“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn” by Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

One of the great joys in life is seeing two people from different spheres of your life connect. I was happy and surprised when I heard that Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married. I only knew them from their music, but I had them  categorized in very different bins in my mental record collection—he known for radically extending the banjo’s possibilities with complex compositions and fast, intricate picking, and she for simple, beautiful playing and signing that draws deeply from the past of American and various world roots music traditions.

After a year of touring and the birth of their first child, they created this “front porch banjo and vocal album” at home—just the two of them with a variety of banjos playing supporting roles to Fleck’s Gibson Mastertone Style 75 and Washburn’s Ome Jubilee.

Washburn’s shimmering voice refreshes traditional tunes like the slow and driving “Railroad,” the dolorous “Pretty Polly,” the keening existential plea of “And Am I Born to Die,” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?,” which is nearly as gorgeous as Washington Phillips’ famous version.

Mixing old and new, Washburn combines a verse from Texas acoustic bluesman Little Hat Jones with new verses of her own on “Bye Bye Blues,” whose New Orleans feel is underscored by a bass line plucked out on a Gold Tone cello banjo.

Fleck’s dextrous picking works especially well as a complement to Washburn’s vocals, and her picking blends seamlessly with his, whether on vocal tracks or on instrumental duets like their low and rolling original “Banjo Banjo,” the Flecktones’ classic “New South Africa,” and “For Children: No. 3 Quasi Adagio, No. 10 Allegro Molto—Children’s Dance,” a pastoral Hungarian folk melody from Fleck’s namesake Béla Bartók.

The pair also offer new songs that work well alongside their innovate arrangements of traditional material: Fleck’s sharp tale of impending disaster “What’cha Gonna Do,” Washburn’s gentle, cascading “Ride to You,” the swampy “Little Birdie” (not the traditional song, but a new co-write), and “Shotgun Blues,” a menacing, role-reversing (almost) murder ballad where Washburn might as well be channeling Amy Elliott-Dunne, the protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Let’s all hope that their personal and musical collaboration continues for a lifetime with the same brilliance as this first record.

“If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice” by Larry Rice

Larry Rice
If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Larry Rice was an understated and brilliant singer, songwriter, and mandolin player who never really achieved the recognition he deserved while living, partly because of the long shadow cast by his brother Tony Rice . Larry’s virtuosity is prominent on If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice. This collection gives listeners incredible insight into his laid back vocal style, distinct mandolin picking, and his choice of material. This album collects work from his albums Hurricanes and Daydreams, Time Machine, Artesia, Notions and Novelties, and Clouds Over Carolina—a body of work spanning 20 years.

In the early 1970s, Rice was an integral part of JD Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys, as well as Crowe’s New South. During his time with Crowe, he was part of two very distinct vocal configurations and he brought different material to the group from the West Coast like “Devil in Disguise”, “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do?”, and “You Can Have Her.”

On this anthology, there are tremendous renditions of straight-ahead bluegrass classics like “Used to Be,” “Take my Ring from your Finger,” and “Four Wheel Drive.” These songs put Larry up front singing lead and playing fiery mandolin licks. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is an extremely intimate cut with Larry and his brother Tony; it is essentially a jam in their living room with just guitar and mandolin. The material presented here is actually quite diverse. “Pretty Polly” is given a modal treatment featuring Larry on a lower lead vocal than traditionally done on this song. The use of a low-tuned clawhammer banjo really emphasizes how different this arrangement is.

“Hurricane Elena” and “Plastic People Town” are incredibly sensitive songs—delivered in ’70s singer-songwriter style—about natural disaster and the shallow nature of huge cities and how lost love feels in such a place.

Stop reading this review. Go purchase this classic album. It showcases Larry Rice at his absolute best as a singer, instrumentalist and performer. Every true fan of incredible acoustic music needs this record.

“Another Day From Life” by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
Another Day From Life
Rebel Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Wow. That was my first reaction as I listened to the Radio Ramblers’ latest CD and I’m sticking with that. Having a very good stage show and producing an excellent CD don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, and it seems many bluegrass groups do better with the CDs than showmanship. Mullins, for me, does both very well. He has a very good band, is a good banjo player and singer, and what he talks about during his show adds to the bluegrass book of knowledge, it’s not just chatter.

Veterans Day has just passed and my church played a video accompanied by “Some Gave All.” That song gets to me every time I hear it and now I can add “The Last Parade” from Another Day from Life to that list. Duane Sparks (guitar) sings lead, Mullins (banjo) tenor, and Mike Terry (mandolin) baritone. It’s a story about a young man who has given his life for his country and now he’s come home for his last parade. It starts off with just the guitar behind Sparks, describing the people along the parade route. The mandolin joins in with a sparse melody on the second verse as the storyteller “took my flag” and “took my place on the town’s main drag.” Then the band and harmony singers join in. You feel it all the way to your heart. That’s the mark of a good song.

