2015 IBMA Awards—you decide.

“Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project” by Jayme Stone

Jayme Stone
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
Borealis Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone continues his run of intriguingly diverse projects with this 19-track disc celebrating the centenary of seminal folk song collector Alan Lomax.

Stone has done a fine job picking tunes from Lomax’s stockpile, but an even better job picking talent to present those tunes in several different styles, including:

  • Brittany Haas and Bruce Molsky with two entrancing fiddle duets, “Julie and Joe” and “Old Christmas.”
  • Stone and Haas with “Hog Went Through the Fence, Yoke and All,” which, in spite of it’s rustic title is an inventive and nuanced fiddle & banjo conversation.
  • “Before This Time Another Year,” “Sheep, Sheep Don’tcha Know the Road,” and “Prayer Wheel,” all gospel septets in the Sea Island style, with Tim O’Brien’s inimitable voice the most recognizable element.
  • O’Brien on two duets: with Moira Smiley on the quaint romantic folk of “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y” and with Margaret Glaspy on the sad cowboy song “Goodbye Old Paint.”
  • Eli West setting Lead Belly’s a profane farm work holler “Whoa, Back, Buck” in a sumptuous guitar and fiddle (Haas) arrangement.

There’s also a prison song, a calypso murder ballad, and a nearly six hundred-year-old English ballad that was captured by a ballad hunter from a Virginia sawmill cook and is here sung by a septet with no accompaniment save body percussion set to a 9/8 folk rhythm originating somewhere in the Balkans. (To fully enjoy this album, I strongly recommend buying the CD, attractively packaged with detailed liner notes of these recordings, and the ones they’re referring to.)

Among all these great musicians and singers, Stone’s best choice is clearly Margaret Glaspy, whose voice recalls Abigail Washburn and Frazey Ford, among others. The tracks on which she sings lead—including “Lazy John,” “I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,” “Maids When You’re Young,” and “Lambs on the Green Hills”—are impeccably arranged and played by Stone and company, but Glaspy turns them into the best acoustic tracks I’ve heard from anyone this year. Her singing is strong and magical while conveying the illusion of brokenness—not unlike some work from Neil Young, or Bjork; she turns well used standards like “What is the Soul of a Man?” and “Shenandoah” (both of which happen to be particular favorites of mine) into the stuff of transcendent meditations on the permanence of great music. We should all look forward to hearing more from this truly great singer.

“Don’t Forget Me Little Darling” by Antique Persuasion

Antique Persuasion
Don’t Forget Me Little Darling
Voxhall Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

You simply cant count the country and bluegrass musicians who list the Carter Family as an influence in their music. Just as Bill Monroe became known as the father of bluegrass, despite a number of notable stars who contributed to that birth, the Carter Family have a place in history as the parents of country music. They were not the only people making music like that back then but they have stood the test of time as one of the foremost groups at the birth of this music we love.

A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin and his sister–in–law, Maybelle, captured the imagination of the common folk at a time when life was hard for them. The Carter Family first recorded in Bristol, Tennessee in what we now view as primitive conditions. They were interested in making a few dollars, never dreaming what they would start that day. “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” is the left bookend of the Carter Family’s recording history and this CD. This song has been recorded countless times in bluegrass, country and western (cowboy) settings. The Carter Family versions of all these numbers have a different feel than this recording, in part because of the instrumentation—usually only a guitar, partly because of advances in recording technology and partly because of technique. The Carters’ singing was straightforward, unadorned, even a bit strident. Some, perhaps many of the fans of bluegrass and classic country today wouldn’t listen long to a Carter Family recording.

The CD cover credits A.P. Carter as the composer of all but one of these songs. Take that with a grain of salt. While his name may appear on official credits, many of the Carter Family songs are adaptations of songs that pre–date them by decades if not centuries. “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” was the subject of a 1970 conversation with Maybelle Carter as reported on grassclippings. “That was a song we had sang all our lives. [Read the center section on the website.] The original version of the song was written by Bradley Kincaid.” Another conversation relates, “Other sources suggest the song’s older, a late–19th–century ‘heart song’ that Kincaid adopted; apparently a sheet music version dates to a year when he was 14 years old, making his authorship unlikely.” None of this affects the contribution of the Carter Family nor the beauty of this new CD, but it’s always good to have a hint of the actual history of the songs.

