“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.

About these ads

“Headwaters” by Jason Tyler Burton

Jason Tyler Burton
Headwaters
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Some wonderful albums could come from ‘anywhere’, and their universal appeal is one of the things that make them powerful. It matters not whether the songwriter was in Austin or Dublin, on the Spanish Steps or in Florence’s Accademia as his songs germinated, the lyrics and music reach across time and locales to capture emotions and sentiments that transcend something as obvious as setting.

Other albums are so assured in their sense of place they could only be from ‘that place.’ In every word, in each note, the sense of place is so strong that their connection to ‘that place’ is palpable.

Some of my favourite albums have that strength of place. Woodland Telegraph’s Sings Revival Hymns is one of those albums, a creation that is so tied to its genesis in the Canadian Rockies that it seemingly couldn’t have been produced elsewhere. To me, every album from John Wort Hannam and Maria Dunn  share a similar feeling: these are Alberta albums, even if their subject matter, inspiration, and very sound cross provinces, countries, and oceans. If you ask me, Jay Clark’s album’s couldn’t come from anywhere but east Tennessee, and more recently, Josephy Lemay has created music that shares a similar connection to place.

All of which brings me to Jason Tyler Burton’s new album, a disc that overflows with the atmosphere, openness, and clarity of the Utah and Wyoming wilderness that this Kentuckian now calls home. Living in a van and exploring this western land, Burton has created a remarkable album that connects listeners to a place they may never have before experienced.

I come to Burton’s new album Headwaters with no familiarity with his music. With a little research, I came across some live performances including a challenging little number entitled “Caleb Meyer’s Ghost,” in which Burton creates the back story for Gillian Welch’s (still) greatest song; in Burton’s interpretation, Nellie Kane’s assailant had his own troubles in life, but Burton doesn’t let him off the hook and holds him accountable for his actions. There is a little interview with Burton about this well crafted song posted at Murder Ballad Monday. The song is from Burton’s first release, The Mend.

While appealing and creative, this wouldn’t interest me nearly as much if Headwaters didn’t turn out to be such a captivating album. Firmly within the parameters of the ‘singer-songwriter’ oeuvre, Burton has crafted a dozen songs across this intense album. Each of these finds the artist searching and exploring—for truths, for comfort, for meaning…for ‘the headwaters’ that feed our spirits.
As communicated through his songs, Burton’s nomadic existence reminds us that the greatest journeys are within, examinations of our soul, our beliefs. Headwaters encourages this exploration through lyrically rich compositions framed with complementary and crisp instrumentation.

In the encouraging “Fly” he sings of someone “made for much bigger things,” even if that means leaving the singer behind. Searching for where “my headwaters run” in the title track, he vows to “keep moving along” with Katy Taylor harmonizing along, reminding us that life’s journey is (thankfully) seldom solitary.

Augmented by both Jessika Soli Bartlett’s cello and Lynsey Shelar’s violin and especially Steve Lemmon’s percussion, piano, and drums, the songs are complete without misplaced polish and shine, atmospheric without falling into twee faux-intensity.

There was obvious vision for this recording, and Burton and co-producer Dave Tate—who also contributes electric guitar, percussion, piano, and bass—have brought it to life. While individual credits for the songs are not indicated, Ryan Tilby rates mention if only for his obvious steel contributions to a few songs; he also is credited with various bass, guitar, and banjo parts, but so are others including Burton and Tate so it isn’t possible to identify who is playing what where.

Burton explores the inspirational certainly, but he is also realistic, as when he sings “I’ve got silver linings for every one of my dark clouds but yours.” The message seems to be: Sometimes, just  you can’t find a way. In “The Wanderer,” Burton seems to be sharing his own tale, and here the strings truly convey the spirit of the song—wistful hope blurring with stark realism.

The restless intensity of the protagonist of “Thicker Than Water” is tangible; what he is going to do with it, what is going to come of it, is less obvious. This is certainly my favourite song on the album, a performance that—like the Welch/Rawlings song that previously inspired Burton—provides motivation to this writer to explore the dark shadows of the woods.

Not to give the impression that the album is overly brooding—although Headwaters does have a bit of a minor key feel if not in actuality—”Evergreen” may be the album’s most lively number, coming close to being a mountain stomper. “Being ten thousand feet above this town” as he is in “Tightrope Walker” brings additional lightness to the album.

