Labor” by Aaron Burdett

Aaron Burdett
Fruits Of My Labor
Organic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been a fan of Bob Seger for decades, even though I can only sing along to snatches of his music. He manages to put more words into a phrase than I can wrap my tongue around.

When I heard Aaron Burdett’s first number, “Something Out Of Nothing” my first thought was how much he reminds me of Seger. His phrasing, the lyrics, even the melody could be a Seger song. Then I’m wondering what market niche he might find. It’s not bluegrass despite Andy Pond’s banjo and Casey Driessen’s fiddle in the background; it’s not classic country, and not hot new country (I like it too much to be HNC); it’s on the fringes of rock. I suppose that makes it Americana, though that’s really a useless classification. “Something Out Of Nothing” is a love song, reflections of a love that’s grown to make something out of nothing. “Harmon Den,” another track sporting a banjo (Brian Swenk of Big Daddy Love) is grassier, the story of a man who has tried the world but needs to go back home to Harmon Den. It seems to be a reference to the days of the CCC, fitting for an Americana CD. All the numbers were composed by Burdett and it’s obvious he has some range in his work.

“The Love We’ve Got” is quieter, a love song with some good pedal steel work by Matt Smith. It’s appealing with minimal instrumentation, Smith, Burdett (guitars), Will Jernigan on bass, and Billy Seawell adding percussion. Josh Goforth plays banjo, mandolin and fiddle on “Going Home To Carolina,” a song about a man’s life that could easily be adapted to bluegrass. The title number, including Smith’s steel and adding Tony Creasman on drums and percussion, is another good number about a man’s life that is very Seger-like. The more I listen, the more I like this music.

Burdett’s music is reflective, descriptions of life, but he manages to change the subjects of his scrutiny to avoid getting bogged down with sameness. The supporting musicians are excellent—Burdett himself does some neat guitar break in “Water In The Well”—and the drums, often an object of my scorn, are tastefully played instead of beating your ears until they bleed.

I liked it the first time I heard it. I like it better with each play. This one’s going into my play-on-the-road collection.

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