“Live at the Old Feed Store” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Live at the Old Feed Store
GSM Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ recent release is a live album recorded over two days in 2013 at—where else—“The Old Feed Store,” an intimate venue in southern Illinois. For those of you not familiar with the band, Chris Jones is satellite radio host of Bluegrass Junction, award winning songwriter, and a columnist at Bluegrass Today. The Night Drivers are Ned Luberecki (banjo), also a host of Bluegrass Junction, banjo instructor, and songwriter; Jon Weisberger (bass), the 2012 IBMA Songwriter of the Year, columnist, and IBMA chairman; and Mark Stoffel (mandolin), a professor at Southern Illinois University. It’s hard to think of a group that exceeds this one in terms of instrumental prowess, broad knowledge of bluegrass music and its history, and contributions to the music with their work off the stage.

We’ve all been caught in the situation of watching a live show with disappointment due to a lack passion from the band, no rapport with the audience, or basically not sounding anything like the album. As a musician who regularly plays on stage, I always strive to accomplish an entertaining show for the audience; in the studio, I attempt to create a album that represents a live snapshot of a show. For that reason, I enjoy the experience of a live album—the stage patter, the crowd participation to formulate a feeling of being in the audience, and even the mistakes. There certainly aren’t many of the latter on Live at the Old Feed Store.

Mixed in with the strong original material are a few traditional tunes like “Bound to Ride,” the gospel classic “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which brings back childhood memories, and the classic fiddle tune “Forked Deer,” all of which use their well-known melodies as a jumping-off point for nifty individual expression.

Jones’ take on the classic theme of jealousy and relationships, “Like a Hawk,” and “Then I Close My Eyes” are prime examples of his writing talent, the latter including special guest Emily Bankester on an eerie tenor vocal.

The most entertaining song on the album is “Cabin of Death” written by Nedski as his attempt to write the perfect bluegrass tune that incorporates an upbeat feel, depressing lyrics, and powerful banjo licks.

Being a history teacher and civil war enthusiast, another of my favorite songs on the album is “Battle of the Bands,” (cowritten by Weisberger), which blends fine instrumentation with words that convey the reality of the cruelest war in America’s history.

This 15-track, 48-minute disc gives me the feeling of being in the front row at a great show—I’ll definitely be there in person next time Chris Jones & the Night Drivers come to my neck of the woods.

“In Style Again” by Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown
In Style Again
Plowboy
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

In 1959 I was a kid with a lot of exposure to country music because that was the music—really the only music—my dad loved. But it was at grandma’s house that I first heard “The Three Bells.” I was mesmerized, drawn to the smooth baritone of Jim Ed Brown. For the next fifty-six years he’s remained one of my favorite singers. He, as well as his many contemporaries, disappeared from mainstream “country” radio years ago. But they persevered, still playing dates, maybe moving to Branson, still playing the Opry. And now Jim Ed Brown has a new CD.

“Who gave the world the right to turn the page, and leave me here feeling twice my age?” The title song asks this and many of us feel that way as the decades roll along, but it’s a question that Brown can certainly ask as he saw his career fade from the spotlight. It’s not that his fans don’t still love him, but his fans are feeling the touch of age and the crowds that follow stars like Garth Brooks or Luke Bryan far outnumber the crowds around country stars from the music’s golden era. It’s an introspective question, not maudlin, and it makes a touching song. He’d just like to be “In Style Again.” He’s joined by sister Bonnie on a beautiful number, “When The Sun Says Hello To The Mountain.” Chris Scruggs’ pedal steel underscores this song with a classic melody. And speaking of classic melodies, his longtime singing partner Helen Cornelius joins him on Carl and Pearl Butler‘s “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.”

“Laura (Do You Love Me)” is an easy-flowing love song of a love lost because he’s out traveling the world. There’s a hint of an Irish air in it but it’s truly a country ballad. Brown, who will turn 81 on April 1, 2015, still has that beautiful baritone but his voice shows a few signs of age. At times you can now hear some gravel in his voice as you do on this number, sometimes he has some trouble hitting the notes. There was recent news that he returned to the Grand Ole Opry after a four-months absence being treated for lung cancer. That may have affected his singing some during this recording but, if you can reduce it to numbers, his voice is still 95 percent as good as ever. “Tried and True” is a country number that will take your breath away if you’re a fan of the ’60s sound with a walking bass line. Vince Gill sings backup on this one.

“It’s A Good Life” is the story of a life lived as best a man could while “Older Guy” is a put-down of young guys is favor of the wisdom of age. It has a swing sound that you’ll enjoy, almost inviting you to dance even if you have two left feet. Sharon and Cheryl White join him on “You Again,” another song that looks back across the years but he’ll still choose the love of his life again. “Watching the World Walking By” is another swing song that has a happy note to it.

The backup musicians and singers are all excellent, the arrangements all good. There’s some variety in song styles and my preference would be a narrower focus, more on his ’60s and early ’70s music, but that’s my own prejudice and this selection will probably appeal to a wider range of folks. One of his songs asks, “Am I Still Country?” It has some really good lines comparing a meat loaf boy to a Chinese-food man, but he concludes he’s still country. There’s not much country in country music these days, but Jim Ed Brown’s got it and he’s still country.