Headwaters has a strong, evident sense of place, but like all great albums of this nature it bridges the distance to allow listeners to become immersed in situations and experiences far from their comfort zone.

And, as an aside, if you haven’t listened to Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues in a couple of years, do that today; damn, that album is great!

“Generations” by the Bluegrass Brothers

The Bluegrass Brothers
Generations
Mountain Fever Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Slip this CD in your player and you know from the first bars that this is bluegrass, no quibbling, no doubts. You can get a sense of their energy by looking at a performance from a few years back.

The original members of the band are Victor (bass and vocals) and Robert (banjo and vocals) Dowdy. Victor sings lead on “The Merger,” by Junior Sisk and his father Harry.  As expected, the instrumental support is top-notch. The mix is good and their version of the song isn’t far removed from a Junior Sisk rendition. The vocals are pure rural country and could be nothing but bluegrass. Robert’s vocals are closer to a balladeer and he could do country music as easily as bluegrass. “One More Mountain” is one of the best songs on the CD.

The band now includes Victor’s sons, Steven (guitar), and Donald (mandolin). Steven enjoyed a stint with Junior Sisk’s band while Donald spent time with James King. King and Sisk are both strong bluegrass performers and their bands are an excellent way to learn the bluegrass trade. Steven sings lead on a James Lilly number, “Blue Ridge Mountain Man:

Fourteen dogs, a wife and kids

He’s doing the best he can

Workin’ all day, huntin’ all night,

He’s a Blue Ridge mountain man

One of Steven’s hobbies is coon hunting and, having spent many hours crossing hollers in the dark myself, the song strikes a chord with me. “Memories Of My Childhood” features Donald on lead. This is another excellent song and he sings it well. He also sings one of his own compositions, “Moonshine Man,” proving to be a capable composer with lyrics as well as music. This is a good song that should find its way into many jams.

They reach over to the country side with John Conlee’s “Backside of Thirty.” Victor’s lead on this number dials back the folksiness of his vocals and he turns in a good performance of this country hit. Another good number is J. C. Radford’s prison song, “[Wearing a] Ball and Chain.” Chris Hart plays resophonic guitar with the group and composed a good disaster song, “When The Mountain Fell,” describing the disaster in Nelson County, Virginia in August, 1969. Another good song that could cross to the country side is “Don’t Bother To Waste My Time.”

If you like your bluegrass the way it was done by Monroe, Martin and Flatt then you’ll enjoy the Bluegrass Brothers.

“Chapter One – Roots” and “Chapter Two – Boots” by the Willis Clan

The Willis Clan
The Willis Clan: Chapter One – Roots
The Willis Clan: Chapter Two – Boots
self-released

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Most fans of bluegrass and country music are familiar with transition stories: Harold Jenkins (rock ‘n’ roll) to Conway Twitty; Marty Raybon, bluegrass to country (Shenandoah) back to bluegrass; the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys, from southern gospel to country. You don’t often hear of a transition from traditional Irish music to bluegrass, but Irish music is viewed as one of the foundations of bluegrass and many familiar bluegrass songs have Irish roots, such as “Raglan Road,” “Colleen Malone” and “Katy Daley.”

The Willis Clan offers two CDs. Roots is Irish music with a combination of vocals and instruments that may not be familiar to many. You’ll hear a bass, a violin and a banjo, but there’s also an accordion, whistles, pipes and a bodhran. Your first thought may be that you know nothing about this music, have never heard it, but as you listen the songs have a ring of familiarity. You may have never heard “Ship of the Line” or “Jack B”—all the tracks were composed by the Clan—but you’ve heard this style of music on TV and in the cinema. It’s closely related to Celtic music and, without splitting hairs over origins, you’ll hear similar strains in Lord of the Rings. It will be familiar if you’ve ever been to a Celtic Woman concert (I highly recommend the experience) or listened to Enya.

The Clan ably performs the music. They are very good singers and musicians. These are the twelve children (whose names all begin with “J”) of Toby and Brenda Willis. Rather than attempt telling their stories here, visit their web page and read about each of the children. (Also visit a page telling of a tragedy that befell the family. Given the time frame, these must be the siblings of Toby Willis.)

