“Sorrow Bound” by Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater
Sorrow Bound
Kingswood Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Toronto, Ontario—hotbed of Appalachian music.

Alongside the recent release of the Slocan Ramblers’ Coffee Creek, one might well have growing evidence that Canada’s most cosmopolitan city has more than a few inhabitants who know their way around the music of the holler.

Originally released a year ago, Sorrow Bound receives wider distribution this summer and deservedly so. Low and mournful are the sounds Kaia Kater, a traditional musician in her early 20s, appears to favour. Playing in the traditional clawhammer style—Art Menius has identified her as “the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century”—Kater has spent a great deal of time in West Virginia studying the traditions of Appalachian balladry and dance.

Much like Anna & Elizabeth have done, Kater plays with traditional music to gently knit together connections between ancient tones and modern times. Whereas that duo does so largely through their interpretation of traditional songs, Kater takes a more modernist approach, one equally necessary to allow the music to thrive and flourish. “Southern Girl ,” one of several originals contained on this stunning debut, has its foundation in the remnants of another time, but its passionate hopes are well observed in the changes our society is currently undergoing.

The title track is a revelation. Featuring what sounds like bowed bass, this atmospheric song explores dark challenges of previous times and personal yearning through poetic snatches of language, leaving the story open to interpretation; Kater’s frailing banjo flourishes provide percussive punctuation. Another Kater song, “Oh Darlin’,” in lyric, essence, and structure, could easily be a couple of centuries old.

Kater, who knows her way around the old songs like someone raised in the tradition, is nothing if not unconventional. A song borrowed from Anna & Elizabeth, “Sun to Sun,” flows into a French-language old-timey ballad. “Moonshiner,” familiar enough through interpretations from folks as varied as Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Buell Kazee, and the Sweetback Sisters—whose lead Kater follows—and like those sizable talents, Kater makes the song all her own. “Come and Rest” provides a coda of comfort and belief, while “West Virginia Boys” is less volatile than other renditions of the “cornbread, molasses, and sassafras tea” tune.

This album is an ideal balance of then and now, the past and present, of originality and influence.

Kaia Kater, who has performed throughout the eastern United States and Canada, is one of the many youthful performers by whose sure hands the traditions so many of us appreciate and love are being tended.

“Old Pal” by Jamie Harper

Jamie Harper
Old Pal
Mountain Fever Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Jamie Harper is a fine, young fiddler out on the road with Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. He’s spent time—recording, touring, and filling in—with several good bands, including Michelle Nixon’s Drive, Carrie Hassler’s Hard Rain, Marty Raybon, and Blue Moon Rising. When you listen to his CD, there’s no tip-toeing about whether it’s bluegrass or not. There’s no piano, no drums or steel guitar. This is music that would have made Bill Monroe proud and, speaking of Mr. Monroe, he composed the title song, “Goodbye Old Pal.” Harper sings lead about his old paint horse. Friends and wives may desert you but you can trust your horse and dog. Junior Sisk sings the lead on another Monroe number, “Remember the Cross,” bluegrass gospel at its best.

You expect some good instrumentals on an instrumentalist’s solo project and Harper doesn’t disappoint us, although he didn’t dig very deep for a couple of them. “Cotton Eyed Joe” and “Old Joe Clark” have each been done a million times by the last count. Rambler’s Choice bandmate Jason Davis plays a hard driving banjo and Kevin McKinnon keeps pace on mandolin while Josh Swift gets some hot licks on the Dobro. Harper’s fiddling is excellent as is the guitar of Keith McKinnon. Another bandmate, Kameron Keller holds it all together on the bass. “Booth Shot Lincoln” isn’t as well known but has an interesting chord progression. It was originally a broadside ballad, probably written not long after the assassination. It does have lyrics with versions by Cisco Houston (late 1940’s) and Bascom Lunsford in a 1941 Library of Congress recording. It makes a good instrumental.

