“Let it Go” by the Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters
Let it Go
High Country Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The bass player usually is mentioned last, but Travis Book’s work is what makes this fifth studio album by the Infamous Stringdusters one of the very best acoustic albums that I’ve heard in a while.

So many bands attempting to transcend their nominal bluegrass origins go bashing away as hard and fast as they can, leaving drive and direction out of it altogether. The most readily apparent sign of this is usually bassist who can’t quite keep up. Then you have players like Book (as well as the great Mike Bub) who are the lead dogs, giving those closer to the sled more room to work.

The 11-track, 40-minute Let it Go is the work of a band that seems to play, sing, and even think, as one. So much so that the CD packaging doesn’t identify the band members, much less give a track by track accounting of who’s playing and singing what, as is customary on many bluegrass releases, especially the ones with hired studio aces.

The complete sound is what the Stringdusters are concerned with and the sound they make here has the drive of a band like Blue Highway—with brighter, more melodic textures—backed by musicianship about as good as the Punch Brothers without the pretentious wankery.

The instrumental breaks are short and collaborative, with the Dobro or fiddle often running in one channel the same quick zigs and zags as the banjo in the opposite. The guitar adds depth to Book’s bass, and occasionally steps out for some crisp and rich flatpicked solos.

And all of this is done in support of some great singing and songwriting—I’ve been listening constantly to “I’ll Get Away,” “Where the River Runs Cold,” and “Summercamp” the last couple of weeks, whether through speakers, headphones, or just my mind.

“Summercamp” is a three-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that sounds like what you would get if you locked Ron Sexsmith and the mid-1970s Seldom Scene in the studio and told them they couldn’t come out until they had a radio hit.

As we’re beginning summer in our hemisphere, I couldn’t recommend more highly a new album to add to your musical rotation for the sunny days ahead.

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“Carter Girl” by Carlene Carter

Carlene Carter

Carter Girl

Rounder Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lives are filled with regret.

Carlene Carter’s story is well documented. In brief, she is the child of June Carter and Carl Smith, ex-wife of Nick Lowe, star of the “Cruel To Be Kind” video, a recording artist with several memorable performances before becoming an overnight success in 1990 with “I Fell in Love” and a series of hit and near-hit singles.

Then came the darkness, the lost and non-recording years, the substance abuse and career implosion. I’m guessing Carter has her share of misgivings about her life, the opportunities squandered, the negative impacts she may have had on herself and others.

I’m confident she has no uncertainties surrounding the recording of Carter Girl, the album many of us have been waiting for her to create since we first heard her sing. Beneath the spunk, rockin’ country, and the irreverence, and long before “I Fell in Love,” many knew that she would one day release an album that truly spoke to and explored her familial and musical roots. Performances from her TNN series Carlene Carter: Circle of Song—clips of which are on YouTube—reveal the appreciation she had for the music of the original Carter Family, of Mother Maybelle, and that of the Carter Sisters.

For the last decade—as she cleaned up her life and fully embraced the legacy afforded to her—Carter has grown stronger and fully blossomed. She was well-received in the theatrical performance Wildwood Flowers, and her album Stronger made numerous year-end ‘best of’ lists in 2008.

While she has consistently kept her family close on her albums—A.P.’s “The Winding Stream” was featured on Little Acts of Treason, which also featured Carl Smith on a reprise of his chart topping “Loose Talk,” Stronger‘s title track and “The Bitter End” contain more than a little autobiography, she’s recorded “Foggy Mountain Top,” “Ring of Fire,” and “My Dixie Darlin'” on various albums, and as liner writer Jim Bessman notes, going back to 1978’s “Never Together (But Close Sometimes),” Carter was using the Carter scratch method of picking—never has she dedicated an album highlighting her family’s importance on her music.

Now in her late-fifties, and completely comfortable with herself and her place as a bridge to country music’s past, Carter has, with producer Don Was, brought together an all-star band and several guests to celebrate and honor the legacy of her family. She has frequently spoken of having felt an obligation to carry the music of the Carters to subsequent generations, and with Carter Girl she has certainly done Maybelle, A.P., Sara, June, Anita, and Helen proud.