And now they have added bluegrass to their repertoire. Again, all tracks are originals by the family (lyrics on their website) and most of the family is involved in the CD. Father Toby played the synths. Musicians include the six older children (Jessica, Jeremiah, Jennifer, Jeanette, Jackson and Jedi) while the next four (Jazz, and Julie, Jamie and Joy Anna on “Butterfly”) contribute vocals. Only their mother and Jaeger and Jada sit this one out. Guest musicians include John and David Meyer (banjo: “City Down Below”, piano: “Plowin’ Song”) and Chris Wright (percussion).

You can hear some of the Irish in their bluegrass. Every band wants its own identity but the Cherryholmes are the comparison many people will make. They remind me of the Cherryholmes, especially the last two years of their existence. The Willis’ brand of bluegrass has a very modern sound and some modern lyrics. “The Fields Have Turned Brown” was a look at life away from home. The Clan sings about “Since I Left Home:”

It’s a little bit wilder

It’s a little more free

Discovering on my own

Discovering me

Love is a favorite topic of many genre, and one take on it is “Nervous Breakdown,” a reaction when someone the singer may love approaches. “Ode To A Toad” is weird from a bluegrass perspective, but a cute song. It’s recitation about a “squat and slimy – big and fat” toad who “in mud he wallowed – bugs he swallowed” until he tackled something too big.

Finally in desperation

Giving way to aggravation

Out he stepped into the street

Never knowing what he’d meet

A passing car was unaware

Of tragedy occurring there

And lickity split, berbump, ker-splat

The grup was gone…

The toad was flat

A pancake colored brown and green

The spectacle was quite obscene

Not Jimmy Martin. Maybe Lester Flatt?

They include a good gospel number, “City Down Below,” about God’s destruction of Sodom with just a hint of a segue to the present. My favorite is “Sadie,” a tragedy about a woman who mysteriously died. If they were making a classic bluegrass CD and filled it with a dozen more like this one they would be on target—allowing for the inevitable differences of opinion about anything musical.

Unless your music collection is nothing but Mr. Monroe and Dr. Stanley, there’s a lot to enjoy in these CDs: impressive picking and singing and a load of talent concentrated in this family that makes Tennessee their home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Somewhere Far Away” by Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys

Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys
Somewhere Far Away
Five Of Diamonds Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The early 2000s were an exciting time in bluegrass music’s still-brief history.

In some ways a changing of the guard was underway, as the next generation of players and singers were emerging while first and second generation legends were feeling—in various ways—the hands of time.

In other places, the music was stretching as jazz, pop, mainstream, classical, and other influences were not only colouring the contemporary bluegrass sound, but in some cases were being wholeheartedly incorporated into the music.

While all this was occurring, there were—as there has always been—others who were taking the music back to its roots, defining bluegrass by building upon its very stable foundation.

Bands as diverse as the Infamous Stringdusters and the Grasshoppers hit the ground running. Pine Mountain Railroad and Nickel Creek could be heard alongside the Wilders and the Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show.

Youngsters straight out of college—and others still in high school—formed bands who performed largely original songs while ably demonstrating their mastery of the deep catalogue established by the Monroes, Osbornes, Stanleys, McReynoldses, and the west coast pioneers like Vern & Ray, bands like the Steep Canyon Rangers, King Wilkie, Barefoot Bluegrass, and more.

Super groups like Rock County, the Grascals, BlueRidge, and Wildfire reinvigorated sidemen and veterans of the business. We were riding the O Brother bubble. Stringbands were everywhere, jam bands started to be welcomed into our world, and thanks to the increasing capabilities of the Internet, regional bands could connect with the wider bluegrass audience as never before.

Some of the groups are still going today, while more flamed out after a couple albums, and others faded away almost as quickly as they appeared: why didn’t the Circuit Riders ever achieve the level of prominence their debut album promised?

Of all the bluegrass bands that made a splash after the turn of the century, few held the potential of Open Road. Before their self-titled, Sally Van Meter-produced debut appeared, their name was beginning to be passed around by those who had caught a performance of the Colorado-based group. When that independent album—the one with BLUEGRASS prominently above the band’s name, and with the bold pronouncement/disclaimer “featuring 5-string banjo”—hit the player, converts were instantly made.

Their music had drive and fire. They were fronted by two young guys who seemed to have been born to play the bluegrass music, mandolinist Caleb Roberts and guitar picker and lead singer Bradford Lee Folk. Not only did they look the part—from their publicity photos, both could have been in the Clinch Mountain Boys around the time Skaggs and Whitley left—they recreated the classic sound of bluegrass wonderfully, as the cliché goes ‘making old songs sound new, making new songs sound old.’

