“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.

“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.

“Liz Longley” by Liz Longley

Liz Longley
Liz Longley
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Liz Longley begins her self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut with “Outta My Head,” a perfect slice of late 1990s Lillith Faire-style pop that has her remembering the good things about an old flame—the road trips to concerts, the exchange of mixtapes, and “the John Martyn record that we spun till it was dead.”

Memory usually tells us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves, suppressing the messy bits and turning the mundane into nostalgia—it’s easy to build a hit song merely by making lists of things from the years when your target audience felt like their lives were still ahead of them.

Good songwriters deal with the mess head-on, and their insight lets you make your own nostalgia about the stuff that’s unique to you.

Longley has had me feeling like that as I’ve played this record over and over the last several weeks. Something about “Outta My Head” made me think of Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing,” which made me remember how I used to feel whenever I would hear it, which made me start thinking a lot about that time in my life, which has lots of parallels to the things Longley must have been turning over in her head when she wrote “Outta My Head.” It’s that kind of interplay between artist and listener that makes music so much a part of our inner lives.

Though it’s Longley’s songwriting that makes this a great record, it’s her voice that most people notice first. Fans of modern country music will notice her voice is every bit as strong and of roughly the same type as the popular female singers of today; more discerning listeners will note that it’s clearly better than any chart-topper you’d care to name—and that Longley can actually sing, and in just about any style she cares to try. The 11 tracks on this record have a unified sound with lots of different influences—subtle ones—from pop and country music from the 1970s and each decade since.

All of this helps Longley put across an impressive cycle of songs about love and memory—the stab of excitement tinged with fear when we feel intense desire for the first time that’s so strong we keep chasing it (“Camaro”), the disbelief when someone is taking that feeling away from you (“This is Not the End”), the mix of shame and resolve when you take that feeling away from someone because they can’t come with you where you’re going (“Memphis”), the rush when you find someone who makes it all feel new and risky again (“Never Loved Another”), the feeling you get from that one person you know you shouldn’t keep coming back to (“Bad Habit,” which is also might be the best song ever written about cigarettes), and the renewed optimism that you may have actually found someone good for you (“You’ve Got that Way”).

A couple of songs included on this album don’t quite fit this theme, nor are they quite as good, but Longley ties everything together with a love song of incredible emotional intensity and simplicity. With the aptly titled “Simple Love,” she tells us how it feels to escape the cycle that has obsessed countless songwriters, offering hope to those who are still caught there.

“That Was Then” by Springfield Exit

Springfield Exit
That Was Then
Patuxent Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Springfield Exit has ties to a highly respected band from the past, the Johnson Mountain Boys. They played excellent bluegrass that stayed close to the model established by Bill Monroe, Don Reno and Red Smiley and a host of others. JMB members now with Springfield Exit include David McLaughlin playing mandolin, Tom Adams on banjo and Marshall Wilborn (bass). Wilborn (husband of Lynn Morris) has been named IBMA bass player of the year and has played with Michael Cleveland and Longview. He wrote the title number, a swinging beat with a walking bass line that’s sung by the group’s lead singer, Linda Lay. “Some Old Day” has been recorded by a long list of artists including Flatt & Scruggs and J.D. Crowe.

Adams is an excellent banjo player who once had to quit touring because of a medical problem, focal dystonia. This caused erratic movement of his index finger. If you compare his playing in 1992 to today you can hear that he has the licks we enjoyed when the JMB hit the stage. Watching the video you can see he’s using his index finger to pick.

Linda Lay has a good voice and spent many nights in the Carter Fold learning about this music and played with Appalachian Trail before forming Springfield Exit with husband David (guitar, vocals). For a look back at Wilborn and McLaughlin, here’s a performance from 1988 that included Dudley Connell and Eddie Stubbs. Experience and talent make for a great band.

Other traditional numbers include Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured,” “Elkhorn Ridge” which features some good clawhammer, “George Cunningham,” a really good song about Cunningham, who falls into trouble and kills a man, and is then hanged for his deed—or was he? Eight-five years later his coffin is dug up and—you need to hear the song for the rest. “Bad Reputation” (not the Joan Jett song) is another great number as is Buzz Busby’s “Lonesome Wind” (1958).

