“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Memories and Moments” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Memories and Moments
Full Skies Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

On this, their second studio album, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien go together like soup beans and taters, or peanut butter and jelly. Memories and Moments conveys the love these two have for the songwriting process and the fun they have with the spontaneity of switching vocals, songs, and instruments.

Darrell Scott, born in eastern Kentucky, has won countless accolades for his songwriting, both on material recorded by more famous artists and that included on his solo releases. With an approach to Appalachian culture that is passionate and intentional, Scott has become one of my favorite songwriters in modern music.

Tim O’Brien became a bluegrass household name as a member of Hot Rize (formed in 1978), and his name is included on dozens and dozens of liner notes since, as a songwriter, guest vocalists, or session player.

Thirteen years after their release of the stunning Real Time (2000) and a year after the live disc We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This (2012)*, these Americana mavens turn in another classic—a 14-song album of superb songwriting, electrifying live-in-studio performance, and well-chosen covers of George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine, who appears as a guest vocalist singing one of his hits “Paradise.”

The album starts with a song written by O’Brien “Time to Talk to Joseph” about traveling in the hollers dark and deep. The clawhammer banjo adds a nice touch to harmonies from Scott. My favorite track is “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” it’s a song about how mining techniques have changed over time, while the miners’ struggle has not. Scott and O’Brien trade harmonies and lead throughout the song, which shows a different perspective on a song written by the two. The title track “Memories and Moments,” a song written by Scott, mourns the swiftness of life and being left with just memories.

“Just One More,” a song written by George Jones, has a reverence far classic country music, which Scott and O’Brien don’t veer far from. I like when artists create their own versions of songs by other artists but sometimes it’s really nice to “tip the hat” at the songwriter and create a memorial of their song. This is the case with the Hank Williams song “Alone and Forsaken,” where Scott and O’Brien create an eerie sound that one could mistake for the ghost of Hank himself.

Memories and Moments is a gem of an album.

*Editor’s Note: We normally try to review albums as close to the release date as possible, but this one was released about 18 months ago. We didn’t find out about this disc until months after its release, then it was assigned to a writer who had it for a while before backing out.

 

“Wood, Wire & Words” by Norman Blake

Norman Blake
Wood, Wire & Words
Plectrafone Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Norman Blake has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing at key points when American acoustic country and folk music has connected to mainstream culture—his guitar work has been part of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969), The Johnny Cash Show on ABC (1969-1971), John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain (1971), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand (2007), and the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Cold Mountain (2003), Walk the Line (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

But unlike Woody Allen’s protean protagonist, Blake was significant to all of those projects because his nature doesn’t change—he’s the deep root to the past that gets stronger with time, a trait that has made him (probably) more widely heard—but not as well-known—as fellow guitar giants Doc Watson and Tony Rice, whose work prods tradition forward with force and ingenuity.

Blake’s specialty, as the news release accompanying this 12-track, 54-minute album notes, is “turn of the century ragtime guitar picking,” a style of music that formed when music made by the middle class in their parlors and ex-slaves in their fields trysted in brothels and saloons before giving birth to the blues and jazz.

An unaccompanied Blake takes us back to that era as we hear his fingers glide over the steel strings of his 1928 Martin 00-45 guitar* to produce the clear, bell-like tones of “Savannah Rag,” the gently bumping bass line of “Blake’s Rag,” the warm and shady “Chattanooga Rag,” and the stately precision of “Cloverdale Plantation March.”

Though they sound like tunes that could have been adapted from the catalog of Scott Joplin, these four compositions are Blake originals, as are all the other songs on the album—something I wasn’t aware of until looking at the liner notes after listening to the whole disc a few times.

The only internal clue that Wood, Wire & Words contains contemporary material at all is “Grady Forester’s Store and Cotton Gin,” Blake’s tribute to his boyhood home of Sulphur Springs—when gas was 19 cents a gallon and stamps were three cents—which begins:

Now the evening sun is sinking down in Georgia
‘Cross the gravel roads, the red clay and the pines
That old whippoorwill
He’s callin’ from the hill
Of some long-forgotten time

“Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace,” “Black Bart,” “The Keeper of the Government Light on the River,” “The Incident at Condra’s Switch,” and “Farewell Francisco Madero” are all splendid folk songs full of detail and drama, and written by Blake from true-life events. Listening to him tell these tales in his laconic singing style is as enjoyable as it would be to hear Bret Harte or Mark Twain read one of their stories aloud in front of a warm fireplace on a cold night.

