“Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning” by Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning

Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning
Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

What’s bluegrass without songs of death? Murder songs are woven into the culture and are evidence of how bluegrass remains tied to its roots—and most of us believe that’s a good thing. Maggie and Molly, “Sisters of the Mountain,” are twins living alone on the mountain all their lives and who fall in love with Joshua Taylor, a Blue Ridge mountain man. They catch Joshua in the arms of another woman and he disappears forever. I know places where that still might happen.

Rachel Burge nails the song and she and the band do it with drive. You won’t be confusing this with indie country, Americana, or any other genre. The arrangement grabs your attention, with Burge and Michele Birkby-Vance (fiddle) joined at the hip on their vocals.

Birkby-Vance wrote and sings “Homeplace in the Mountains,” a pure bluegrass number that’s yet another core of bluegrass: away from home and longing to go back. Burge adds “My Cold Heart,” a hard driving love song from a different angle. She’s a woman who rejects love because of her cold heart and she’s the one who’s leaving and wronging someone. Burge combined a college education with bluegrass, obtaining a certificate in bluegrass from Glenville State College. This allowed her to play with Mac Wiseman, Ronnie Reno, and others as part of that program. She’s not only an excellent bluegrass singer, she knows how to play her mandolin as well as anyone you’ll hear out on the circuit. “Please Stay Away” is a pretty love song in waltz time, asking a person she loves to please stay away. Love hurts and she tells us about it in a very pretty way.

Joining Burge and Birkby-Vance are Radford Vance (banjo, guitar, vocals), Lance Gainer (guitar, vocals) and Rick Westerman (bass, vocals). Radford Vance composed “Road Apples,” an excellent instrumental that showcases the excellent musicianship of each member of the band – except the bass player. For some reason they made the choice to keep him so low in the mix you have to work at hearing him. What comes through sounds good, though. Vance also gives us “Barefootin’,” recollections of a youth growing up in the country.

Burge reaches out to other composers, including Bill Carlisle and Tommy Cutrer, who wrote “I’ve Kissed You My Last Time,” a beautiful country ballad released by Kitty Wells back in 1955 and Doyle Lawson in 1995; Ronnie Bowman, co-writer of “I’ve Seen Enough of What’s Behind Me,” a song with a hook about not needing a rear-view mirror because the singer is only looking ahead in life; “April Snow” by Mark Brinkman, another song about broken love; and Rebecca Westerman’s “Living In The Light,” a gospel number that features the group’s excellent harmonies.

This is an excellent CD from a group that should make a lasting impression on bluegrass music.

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“Standing Tall and Tough” by Crowe, Lawson & Williams and “Open Carefully, Message Inside” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Crowe, Lawson & Williams
Standing Tall and Tough
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Open Carefully, Message Inside
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

An 18-year-old Doyle Lawson joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys as the groups banjo player in 1963, not long after JD Crowe made himself a bluegrass legend in that same post. If at that time I would have told you that Lawson would end up (arguably) having a greater influence on the direction of bluegrass music than either the King or the Claw, you wouldn’t have bought it. But here we are 50 years later with two fine albums that help make that argument.

By Lawson’s count in the liner notes, Open Carefully is the 36th Quicksilver album in 35 years—an impressive achievement of excellence (for the most part, see here) and longevity even before you consider the lengthy roster of master musicians in that stretch whom Lawson has trained up and sent forth.

Eli Johnston (bass guitar) and Dustin Pyrtle (guitar) are up to the difficult task of sharing lead, duet, and trio vocal duties with Lawson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their names were one day added to the list of storied Quicksilver vets. (However, I’m not familiar yet with either one, and just from the liner notes, I can’t be sure who’s who from track to track).

Jason Barie (fiddle), Joe Dean (banjo), and Josh Swift (Dobro, guitar, and, yes, percussion) create a hard instrumental bluegrass edge on “Climbing Upward,” “Will You Go?,” and the delightfully McCouryesque “It’s Done” and country-gospel backing on “He Made the Tree,” “O Far Country,” and the album-opening “Coming Soon,” which might be the track you’d pick from this project to demonstrate how Lawson can blend together bluegrass and Southern gospel, old and new.

