“Pull Your Savior In” by the Larry Stephenson Band

Larry Stephenson Band
Pull Your Savior In
Whysper Dream Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There’s comfort in hearing familiar songs. Hearing hymns that you know by heart is—for those who believe—like having welcoming arms wrapped around you.

Larry Stephenson offers up a mix of well-known hymns, others you’ll recognize but don’t get recorded all that often, and a surprise or two. The lead number is an excellent a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony. Stephenson leads off with his familiar tenor/high lead voice, slow and clear as a ringing bell. Joining in on the second stanza is one of the best tenor singers you’ll hear, Jimmy Fortune. Add Dale Perry singing bass and David Parmley on baritone and you have an all-star quartet.*

Other familiar hymns are “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and “How Great Thou Art.” Parmley-Perry-Fortune are only on the first track but you need not be dismayed: Stephenson’s bandmates add some great harmony on the other tracks. Stephenson, of course, is the mandolin player. Kenny Ingram, a veteran bluegrasser (James Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Nashville Grass), sings harmony and plays banjo plus lead guitar on one number. Colby Laney (who has since returned to Volume Five, replaced by Kevin Richardson) sings lead and harmony and plays guitar while Danny Stewart (since replaced by Matt Wright) plays bass and sings bass on “If You Want To Live Forever” (the track with Ingram on the guitar), a good up-tempo number co-written by Randall Hylton. This band makes excellent music, with plenty of drive.

The title number, composed by Stephenson, is an energetic number with some good advice, and features a hot guitar break by Laney. Guest Aubrey Haynie joins the band on fiddle and he’s always a welcome addition. Have you ever had a come-to-Jesus moment? Used to describe an epiphany when you realize an important truth, most of use have had one (but we all know at least one person who wouldn’t know an epiphany if it chewed their leg like a Pekinese), Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley turned it into a meaningful song. The singer has, literally, come to Jesus and hopes he didn’t wait too long. I know people who wear their faith like their skin—it’s been with them forever—but a lot of us needed that come-to-Jesus moment and the good news that it’s never too late.

I heard Roy Acuff sing “The Great Speckled Bird” countless times but, with the respect due Mr. Acuff, Stephenson’s version is one of the prettiest ones you’ll hear. Another good number, this one composed by Albert Brumley, is “The Prettiest Flowers Will Be Blooming.” It’s been recorded by many—the Legendary Marshall Family had a good turn with it—but I never get tired of this one. “Will You Meet Me Over Yonder” is another good traditional song. Other numbers rooted in bluegrass tradition are the Lester Flatt—composed “Thank God I’m On My Way” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Born Again.”

“Morningtime Always” is the promise of Heaven. Co-written by veteran writer Bill Castle, Stephenson and Laney share the lead.

Stephenson is tilling old but fertile soil with this CD. His band is always on the top of their game and he puts his own stamp on these songs. If you like your gospel bluegrass style, this is a good bet.

*The last news I’ve had about Parmley dates back two years when he announced he was “taking some time off from the music business to pursue other interests.” He had enjoyed a long run in the business, including the Bluegrass Cardinals (Stephenson was also a member), and will hopefully come back to bluegrass at some point.

Another Cardinals alumnus is Dale Perry. I’ve seen him as a banjo player, a bass player and a sound technician and he does all of them well. He’s also a good bass singer. Hopefully, he’ll find another niche on the circuit soon.

Jimmy Fortune had a great run with the Statler Brothers (21 years) and has been on his own since they retired in 2002.

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“Christmas in the Smokies” by various artists

Various artists
Christmas in the Smokies
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

It’s the time of the year that jolly old St. Nick is checking his list and parents are hanging their stockings with care. Pinecastle Records is in on the festivities with the 15-track, 45-minute Christmas in the Smokies.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Christmas albums but just like Brylcream, a little dab will do ya.  Now before you start mailing me lumps of coal for this statement, Mr. Grinch, I really like this album and I found myself tapping my toes and enjoying the fabulous picking and singing from Pinecastle artists past and present, including crooners like Charlie Waller (with a grand “White Christmas”), Larry Stephenson (on the lullaby “Away in a Manger”), and Josh Williams (“My Christmas Dream”).