Dustin Pyrtle sings lead on a T. Michael Coleman song, “Her Memories [sic] Bound To Ride.” This is just good bluegrass. Another upbeat number is Ronnie Bowman’s “Enough On My Mind,” a song about hard times added to by his love leaving. Marty Raybon gives us a good version of the Newgrass Revival’s “This Heart of Mine,” a song that should be heard more often. Junior Sisk comes back with his version of Larry Sparks’ “Goodbye Little Darlin’.”

If you like your bluegrass the way Monroe did it, Jamie Harper is going to be a treat for you.

“Me Oh My” by the Honeycutters

The Honeycutters
Me Oh My
Organic Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I had a baby but the good Lord took her, she was an angel but her wings were crooked.” I love writing songs and sometimes I hear a lyric that I sorely wish I had written. One of our sons has handicaps (I know, that’s not the politically correct term) and, for me, the lyric nails it: an angel with crooked wings. That’s the opening line of the title song and it does not go downhill from there.

The Honeycutters label their music as country roots (watch lead singer Amanda Anne Platt discuss her music). That’s different than classic country (Jim Ed Brown, George Jones) but it’s a close cousin. Two of country’s enduring stars, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, have composed some songs that you’re not likely to hear on a Bill Anderson or Ray Price recording. I can imagine Haggard and Nelson in an intimate setting (a resort bar at Lake Monroe, Indiana, where Nelson likes to stay when he’s in town) with something less than a thousand fans somewhere in the dark at the tables, jamming and drinking a beer or two. Some of those songs could come from this CD. Another surprise with this CD is all the tracks were composed by Platt. It isn’t unusual to see a CD with songs composed by the band or one person in the band, but not many are consistently this good from track to track.

“Lucky” is a quiet song of pathos, a love affair going down hill: “I’ve got the mind of a junkie, you’ve got the heart of a child.” That’s not a recipe for success but falling in love is rarely affected by the probability of success. There would be far fewer divorces if we were all that logical. “Jukebox” is on a different plane, as country as anything you would have heard on the radio back in the day. Rick Cooper’s bass supports the band and Josh Milligan’s percussion is enjoyable, not the thunk, thunk you hear too often on “country” records. Matt Smith adds to the mix with some very good steel guitar. “Not That Simple” includes some fine mandolin from Tal Taylor while Phil Cook appears with piano and organ. You’ll find yourself hoping Platt’s life isn’t as complicated and sad as all her songs. This song tells about a man and woman who love each other but have commitments to others. There are too many good lines in this song to list without just writing the lyrics.

Whether it’s a quiet song like “Little Bird,” an ode to wanting to break away from the life you’re living (“Hearts of Men”) or a critique (“Well, look at you, you’re like a pony with a broken leg, You’re always scared ’cause you can’t run away” from “All You Ever”) Platt consistently hits the mark musically and lyrically.

I suppose, if you live a Pollyanna life, if it’s all sunshine and roses, then this CD might puzzle you, you won’t get what she’s telling. On the other hand, if your life’s ups and downs look like the pulse line on a heart monitor, if you’ve ever felt the blues sucking at your soul, cursed and laughed at love, there are fourteen messages on this CD that you’re going to really enjoy. Me? I’m going to look for their first two CDs.

TheHoneyCuttersMeOhMyBigCov

 

 

Notable releases: Rodney DeCroo, Gordie Tentrees, and Brock Zeman

Brock Zeman
Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back
Busted Flat Records

Gordie Tentrees
Less is More
Self-released

Rodney DeCroo
Campfires on the Moon
Tonic Records

By Donald Teplyske

Canadian singer-songwriters of the male, troubadour variety are as distinct as Guy Clark is from Greg Brown and Hayes Carll is from Joseph Lemay. Each one is different, but there are also tendrils binding them to a common foundation.

Reaching back four and more decades, there was Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, and Willie Dunn (among others), all of whom had long, vibrant, and diverse careers; all but Dunn, who died in 2013, are still active. Much later, the likes of Fred Eaglesmith, Leeroy Stagger, James Keelaghan, and Corb Lund found some favour stateside, while other exceptional writers and performers—among them John Wort Hannam, Al Tuck, Steve Coffey, Mike Plume, and Craig Moreau—have received less obvious international notice.