But what I love most about DLQ are the quartet recordings—whether a cappella or with solo guitar— that owe as much to the likes of black groups like the Golden Gate Quartet as to white groups like the gospel quartets of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. There are four great examples of that here: “Get on Board” (an old spiritual to which Lawson added a new final verse), “Lead Me to that Fountain” (with a perfectly understated bass vocal from Swift), “He’s In Control,” and the stunning nostalgia of “I Sailed Back.” Classic Quicksilver.

Standing Tall and Tough has Lawson back with Crowe and their fellow Martin alumnus Paul Williams for a second trio CD, and it’s as good as 2010’s Old Friends Get Together, with the more famous contributors content with creating a well-blended band sound that allows Williams’ grand voice to steal the show.

That disc was an all-gospel affair; this one isn’t. Lawson’s liner notes indicate that the trio wanted to do “a few songs that we hadn’t recorded during our time working with Jimmy Martin.”

There is a nucleus of Martin songs here: the Martin/Williams co-writes “My Walking Shoes,” “Little Angel in Heaven,” and “Pretending I Don’t Care,” as well as Williams’ peerless version of “Fraulein.”

Three Louvin Brothers songs—”Do You Live What You Preach?,” “Don’t Laugh,” and “Insured Beyond the Grave”—also get a masterful treatment, as do Bill Anderson’s “Once a Day” and the Jimmy Wakely/Johnny Bond “Those Gone and Left Me Blues.”

Williams stops the show with his version of “The Hills of Roane County”, his operatic tenor spinning out one of the strangest story songs in bluegrass prompting the chills up the spine just like Roy Orbison could on songs like “Leah” or “It’s Over.” (Has anyone suggested to Williams that he cut a record of Orbison covers?)

Lawson’s touch as producer is quite evident on Open Carefully, much less so on Standing Tall. But that’s what a great producer like Lawson does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LRR’s picks for the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards

The 25th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show is Thursday, Oct. 2 in Raleigh.

Here are Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s picks from the final ballot IBMA voters were presented with. (Aaron is an IBMA voting member.)

One suggested change: If a someone has won a particular vocalist or instrumentalist award more than five times, why not make him ineligible for future awards in order to give others a chance? I don’t think Del McCoury, Adam Steffey, or Michael Cleveland would mind.—AKH

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Donald’s pick:
The Gibson Brothers

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Blue Highway
The Del McCoury Band

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Donald and Larry’s pick:
Balsam Range

Aaron’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Other nominees:
Blue Highway
The Gibson Brothers
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
The Del McCoury Band

Donald’s pick:
Blue Highway

Larry’s pick:
The Boxcars

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

SONG OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
“Grandpa’s Way of Life” – The Spinney Brothers (artist), Mark ‘Brink’ Brinkman (writer)

Larry’s pick:
“You Took All The Ramblin’ Out of Me” – The Boxcars (artist), Jerry Hubbard (writer)

Other nominees:
“Dear Sister” – Claire Lynch (artist), Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb (writers)
“It’s Just a Road” – The Boxcars (artist), William Keith Garrett (writer)
“The Game” – Blue Highway (artist), Shawn Lane and Barry Bales (writers)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Hall of Fame Bluegrass – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artist), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers), Rebel Records

Donald’s pick:
Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band (artist), Del McCoury (producer),  McCoury Music

Larry’s pick:
It’s Just A Road – The Boxcars (artist), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home LS

Other nominees:
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Noam Pikelny (artist) Gabe Witcher (producer), Compass Records
The Game – Blue Highway (artist), Blue Highway (producer), Rounder Records

GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Won’t It Be Wonderful There” – Dailey & Vincent (artist), Brothers of the Highway (album), Mildred Styles Johnson (writer), Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (producers), Rounder Records

Donald’s pick:
“Love Does” – Darin and Brooke Aldridge (artist), Flying (album), Jamie Johnson, Suzanne M. Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (writers), Darin and Brooke Aldridge (producers), Organic Record

Larry’s pick:

“The Day We Learn to Fly” – Volume Five (artist), The Day We Learn To Fly (album), Stacy Richardson and Leroy Drumm (writers), Volume Five (producers), Mountain Fever LS

