“Relics and Roses” by Tellico

Relics and Roses
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Tellico is described as “firmly planted in … [the] roots music scene, Tellico is well-schooled in bluegrass but with an unbridled, organic Appalachiana sound” If you’re wondering what that means, think old-time, Old Crow Medicine Show, and roots all mixed together.

Lead singer, guitarist, and fiddler Anya Hinkle composed about half the tracks. Listening to her sing I’m reminded of Janis Joplin. Open a browser and in one tab load “Backstep Blues” from their website and in another tab load Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee.” “Backstep Blues” has a nice beat, ringing an OCMS bell somewhere in my head, anchored by Jed Willis’ clawhammer banjo. You have to work at understanding the lyrics. Never mind that, just enjoy the flow of the song. Hinkle has dallied in multiple genre and spent time with other Tellico members in Dehlia Low, a band variously described as bluegrass, country and/or old-time.

Bass player Stig Stiglets composed the other half of the songs (except “White Line — River of Pride,” a Neil Young song that was released under two titles) and sings lead on several tracks. “Calamity” is a song about disaster inspired by various calamities around the world. It’s a good song, though Stiglets as a singer will be an acquired taste for some. Aaron Ballance on dobro is outstanding.

“Lean Into It” is a swinging song of betrayed love but you may find the title, repeated often, a bit puzzling in its meaning. The rest of the message is clear and the harmonica is a good fit. I like the tune and flow of “Mexico 1995,” but I have trouble understanding Hinkle’s lyrics. There’s some good picking and interplay of instruments in this cut. I have the same trouble with “Forsaken Winds;” love the tune, and I think I like the lyrics when I can figure them out. “Morning Haze” is another likable song with some good instrumental work.

It’s a bit quirky but enjoyable, like inviting Bob Dylan into your CD player for a while. If that sounds like fun, you’re going to like this CD.



“‘Tween Earth and Sky” by Becky Buller

Becky Buller
‘Tween Earth and Sky
Dark Shadow Recording
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

2015 has proven to be a breakout year for Becky Buller.

After a few years out of the spotlight—changing life circumstances will do that to an artist—Buller emerged leading her own outfit alongside her most unified recording project to date. When the annual International Bluegrass Music Association nominations were announced, Buller’s name was mentioned seven times. Alongside a nod for Bluegrass Broadcaster of the Year, Buller found herself up for Songwriter, Fiddle Player, Female Vocalist, and Emerging Artist of the Year. Capping these recognitions were two nominations for her historical performance of “Southern Flavor,” included here, as both Song and Recorded Event of the Year.

Pretty heady stuff for an artist taking her first steps out of the ‘sideman’ shadows as a bandleader.

‘Tween Earth and Sky was released late in 2014, so we’re more than a little tardy with this review. But given the accolades possibly coming Buller’s direction, and that it’s still getting lots of spins on bluegrass radio, it’s better late than never.

Buller has long been a fiddler of considerable repute within the bluegrass community, any she’s widely known from her years with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, from her brief tenure with Darin & Brooke Aldridge, and as a mainstay within the Daughters of Bluegrass amalgam. As a songwriter, she has contributed to more than a dozen projects. ‘Tween Earth and Sky is her third album when one includes the Here’s a Little Song collection recorded with Smith.

Without question, ‘Tween Earth and Sky is a very strong set. It is well-recorded and modern sounding, but there are certainly no shortage of ancient tones to be heard; “American Corner” contains more than a slice of old-world influence. Providing linkage to the essentials of bluegrass is the album’s feature track, a reworking of what might have been Bill Monroe’s last great tune, “Southern Flavor.” With lyrics added (with Monroe’s encouragement) by DeWayne Mize and Guy Stevenson, and brought to life with an all-Blue Grass Boys lineup including Roland White, Blake Williams, Buddy Spicher, and Peter Rowan, this one is a winner both on paper and in performance.

The original “Nothin’ To You” also had chart success, as did the less-pleasing “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers.” With a soaring lead vocal, “Nothin’ To You” may become a modern bluegrass classic; the terrific band, made up of folks named Bales, Block, Brock, Ickes, and a pair of Smiths (Kenny and Amanda), makes this one gallop with no little bit of a Union Station flavor. “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers” is a harmless song that is really quite enjoyable, until one realizes the composition lacks true dramatic tension: everything is told, nothing is shown. A minor quibble, perhaps.

Stronger—much stronger—are the Civil War love song “Amos & Sarah” and the sinister “Didn’t Die.” Both draw the listener in, and “Didn’t Die” especially gets one to contemplating; Darrell Scott adds some vocal darkness to this Buller song.