The only other contributor here is, happily, Nancy Blake, Norman’s wife and duet partner on the Grammy-nominated albums (for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year) Blind Dog (1988), Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To (1992), While Passing Along This Way (1994), and The Hobo’s Last Ride (1996). The duo harmonize on the co-written “There’s a One Way Road to Glory,” a gospel message calling us toward freedom and away from war that is reminiscent of—and, sadly, as likely to go unheeded—as “Down By the Riverside.”

Blake’s brilliance at effortlessly making new music that sounds and feels as if it could be a hundred years old is what makes Wood, Wire & Words as enduring as anything else from the deep well of American music that Blake has been drawing from all along.

*Blake plays this guitar on all tracks, excepting “The New Dawning Day” and “”Farewell Francisco Madero,” on which he plays a 2004 Martin 000-28B Norman Blake Signature Edition guitar.

“Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection” by Lead Belly

Lead Belly
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

Subscribe to The Lonesome Road Review (look in the right column) or tweet this article (tagging @LonesomeRoadRev) before midnight Eastern time April 7 for a chance to win one of two copies of the 10-track promo CD from Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. Winners chosen at random.)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Lead Belly was from Van Morrison, on his masterwork album Astral Weeks (1968). Amidst the stream-of-consciousness lyrics there aren’t many concrete concepts or identifiable characters, but there in the title track Van is “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall.” One biographer puts this down to Van’s being known to keep a poster of Lead Belly with him to put on the wall of whatever room he crashed in, giving us the picture of the diminutive Ulsterman home from the pub lying on the floor looking up at the legendary singer while drifting off to dream of all the weird, exciting American music that came from his father’s vast record collection.

The world of blues and jazz and country in the South was strange and distant even for American musicians of the rock generation, much less the son of a shipyard electrician living in a block of flats on Hyndford Street, Belfast. The distance was not a temporal one—the great musicians of the first generation of recorded music were either not long dead or, in dozens of cases, still alive and even performing—but rather one of geography, class, and (often) race. The story of how those distances were bridged in America, and much of the West, is one that begins with music, and the technologies of radio and recording that allowed individual souls to affect each other viscerally and emotionally in a way that only the highly literate were able to experience before.

Born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jan. 20, 1888 at Mooringsport, Louisiana, Lead Belly was one of the key musicians to come of age in the dawn of the recording era, and his peculiar talent as a gatherer of songs kept much of the music that black Americans sang in church, in the fields, and in prison alive long enough to be captured by machines—just as A.P. Carter, with help from his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, did for the music of Appalachia.

Lead Belly did it so well that if one wanted to pick a place to start listening to and learning about 20th Century American popular music, a perfect place to start would be Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Listening to more than five hours of his recordings on these five compact discs (including some live recordings and an entire disc of radio performances) it’s hard not to be amazed at Lead Belly’s ambit. He sangs both familiar and obscure—with musicianship and vocal styles both sophisticated and primal—in musical idioms like “play songs” for children, of-the-moment political broadsides, field hollers, work songs, minstrel tunes, bawdy blues, sanctified gospel, and—of course—prison songs.

Essential to understanding the man and his music—and the reason to spend $100 on the physical copy of this release—is the 140-page book that also occupies this gorgeous 12″ by 12″ package. Along with dozens of great photographs of Lead Belly and miscellaneous ephemera, there is documentation of and commentary on each track from project producers Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways archivist, and Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, who each contribute an essay that takes us far past Lead Belly’s legend to reveal the man.

That legend began in 1933 when John and Alan Lomax—the father-son team of song hunters who chased after music “uncontaminated” by modernity—found and recorded Lead Belly, who serving time for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—tellingly known as Angola. When they returned the next year, Lead Belly was pardoned by Gov. O.K. Allen— for “good behavior” past his minimum sentence time, perhaps prompted by a song Lead Belly wrote about Allen—and returned with them to New York City, where headlines like this beckoned folk fans with a curiosity for the exotic:

leadhed

There is no doubt that this legend—buttressed by a newsreel reenactment of Lomax “discovering” Lead Belly at Angola, and the singer’s customary stage costume of prison garb or coveralls—helped sell the man and his music, not too different from the way  musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to 50 Cent have done it. No one bothered to note that Lead Belly’s homicide convictions all stemmed from drunken brawls, not train robberies or home invasions. Because urban blacks weren’t keen on being reminded of farm and prison life, Santelli notes, Lomax didn’t try marketing Lead Belly to them, but went right at the white liberals who liked politics with their pop culture in a way that Tom Wolfe later identified as radical chic.