Other nominees:
“Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” – Donna Ulisse (artist), I Am a Child of God (album), Hazel Marie Houser (writer), Bryan Sutton and Donna Ulisse (producers), Hadley Music Group
“When Sorrows Encompass Me Around” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just A Road (album), Paul Edgar Johnson (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Johnny Don’t Get Drunk” – Adam Steffey (artist), New Primitive (album),  Public Domain, Adam Steffey (producer), Organic

Donald’s pick:
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”- Special Consensus with Buddy Spicher, Michael Cleveland and Alison Brown (artists), Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (album), John Martin Sommers (wrtier), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Larry’s pick:
“Five Miles to Milan” – The Grascals (artist), When I Get My Pay (album), Danny Roberts (writer), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home

Other nominees:
“Graveyard Fields” – Steep Canyon Rangers (artist), Tell The Ones I Love (album), Mike Guggino (writer), Larry Campbell (producer), Rounder Records
“Skillet Head Derailed” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just a Road (album), Ron Stewart (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School)” – Peter Rowan with Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Donald’s pick:
“Martha White, Lester & Earl” – Terry Baucom with Marty Raybon & Buddy Melton (artists), Terry and Cindy Baucom (producers), John Boy and Billy Records

Larry’s pick:
“Wild Mountain Honey” – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artists), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers) Rebel Records

Other nominees:
“American Pickers”- The Grascals with Dierks Bentley (artists), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home
“Wild Montana Skies” – Special Consensus with Claire Lynch & Rob Ickes (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Flatt Lonesome

Donald’s pick:
Town Mountain

Other nominees:
Detour
The Spinney Brothers
Volume Five

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Del McCoury

Larry’s pick:

Buddy Melton

Other nominees:

Tim O’Brien
Frank Solivan
Dan Tyminski

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Claire Lynch

Donald’s pick:
Dale Ann Bradley

Larry’s pick:
Rhonda Vincent

Other nominees:
Alison Krauss
Amanda Smith

INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMERS OF THE YEAR

BANJO

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Noam Pikelny

Larry’s pick:
Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jens Kruger
Mike Munford
Sammy Shelor

BASS

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Mike Bub

Donald’s pick:
Barry Bales

Other nominees:
Missy Raines
Mark Schatz
Darrin Vincent

FIDDLE

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Michael Cleveland

Larry’s pick:

Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jason Carter
Stuart Duncan
Bobby Hicks

DOBRO

Aaron’s pick:

Rob Ickes

Donald and Larry’s pick:

Phil Leadbetter

Other nominees:

Jerry Douglas
Andy Hall
Randy Kohrs

GUITAR

Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s pick:
James Alan Shelton

Other nominees:
Tony Rice
Kenny Smith
Tim Stafford
Bryan Sutton

MANDOLIN

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Adam Steffey

Donald’s pick:
Frank Solivan

Other nominees:
Sam Bush
Sierra Hull
Chris Thile

“Heartland” by the Downtown Mountain Boys

Downtown Mountain Boys
Heartland
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

If you like bluegrass the way Bill Monroe did it, you’ll get excited as soon as you hear the first notes of this CD, “Riding On the L&N”. This is a Bluegrass Cardinals’ number from the ’80’s and the Boys do it well. Staying with the railroad theme, they offer a Seldom Scene number from four decades ago, “Raised By The Railroad Line” and a tune many have heard from the Lonesome River Band, “Like a Train Needs a Track” with guitarist Don Share singing lead. Speaking of Mr. Monroe, included is one of his compositions, “Old Ebeneezer Scrooge.” This is a great instrumental that should be played more often. Paul Elliott plays fiddle and does an excellent job. He’s performed with a number of well-known acts (Alison Brown, John Reischman) and is also a composer. The mandolin is the centerpiece of this number, of course, and Tom Moran turns in a masterful performance.