My wife, a fringe fan of bluegrass (as I’ve reported before) was listening to this CD as we drove and she described it as “soothing.” I know she would never say the same about the original version. Have no doubt, though, Antique Persuasion honors the Carter Family music, just giving it a 2015 interpretation. The last song recorded by the Carters, and the only one here not “written” by A. P. Carter (it was composed—or adapted—by Maybelle Carter), was “ You’re Gonna Be Sorry Cause You Let Me Down.” (CF version) Brandon Rickman sings lead and plays guitar and mandolin. He’s a good one to be singing these traditional songs because he has a voice that speaks bluegrass to me. Not that there isn’t room for other types of singers, such as the high, lonesome sound of Monroe or the balladeer’s voice of David Parmley. But I especially enjoy singers like Rickman. It’s in the tone and inflection, his phrasing. Like bluegrass, you know it when you hear it. You can hear Rickman’s voice often because he’s the lead singer for the Lonesome River Band.

He’s joined by Jenee Fleenor. She’s made other appearances in bluegrass but her primary job is backing Blake Shelton (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, guitar). Brennan Leigh, a great singer from Austin, Texas, rounds out the group, offering vocals and guitar. Mark Fain makes a guest appearance on upright bass. Warning! There’s no banjo present but, to be fair, the Carter Family didn’t use one, either.

Rickman also sings lead on “Lover’s Lane” (familiar from Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cutups) and “Lover’s Return” ( familiar from Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstatdt & Dolly Parton).

“Dark and Stormy Weather” is a departure from the straightforward nature of most of the songs. Sung in minors, it’s dark and moody. Sung by Fleenor, there are no background vocals and only Fleenor’s fiddle and guitar and Fain’s arco bass. It’s moodier than Helen Carter’s version which is also a takeoff of the original. She also sings lead on “When Silver Threads Are Gold,” a lighter–hearted song about love. “Lonesome For You” is done as western swing and is a familiar number to any fan. The original version had this same feel but in a more primitive fashion. Fleenor trades leads with Rickman and you’ll hear great harmony singing, on this and all other songs except “Dark and Stormy Weather” and Fleenor’s other lead number, “I’m Thinking Of My Blue Eyes.” Again it’s just Fleenor and Fain with an arrangement that gets away from the Carter Family (and usual) styling, but is beautifully done, giving a fresh take on this familiar song.

Leigh sings lead on “Broken Hearted Lover” (not to be confused with the Delmore Brothers/IIIrd Tyme Out song of the same name). You’ll note Fleenor’s fiddle providing support on this song, smooth, melodic, and relaxing (to use my wife’s description). She also sings lead on “Don’t Forget Me Little Darling,” “Hello Stranger” (recorded by Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens/Alice Gerrard) and the only gospel number, “On the Sea of Galilee.”

This is an excellent window into the Carter Family’ great body of work. Great singing by the three members of Antique Persuasion, excellent instrumental work, great arrangements. If you like bluegrass, don’t miss this one.

“Brighter Every Day” by Trout Steak Revival

Trout Steak Revival
Brighter Every Day
Self-released
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I don’t love every album that crosses my desk, and I tend to write only about those that move me in some positive manner. This year I have received a dozen or more albums from youthful, neo-bluegrass outfits (most of whom sport much too much facial hair…not sure why that bothers me so much…) and only a few have inspired my written efforts.

Trout Steak Revival is one of those exceptions. Darn it all, they are some kind of good.

Theirs is a story told across the continent. Five friends come together and form an acoustic band to perform their interpretation of modern bluegrass, more Sam Bush and Della Mae than Stanleys and Mullinses. Each member is a singer, all write songs. They woodshed. They win the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band competition, as have Greensky Bluegrass, Spring Creek, the Hillbenders, and Front Country in recent years. They meet Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, who produces their third album.

And they sell 100,000 copies of that release.

All but the last has unfolded for Trout Steak Revival, but danged if I can figure why they haven’t already sold a truck load of albums, opened for the Grateful Dead at their final shows, or made the cover of American Songwriter.

Because this is excellent music. Trout Steak Revival are Steve Foltz (mandolin and guitar), Casey Houlihan (bass), Will Koster (dobro and guitar), Travis McNamara (banjo), and Bevin Foley (fiddle.) All sing and the band appears to function as a cohesive collective that has its sights on a common vision. Based in the Colorado mountains, the group presents the free-spirited manner many associate with bluegrass emanating from the Centennial State.

What you’ll find is bright, enlivening bluegrass played with communal closeness bred of familiarity, companionship, and respect. Trout Steak Revival’s songs are mood-inducing in the way of the finest of the new breed, and yet are rooted to the foundational aspects of bluegrass—harmony, rhythm, and drive—but not of the obvious, in-your-face type—along with quality musicianship, captivating lyrics (how about, “stealing midnight shadows, I’m swimming in my sleep,” from the album closer “Colorado River?”) and sufficient tempo and key variety to maintain the most scrutinizing listener’s interest. If they remind me of anyone it is Acoustic Syndicate, minus the drums, especially when McNamara is singing the leads.