Open Road toured relentlessly, signed on with Rounder Records and released two additional albums to great acclaim, Cold Wind and …in the life. They acknowledged their influences, some like Del Williams, Buzz Matheson & Mac Martin, and Vern & Ray, under-heralded within much of the broader bluegrass world. Their concert appearances were exciting and fresh, their albums ideal.

Around the time their third Rounder album appeared, the band broke up. The band had experienced personnel changes over time—fiddlers seemed to come and go with each new release—but shortly after Lucky Drive was released in 2005, Open Road was “flaming out from the pressures and temptations of being thrown into the touring musician life too young,” according to Folk’s current one-sheet.

I seem to recall hearing that Roberts was going to attempt to keep working the bluegrass road, but the last I heard he was in Colorado working for a living, but still picking. Folk sought stability, bought a Colorado honkytonk, booking bands in and working the other side of the music business table. From what I understand, he eventually relocated to Nashville, started gigging, and this past spring released his first recording in almost ten years, Somewhere Far Away.

The first thing one may notice when listening to the brief, eight-song collection is that things seem to be a bit mellower, less frenetic. There is no shortage of energy on this set of modern-Americana infused bluegrass. It is just that Folk isn’t in any great hurry to get to wherever it is he is taking us. The approach is perhaps a bit more mature, with a greater emphasis placed on mood and atmosphere.

The album’s lead track, like all but two of the songs a Folk original, is likely the one most reminiscent of the familiar Open Road approach. “Foolish Game of Love” features Matt Flinner’s mando at the fore, providing that audible connection to the music Folk previously made with Roberts. Folk pushes the music, his voice dipping into a purposeful near-mumble at some points, while at other moments in the song he is clear in his articulation. This expressive, mournful drawl works in counterpoint to the artful and lonesome clarity of his tenor, loading the song with restrained emotion.

Folk remains a great singer, but now is even more expressive in his communication than he was when he was younger. The fire has been tempered, but it continues to burn.

In some ways, and not only in its brevity, Somewhere Far Away recalls Jimmy Martin’s ‘good and country’ bluegrass albums. This recording is every bit as spirited as Martin’s finest recordings, but like them there is also a bit of an edge to the songs, a touch of bitterness and regret. “Trains Don’t Lie” is rich in atmosphere while conveying a narrative that is complete and compelling. “Denver” is a song that (I think) contrasts the longing for an open road with the comfort and familiarity of home.

Undoubtedly a bluegrass recording, Folk incorporates a very strong band to solidify his sound. Robert Trapp, the only member of Folk’s current Bluegrass Playboys appearing on the album, is a very strong 5-string player; his break and fills on “Never Looking Back”—a John Stewart-meets-Sam Bush epic in miniature—are impressive without detracting from the musicians working with him. With Flinner, Matt Combs (I’m guessing fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass, I’m hoping it is safe to suggest—the album doesn’t contain specific credits) round out the core group.

As an aside, “Never Looking Back,” by Jim Kelly, previously appeared (with a very different arrangement) on David Davis & the Warrior River Boys outstanding 2009 album, Two Dimes & A Nickel; Folk learned the song while he was playing with Davis—I’m guessing around the time that album was released—something I didn’t know he had done.

While there are only eight songs on the album, there is no shortage of memorable songs. A standout is the closing track, “Soil and Clay;” written by Folk, this earthy ballad is as dark as it is honest, much like a Fred Eaglesmith song. The album’s other non-original comes from Folk’s friend Nick Woods; “The Wood Swan” is another good one, and really showcases the various musicians’ abilities.

Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys may not receive the unbridled heralding that greeted Open Road. Somewhere Far Away is a bluegrass album, without doubt. But it is a different sort of bluegrass than that produced by Open Road. There are more shades to this music, more exploration of the gravel bits on the road’s shoulder rather than heading straight down the white lines in the middle of the highway.

“Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings” (DVD)

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings (DVD)
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Joe Mullins started this five-piece traditional bluegrass outfit several years ago, partly to promote his Classic Country Radio stations, with whose terrestrial broadcast signal I am privileged to reside.