The album includes ten songs selected from the immense Carter catalogue. To her credit, Carter hasn’t selected only the most familiar songs—no “Wildwood Flower,” for example, nor then “Will The Cirlce Be Unbroken,” “No Depression in Heaven,” or “Keep On the Sunny Side.” She’s dug deep, searching out, connecting with and revitalizing timeless songs.

The formidable “Little Black Train” kicks off the album, as astute a choice as any made with the disc. This song with a clear message of getting right with the Lord pulses with conviction and forewarning, and the vocal harmonies of the amazing Elizabeth Cook and Joe Breen (Mr. Carlene Carter) on the chorus make things that much more intense. As expected, the song is livelier in Carlene Carter’s hands than when recorded by her forbears in 1935, with the rhythm section of Was and Jim Keltner propelling the song.
Cook shows up throughout the album, never more impressively than on the full-blown duet “Blackie’s Gunman.” Carter no longer attempts to hit the highest notes she once did, and leaves these to Cook who nails the harmony parts. Carter’s voice is huskier, more robust than in her video play days, but this works wonderfully with this material. She still sings like a dream. Sam Bush contributes mandolin to this track, making the instrument’s sound to slightly resemble an autoharp.

Aunt Helen’s venerable “Poor Old Heartsick Me,” a hit for Margie Bowes, is the type of song that almost anyone can sing-along with, while “Troublesome Waters” proves once again how difficult it is to listen to others sing with Willie Nelson. For me, this is the album’s only stumble. Willie is Willie, of course, and while it isn’t musical malpractice, it does interrupt the flow of the album.  I’ve long wondered why female singers attempt to harmonize with Nelson on slow-tempo numbers. Both Nelson and Carter’s vocal parts sound good in isolation, but to my ears their blend doesn’t. The performance is forced. Would it have worked better had they been eye-to-eye in the same studio when recording? Possibly.  I just know I would rather have heard Carter sing the song without Nelson.

More successful is when Kris Kristofferson drops by to join in on “Black Jack David.” The song, one of many that A.P. Carter borrowed from the folk tradition, works largely because the two singers match each other’s phrasing more comfortably than Nelson and Carter do. Carter also provides guitar accompaniment in the style of Mother Maybelle, a very noticeable contribution.
Utilizing modern technologies, Carter closes out the album singing with her mother, aunts, and Johnny Cash on “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” an emotionally abusive song of codependency disguised as a working man’s protest if ever there was one, while Carter sings June’s “Tall Lover Man” like the country classic it should be.

Within an artistic creation with no end of highlights, two of the most dramatic come directly from Carter’s imagination. “Lonesome Valley 2003″ is built around the classic spiritual, but is made more intense through the inclusion of Carter’s lyrics sharing the heartbreak of her family’s losses of that year.

The instrumentation of this track is beautiful—Carter’s piano, Rami Jaffee on Hammond, and guitars from Greg Leisz and Blake Mills—while Carlene sings as if she is in a country church, paying tribute to her loved ones. The emotion in her voice is palatable, and she says she genuinely choked up on the final verse. With lesser singers, this would be an affectation; for Carter, it’s the truth: she’s lived this song. Vince Gill’s vocal support may go unnoticed upon first listen, but it’s there on the chorus giving the arrangement additional depth.

The greatest song Carlene Carter may have ever written is re-recorded for this collection. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” originally appeared on the breakthrough I Fell in Love album, and at the time was a dramatic statement that—notwithstanding the country-rock beats of the title track and the video and stage prancin’ that accompanied it—she was a still a Carter girl.

A tribute to her grandmother and her aunts, the song wistfully reminisces about the days and nights on the road in the car with “grandma and her girls.” Now that all those mentioned in the song are gone, including the Wildwood Rose herself, Carter’s sister Rosey, the song assumes additional dimension. It was a stunning performance then, and it is even more so now, and it is on this track that Carter sounds most at ease—reinterpreting herself for a new generation, if they’re listening.