Animals have cropped up in bluegrass through the years (“Molly & Tenbrooks,” “Echo Mountain” and, of course, “Old Shep”) and now there’s another song that should join that group. Bassist Terry Enyeart wrote and sings lead on “Shannon’s Last Ride,” a story about having to “put old Shannon down.” The old horse has been around thirty years and it’s just time. The number was inspired by Enyeart using his backhoe to bury a neighbor’s favorite horse. A song based on a lifetime of stories is “Timber.” This number has an old-timey sound and was written by Enyeart based on stories told him by his logger camp fiddler grandpa and grandmother, a cook in the camp. It tells a story you might expect, including the man who was killed by a falling limb then covered by a gunny sack while the work went on. Elliott composed the fiddle music and also composed the title song. It’s a bit unusual (on a mixed vocal-instrumental CD) to name the CD after an instrumental, but this is a beautiful number.

Banjoist Dave Keenan sings lead on a “Up and Down the Mountain,” another number traced to the Bluegrass Cardinals but performed by a long list of bands through the years. There are no bad songs on this CD but my favorite is “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.” Played in a minor chord, it’s another murder song but it’s a pretty one. It’s been recorded by such diverse artists as the Steeldrivers (band members Chris Stapleton and Michael Henderson composed the song) and Adele. This goes on my “gotta learn it” list.

The band is from the northwest and their schedule shows their touring limited to that area. If you’re lucky enough to see them in person, grab the opportunity. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this CD if you like traditional bluegrass.

“Side by Side” by Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II
Side By Side
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), “Side By Side” is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy.

The selection of songs—four of which feature Ralph in strong lead voice—are almost exclusively older and well-known: the album kicks off with “Wild Bill Jones,” goes “Walking With You In My Dreams,” asks “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” and concludes with “I’ve Still Got 99.”

The musicianship is classic sounding—fresh and relaxed with a professional sheen that doesn’t get in the way of the emotions of the music. Clinch Mountain Boys alumni John Rigsby (fiddle and mandolin), Randall Hibbitts (bass), and Steve Sparkman (banjo) are the core band, with Two doing double duty on lead and rhythm guitar. Dr. Ralph lays out clawhammer-style on a solitary track, the aptly titled “Battle Ax.”

Doubting the senior Stanley’s vocal capabilities? Don’t. Instead, give “Don’t Weep for Me” a listen, or appreciate his excellent tenor contributions to any number of these songs including “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” “Nobody Answered Me,” or “Carolina Mountain Home.”

Two has become a fine singer in his own right, one of my favorites. If you haven’t heard him before, also consider his album of a couple years back Born To Be A Drifter. “White & Pink Flowers” is a sentimental weeper, while “Dirty Black Coal” is more my style. Start to finish, Side By Side is a superior album of bluegrass.

Perusing these song titles, it is readily apparent what Two and co-producer Rigsby had in mind—a celebration of the Stanley mountain music legacy. And they have pulled such off in a significant way. “Side By Side” is cause for celebration. We all know Ralph Stanley had planned on retiring this year, but with his continuing good health delaying that decision one of the last true ‘first generation’ bluegrass singers continues to make appearances. And his latest album is as good as anything—and certainly superior to some—he has recorded in the past 20 years.

I would suggest that Side By Side is among the strongest bluegrass albums that has been released in 2014.

“Dream Big” by the Darrell Webb Band

The Darrell Webb Band
Dream Big
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When Darrell Webb takes the stage he owns it. He stalks back and forth, puts a leg up on the front rail as he sings and plays, moves to a musician taking a break to share with him or just watch. He’s energetic and intense. He doesn’t just play, he performs. I reviewed Bloodlines four years ago and started by saying, “As soon as “I’m Bringing Home Good News” kicks off you know you’re in for a ride and it’s on a bluegrass train. Darrell Webb took a good Merle Haggard song and gave it a triple shot of Red Bull.” Fifteen hundred days later, hundreds of shows later, he hasn’t worn off his edge.

Dating back hundreds of years, coins have been placed on the eyes of the deceased so they can pay Charon, the ferryman, to row them across the River Styx – even though most of us aim for the River Jordan. “Ferry Man,” co-written by fiddler Jim VanCleve, is pure bluegrass, all about a life of hard times and hard living that’s come to a sad end:

Mother died when I was young

Father drank to kill the pain

The way my father left this world

I sadly did the same

Webb plays mandolin and sings the lead, joined by VanCleve, Tim Stafford (guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo), Shawn Lane (tenor) and Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar) and Jason Moore (bass). Just a sampling of the great musicians on this CD, a who’s who of the groups Webb has been a member of through the years, the instrumental work is excellent.