Other clever renditions of classic songs that everyone will recognize include a lush arrangement of “The Christmas Song” and a jazzy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from Newton and Thomas, and grassy takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” from Wild and Blue and Special Consensus, respectively. Celebrated pickers Phil Leadbetter (“Jingle Bells”), Ross Nickerson (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the trio of Scott Vestal, Wayne Benson, and Jeff Autry (“Frosty the Snowman”) chip in crisp instrumentals.

Two of the less familiar songs are welcome additions to anyone’s bluegrass Christmas playlist: “It’s a Time for Joy” from Matt Wallace and Jesse Gregory and the title track from Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road.

If you are a bluegrass fan and in the Christmas spirit, this would be a nice album to play while the children are opening presents by the fireplace in any home, not just in the Smokies.

 

“On a Winter’s Night” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds

John Reischman and the Jaybirds
On a Winter’s Night
Corvus
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

John Reischman is an excellent mandolinist (who also makes occasional use of mandola and octave mandolin) and the Jaybirds are all accomplished musicians. They have put together an appealing extended-play CD for Christmas.

Their music is sometimes described as roots bluegrass and the emphasis should be on the roots part. Most would call it old-time music with an occasional venture into bluegrass and even folk music. A number on this CD that would fit into most any bluegrass show is “Shine Like a Star In The Morning.” It can be found on American Folk Songs for Christmas, a 1957 release by the Seeger Sisters on Smithsonian Folkways. This is a compilation made by Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed by her daughters, Peggy, Barbara and Penny. The quartet version here is very well done.

Two other tracks from the Seeger’s LP that found their way here are “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Oh, Watch the Stars.” The latter is beautifully presented by bassist Trisha Gagnon with Greg Spatz’s fiddle adding a Civil War-era feel to it. Gagnon also performs “Joseph and Mary,” telling the Bible story of Joseph and Mary when Mary reveals she is pregnant (with the baby Jesus) and Joseph unhappily responds. This is #54 on the list of Child Ballads. Gagnon also performs an old black spiritual, “I Heard From Heaven Today.”

Jim Nunnally (guitar) sings lead on a song you may identify with Doc Watson, “A-Roving On A Winter’s Night,” a folk song with Appalachian roots. Nick Hornbuckle adds some exquisite banjo work on this number. “Christmas Eve” is a sparse instrumental played by the banjo and (although not identified by track, I believe) the octave mandolin, while the banjo and fiddle are the leads, with a good guitar break, in an old fiddle tune “Breaking Up Christmas.” The quartet adds a bouncing traditional spiritual, “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby?

Reischman and the Jaybirds have put together eight fine tracks that center around, but are not limited to, Christmas. If you like some old-time in your bluegrass and appreciate good picking and harmony, you need to hear this one this holiday season.

“Holiday!” by the Claire Lynch Band

The Claire Lynch Band
Holiday!
Thrill Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to avoid holiday music, but Claire Lynch has finally got me in the Christmas spirit with this gorgeous album.

Writers, including myself, have emptied out the thesaurus trying to describe Lynch’s singing, which brings both a fresh sound and a sweet nostalgia to songs—“Home for the Holidays,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “White Christmas,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and “All Through the Night”—that we’ve all heard so many times.

It helps to have a band that includes the incomparable Mark Schatz on bass, along with Bryan McDowell (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) and Matthew Wingate (mandolin and guitar, including some fine archtop playing). The trio, appropriately, jazz up “We Three Kings,” the album’s lone instrumental cut, and their take on “Jingle Bells”—featuring Schatz on clawhammer banjo—is the first version of that chestnut I’ve enjoyed hearing in years.