The band are all excellent musicians and they take the time to come up with good arrangements for the tracks. Bands are often so concerned about what notes they are going to play that they forget to consider when not to play. Space creates impact and this band understands this. The other band members are Randy Barnes (bass) and Evan McGregor (fiddle). Put them all together and you have a great traditional bluegrass band.

“Johnson Island Prison” was a real Civil War prison and this song tells about the unhappy life of a prisoner there, a Rebel who hates the cold of this northern jail. They shift to another form of misery with “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” This is an old Porter Wagoner song and the rest of the title line is “tomorrow you’ll cry.” This number has an unusual melody and chord progression. (For you musicians, it’s 1 – 5 – 2 – 5 – 2, or C – G7 – D7 – G7 – D7. It sounds like the second line changes chords up one step.) Herschel Sizemore penned “Going Back To My Old Kentucky Home,” all about moving to the city for a better job, hating it, finally going back to the country and Kentucky. This is a saga that’s been repeated many times as people emigrate from the rural areas of the bluegrass belt but find the cities aren’t the life they want.

Mark Brinkman has penned a number of excellent songs and he’s done it again with “Through a Coal Miner’s Eyes.” Shut your eyes and let the story take you down into the ground and abyss of the underground coal mine. It’s all a lot of people have but not a place I want to go. If you hear an instrument on this number you can’t quite place, it’s probably Sonny Osborne’s guitjo being played by Mullins. Staying with the working man theme, they celebrate the life of the blue collar worker with “Blue Collar Blues,” a lively number that tells us the ups and downs of the blue collar life.

Songwriter Bill Castle wrote the title number, describing all the things that go on in life: happiness, strife, drunks, bad news. It’s an unusual topic for a song but Castle wrote a good one. Another song mixes the notion of life’s woes with a life once lived. “Hymns From The Hills” features some great four-part harmony with Barnes singing the bass line. Another very good four-part track is the old gospel number, “The Dearest Friend I Ever Had.” Another gospel track is one that is well known in southern gospel circles but not heard as much in bluegrass. Bill and Gloria Gaither’s “Because He Lives” is one of the best gospel songs you’ll ever hear and the band does a fabulous job with it.

One of the most celebrated songwriters in country music across the decades is Hank Williams. “May You Never Be Alone Like Me” has all the pathos you expect from a Williams’ ballad and I love his version, but the three-part version from the Ramblers nails this song and the mandolin and fiddle take a beautiful break on it. Speaking of country music, they do a hot version of Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly,” recorded by Bob Wills in 1942.

Joe Mullins and his Radio Ramblers are one of the best groups on the circuit and you’ll wear out this CD on your player.

 

“The Earls of Leicester” by the Earls of Leicester and “Three Bells” by Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes

The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes
Three Bells

Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life when I got and started listening to these two albums, which were released simultaneously by Rounder. He writes about the unlikelihood that a few teenagers in London would make it their life’s mission—at least foe a few years—to become a Chicago-style blues band, and that such a thing was only possible because of the invention of recorded music. Though he first picked up a guitar only about 25 years after the death of Robert Johnson and while the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter were still alive and productive, there’s simply no way he would have ever heard their music were it not for vinyl records and radio waves. Before their invention, musical styles grew slowly. Music was tied to a particular place and people, and to activities like Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning worship—a juxtaposition that influenced bluegrass music as much as it did the blues.

Music also passed from hand to hand, from master to apprentice. Musical mutations into new styles only occurred when a genius came along to synthesize and create from what already existed—the example most obvious to readers of this site is of course bluegrass music, which happened when the cross-eyed boy from Kentucky played dances with his fiddling uncle and a black guitar player at the same time and place musical evangelists were teaching the shape-note choir singing style. Without proximity to those three elements, Bill Monroe would not have created what Alan Lomax called “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British—American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

You wouldn’t quite call Josh Graves a genius on Monroe’s level, but he certainly was a virtuoso, much like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who hired Graves so his Dobro sound could further distinguish the Foggy Mountain Boys from other early exponents of Monroe’s art. (For the full story, read Bluegrass Bluesman.) Graves’ innovations led to a new vein of gifted musicians deciding to play bluegrass, including Mike Auldridge, who bought his first Dobro from Graves himself.

It’s to pay homage to Graves and the sound he helped create, of course, that prompted Jerry Douglas, the undisputed Dobro master, to form the Earls of Leicester. Walk down Broadway in Nashville, and you’ll bump into enough pickers who could play an impromptu Lester & Earl set, but the five that Douglas has enlisted do it as good as it could possibly be done: Union Station’s Barry Bales plays upright bass, Johnny Warren fiddles as good as his father Paul did with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Shawn Camp (lead vocals, guitar), and Charlie Cushman (banjo) play the parts, respectively, of Curly Seckler, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The effect they achieve on this 14-track album is uncanny—they don’t sound exactly like the source material, but they capture the key element of the Flatt & Scruggs sound—its effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication. It’s great to hear Camp, an accomplished country-rock singer songwriter, sing bluegrass, coming closer to Lester’s vocal style than one could imagine anyone else doing, and O’Brien and Cushman have Curly’s chop and Earl’s roll down pat. Warren’s fills and breaks are as exciting as his daddy’s were, and Douglas’ vicariously reminds us just how important the grafting of Graves on to the bluegrass family tree was for what we hear and appreciate today. Adding the Dobro’s six strings as the music’s sixth instrument gave it so much more depth without sacrificing a bit of its integrity.