Staying with pain and despair, “Bad Old Yesterdays” is all about love so good then love gone bad, she was “unfaithful with the one I trusted most.” Bandmate Jake Joines plays Dobro and former LRB bandmate Sammy Shelor plays banjo with Aaron Ramsey playing mandolin. Things go from bad to worse when he’s about to swing on the “Devil’s Rope.” Bandmates Jared Hensley (guitar) and Jeremy Arrowood ( NS Bass) join him while while Webb plays both mandolin and banjo.

“Flying South to Dixie” has been around a long time and recorded by a slew of artists. It may qualify as the song with the most composers based on a Google search. Cindy Walker (who is credited here), Hank Snow, Hank Locklin and Robert Weber all pop up as composers. This may have arisen from the old custom of registering variations in your own name. Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldredge join Webb on vocals on this on this swinging old country song.

Another nod to the past is a Dr. Ralph Stanley favorite, “Pretty Polly.” Webb’s interpretation and banjo playing are top-notch. Moving to a more modern sound, “So Far” is a love song that Ronnie Bowman helps to sing and Phil Leadbetter contributes resophonic guitar. “Folks Like Us” will resonate with most anyone listening to it, describing the chasm between the working man and the rich man, asking if there’s “a way to get ahead that doesn’t make us bleed.” After all the news of greed and grift among people and companies that make more in an hour than most of us do in a year—or a lifetime—a lot of people will hear this story. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent add vocals.

Webb and VanCleve composed “Mashtag,” an instrumental that starts off slow and reflective before kicking it up a notch. Another number that probably speaks more to older fans, those of us with enough years that we can look a long way back to the time when life seemed it would go on forever, is “More Life.” Co-written by Mike Reid, a great songwriter whose singing career didn’t last long enough, with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals, it’s the story of a man nearing the end of life. Thinking of what he will do “as soon as gets his back up to speed,” the nurse comes in “with something for the pain” and asks if there’s anything more he needs.

More life, more time

More faith and the presence of mind

To breathe deeper, love stronger

Stay in the moment one moment longer

Less anger, less worry, more life

Oh, my.

Darrell Webb will go down in the books as one of the great stars of bluegrass and this CD is just one piece of the proof.

 

 

“Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Larry Sparks is an undisputed bluegrass icon, as much for his prodigious talent—the mournful, masculine voice pitched a little lower than “high lonesome” and his commanding guitar technique—as his niche somewhere between bluegrass music’s first and second generations (as Carter Stanley’s successor alongside Dr. Ralph starting in 1966, he played a key role in that period of transition when followers of the founders started, ever so gently, branching out).

Fifty years a professional, he’s still as good a bluegrass (or country or gospel, for that matter) lead singer there is, and the band he’s got on this disc—David Harvey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (fiddle), Tyler Mullins (banjo), Larry D. Sparks (bass), and Jackie Kincaid (tenor vocals)—does him justice, especially Kincaid’s old-school harmony on the opening cut, Jimmie Skinner’s “Will You Be Satisfied That Way?” and the simmering gospel bluegrass of “We Prayed.”

Sparks offers up some more trad grass with tenor harmonies from fellow legends Ralph Stanley (on Carter’s “Loving You Too Well”), Bobby Osborne (“Letter to My Darlin’), and Curly Seckler (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”), while Seckler and Jesse McReynolds join in on Hank Williams’ gospel shouter “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.”

But Sparks’ vocal virtuosity is in his ability to master both more contemporary bluegrass songs and banjo-less gospel. Here, the latter style is represented by “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” (which never gets old, especially with Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall joining Sparks and solo guitar), and “Savior’s Precious Blood,” also with just bluesy guitar and that majestic voice.

Sparks again shows on the album’s three bluegrass story songs—the nostalgic “In Those Days,” the realistic coal mining ballad “Journey to the Light,” and the Southern gothic “Bitterweeds” how he can turn a good song into a great one.

The crowning touch of this 12-track disc is a 1995 live cut of Sparks joining Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on stage at Bean Blossom for “In the Pines,” which is predictably grand.