“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.

 

“Never Just a Song” by Shannon and Heather Slaughter

Shannon and Heather Slaughter
Never Just a Song
Elite Circle Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Shannon and Heather Slaughter continue to make good music. I was impressed with One More Road and they keep the bar high again. One change appears to be appearing without a full-time band. The County Clare website is defunct and no mention of the band is made on their website or CD cover. They have made good use of some well known names in bluegrass to back them, including Ron Stewart (fiddle on all tracks but one) and Tim Crouch (triple fiddles on “Whiskey Colored Dreams”), Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitar), Trevor Watson and Justin Jenkins sharing banjo duties, and former County Clare bandmate Ron Inscore adding mandolin.

“Moonshiner,” a fast-moving song about the life of a moonshiner, is a good bluegrass number but might have been best performed by Shannon rather than Heather Slaughter. It’s not that she lacks anything in the singing category, but, in this case, I think his voice fits this song’s imagery better. The title number was composed by Tim Stafford and Pam Tillis as a tribute to the late Harley Allen, describing his genius and his foibles. They switch to traditional country with “Whiskey Colored Dreams,” a number co-written by Heather that has Doug Jernigan on steel guitar and Tracey Burcham on bass plus Crouch playing fiddles. The song features good harmony singing and should have been a Top Ten song forty years ago; it makes that grade here.

Their former bass player, Cliff Bailey, penned “Go Sin No More.” This is top-class bluegrass gospel and features great fiddling by Ron Stewart. Shannon co-wrote the lightning fast “Ridin’ the Lighnin’, Ropin’ the Storm” with Dale Felts, a sequel to a 2006 number they wrote (“Whoop and Ride”) that was recorded by the Lonesome River Band. This is one of those songs that gets a crowd into the show. The songs range from a tribute to our country (“That’s What’s Good In America”) to a tribute to the men who work Appalachia’s mines (“Company Town”) with a touch of heartstrings thrown in (“The Best Thing We Ever Did,” a tribute to their daughter, Rae Carroll Slaughter). Shannon S. teamed with veteran songwriter Bill Castle to write the traditional sounds of “There Ain’t No Need To Be Lonely” and then turns to Hank Williams, Jr. for “Feelin’ Better.”

The Slaughters are both capable lead singers and their supporting artists add good harmony singing and excellent picking. Good arrangements of good songs—this is good bluegrass.

“Heartstrings” by the Trinity River Band

The Trinity River Band
Heartstrings
Orange Blossom Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

We last visited the music of the Trinity River Band a few months ago in February. I said then, “This is a family band and yet another family loaded with talent.”

They set the bar high with Better Than Blue and it hasn’t dropped a bit with this new CD. Love songs are a staple in bluegrass and country music and “Fences” is one of the prettiest you’ll ever hear. This a duet featuring Sarah Harris and guest Marty Raybon. It starts with an intro by Joshua Harris playing resophonic guitar (he’s also the banjoist). Brianna Harris adds fiddle and the effect is nothing short of spectacular. Another one that will grab your attention is a rocking but bluesy rendition of “How Blue,” a Reba McEntire hit. Mike Harris (Dad) gives a good flattop intro that sets the pace and feel for the song.

Sarah Harris is featured on mandolin on “Blue Mandolin,” a song dealing with love problems. The song was composed by the late, great Leroy Drumm, well know for co-writing with Pete Gobel as well as Stacy Richardson who, along with Andy Richardson, co-wrote this number. The family ventures into the Irish with the traditional “Where Are You Tonight, I Wonder.” It’s not Flatt & Scruggs but it’s a beautiful song that anyone with some tenderness still left beneath the crust will enjoy.

A recent complaint on the bluegrass listserv was too many of the current crop of songs are poorly written. They have sentences instead of lyrics. I’ve heard some of these, no more interesting than the Gettysburg Address set to music. Not so with the numbers composed by family members here. “You Can’t Walk All Over Me“ was written by Sarah and Mike Harris and Mike composed the title song, a statement of the goals of the family for their music. Joshua Harris shows off his banjo skills on his composition, “Mindbender.” This cut gives you a good chance to hear Lisa Harris’ (Mom) bass playing which is often understated. These people are excellent musicians as well as singers. This is not a CD that leaves you wondering where to pigeonhole it. Let’s see, Americana? Roots? GuessGrass? This is bluegrass music.

Other numbers are “Rusty Old American Dream,” the voice of an old, gas guzzler car (Joshua Harris), asking for one last chance to cruise the country. “Only Here For a Little While” was Billy Dean’s hit from his 1990 debut and the Harris family, with Mike Harris singing lead, nails it. Brink Brinkman contributes a second song in their gospel number, “Give God The Power,” a good message for us all. The lead vocals are split between the sisters

Larry Cordle is represented (as co-writer) by “Going Down Hard.” As much as I like Joshua Harris’ hard–driving banjo, I believe I like his resophonic guitar work even better. On songs of pain like this one, or songs of love, his playing is restrained and thoughtful. Cordle has had a hand in some great songs and this is another one. Mark Johnson guests on clawgrass banjo on an Anne & Pete Sibley number, “Tell Me Darlin.” The original version is lovely but I prefer the richer harmony of the Harris version.