After Graves and before Douglas, there was Mike Auldridge. As a founding member of the Seldom Scene, Auldridge helped that band firmly establish the “progressive” approach to bluegrass—mixing in both the songs and the sensibilities of the country-rock and singer-songwriter styles of the 1970s. You can do a lot with a traditional five-piece bluegrass unit, but you absolutely cannot put across a song like “Sweet Baby James,” much less make it far superior to the original, without that small taste of Auldridge’s Dobro.

In the months before Auldridge died in 2012, he recorded Three Bells with Douglas and Rob Ickes—no backing band, just the three of them—with Auldridge’s instrument in the middle of the stereo mix, Douglas left, and Ickes right. I don’t think an approach like this could work, in a simply technical sense, nearly as well with any other instrument—especially not among the other five bluegrass tools. And it’s hard to imagine three other players could use this approach to create a sound so skilfully woven, as if all 18 strings were played by only one musician.

The 11-song, 45-minute track list is free of cliché—only “Panhandle Rag,” a composition of Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys) is from the bluegrass/country instrumental canon, which makes sense. Such tunes are written with the idea that each instrument in the band can have a turn showing what it can do before passing off to the next man.

Instead, this ensemble refashions old parlor, jazz, and easy listening songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Sunrise Serenade,” and “The Three Bells” into brocaded tone poems free from the schmaltzy sheen present in their most popular versions. Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” is similarly refined into a stately hymn.

But of course, Auldridge, Douglas, and Ickes are all gifted composers as well, and their own songs are the best on this album: Auldridge’s bright and bouncy “For Buddy,” Douglas’ propulsive “North,” and Ickes’ perfectly titled “Dobro Heaven.”

Each man also contributes a solo performance—Auldridge a gorgeous medley of “‘Till There Was You/Moon River,” Ickes his own reflective “The Message,” and Douglas the truly sublime “The Perils of Private Mulvaney”—to remind us both the emotional richness a single Dobro can convey, and of why this trio making this record just in time is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The 5 String Flamethrower” by Rob McCoury

Rob McCoury
The 5 String Flamethrower
McCoury Music
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Rob McCoury’s first solo banjo project has been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. As five-stringer for what is unarguably the genre’s band of the last 25 years, he’s one of bluegrass music’s most important practitioners. Yet he is seldom nominated for individual awards—not unlike a left tackle on a great football team. This is partly because of his laconic personality and stage demeanor, but mostly, I think, because of his style.

McCoury doesn’t dominate like Earl Scruggs or JD Crowe—though he could, as evidenced by a his takes on Crowe’s “Blackjack,” and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Chimes.”

Rather, his strength is—with the left hand as well as the right—in the sections when the banjo is not pulling the sled—fills between and under vocal parts, deft turnarounds between solo breaks by other instruments, and contrapuntal lines played on the low side of the neck.

No wonder, then, that the two other legendary pickers he singles out for veneration here are Don Reno and Sonny Osborne.

McCoury rips through Reno’s “Charlotte Breakdown” and lays down a richly textured “Limehouse Blues”(an old jazz tune adapted by Reno for bluegrass banjo), but it’s his romp through Reno’s ebullient, stringbending “Banjo Riff”—exactly the type of tune that makes people fall in love with the banjo—that would be my first spin from this disc were I still a deejay.

The Sonny Osborne tunes are, appropriately, accompanied by pedal steel (Tim Sergent) like many of those middle-period Osborne Brothers tracks were. McCoury picks (in both senses of the word) two of Sonny’s most beautiful compositions,the Marty Robbins-tinged “Jericho” and the gorgeous “Siempre,” both with a Tex-Mex flavor that shows what imaginative musicians can do within the bounds of bluegrass.

McCoury also extends some professional courtesy to two lesser known pickers who clearly qualify as “banjo player’s banjo players” with Walter Hensley’s “Sugar Creek” and Larry Perkins’ “Northwest Passage.”

What makes this disc stand out from many other sideman solo efforts is that McCoury dances with them that brung ‘im, eschewing the stable of hired guns that we see over and over in favor of the Del McCoury Band, which allows Rob to do best what he does better than anyone—use bluegrass music’s essential instrument to make a bluegrass band sound great. Take a listen to the Del-penned “Caracas,” which stands among the best of DMB’s hard-edged instrumentals.

This 15-track, 41-minute album has two vocal numbers: Flatt & Scruggs’ “I’ve Lost You,” with Del on lead vocal and Bobby Osborne on tenor harmony and mandolin, and the Osbornes’ “We Could,” on which Sonny Osborne emerges from semi-retirement to join Bobby, Rob, and company. “The 5 String Flamethrower” should firmly establish, especially for those who hadn’t considered it yet, Rob McCoury’s virtuosity.