We grow them like dandelions up here. Unfortunately, we also sometimes give them just as much attention.

In recent months, three Canadian troubadours have released albums of great intensity, each as individual as one could hope, bound by common and elemental darkness comprised of isolation, pain, and exploration.

For more than a dozen years, Ontario’s Brock Zeman has been playing music wherever they’ll have him. His albums have grown in intensity, his writing has become more comprehensive and dynamic, and he has continually delved into shadows where the greatest insights are discovered. On his eleventh release, this ‘bastard son of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, with a gravelly Tom Waits voice,’ as one writer described him, has created a demanding, listenable collection of songs.

With long-time collaborators Blair Hogan (guitar, piano, organ, mandolin, noise) and Dylan Roberts (drums and percussion), Zeman has created a roots variety show that bashes into the margins of rock ‘n’ roll (“Dead Man’s Shoes,” “Drop Your Bucket,” and “Sweat”) while flirting with reflections of multi-dimensional folks encountered in memory (“10 Year Flight” and “Walking in the Dark”) and imagination (the eerie, spoken-word title track that kicks off the album.) The lyrical gifts are many: “I saw your old man at the store today, and if he saw me he sure didn’t wave…it got me in the guts to see him limp his way to his truck…” and “I live in a house of ghosts that just won’t let me be; I let them in myself, but now I can’t get them to leave.”

If Ray Wylie Hubbard and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings crank your motor, Brock Zeman’s Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back might just become a new favourite.

Gordie Tentrees comes from Whitehorse, Yukon, and while previous albums were entrenched in and inspired by his environment, Less is More is more universally focused. Not that it is any less powerful: Tentrees is writing more poetically, perhaps less tangibly connected to his reality than to the contours of his imagination. It is progression that doesn’t signal abandonment of artistic values.

The title track—with its references (via borrowed lyrics) to Townes Van Zandt and Mary Gauthier—will garner attention, as it should: it is a spectacular hurdy-gurdy of originality and inspiration. But equally impressive are slices of motivation and determination borne of strength (“Broken Hero”), frustration (“Deadbeat Dad”), and concern (“Somebody’s Child”). A reading of Gauthier’s “Camelot Hotel,” with its “cheaters, liars, outlaws, and fallen angels,” provides a framework for that which Tentrees explores through his deeply personal, original songs. References to Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Lanny McDonald, and “pull up your pants, lace up the skates” provide nostalgic Canadiana references, but Less is More transcends lyrical touchstones.

This is life and love, death and fear, punches and loving, lost guitars, batteries connected to radios, waking in the wrong bed, “wall tent whoopee with no underwear,” where “even Bill Monroe can swing.” Should strike a chord with Slaid Cleaves and Chuck Brodsky types.

Back from a self-imposed recording exile, Vancouver’s multi-dimensional Rodney DeCroo has created an album that stands with his finest, and that is no small thing. Poet, playwright, singer, and occasional lost soul, DeCroo has—over the course of his five previous recordings—firmly established himself as Western Canada’s most challenging barstool romantic, a Ron Sexsmith for the down-and-outers.

Five years ago, DeCroo released Queen Mary Trash. That double album wasn’t an easy listen—much like the artist creating the sprawling opus, it was brutal and at times terrifyingly raw. A product of his environment—for good and bad—DeCroo is the raven seeking salvation in the detritus of emotional upheaval, both his own and in those he has impacted.

Campfires on the Moon is intimate and sparse, just three instruments—acoustic guitar, double bass (from Mark Haney), and piano (Ida Nilsen, of Great Aunt Ida)—two voices—harmonies courtesy Nilsen—and one focus—redemption.

“To be young is to be reckless,” he sings in “To Be Young,” one of the album’s genuine and heartfelt compositions; but even within such a graceful reflection of a relationship, DeCroo can’t help himself: with bowed bass adding emotional heft, DeCroo admits that he still hasn’t found the meaning of his existence. Ditto, “Baby, You Ain’t Wild.”