This is fine music. They seem to be in the business for the long haul and they have the talent to make it.

“The Phosphorescent Blues” by the Punch Brothers

The Punch Brothers
The Phosphorescent Blues
Nonesuch Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Music is fickle. Music is emotional. Good music can come with any label, or no label at all. All three prerequisites for music are covered with the fourth studio album by the Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues, an emotional album that requires a complete listen in order of the tracks, similar to a book. Similar to a good book, each title is like a chapter in a book leading to the climax with protagonists and antagonists.

(In case you didn’t know, phosphorescence is when something glows with light without becoming hot to the touch, like the glow-in-the-dark stars on a teenagers bedroom ceiling.)

I’ve seen the Punch Brothers several times in concerts and festivals throughout the country and have always been a fan since hearing their first album. Mandolin magus Chris Thile and the boys—Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass)— might just be one of the most talented groups of bluegrass musicians ever assembled, but that doesn’t automatically make for a great band. Without a doubt, these guys have a unique musical ability to work together as a cohesive unit to create music that is fascinating, inspirational, and motivating.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, The Phosphorescent Blues begins with the 10-minute plus melody “Familiarity” that includes a variety of effects, chamber harmonies, and classical tinges. This song sets a tone that carries though the rest of this album, almost making it a concept album. “Julep” is a tale of drinking a mint julep on the front porch, a perfect song to show off the way each member of the band plays interdependent roles that when blended together create a cohesive work. “I Blew It Off” is a poppy upbeat song that weaves in and out of dynamics with a drum kit and harmonious melodies that seem to get stuck in your head. “Magnet,” though written by the Punch Brothers, has a Beck-like feel, with reverb-heavy vocals and modern-pop drums. “Boll Weevil” is a traditional song transformed by the signature Punch Brothers spin, and it’s definitely the most bluegrassy track on the album. Though it’s only 2½ minutes long, it allows each instrument to stretch out on the melody. The love song “Little Lights” closes things out with a somber feel.

If you are a fan of the Punch Brothers’ previous forward-leaning, youthful acoustic music, you should like this album. If you haven’t yet had a taste, I recommend just pushing play and opening up to their excellent musicianship.

“Songs of Lost Yesterdays” by Laura Orshaw

Laura Orshaw
Songs of Lost Yesterdays
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Coming out of Massachusetts and working primarily with members of her New Velvet Band, Laura Orshaw has released a prime little bluegrass album. With material well-representing its Songs of Lost Yesterdays title, the album is comprised of several well-known songs and a pair of self-written tracks.

Laura Orshaw, a Pennsylvania native, is a bluegrass veteran having played with the Lonesome Road Ramblers and others while recording, instructing, and gigging on her own. This new recording, her third, features Orshaw’s spirited and bright lead vocals and lively fiddle playing within a strong bluegrass configuration.

Joining Orshaw are members of the aforementioned New Velvet Band, a group Orshaw regularly leads: Matt Witler (mandolin,) Catherine Bowness (banjo,) Tony Watt (guitar,) and Alex Muri (bass.) There is also effective harmony vocals contributed by album producer Michael Reese (including on the album’s appealing lead track “Going to the West”) and her father Mark Orshaw.

While the album is focused on a theme present since bluegrass music’s earliest days—changing times—Orshaw’s approach to the music is compatible with today’s audience. Balancing up-tempo but not necessarily upbeat fare with softer, more restrained numbers, Orshaw has well-sequenced the album.

Orshaw’s original, “Guitar Man,” gives the album its name and gently reveals the ramifications of falling for the wrong picker; it is an aching performance that should find an audience. The second original, “New Deal Train,” revisits the spirit of Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947” within a broadened contemporary context.

One of the many highlights is the title track from a favoured Charlie Moore album, The Cotton Farmer. As does the finest bluegrass, this rendition snaps along with its tale of the old home place’s memories and neglect.

Orshaw also ably delves into the songbooks of Bill Bryson (“Love Me or Leave Me Alone”), Norman Blake (“Uncle”), and Peter Rowan (“Wild Geese Cry Again,”) providing excellent performances of familiar songs.

The seldom covered Hazel Dickens masterpiece “Cold Miner’s Grave” is the album’s strongest performance. The instrumentation is absolutely gorgeous with mandolin notes leading the way, especially early in the song, and when Orshaw sings lines like “Is this how we remember all the sacrifices he made,” no little bit of Dickens’ passion and strength is communicated.

With Songs of Lost Yesterdays Laura Orshaw demonstrates that exceptional bluegrass music can be and is produced by mindful talents with a do-it-yourself outlook, no matter their regional origin, budget, or prominence within the mainstream bluegrass hierarchy.