Original songs of fragility and nature (“Wind on the Mountain” and “Colorado River”) are balanced by yearnings for home and stability (“Union Pacific” and “Days of Gray”) and energetic flights of fancy (“Brighter Every Day”). And pie (“Pie”).

“Oklahoma,” sung by Foltz, is another highlight, with vocals that soar within the confines of the melody; no one is showing off within these songs—every note counts and supports, each phrasing adds to the keenness of the song.

“Go On,” featuring Foley’s strong, bouncy voice, is the only song that moves from bluegrass into swing territory, and is a fine change-of-pace. The album’s sole instrumental, “Sierra Nevada,” reminds us of tunes found on old Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe recordings, ones that seem like they should have words, but whose bow strokes and mandolin notes communicate as much as rhyming verse might ever.

Have I mentioned that Brighter Every Day is an excellent modern bluegrass recording?

“Della Mae” by Della Mae

Della Mae
Della Mae
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’ve been playing this album regularly for the past few months, but couldn’t figure out what to write about it considering the number of quality reviews that have been published. But, once more unto the breach…it is my vocation, after all. Della Mae is the quintet’s third album, and features the four core members of the group with guest bassist Mark Schatz pinch hitting.

Vocal dynamo Celia Woodsmith continues to front the group and contributes some guitar, with the leads played by Courtney Hartman who also plays the banjo. Kimber Ludiker is the very expressive fiddler and Jenni Gardner handles the mandolin, certainly one of the group’s strongest assets. The album was recorded prior to Zoe Guigueno joining the group on upright bass.

I can’t locate my copy of the group’s previous Rounder album This World Oft Can Be, so I don’t have much to go by except my memory—which is fragile at the best of times. But I recall that album having a more apparent bluegrass foundation than does Della Mae. I do have their debut album I Built This Heart on hand, and the group’s sound has certainly changed over the course of time.

Gone are most obvious elements of bluegrass, a noticeable evolution. Nowhere in the press sheet for the album, or in Ed Helms’ liner notes, is the word ‘bluegrass’ mentioned. They remain, however, a powerhouse outfit, pouring out a loud ‘n’ proud blend of soulful Americana. If the group is happy they are to be applauded for following their muse wherever it takes them.

Much attention has gone to the lead track, “Boston Town,” and Woodsmith’s working-woman’s anthem is certainly worthy of notice; like the finest songs of Maria Dunn, Hazel Dickens, and John McCutcheon, the labour-positive message is wrapped in optimum musical cloth. “Rude Awakening” is an incredible song, and Woodsmith’s voice can’t be contained, although it is completely controlled. Woodsmith and Hartman are the group songwriters, and wrote either together or individually eight of the album’s eleven songs.

Della Mae’s opening trio of songs is as strong a burst as I’ve experienced this year. “Can’t Go Back” rounds out this powerful initial salvo, a song with interesting changes and impressive lyrics.

Hartman takes the lead on “Long Shadow,” a song she co-wrote with Sarah Siskind, a personal favourite. Hartman has a terrific voice, robust with a shade of mystery, and the song is a bit dark in its exploration of creative processes and (maybe?) mental health. Gardner also takes a solitary, rambunctious lead (“Good Blood”) bringing additional diversity to the Della Mae vocal sound.

In addition to “Good Blood,” there are two other (and more familiar) songs covered. “To Ohio,” recognizable perhaps to roots types via Emmylou Harris’s inclusion of the Low Anthem song as a ‘bonus track’ to the deluxe version of Hard Bargain.

Equally impressive is the group’s interpretation of the (too) often recorded “No Expectations.” Although I am sure the world didn’t need yet another roots version of the song, Della Mae’s is darned enjoyable with great slide effects from (I presume) Hartman.

Della Mae is a hard-hitting album for folks who have been hit hard. And from my experience, that is most of us.

“When I’m Free” by Hot Rize

Hot Rize
When I’m Free
Ten In Hand Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Hot Rize is a deservedly iconic band, beloved for their take on bluegrass music, their rambling discourses during a show, and for their alternate egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. I saw them last year and it was 50 percent talk, 50 percent music. But, a CD is all music and they waited almost twenty-five years to do another studio album. It’s done well, in the top ten on the chart and three songs in the top 20 at one time. (The August 7 chart (Bluegrass Today) shows only “Clary Mae” still there, making a rapid fall from #2 to #19 in two weeks. The Roots Music Report, on the other hand, shows the CD at #6, down from #1 last week.)

“Clary Mae” is a good bluegrass number, rolling along supported by Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick’s renowned banjo playing. Wernick founded the group in the 1970s with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and the late Charles Sawtelle. They have a lot of life left for a group that stopped touring in 1990, making only a few appearances until reformong as a band after all these years, Sawtelle’s spot being filled by Bryan Sutton. It does seem that they are back on the road again, making something of a comeback which has complicated things for O’Brien. He was a part of the Earls of Leicester and is having to mostly step away from that group to commit more time to Hot Rize. I suppose there are worse dilemmas.