Each song has emotional heft. We’ve all been the “Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town,” and most have us have survived the experience relatively intact. Visiting a familiar haunt in “Ashes After Fire,” DeCroo possibly finds himself in the faces he sees reflected in mugs of amber sustenance. Facing life’s debts, “Out on the Backstretch” reflects on that which one has wrought. Comparisons to Springsteen are not unjust, simply misdirected.

Rodney DeCroo has never allowed himself to hide from who he is. While his songs are not necessarily entirely autobiographical, they are shaped from his experiences and perceptions. Good thing he has an outlet.
Recommended if Jason Isbell and Vic Chesnutt do it for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” produced by Carl Jackson

Various artists
Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
Legacy Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Country music is obsessed about the past. The same technological changes that enabled it to be captured on record and broadcast on radio also helped hasten the urbanization of America, and country people used their music to help them make sense of the ways they chose to meet those changes—nostalgia as therapy.

Organized by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the crucible in which a centuries-old Anglo-American folk music tradition that found expression in barn dances, church choirs, fiddle contests at market day, minstrel shows, tent revivals, and families picking on the front porch became a business that would enrich the lives of millions with music and enable gifted musicians to make a living making music rather than in the coal mines, the field, the fox hole, or the whorehouse—it’s amazing what freedom of expression and free markets can accomplish.

Many of the 76 tracks from 19 different acts recorded by Peer were commercially successful, and two superstar careers were launched: those of Jimmie Rodgers—one of the first modern American celebrities and the prototype for songsters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and even, I would argue, Bob Dylan—and the Carter Family, who are perhaps responsible for collecting, preserving, and popularizing more pre-modern American music than anyone else. (See also the story of Lead Belly.)

Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited—a two-disc tribute to those sessions, made under the aegis of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol—should be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about country music—especially those with little previous exposure to Southern music or culture outside of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, or a television episode of Nashville.

Eddie Stubbs, whose resonant tones are familiar to Grand Ole Opry fans and WSM-AM 650 listeners everywhere—guides the listener through 18 contemporary takes on classic Bristol material, with ambient clips of the rough-and-ready original recordings to provide contrast to the modern, clean recordings and arrangements we’re more used to. The script, written by Cindy Lovell, concisely retells the story of the Bristol Sessions with telling biographical detail and historical context that even knowledgeable country fans will find enriching.

As a consummate Nashville professional on both sides of the studio glass, Carl Jackson is a perfect choice to produce this record. His choices arranging this well-known material, and manning the sound board, all pay off, and he even plays and sings on several cuts—including a bluesy duet on “In the Pines” with Brad Paisley and a wild run through “Pretty Polly” as lead singer and banjo picker.

Jackson expertly pairs artist to song throughout, including country music royalty (Dolly Parton on “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Emmylou Harris on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” Marty Stuart on “Black Eyed Susie,” and Vince Gill on “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”), A-listers from other genres (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,”
Sheryl Crow on “The Wandering Boy,” Keb’ Mo’ on “To the Work”), and bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “I’m Redeemed” and Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time on “Train on the Island”).

Ashley Monroe (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), the Shotgun Rubies (“I Am Resolved”), and the Church Sisters (“Where We’ll Never Grow Old”), and Ashley & Shannon (children of Glen) Campbell (“The Wreck of the Old Virginian”) add a touch of youth, as does Corbin Hayslett, who won a contest to be on this record with his thrilling take on “Darling Cora,” the standout track from this project.

And though the Bristol Sessions seem like ancient history, a couple of tracks show just how young country music still is. Eighty-five-year-old Jesse McReynolds—a hall-of-famer in both country and bluegrass music—scrapes out “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind” on the very same fiddle that his grandfather Charles McReynolds used when he recorded the same song with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. And the Chuck Wagon Gang, a Southern Gospel quartet that’s been working continously since 1935—with a revolving roster of members, of course—lead a choir comprised of all the Orthophonic Joy artists on a valedictory “Shall We Gather at the River,” one of their biggest hits, which they recorded in 1949 based on the Bristol recording by the Tennessee Mountaineers (actually a church choir from Bluff City, Tenn. given that soubriquet by Peer).