No regrets then with Carter Girl. At 47 minutes, it is a substantial project. The reservations I have with Willie Nelson’s performance are likely a product of my own prejudice; Was and Carter obviously appreciated what he brought to the studio.

The album is more than a tribute album to the various branches of the Carter family. It is the testament of a granddaughter, daughter, and niece committing herself fully to the legacy she has always embraced, a promise long ago made that the circle would remain unbroken.

“Long Time…Seldom Scene” by the Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene
Long Time…Seldom Scene
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been more than 40 years since the Seldom Scene started their run as perhaps the most influential bluegrass band ever to emerge after the music’s founding generation, and this 16-track, 55-minute disc celebrates that heritage with the band’s current lineup playing some of their best-loved songs—and with guest appearances from founding members Tom Gray (bass) and John Starling (lead vocals, guitar).

Founding member Ben Eldridge (banjo)—whose versatile and inventive playing has long been the key element in integrating the Scene’s mastery of traditional bluegrass with their knack for innovation—is still the driving force, bringing vitality to songs he’s picked thousands of times. Just compare his old-school drive on “Little Georgia Rose” and “I’ll Be No Stranger There” to the deft backing on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.” (The latter song features Emmylou Harris, whose famous partnership with Parsons makes her the perfect fit to help on this one.)

The relative newcomers—Dudley Connell (guitar, vocals), Lou Reid (mandolin, vocals), Fred Travers (Dobro, vocals) and Ronnie Simpkins (upright bass, bass vocals)—all joined the Scene at different times, making each track an interesting listen as one tries to remember who played on what original recording, or on a favorite live performance from years ago. Occasional Scene contributors Chris Eldridge (guitar, son of Ben) and Rickie Simpkins (fiddle, brother of Ronnie) round out the family for this recording.

Even without Starling in the mix (as he is on the beyond-magnificent “Wait a Minute,” the swaggering “Mean Mother Blues,” and a restrained, simmering arrangement of Monroe’s “With Body and Soul”), the triumvirate of Connell, Reid, and Travers are a vocal team with more sonic and emotional range than any other band working today, even Blue Highway.

Travers is perfect for singer-songwriter material like “Walk Through This World with Me,” Reid’s high and clear tenor is made for progressive ‘grass cuts like “Big Train (From Memphis)” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round,” and Connell rips through traditional arrangements like John Prine’s “Paradise” and Hazel Dickens’ “My Better Years” with his characteristic abandon. (The latter cut is, as far as I can tell, the only one the Scene had not put on record before now, but was one of Connell’s showpieces when he fronted the Johnson Mountain Boys.)

The presence that you can’t help but feel on this record is that of John Duffey, who died in 1996. One of the greatest voices and largest personalities in bluegrass history, he’s of course irreplaceable, but his daring and authoritative presence lives on in a band that’s been extending his legacy for nearly as long as Duffey spent shaping that legacy.

The final element that makes this a perfect recording—one that should be a hands down winner for the IBMA Award for Recorded Event of the Year—is the attractive packaging and 35-page booklet presented by Smithsonian Folkways. I love digital music as much as the next person, but this one belongs on the shelf of everyone with even a passing interest in bluegrass music in particular, or American music in general.

“Things Left Undone” by Darren Nicholson

Darren Nicholson
Things Left Undone
Bearded Baby Productions
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Not to be overly philosophical, but I’ve found that reflections on how I’ve lived life increase as the decades roll by. The title song of Darren Nicholson’s new CD is a song I might have listened to but not heard at one time, sung without thinking. Now, I need to find somewhere to put this track so I can hear it on a regular basis.

When a stranger came knockin’, did you let him in?

Was there food on your table for a down and out friend?

Did you hide in the shadows? Did you walk in the sun?

Or do you regret the things left undone?

Good arrangement, good song.