“Going Down to the River” by Doug Seegers

Doug Seegers
Going Down to the River
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It might be that my memory started playing tricks on me after I got the CD and read about Doug Seegers long journey in the music industry that included busking around Nashville , but I could swear I saw him busking on Broadway boot world a few years ago. I remember thinking that he was just a little too good to be out there doing that.

I’ll leave the biography for other articles, but I can tell you that though Seegers looks like a down-at-the-heels Hank Williams Sr. on the cover of Going Down to the River, he’s more than just a honky-tonker.

He does cover Hank’s “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight,” along with help from former bandmate Buddy Miller, with a herd-edged twang that also serves him well on “Pour Me,” which could have easily been written by Hank himself, but he’s also adept at other country styles. “Gotta Catch that Train” is a bit of Bob Wills mixed with modern-day Americana, and “Hard Working Man” and “Memory Lane” could have been mainstream country hits in the 1960s, though the stark lyrics to the latter are delivered with more real pain than just about anything from that era:

You’re my guardian angel
My addiction from Hell
But only Jesus really knows
All the love that I felt

“Burning a Hole in My Pocket” and “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again” have a bit of a Lyle Lovett feel, both lyrically and, with saxophones added, musically.

All of which is great, but it was the very slightest of letdowns after hearing the first four tracks, which had me held tight on first listen—and every one since.

Along with what’s now my favorite cover of Gram Parson’s “She” (with Emmylou Harris harmonizing with Seegers), “Going Down to the River” and “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” are right in the sweet spot, musically and lyrically, where Seegers just slays you with that lonesome, Johnny Rivers-tinged voice. With just a dash of Nick Lowe, “Angie’s Song” is the most soulfully pitiful song I’ve heard in quite a while, making me hope there’s more like this on Seegers’ next recording.

 

“In Session” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
In Session
Mountain Home Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I realize it may not be a popular opinion, and it may even get me into trouble, but I’ve always wondered how good DLQ would be if the band became a more stable group, with members expected to stay together for several years to grow into a true band—rather than be a bluegrass training ground or (my least favorite bluegrass term this side of ‘progressive’) ‘school of bluegrass.’

I first had this thought about ten years back when Quicksilver included folks like Jamie Dailey, Jesse Stockman, Barry Scott, and Terry Baucom, fully realizing Baucom was an original member of the group—by the time Dailey and Scott, in particular, left the band, DLQ was getting it as good as it can be got.

Instead, Quicksilver boasts an almost constantly revolving lineup of musicians and singers, all of whom bring considerable talent to the band. But, to me, it always seems everything is temporary with the band—it is just a matter of time before someone moves on and the next guy slips into the mix. Kind of like when Greg Brady needed to fit the Johnny Bravo suit.

As much as I feel this way, I usually enjoy DLQ in concert—as long as the antics aren’t too predictable, and they sometimes are—and I appreciate their recordings, although not as much lately. Recent albums have suffered from weak material and generic and faceless lead singing, with Roads Well Traveled being a particularly telling point, in my opinion. Songs like “Dobro Joe,” “How Do You Say Goodbye to Sixty Years,”  and “One Small Miracle” just didn’t cut it, being derivative of songs Lawson had previously performed to greater impact. “Say Hello to Heaven” was a new low, contrived and nauseatingly shallow, flaws that also marred “I’m That Country” and “The King.”

Doyle Lawson still has it, of course. His most recent albums with Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe are certainly proof of that. It seems that he has just become too focused or maybe complacent, musically, on being Doyle Lawson—repeating the same old stuff with which he has found success. I’ve heard him speak about his recent music, including Roads Well Traveled, and he sure seems to like what he is doing.

I just don’t see—and most importantly, hear—the appeal.

Which is a long way of getting to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s new album, In Session.

It’s pretty good, certainly a mile and half better than Roads Well Traveled. For me, it doesn’t rise to the level of the albums I consider to be DLQ classics: Once and For Always, The Hard Game of Love and You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper. It sounds and feels more impassioned than any Quicksilver secular release since Lonely Street.

The band is solid, of course. Within the current edition of DLQ, Josh Swift (reso, percussion, and vocals) has been around the longest—well, other than Doyle Lawson, natch.  Joe Dean (banjo and guitar) has made a few albums with DLQ, while lead vocalist and guitar player Dustin Pyrtle has been around for a couple of years. Eli Johnston (bass, guitar, vocals) and Stephen Burwell (fiddle on a single song, “Wilma Walker”) are more recent recruits. Most of the fiddling is very ably handled by Jason Barie, now with Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.

The traditional Quicksilver drive is all over this album, with Johnston propelling things from the back end. Songs like “Reasons Why” and “Roll Big River” really benefit from his pulsing bass notes. “Captain” is (I believe) a strong new song from Johnston and Cody Shuler, a bit sad but not obvious.