‘Tween Earth and Sky is that rare recording that benefits from having a wide range of musical friends and compatriots bringing their talents together to create an album that is quite disparate in its elements. Its appeal is at least in part due to how few of the songs sound as if that were cut within a singular vision. And, because of this unique quality—a dozen songs recorded with (mostly) different folks in different combinations—the listener is given so much to explore.

The necessary consistency comes from Buller’s voice and fiddle. She sings like a dream, with more than a little similarity to Dale Ann Bradley—there is power within her very pleasing vocals. The intensity that she brings to inspirational numbers such as “I Prayed For You” and “I Serve A God (Who Can Raise The Dead)” is truly impressive.

One may be remiss to overlook the contributions of some of these musicians. Tim O’Brien’s mandolin trills about a pair of songs, including the wistful “For A Lifetime,” which he sings with Buller. Producer Stephen Mougin appears on several tracks, singing and adding a bit of guitar. In addition to those previously mentioned—most of whom appear more than once—Sam Bush, the Aldridges, Mike Bub, Bryan Sutton, and Dale Ann Bradley are also featured.

Becky Buller has certainly made a statement with ‘Tween Earth and Sky. She’s long been ready to assume a more prominent place within the bluegrass industry, and this recording seals the deal.


“Tunes from the North, Songs from the South” by Fiddle & Banjo

Fiddle & Banjo (Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack)
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

This has been a great summer for roots music.

Whether the folk and alt-folk (whatever the frick that is) sounds of Norma MacDonald and Nick Ferrio, troubling, dark, and challenging sounds from the likes of Rodney DeCroo, Brock Zeman, and Gordie Tentrees, or breezy, fresh bluegrass from Dale Ann Bradley, the Slocan Ramblers, and Shotgun Holler, there has been no shortage of new roots music for the adventurous listener.

Sometimes great things have been missed on first (and fifth) listen, such as the swirling, swampy, harp-based blues of Grant Dermody, the sweet and elemental music of the Honey Dewdrops, and the Appalachian honky-tonk of the Honeycutters.

Eventually, like most elements of quality, what you need to hear eventually makes itself known.

More than anything else though, this summer has been marked by the number of exceptional old-time sounding albums coming my way. There has been a traditional, mountain-based banjo release from Kaia Kater, a mid-western song cycle celebrating and anthologizing the plains from Jami Lynn, and a ‘grassopolitain set from the Lonesome Trio: old-time has been well represented these past several weeks.

Just to be clear, I had never heard of Kaia Kater or Jami Lynn a month ago, but now I can’t imagine them not being part of my musical soundtrack. Another amazing album released this summer comes from the equally (to me) unfamiliar Canadian duo, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack. And yet again I am left wondering, How did I go this long without hearing for these folks?

Recording as Fiddle & Banjo, this duo is remarkable. Karrnnel Sawitsky plays the fiddle, and having been raised on the vibrant music found within the celebratory environs of Saskatchewan (barn dances, weddings, community hall performances, and the like), plays in a range of styles depending on the needs of the tune or song. Daniel Koulack is a clawhammer banjo performer from Winnipeg who coaxes evocative phrases from his 5-string.

With an album title of Tunes from the North, Songs from the South providing the framework, the expectations from the resulting album are fairly clear. Fiddle & Banjo doesn’t disappoint with tunes that capture the Métis, Quebecois, and mid-eastern Canadian fiddling traditions of our country while embracing southern influences throughout including on a few original compositions.

The sounds can be pensive and calming (“Waltz of Life,” a Sawitsky tune), soothing (“Lullabye,” from Koulack”), and lively and festive (“The Old French Set,” a trio of traditional pieces including the “Red River Jig”). From the playing of Saskatchewan Métis fiddling legend John Arcand comes “The Woodchuck Set” featuring “Indian At the Woodchuck,” “Old Reel of 8,” and “The Arkansas Traveller.” I’m not sure old-time, traditional sounds get better than the four-minute festival of fiddling and frailing on the latter track.

Pushing Tunes from the North, Songs from the South over the top are five songs featuring the voice of Joey Landreth of the Juno-winning the Bros. Landreth. “Red Rocking Chair” is lonesome and mournful, buoyed by the lively instrumentation, with “How Does a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “Killin’ Floor” suitably dark and bluesy. The highlight for me may be the spritely rendition of “Little Birdie,” although “Groundhog” comes a close second.

Kaia Kater, the Slocan Ramblers, and now Fiddle & Banjo have moved Canadian old-time music making to the fore this summer. Hopefully we’re ready for this explosion of artful, contemporary talents.

“Brighter Every Day” by Trout Steak Revival

Trout Steak Revival
Brighter Every Day
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.