While I’ve heard CDs that I felt had a wart or two, it’s rare to listen to a bluegrass CD that has anything less than superb musicians. This one isn’t pure bluegrass but ‘grass is its base and it meets the test. Nicholson plays mandolin and lead guitar plus doing the lead vocals. His list of accomplishments is long and he’s also a part of Balsam Range. He’s joined by a bevy of guests and Darren Nicholson Band members including Steve Sutton (banjo), Carl Jackson, Tim Surrett, and Aaron Ramsey plus others. How could you expect anything but good music from this lineup?

“Travelin’ Teardrop Blues” is a number about life on the road. It’s not traditional but it’s bluegrass, featuring Kevin Sluder on bass, Griff Martin on guitar and Tony Creasman on wallet box. It tells us about the tension between loving to travel but leaving behind loved ones. “Give Mother My Crown” has been covered many times, going back to its origin with the Bailes Brothers and a few years later by Flatt & Scruggs. Sparse, just a guitar and bass with Nicholson, Eddie Rose and Audie Blaylock doing the vocals. You won’t get much grassier than this, or the “Bluegrass Stomp,” one of Mr. Monroe’s compositions, featuring Steve Thomas on fiddle, and “Sugar Creek Gap,” a blazing instrumental.

They also dip their toes in country. “Way I’ve Always Been” is a Tom T Hall song from his 1997 Home Grown album, though they do it (with Sluder on lead vocals) twice as fast as TTH did. “In A Perfect World,” co-composed by Milan Miller, gets the full country ballad treatment with Jeff Collins playing some Floyd Cramer-tinged piano and David Johnson working overtime with guitar, fiddles, strings and beautiful steel guitar. If you like classic country ballads, this is as pretty as you’ll ever hear. “I’m Not Going There Today,” featuring Rhonda Vincent and Jennifer Nicholson on vocals and Miller on electic guitar, is another excellent classic country number.

Does your taste run to country, like Guy Clark’s “Rain In Durango?” Perhaps you like hot modern bluegrass: listen to “Dancin’ In The Kitchen.” They offer some rock-‘grass fusion with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” in a bluegrass conversion. And then there’s the traditional side of their music. This CD isn’t pure bluegrass but it’s pure fun, and that’s what is important.

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“Gathering” by Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey
Gathering
Omni Artists Productions

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Stephens submitted this review in July 2013, but I must have hit the wrong button after I edited it, which caused it not to post publicly. I’m very sorry for this error, especially over such a fine project. —AKH

Aaron Ramsey is an excellent mandolin player. He debuted in a family band with his father, Michael, but by his early twenties he was (and is) playing with Mountain Heart, taking the spot vacated by Adam Steffey. Making the transition from being a band member to leading a project isn’t always easy, but Ramsey has made the leap to Gathering in fine style.

He can sing as good as he plays the mandolin. The only familiar song that he sings lead on is “John Henry Blues,” an old Osborne Brothers song. He tears into it along with a distinguished group of accompanists, including bandmates Jason Moore on bass and James Van Cleve on fiddle, Patton Wages (banjo, Volume Five) and the great Tony Rice on guitar. There are two other familiar songs on the CD, “One Tear,” another Osborne Brothers song with Mountain Heart leader Barry Abernathy guesting as lead vocalist, and Bob Dylan’s “Fare Thee Well,” featuring Ricky Wasson (American Drive, New South) singing lead and including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jeff Partin (resophonic guitar, Volume Five), Rice and Brian (banjo) and Maggie Stephens (bass).

Ramsey sings lead on the other cuts, several of them written by his father, Michael. Religious themes figure heavily in some of Michael Ramsey’s songs, including “The Healer” and “Seek Out the Lost” (featuring Ron Block [banjo], Randy Kohrs [resophonic guitar] and Tim Stafford [guitar]). But father can write and son can sell a good love-gone-wrong song like “Dark Days and Desperation.” “No Ones Found Her Yet” (Aaron Ramsey and Josh Miller) is a great mystery song, a woman disappeared and the man that loves her going crazy with loss while her killer runs loose. “The Streets of Abilene” strikes off in a different direction, telling the story of Marshal Tom Smith. The song, claiming Smith never used a gun, is slightly at odds with the Wikipedia version and fails to mention how he eventually lost his head, but it still makes a good story.