New or less-familiar (to me, at least) songs include the cool and crisp Lynch/McDowell vocal duet “Snow Day” and the warm Nativity ballad “Heaven’s Light” (with Jim Hurst guesting on guitar).

Schatz also sings lead on “In the Window,” a Hanukkah song whose splendid performance and intricate arrangement underscore the talent of Lynch, her band, and Todd Phillips, who recorded, mixed, and mastered this fine album.

“Nashville” by the Osborne Brothers

The Osborne Brothers
Nashville
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Give the folks at the resurgent Pinecastle Records credit for issuing this fourth and final chapter in an ambitious Osborne Brothers career retrospective—begun in 1998—in spite of many obstacles, most notably Sonny’s retirement.

The three previous installments—Hyden (1998), Dayton to Knoxville (2000), and Detroit to Wheeling (2003)— were mostly new recordings of Osborne classic tracks associated with different segments of their career, and Nashville seems to have been planned as a similar revival, this time of their most commercially successful period as veteran Grand Ole Opry stars who grabbed lots of country airplay in the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s after adding steel guitar, drums, and electric bass to Sonny’s unique banjo picking and Bobby’s soaring lead singing.

Instead, Nashville brings to light seven lost recordings from a album abandoned by the group when they abruptly, and unhappily, left MCA Records, which had appropriated their previous label, Decca. Cut in Bradley’s Barn in 1973 (which I think is correct, though in one place, the liner says 1975) with studio pros including Vassar Clements (fiddle), Pig Robbins (piano), and Hall Rugg (steel and Dobro), it’s pretty stout stuff.

The Bobby composition “Gonna Be Raining When I Die” surely would have been a radio hit that year, and Phil Rosenthal’s “Muddy Waters,” cut by the Seldom Scene the same year, shows just how sophisticated the brothers from Hyden, Ky. could be.

With two killer Louvin tracks (“My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”) and three from the pen of Jake Landers (“The Oak Tree,” “Going Back to the Mountains,” and “The Hard Times”), they were clearly in the home stretch of a project that would have stood with their best.

Quite satisfying that we finally have them here—along with an eighth track, Roger Miller’s “Half a Mind” from a strictly acoustic 1995 session that features Terry Eldredge joining the vocal trio and Gene Wooten’s Dobro trading licks with Sonny’s crisp and woody guitjo.

“Trouble Follows Me” by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
Trouble Follows Me
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Growing up on a farm in Eastern Kentucky in the 1980s, my dad had this old 1977 Ford Series 2600 tractor.  This tractor was the workhorse of its era—nothing fancy, just a three-cylinder diesel-powered engine humming along at 38 horsepower. This tractor was steady and true; it seemed to know what you wanted it to do. When first listening to the Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice album Trouble Follows Me, I kept imagining that old blue tractor plugging along through the fields, steady and true. Just like the tractor, Sisk is in his niche here doing what he does best—singing traditional bluegrass music.

Eastwood Studios did a great job of getting the true tones of each instrument, including Sisk’s smooth, rich voice, which blends well with the harmony vocals of Johnathon Dillon (mandolin) and Jason “Sweet Tater” Tomlin (upright bass). This nostalgic blend gives the listener the feel of traditional bluegrass but adds just enough intuitive licks to keep you on your toes. This album also features tunes from some of my favorite songwriters: Bill Castle, Ronnie Bowman, Michael Martin Murphy, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Dallas Frazier—and one track by the legendary Carter Stanley. I love when bands tip their hats to the vintage tones of our grassfathers who shared the same vision for rooted traditional music.

The album starts with the nice hook of Bill Castle’s “Honky Tonked to Death,” fun tale of one being mixed up in the shenanigans of traveling musicians, followed by “Don’t Think About it Too Long,” which recalls the Bluegrass Album Band sound with some nice banjo picking by Jason Davis. After these two mid-tempo songs, Ramblers Choice shifts to a higher gear with “I’d Rather Be Lonesome.” As Billy Hawks’ fiddle saws, I’m tapping my toes with the fast paced three chords and the truth.