They also visit other genres and turn out some good music: “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (Eagles), “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (Bob Dylan), “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” (Don Williams), and “Don’t We All Have The Right,” one of Roger Miller’s great songs, with Frank Solivan II singing harmony. There is no overarching consensus on what makes music bluegrass music, but it seems that while content can be important, the way you play it, the sound you produce, is the key. Springfield Exit takes these diverse songs and makes them bluegrass.

“Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle” by Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Rural Rhythm Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley has been around the block a time or two. A veteran of Renfro Valley, he hit the national scene with Doyle Lawson, was a founding member of both Mountain Heart and Grasstowne, and spent some time with Dale Ann Bradley. He is a great tenor and lead singer and could have been a country music star back when they still played country music on the radio. It’s always a crowd-pleaser when he does a number like “The Grand Tour” and I’m looking forward to seeing him at Bean Blossom on June 18.

This new venture is a combination of country and bluegrass. Banjo player Matthew Cruby wrote “Mattie’s Run,” a fast moving instrumental also featuring Gary Robinson, Jr. (mandolin), guest Tim Crouch (fiddle), Bryan Turner (bass), and Gulley (guitar). As expected, they all pick like they were born with instruments in hand. Phil Leadbetter guests on Dobro and Mark Laws adds percussion on some of the tracks. If you like country music, you have to hear this version of Hank Cochran’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.” “It’s a Long, Long Way To the Top of the World” is a well known number done by Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers. The latter is the more soulful version and Gulley adds a big dose of soul with this version, sounding more country than bluegrass. “Every Time You Leave” is a Louvin Brothers song. Gulley’s version, with Amanda Smith, is reminiscent of the Emmylou Harris duet with Don Everly from her Blue Kentucky Girl CD. This is excellent music.

Gulley had a hand in writing several of the bluegrass numbers. “Leaving Crazy Town” is a hard-driving number while “She’s a Taker” is slower but still with good drive and shows off the band’s good harmony singing. Both were written with Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford. “You’re Gone” (written with Adam Haynes) has more of a country feel though played as bluegrass with a banjo/mandolin break. Winning the award for catchy hooks is another Gulley/Stafford song, “That Ground’s Too Hard To Plow” with the song’s title as advice about a heartbreaking woman.

“Not Fade Away” makes a good bluegrass number even though it was written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty and is a well-traveled rock number, performed by the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, to name just two more groups. It’s not always the song that makes the music bluegrass. Gulley also wrote the CD’s gospel number, “You Can’t Take Jesus Away.”

Gulley’s talent and style coupled with top quality musicians makes this a CD lovers of bluegrass and country will want to hear.

“The Legacy Continues” by Nathan Stanley

Nathan Stanley
The Legacy Continues
Nathan Stanley Entertainment

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Nathan Stanley will soon be twenty-three years old and already has twenty-one years of experience on the road. He’s done a good job in the transition from playing spoons by the side of his papaw, Dr. Ralph Stanley, to being a full-fledged entertainer on his own. He still travels and appears with Dr. Stanley, but his tour schedule shows a handful of dates on his own with the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph Stanley, in his sixty-ninth year on the road playing bluegrass, still maintains a very busy touring schedule even if his on-stage performances have been scaled back in favor of his grandson and son, Ralph Stanley II. Since Ralph II has carved his own niche in the bluegrass world, many may conclude that the future of the Clinch Mountain Boys, possibly the longest-running band in bluegrass, rests with Nathan Stanley.

This CD saw a limited distribution in 2013 but has now been repackaged with two additional tracks. “(The) Rank Stranger” has been done countless times and is a Stanley Brothers original. Carter Stanley sung from a deep well of emotion and Nathan Stanley does a fine job of recreating that emotion while Dr. Ralph recreates his part in the song. “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” is another Stanley original. Here Brad Paisley joins Nathan Stanley in a slightly different version that is a beautiful rendition of this old song.