This CD underscores Ramsey’s strengths in songwriting, singing and on the mandolin, but it’s also a display of his versatility. On various numbers he plays sweep guitar, bouzouki (a mandolin cousin), upright bass, guitar, banjo and resophonic guitar in addition to mandolin. Listen to “The Souls of Pioneers” and you’ll discover he’s no slouch on any instrument he picks up.

This is a great CD by an impressive young musician. He needs to be in front of the mic and in the studio often.

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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin'” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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“Only Me” by Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent
Only Me
Upper Management Music
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Since Rhonda Vincent claimed the title Queen of Bluegrass no other legitimate claimants have arisen, and with this twelve-track, two-disc hybrid project, she stakes a claim of her own in the country realm.

Vincent’s strong voice has always had the bluesy bite that has distinguished her from other bluegrass ladies—most of whom are at least a tinge too gentle to compare favorably to male standard setters like Monroe, McCoury, and Martin—and her band has usually been just as bold. The current lineup of Hunter Berry (fiddle), Aaron McDaris (banjo), Josh Williams (guitar), Mickey Harris (upright bass), and Brent Burke (reophonic guitar) tear through their half dozen tracks as hard and fast as any group of traditional pickers working today.

With Daryle Singletary joining Vincent do to a thoroughly satisfying take on the George Jones/Melba Montgomery classic “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” and Willie Nelson himself trading verses on “Only Me,” the first disc is twenty minutes of bluegrass we’re not likely to be topped by anyone else all year.

Likewise, the second disc is twenty minutes of classic country songs—inlcuding Dalls Frazier’s “Beneath Still Waters” and Bill Anderson’s “Once a Day” and “Bright Lights & Country Music,” the latter a co-write with Jimmy Gately)—as good or better than you’d hear from Patty Loveless or Lee Ann Womack. That is, if they employed the likes of expert session men like Tim Crouch (fiddle), Kevin Grantt (upright bass), Carl Jackson (acoustic guitar), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), James Mitchell (electric guitar), Lonnie Wilson (drums), Catherine Marx (piano), and Michael Rojas (who spells Marx on “Drivin’ Nails,” a song Vincent recorded bluegrass style more than a decade ago).

Not sure why they split this up onto two CDs, but if you buy it digitally, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Vincent once again proves she is simply the best female country and bluegrass singer among anyone whose career is still in full swing.

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“Hangtown Dancehall
” by Eric Brace & Karl Straub


Eric Brace & Karl Straub

Hangtown Dancehall

Red Beet Records

5 Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eric Brace and Karl Straub have created a most ambitious album based upon and extending “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a song from the California Gold Rush era. Written by John A. Stone, the folk song’s many, and varied, verses sketch the turbulent relationship between two east-Missouri lovers, Isaac and Betsy, longing for adventure and riches beyond Pike County.

Recorded by various singers—Johnny Cash told part of their story on Sings the Ballads of the True West nearly fifty years ago, Pete Seeger had done the same a few years prior, and both Suzy Bogguss and BR549 have recorded renditions in the past decade—the story take the couple from Missouri across prairies and deserts, through tribulations and loss, and encounters with Brigham Young, marauders, and cholera, until they reach Hangtown—Placerville—and the epicenter of the California Gold Rush. In the original song, which is based around an old English melody, things don’t work out so well for Besty and Ike, and jealousy ends their relationship soon after their arrival.

Eric Brace—writer, musician, song creator, singer, and Placerville native—sensed that there was more to Bestsy and Ike’s story, and set himself the task of revealing it. After all, they had come some two thousand miles: seems a shame that the story should end with her calling him a lummox as Ike storms away, declaring them divorced. Brace prised a novel’s worth of narrative out of what brought Ike and Betsy to California—turns out, they accidentally kill Betsy’s pa before departing Missouri—and what the star-crossed lovers meet after the dissolution of their relationship: hard work, a gold strike, murder and theft, mistaken identity, self-discovery, and finally reconciliation and acceptance.