Dallas Frazier’s song “All I Have To Offer You is Me” was once popularized by the great country singer Charlie Pride, and Sisk has plenty of room in its slow tempo to work in the strong emotion that he’s known for creating, and he puts chills down my spine when he hits the lyric “and the silence grows louder” in the evocative melody of “Cold Empty Bottle” from songwriters Ronnie Bowman and Bryce Barker.

The bare-bones “Walk Slow,” written by Tom T. and Dixie Hall, has nice lead guitar from Hawks, and has more of a singer-songwriter texture than the rest of this album; another change of pace is Tomlin singing a smooth lead on the Michael Martin Murphy song “What am I Doing Hanging Round

Sisk’s credentials as a Stanley disciple are strongly evident, both with “Our Darling’s Gone,” a lesser-known Carter Stanley composition, and “Jesus Walked Upon the Water” an a cappella gospel song with the type of arrangement Ralph Stanley helped popularize in bluegrass circles.

“Frost on the Bluegrass” offers a fresh take on the central bluegrass theme of longing for home after leaving for work, and is one of my favorite tracks on the album, as is the title track, a hard-driving co-write from Sisk and his father, Harry Sisk Sr.

I might like to hear a more diverse mix of songs, particularity tempo-wise (which can be difficult as traditional bluegrass seems to favor a lot of mid-tempo songs around the 120bpm range), but make no mistake: any fan of traditional bluegrass will appreciate the quality of musicianship, songwriting, and singing that Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice deliver here.

“The Way I’m Livin'” by Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lee Ann Womack had an extended reign as one of the most prominent country music entertainers of the late ’90s through to the late-aughts. But country music record companies are fickle these days, so Womack returned this autumn with her first album of new material in six years on Sugar Hill.

The Way I’m Livin’ is pure country with all the duality such entails. The difference this time out is that the songs come from a selection of the finest Americana writers of recent decades.

Some songs are sad and sentimental (“Send It On Down,” from Chris Knight and David Leone), while others find her dancing with the devil (the album’s wonderful—but largely ignored by country radio—lead single from Adam Wright, “The Way I’m Livin’.”) Julie Miller’s “Listen To The Wind” provides depth, and allows Womack to cut loose vocally while playing off the band, notably electric guitarist Duke Levine. Also among those contributing songs are Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, Brennan Leigh, and Bruce Robison, with two.

Folks like Mac McAnally (guitar, piano), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Hank Singer (fiddle, mandolin) and Glenn Worf (bass) create a throwback country sound that is clearly appealing.

Throughout this expansive album, Womack is in exceptional voice. Too mature to confuse histrionics for passion, to these ears Womack has never sounded better, more comfortable, or assured. “Nightwind” is a showcase for Womack’s singing, with gentle backing allowing her to carry the emotional weight of the song. “Same Kind of Different” sounds familiar, in a light and positive way, from first listen. Roger Miller’s performance of “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore” just missed the Top 10 in 1971; here, Womack flips the perspective and in doing so softens the off-putting tale of a sad man obsessed with a dancer.

“Out On The Weekend” is yet another chance for Womack to shine as she enlivens and freshens Neil Young’s classic song. Instrumentally, the performance is fuller than Young’s, and Womack’s voice is so much warmer; swapping the gender of the teller allows Womack to inhabit the song, delivering intensified vulnerability.

Within an industry where Nashville is reality, there should be room for an artist of Lee Ann Womack’s quality and intensity on the charts and radio. It appears, however, that Womack is going to have to continue creating her own path well outside the commercial country mainstream, much like folks such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris did before her.

It has worked out pretty well for them; no reason it shouldn’t for the multiple Country Music Association Award-winning Womack.