“Doggone” is on the rockabilly side with good harmony singing, a rocking medium tempo song. “Blue is Fallin'” is a song about some hard times and features a nice guitar break by Sutton. “Western Skies” is all about wanting to get back to western skies and features Wernick’s banjo in the driver’s seat. Like the individual members of the group, whose careers have prospered through the years but not always in the bluegrass genre, these songs are on the fringe around the core bluegrass sound of Monroe, but are greatly enjoyed by bluegrass fans.

They show their gospel side with “I Am The Road,” a song with the drive of a bulldozer—neither hot nor fast, it’s  a relentless force telling a message of faith. It isn’t told in the usual words of God and faith, but the message is there.

I am the road, I am the way

Many walk down and many will stray

Straight and narrow, far and wide

You won’t be lonesome while side by side

The track that’s named like a gospel number, “Glory in The Meeting House,” is actually an instrumental, Irish-sounding jig, light-hearted with an old-time feel. “Sky Rider” is another instrumental, featuring syncopated banjo by Wernick. Sutton is always there supporting the band with his excellent guitar playing—especially on several breaks in “You Were On My Mind This Morning.” He made his first big splash in bluegrass as a member of Kentucky Thunder and went on to become famous as a session player and touring with artists like Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Following Charles Sawtelle’s death in 1999, the band re-grouped in 2002 and invited Sutton into the fold.

“A Cowboy’s Life” is not very grassy except for the banjo, but a great story song and a nice change of pace. Another on-the-bluegrass-fringe cit is “I Never Met a One Like You,” on which one of the group’s career-spanning signature traits— Nick Forster’s clean, understated bass guitar—can be appreciated.

“Run Away Tonight” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Run Away Tonight
Mountain Home Music Company

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are earning a reputation as one of the top bands in bluegrass. Their music reflects strong ties to traditional bluegrass and they rely heavily on the band members’ talents as songwriters. Three of the four-man band regularly appear on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Bunction (Jones, Weisberger and Luberecki).

Chris Jones plays guitar and does the lead singing. His distinctive voice is pitched lower than standard for bluegrass music, and is more a balladeer than his peers. It’s an easy voice to listen to and doesn’t take the adjustment needed by fringe bluegrass fans to some of the more traditional voices and stylings (such as Danny Paisley). Jon Weisberger plays bass and sings baritone and also adds to the mix his talent as a composer. Jones and Weisberger wrote “She’s Just About To Say Goodbye,” which features the fiddle of Troy Engle and harmony vocals of Darin and Brooke Aldridge. This is a good, country-style love song with an interesting arrangement.

The pair also wrote “Laurie,” an uptempo bluegrass number with Ned Luberecki providing a banjo break, Jones showing his skill on lead guitar and former Night Driver Casey Driessen playing fiddle. Their third number is “One Night in Paducah,” featuring Buddy Melton singing tenor and Tim Surrett playing Dobro. Bandmember Mark Stoffel provides an interesting mandolin break on this haunting song about love gone wrong in eerie circumstances. Jones had a hand in some of the other cuts, such as “My Portion and My Cup,” co-written with Donna Ulisse and featuring the Aldridges singing harmony. This is the only gospel number on the CD. Jones went solo on composing with “Dust Off the Pain,” another suffering from heartbreak song (bluegrassers do a lot of suffering) and “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride,” a high speed number with Driessen playing fiddle.

Going back a bunch of years they cover a Flatt & Scruggs number, “Thinking About You.” This cut features Del McCoury singing tenor and Bobby Hicks playing fiddle. It’s tough to get more traditional than this and it’s a good song from those early masters of bluegrass. They also have a Tom T Hall number, “Pinto the Wonder Horse Is Dead.” It may not be bluegrass, but it’s a great story song from the master of story songs. It takes me back many years to memories just like these. They stay true to Hall’s 1971 version. Switching gears, they include an old-time/Gaelic number, “The Leaving of Liverpool,” done by groups like the Dubliners. Strictly speaking, this isn’t bluegrass either, but a first cousin, much closer than the country-pop some bluegrass groups are including in their CDs.

Night Driver mandolinist Mark Stoffel composed “Shelby 8,” a very good instrumental with some minor chords and an interesting progression. There’s some excellent picking in this one. Ned Luberecki adds a banjo number, “Bowties Are Cool” which raises the oft-asked question (at least by me), how do they come up with these titles?

This CD solidifies the Night Drivers spot in the pack of leading bluegrass groups. It’s a good buy.