Though the current state of popular country music is worse than ever, thanks to commercialism, there is more opportunity for today’s listener than ever before to experience the joy of good music—of every variety, especially country—than ever before, also thanks to commercialism. Think of this record as good whiskey cut with water—not quite the pure stuff, but plenty good enough to give you a thirst for the real thing.

“Sundown” by Steve Harris

Steve Harris
Sundown
Orange Blossom Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Harris is the lead singer for Circa Blue, a band he formed in 2010. This is a solo project, tapping into the talents of musicians like Marshall Wilborn (bass), Emory Lester (mandolin), and Gaven Largent (Dobro). The musicianship is, as expected with pickers like this, good, if not spectacular, and the the singing is all good, both lead and harmonies.

Harris dedicates the CD to the memory of his father and picked the songs because of personal sentiment, which might help explain why his recordings of these well-known songs feature simple and straightforward bluegrass arrangements, with a piano on some cuts. The songs are all gospel (except, perhaps, “Falling Leaves”), a mixture of familiar hymns and southern gospel: Grandpa Jones’ “Falling Leaves,” “Little White Church,” “Where Could I Go,” “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “In the Garden” and “Softly and Tenderly.”

The title cut, a Mosie Lister composition, is a beautiful song that first appeared in 1961 in a Chuckwagon Gang album (Sings the Songs of Mosie Lister). “Someday My Ship Will Sail” (lead vocal by Mary Paula Wilson) has been done by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash. If you love gospel music you’ll certainly enjoy “Come Morning.” Written by Dee Gaskin and made famous by the Nelons back in the ’80s, it’s a great song.

 

“Cody Shuler” by Cody Shuler

Cody Shuler
Cody Shuler
Rural Rhythm Records
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Cody Shuler is a well-known name on today’s bluegrass circuit. He’s been the leader of Pine Mountain Railroad since 2006 and is a good mandolin player, songwriter, and singer. This is his first solo album. (Editor’s note: The Pine Mountain Railroad URL now re-directs to Cody Shuler’s site, which, on July 11, did not load any content—make of that what you will.)

For this 12-track project, Shuler employs a list of excellent bluegrass musicians including Tim Crouch (fiddles) and Rob Ickes (Dobro). Ron Stewart, Terry Baucom, Brent Lamons and Scott Vestal trade banjo duties while Eli Johnston plays guitar and Matt Flake plays bass. (Shuler also has Scott Linton playing percussion on several tracks, and I remain puzzled as to why so many CDs also include some sort of percussion. It isn’t intrusive here, and I’m not such a purist that I’m offended by the idea, but I just don’t hear the value added.)

Shuler composed all the songs and they are mostly good. “Bryson Station” is a hot instrumental while “Three Rivers Rambler” has more of a swing beat that could be a good dance tune. He’s got two new good gospel numbers as well: “The Day Love Was Nailed To a Tree,” a description of Jesus’ last days, and “Sea of Galilee,” which retells the story of Jesus and the storm.

Shuler’s singing voice seems to be reaching for his note in a few places on this project, while reaching the bottom of his range in others. He’s also doubling himself on harmony on all but one track. Another harmony singer or two would have made a big difference—like on “The One That I Love Is Gone,” which benefits from harmony singer Jerry Cole.

“My Home Is On This Ole Boxcar” is a great number and “The Beautiful Hills” is a good loved-her-and-killed-her song.

On the down side for me, “Goodbye, My Love, Goodbye” seems merely like an exercise in rhyming.

Goodbye, my love, goodbye

I’m asking please don’t cry

Wipe the teardrops from your eye

So long until next time

I’m coming back someday

When I cannot say

Another place, another time

Goodbye, my love, goodbye

That doesn’t do anything for me. “Love Me, Too” has some good lines but some awkward ones, too.

Whether it’s with a revived Pine Mountain Railroad, or in another setting with regular collaborators of his caliber, expect Shuler’s next project to more accurately reflect his talents.