A question that has to be asked is what part Lead Belly himself played in this hokum. He was a poor black man from the South in a country segregated by both law and custom; the best he could expect was paternalism—which he certainly got from the Lomaxes. More unfortunate is the glaringly obvious realization that King Kong was released just a few months before Lead Belly was “discovered,” an uncomfortable fact that even today informs any serious discussion of race and entertainment in America.

Lead Belly certainly knew what was going on, and he eventually broke with the Lomaxes over both the money and his role as convict/bumpkin. It seems reasonable to think that he simply thought of himself as a musician who wanted to work, and decided to put up with the hassle. Though did write and record some political songs (“Scottsboro Boys,” “We Shall Be Free,” with Woody Guthrie, “Jim Crow Blues,” “Bourgeois Blues”), he never became an activist. “He simply was willing to ignore our radical politics,” Pete Seeger said.

The last few years of his life did bring more artistic freedom and satisfaction than the years preceding it, thanks to Lead Belly’s association with small-time record label owner Moe Asch, a folk enthusiast who also recorded Guthrie, Seeger, and Cisco Houston. Instead of orchestrated studio sessions, Asch would merely make some suggestions on what to record then let his artists record live around an open mic. Asch treated these recordings with much more respect than those before (no more albums with titles like Negro Sinful Songs), but that didn’t result in better sales.

Musicologists Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith also recognized the value of Lead Belly’s art, and recorded him in 1948 on a new open-reel tape deck that allowed for longer recordings (including Lead Belly’s spoken introductions) than the wax cylinders that most previous recordings had been made on. The fifth disc in this collection is devoted to selected tracks from those Last Sessions, which Asch released on his new Folkways label in 1952 as two 2-LP sets—another new format, supplanting 78s.

Lead Belly always hoped and even believed, it seems, that his work would lead to wealth and notoriety—and it did. The year after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the Weavers sold half a million copies of their version of “Goodnight Irene,” helping folk music become noticed by enough post-war American record consumers to generate tremendous interest in the work of Lead Belly and his peers.

But none of this would have mattered if Lead Belly hadn’t been an excellent musician He didn’t just stand up and bash away on his trademark Stella 12-string guitar while simply belting out songs without nuance. As powerful as his voice could be, he always used it to serve the song and connect with the listener. Combine that—and his vast memory—with uncanny timing (“Out on the Western Plain,” “Rock Island Line,” “Alabama Bound” ) and deceptively intricate guitar work (“Fannin Street,” “Ella Speed”) and you have what Santelli calls “an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer” capable of playing just about anything someone waned to hear. Performances like “The Gallis Pole” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)” are as idiosyncratic and intense as anything done by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, or the Monroe Brothers (“The Gallis Pole” contains all the instrumental and vocal elements that Led Zeppelin tried to capture on their version, “Gallows Pole;” and “Black Girl” was reworked by Bill Monroe as the keening “In the Pines” and, in harrowing fashion, by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged).

There are countless musical phrases and lyrical allusions in this set that have echoed down through the years, and whether Lead Belly composed, modified, or simply recorded these songs, the shade his body of work casts is immense (click on any song title below to see how later musicians used Lead Belly’s material).

“The Midnight Special,” “John Henry,” “Take This Hammer,” “Alabama Bound,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Easy Rider,” “Duncan and Brady,” “How Long, How Long,” “John Hardy,” “Outskirts of Town,” “Black Betty,” “Stewball,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “On a Monday.”

“Irene (Goodnight Irene)” is, of course, the one song that Lead Belly will always be known for, though his version seems to be based on performances by Haverly’s Colored Minstrels of a composition by Gussie Davis. Its sentimental melody and macabre lyrics are made by Lead Belly’s mournful shout into an the kind of strange, unsettling experience that demands a response. It doesn’t seem right that it took the mawkish version of this song by the Weavers to introduce the post-war music industry to the man who, as much as anyone, created such a thing.

“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.