“Are You Missing Me” goes back to the Louvin Brothers and has also been recorded (1952) by Jim & Jesse and the Bluegrass Cardinals. Stanley stays true to the Jim & Jesse version, not dressing it up with a modern interpretation. “Love of the Mountains” is a Larry Sparks’ signature song. Sparks joined the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1964 and became Ralph Stanley’s singing partner when Carter Stanley died at the end of 1966. Nathan Stanley does ample justice to this great song that was penned by Allen Mills.

There’s little doubt that the Stanley legacy is in good hands with young Nathan Stanley (not to sell Ralph Stanley II short in any way). He speaks to his love of the music and his grandfather in “Papaw I Love You,” a song he wrote in honor of Ralph Stanley. He serves as front man for the Clinch Mountain Boys. Joining him on this CD are Dewey Brown (fiddle, baritone), Randall Hibbitts (upright bass, harmony) and Mitchell Van Dyke (banjo). Former CMB member Junior Blankenship plays guitar and sings baritone and Tony Dingus plays Dobro. Don Rigsby joins the group playing mandolin and singing harmony. This is an excellent lineup of musicians and singers.

The list of familiar bluegrass songs is long, including “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine” and “For All the Love I Had Is Gone.” “Casualty of War” comes from a 2007 Larry Sparks’ CD, The Last Suit You Wear. “Calling My Children Home” has been recorded by Ralph Stanley and was the title of a 1977 album by the Country Gentlemen. “Let Me Rest At The End Of My Journey” is another familiar number, recorded by many artists through the years.

Nathan Stanley has put together an excellent tribute to his grandfather and to classic bluegrass. If anyone doubts his ability as an artist they need to hear this CD. If you like bluegrass the way it was done by Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Johnson Mountain Boys and, of course, the Stanley Brothers, you’ll enjoy every track on this CD.

 

“Highways & Heartaches” by Hammertowne

Hammertowne
Highways & Heartaches
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Out of the gate you get hard driving, traditional bluegrass that grabs you and holds your attention. You won’t be trying to guess the genre when you hear Hammertowne.

“Broken Heart Mended” was written by banjoist Brent Pack and is an excellent song. Pack got his start with Ernie Thacker and lists Ron Stewart as one of his influences. Stewart, known throughout bluegrass as an excellent banjo player and fiddler knows his way around a guitar and mandolin even though he professes otherwise. On this CD he sits in on fiddle. Pack plays a hard driving banjo and is joined by Dave Carroll and Scott Tackett (both: guitar, vocals), Chaston Carroll (mandolin, vocals) and Bryan Russell (bass, vocals). Dave Carroll’s songs have been recorded by the Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out plus other nationally known bands. The picking and singing are excellent. The division of labor between the two guitar pickers seems to be Tackett playing rhythm when he sings and Carroll playing lead.

“Call Out His Name” is an uptempo gospel number with a melody that’s a bit on the repetitive side. “Hansel’s Barn Dance” is a good, medium-speed instrumental that shows off the band’s abilities on their instruments. I’ve heard Dr. Ralph sing “Pretty Polly” a bunch of times, but Hammertowne offers up “Polly’s Revenge,” penned by Dave Carroll to tell the rest of the story. Masked men break her killer out of jail and he thinks his future has just gotten brighter. Unfortunately, his rescuers are Polly’s father and brothers and they—well, you need to hear the song. “Heartaches and Pain” is a good bluegrass number about broken love. This is a good example of the band’s good harmony singing and arrangements. They are banjo-centric. Some bands leave empty banjo space now and then and that tends to emphasize the banjo when it is being played. Their choice isn’t uncommon in bluegrass and that’s to have the banjo firing all the time.

There’s a disconnect with Tack 6. The CD cover lists it as “Sad Song Melody” (Chaston Carroll) while the media player shows “You’re Not Here With Me.” Whatever it’s called, it’s a good song. The bassman isn’t doing anything spectacular, but spectacular isn’t the purpose of the bass. He’s up front in the mix providing a solid foundation and I think that’s great. “Nothing Left But Time To Do” (Dave Carroll) is all about regrets and prison and has a good line about sleeping all night with one eye open.

Hammertowne provides eleven good tracks on this CD, no throwaways, no compromises with the type of bluegrass I believe Monroe-Stanley-Marti-style bluegrass fans will enjoy. This is good music.