Karl Straub, a Washington, DC bandleader and guitarist, collaborated with Brace to extend and solidify the components of the 22-track concept album. He wrote several of the songs, shared writing on a few others, and assumed the pivotal persona of the doomed Walter Brown.

With Brace ably assuming the role of Ike Wilkins, it was up to friends to populate the balance of the cast, and Brace did a fine job of finding just the right voices for these roles. Kelly Willis becomes Betsy Maloney, inhabiting the troubled protagonist, and delivering the type of singing we’ve come to expect over the past twenty-five (!) years.

Meanwhile, Tim O’Brien propels the story as dancehall bandleader Jeremiah Jenkins, providing lively interludes advancing the tale and summarizing events. Darrell Scott drops by to give substance the James Marshall, the man who discovered the nugget that set off the Gold Rush. Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding), Jason Ringenberg, and Andrea Zonn take on smaller, but not lesser, vocal roles. Frequent Brace collaborator Peter Cooper provides select vocal support.

The late-Dobro© legend Mike Auldridge, Buddy Spicher, Pat McInerney, Casey Driessen (whose playing on “Pike County Rose” is stunning), Fats Kaplan, and Brace’s Last Train Home pals Kevin Cordt and Jen Gunderman are among the many who provide instrumental accompaniment, as does O’Brien, whose banjo punctuates “Hanging Tree” most mournfully.

“El Dorado Two-Step” decidedly jumps, as befits a tune about an exuberant boomtown dance. Crossing cultures and borders, on “From Pearl River to Gold Mountain” Zonn absolutely nails the experience of an escaped slave laborer. Scott breezes through “King Midas,” seemingly effortlessly communicating the despair of a man who came toward financial independence only to have it exceed his grasp.

The tension builds over the course of the album, reaching its satisfying crescendo as Betsy and Ike reunite to bring a murderer to justice. Deviating from the song cycle, Brace and Straub elect to have Brace narrate the climactic events in prose, allowing the couple to rediscover and renew their love afresh—and free of blood—in “So Many Miles.” This is the album’s only shortcoming as one wonders at the song that might have told of the scoundrel’s comeuppance.

Like Emmylou Harris’s  The Ballad of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall holds together as a concept album of country-folk balladry. Creating a flawless narrative in song—supplemented by Brace’s narrative connecting and elaborating the events—was most obviously no easy task, and Brace and Straub are to be commended for their faultless execution. As did those of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall’s songs stand together to create a formidable and dramatic listening experience, but individual songs lose none of their intensity when heard in isolation.

Hangtown Dancehall is absolutely brilliant, deep and listenable, creative and grounded. In creating an abstract, speculative historical and musical journey that becomes substantive, Eric Brace and Karl Straub have taken their art to the highest of levels. The accompanying booklet and packaging—featuring woodcuts from Julie Sola—is nothing short of outstanding, and its libretto provides the context necessary to fully appreciate the measures and efforts Brace and Straub have taken to create a project that is destined to far exceed most traditionally-based Americana projects we are likely to experience this year.

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“When Shadows Fall” by Ann & Phil Case

Ann & Phil Case
When Shadows Fall: Songs in the Popular Style
Dry Run Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Artisanal is an adjective that’s pretty effective marketing products these days, from cheese to furniture to mobile phone cases. In an era when most of us eat non-food that we buy with a virtual representation of money that is in itself fake and has not been based on something of value for the last century, more and more of us are realizing that Jefferson was right, that free people making and doing what they like in free markets are more likely to become and remain happy than those who submit to the cube farms and factoires, the bureaucrats and banks.