They were rightly recognized as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012, and their stage show, which they’ve taken far and wide, is a big part of why. Mullins is one of the finest bluegrass five-stringers aline today, and the Ramblers’ four studio albums have been first-rate, but this 16-song DVD that clocks in at more than 70 minutes will show you why they were honored by the IBMA and are in demand by bluegrass promoters and festival-goers.

Mullins is just as friendly and engaging on stage as he is as a radio deejay—he learned a lot from his father, the late, legendary broadcaster and fiddler Moon Mullins, and his son Daniel is just as good on the air—and this trait sets him apart from other great pickers who often neglect to hone their skills as stage presenters.

This show, recorded at Centerville (Ohio) High School, features a nice sampling of songs from the Ramblers’ four releases, including personal favorites “Worth It All” (a bouncy gospel number), “Lily” (borrowed from the Boys from Indiana), and “Katy Daley” (a poem turned into a classic bluegrass song by Moon Mullins).

Duane Sparks ably fills the guitarist/vocalist slot vacated by Adam McIntosh, and longtime Ramblers Mike Terry (mandolin, lead, and trio harmony vocals) Evan McGregor (fiddle and some quartet harmony) are as good here as they are in the studio.

The Centerville Alternative Strings, orchestra students from the host high school, join in with conductor Doug Eyink to close the show in grand style with the David Harvey instrumental “Cruisin’ Timber” and the Bill Anderson-penned “Some Kind of War.” Eyink’s arrangements are uncomplicated but powerful, and played with heart and artistry—just like the music played Mullins’ fine band.

“The Road That Brings You Home” by Jim and Lynna Woolsey

Jim and Lynna Woolsey
The Road That Brings You Home
Broken Record Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Woolseys represent an unknown but significant number of people who have a load of musical talent but ply their skills in relative obscurity. His publicity piece says he’s shared the stage with acts like Andy Williams and Marty Robbins. Robbins, one of the great country singers, died in 1982. This doesn’t sound like a career on the rise and that would be a shame. This CD has two primary themes: being on the road and the heartbreak of Nashville.

I gave my heart and they [Nashville] gave me no warning

‘Cause they ripped it out and threw it at my feet

Now it’s been ten years ago, maybe longer

But who’s counting when no one cares but me?

They say that good, hard work will make you stronger

Well, I’m about as strong as I wanna be

“Back To Tennessee”

He carries on the theme of a tough life in the city, wishing he was home (“If I only knew then what I know now, I’d be back home behind a plow”) with a haunting melody in “Letter From the City.” One of the virtues of home was being able to spend time on the river, remembered in “River Road.”

Nashville has proven a tough row to hoe, but he embraces an early life on the move. His daddy had “the world’s worst case of wanderlust” (“Wheel In His Hand”) and “was a rolling stone” (“Gypsies In a Wagon”). Despite a life on the move, he describes a close-knit and caring family. Both are moderate speed story songs that look back to Woolsey’s early life. His father’s love for the road wasn’t limited to trucks. “The Ride” tells about his father’s Whizzer motorbike.

The writing is consistently good, never trite. The music isn’t Jimmy Martin bluegrass or modern country but comes closer to the countrygrass genre than any other; it would play well at a bluegrass festival. The melodies vary and the arrangements are inventive. Woolsey plays guitar with guests Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar, producer and engineer), Clay Hess (mandolin), Tim Crouch (fiddle), Mark Fain (bass) and Mike Sumner (banjo). With that lineup and Woolsey’s deft touch with a pen you’re bound to have good music.

“Rude Jenne” is a country number about a good man who gets into trouble and meets John Dillinger. This was his great-grandfather and these are stories told when Woolsey was a small boy. Woolsey grew up in southern Indiana in the general area that now holds Lake Patoka. This area is also home to bluegrass great Ron Stewart. He started playing with the Patoka Valley Boys when he was fifteen and he and Lynna married after she started performing with the same band. (Go to folkstreams.net for an excellent video about this group.)

Changing pace, “She’s Gonna Fly” showcases Lynna Woolsey’s vocals, a story about her own brush with breast cancer. She also contributes a swinging country number, “I’m The Best You’ll Ever Do,” a warning to her man that he needs to be good to her because he’ll never find better. The title song describes how life may take us many places, but there’s only one road that brings you home. And he adds a good, driving gospel number with “Will You Be Ready.”

This is good writing and good music. If you’re far from their southern Indiana home you may never get to see them in person, but you owe it to yourself to hear this CD.