The instrumental “Evening Prayer Blues” is a great tune, one that has been around for a long time. Lawson’s playing on it is simply impressive while the guitar contributions add a real nice texture to the tune. A cover of the Moe Bandy song “Americana” is a tad over-wrought, but not inexcusably so. The old country song (The Browns, Jimmy C. Newman) “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” is brought into bluegrass perhaps for the first time and it is a good fit. The courting song “Wilma Walker” will likely be popular.

For this listener, this new album is a welcome return to the form and quality that I had come to expect from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. That I felt the band had gone off track for a while is now beside the point: DLQ is back and (forgive me) In Session!

 

“All Star Duets” by Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time

Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time
All Star Duets
MightyCord Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Wordsmith mogul Larry Cordle has been a heavy hitter with hit songs for decades in Nashville.  The former accountant has contributed to records that have sold more than 55 million copies worldwide since he left his day job to become a full-time musician/songwriter.  His newest release is a “greatest hits” duet album including a dozen A-list country and bluegrass acts who have recorded his work in the past, including Ricky Skaggs (“Highway 40 Blues”), Garth Brooks (“Against the Grain”), Trisha Yearwood (“Lonesome Dove”), Dierks Bentley (“You Can’t Take it With You When You Go”), and Kenny Chesney (“The Fields of Home”).

Unlike a lot of premier Nashville songwriters whose vocal talents make it plain why aren’t out front on stage, the Mighty Cord has been singing in the major leagues with these all stars for quite a while—the tear-jerking throwdown with Terri Clark, “Cure for the Common Heartache.” Cordle’s performances really draw out the personalities of his duet partners, all of whom take full advantage of the opportunity to put their particular spin on these great songs.

The instrumental lineup is also quite stellar—Bryan Sutton, Kristin Scott Benson, Andy Leftwitch, Mike Anglin, Jenee Fleenor, Randy Kohrs, Tim Croutch, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Benson, Chris Davis, and Kim Garner—and the tones and execution of the instruments were superbly captured by Slack Key Studio (Randy Kohrs) and Ben Surratt at Mark Howard’s Signal Path Studio.

Del McCoury (“The Bigger the Fool”) and Travis Tritt (“Rough Around the Edges”) bring the hardcore ‘grass, and Alison Krauss’ reworking of “Two Highways” 25 years after her original version helped make her a teenage superstar is especially satisfying.

“Murder on Music Row,” which is 15 years old now, closes the album with Daryle Singletary and Kevin Denney helping Cordle show that a good country song written for its own sake will always outlast whatever is written to be trendy and marketable.

 

 

“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“Better than I Deserve” by the Farm Hands

The Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet
Better than I Deserve
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet (not to be confused with the Farmhands Band) are four seasoned veterans who have now been together four years. Daryl Mosley plays bass and sings. He spent ten years with New Tradition, a bluegrass gospel quartet, then ten years with the Osborne Brothers. His composition “He Saw It All” was a #1 hit for the Booth Brothers. Part of his Osborne Brothers tenure included his present bandmate Tim Graves. Graves has been SPBGMA’s Dobro Player of the Year eight times. He also spent time with Wilma Lee Cooper and James Monroe. He has played in several iterations of the band Cherokee with his friend and Farm Hands bandmate Bennie Boling.

Boling is a multi-instrumentalist who plays banjo for the Farm hands. He’s also an accomplished songwriter with songs recorded by Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys. Rounding out the group is guitarist Keith Tew, who has played in Rhonda Vincent’s band and toured with Vassar Clements. His compositions have been recorded by the Lonesome River Band and Lou Reid. This is a lot of talent packed into one band.

Included in this CD are two Boling songs. “Farm Country” is an interesting instrumental with Boling, Graves and guest Jason Roller (fiddle) trading licks. “He’s Got An Answer for Everything” (co-written with Jim McBride) is a gospel number that says what Christians believe. Other gospel numbers are the well known “Over in the Gloryland” and “Streets of Gold,” a beautiful song about the heavenly home of the faithful. Mosley contributes “The Way I Was Raised,” a song about manners and a lifestyle that kids don’t learn as often these days. The band’s harmonies are very good and the musicians know how to support the song without overwhelming the singer.

Mosley also wrote “Better than I Deserve” is an unusual a cappella number that starts out as an solo then adds a variety of percussive sound effects and a background quartet of Mike Reid, Bruce Dees, Lisa Silver, and Nick DeStefano. Reid is a talented singer/songwriter who also had a career in pro football. His CD from several years back is still one of my favorites; twenty-one of his compositions have gone to #1 on the country and pop charts. Dees has had a long career as a session player and enjoyed a long relationship with Ronnie Milsap, including singing backup on one of my favorites, “Lost In The Fifties Tonight.” DeStefano has worked with a number of stars including Kathy Mattea and Lisa Silver has enjoyed a long Nashville career. That’s an impressive backup quartet. The song isn’t mainstream bluegrass but it’s good listening.

Tew adds one song, “Mama Prayed and Daddy Plowed,” a song about a hard but good life in the country, and they pick up three good country numbers: Jerry Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times,” Merle Haggard’s “The Way It Was in ’51” and a Randy Travis hit, “From Your Knees,” a song about a man who has reached the end of the line in love, a bed he made all on his own.

This is another very good CD from the Farm Hands, full of good songs and great picking.