Based not far from me in Germantown, Ohio, Ann & Phil Case are gentle yet expressive singers, and musical artisans of the highest quality. So are their tools, which include here a 1929 Martin 0-21 guitar, a Washburn tenor ukulele (Lyon & Healy, 1931), a Regal Dobro model 27 from the mid-1930s, a Yale 000-size guitar (Larson Brothers, ca. 1920), and a 1924 Conn alto saxophone.

When Shadows Fall is dreamy and eclectic—like a trip up and down the radio dial sometime in pre-television America—moving from hillbilly fiddle tunes culled from rare 78s (“Rocky Mountain Goat,” “Havana River Glide,” “Evening Star Waltz,” and “Frolic of the Frogs”) to cowboy and country songs made popular by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers (“Treasures Untold,” “Any Old Time”), Gene Autry (“Old Missouri Moon,” “My Old Pal of Yesterday”), Patsy Cline (“I’ve Loved and Lost Again”) to a couple of tunes by notable (at the time) ukulele stars ((I’m Crying ‘Cause I Know I’m) Losing You,” “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”).

A couple of inspired song pairings make this 17-track, 47-minute disc really pay off: first, Ann’s a cappella vocal on the black gospel “Steal Away” followed  by the husband-and-wife harmonies on the Louvin Brothers’ “I Steal Away and Pray” and, second, the twin 1930’s dancehall hits “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “We’ll Meet Again,” ornamented by Phil with ukulele, Dobro, alto and tenor saxphones, and string bass.

While some musical artisans are content to master one style, When Shadows Fall make it plain that Ann & Phil Case master whatever they put their hands to.

DR0005

“Living for the Moment” by Kristy Cox

Kristy Cox
Living for the Moment
Pisgah Ridge Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Living For The Moment is an impressive CD from a newcomer to US music, Kristy Cox. She hails from Australia and is an experienced, award winning performer there, including the 2013 Capital News Australian Independent Female Vocalist of the Year Award and several Victorian & National Country Music Awards. Her focus in the US seems to be “acoustic country” despite signing with Pisgah, known best as a bluegrass label. Her press release mentions “This” as “touching on modern country,” which gives me pause since there’s not much I like about modern country, and describes “Something In The Way” as “contemporary” and “destined for mainstream success.”

If “This” is the new sound of modern country I may become a fan. It’s a love song with some very good harmony from producer Jerry Salley, mandolin player Darren Nicholson and Jennifer Nicholson. Other musicians on the CD include Mike Bub (bass), Steve Sutton (banjo), David Johnson (fiddle and resonator guitar) and Stephen Mougin (guitar). This is starting to sound like bluegrass. While “This” doesn’t fit the mold of traditionalists like Jimmy Martin, it’s as ‘grassy as many of the CDs I’m hearing that are outspokenly pointed at the bluegrass market. I lean towards the traditional sound but I like this song, I like this singer.

The verses of “Something In The Way,” another love song, are close to a country sound but the chorus is more genre neutral between country and bluegrass. This music is going to appeal to many bluegrass fans, especially the way the musicians are included, playing real breaks not just riffs (and, hey, there are no drums, tastefully played or otherwise). I’m sure she will be happy if these songs make the US country charts (and the CD is in the top 20’s on Australia’s country charts) but the songs don’t sound much like what I hear the rare times I see country’s version of MTV or turn on the radio to get a traffic report. That’s a plus for bluegrass fans who, for the most part, are also fans of classic country.

“Love Builds The Bridges (Pride Builds The Walls)” (a Patty Loveless hit composed by Salley and Jim McBride) is pure classic country. This is the kind of song that will stop me in my tracks to listen and whisper “now, that’s country music.” “Widow’s Whiskey” is a sad song about the repercussions of loss and is another country number (also co-composed by Salley). Staying in the classic country realm, Salley and Cox co-wrote “When It Comes To You” and trade vocals on the number.

I have trouble picturing her on stage with Garth Brooks in Central Park and ten thousand fans waving their bright-faced iPhones in the dark, but I hope she plays a bluegrass show somewhere that I can be in the crowd. Tack any label on it that you want, this is good listening.

Cox