“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.

“The Next Move” by Phil Leadbetter

Phil Leadbetter
The Next Move
Pinecastle Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been around music most of my life and had the privilege to perform with some very talented people. I deeply appreciate the art of making music and the skill of musicians like the ones on this album.

Phil Leadbetter appreciates them, too, and he’s one of the best on the instrument that Josh Graves help make famous: the resophonic guitar. Struggling with severe illness, facing death, “Uncle Phil” made a list of great musicians he wanted to make a recording with, if he could do it just one more time. He had to wait until his cancer was in remission to do it, and now he’s fighting it in a second round, but he got it done. I saw him on stage (during his first round) for a salute to J. D. Crowe at Bean Blossom and he was obviously struggling, but he still made the reso ring beautifully.

Resophonic guitar or Dobro? The terms are often used interchangeably but they really shouldn’t be. The resophonic (or resonator) guitar has some type of resonator built into the top. The list of possibilities is too long to discuss here, but it’s usually a metal plate full of holes. Generally played in bluegrass flat with a bar and fingerpicks like a pedal steel guitar (Tut Taylor was an exception, using a straight pick), it may be found in a blues setting played like a regular guitar or with a bottleneck slide.

Dobro is a trade name originally associated with the Dopyera brothers, John Dopyera was the original developer of the resonator guitar. Despite efforts to control “Dobro” as a trademark, it has entered mainstream usage as synonymous with resophonic guitar.

Playing bass is either Mike Bub or Tim Dishman while Steve Thomas is everywhere playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar, one or more on almost every track. Shawn Camp wrote and sings lead on “Pull The Trigger.” He and Thomas play guitar and Camp’s Earls of Leicester buddy, Charlie Cushman plays banjo. Steve Gulley and Don Rigsby, two great voices in bluegrass, sing harmony while Alan Bibey plays mandolin and Tim Crouch plays fiddle. Camp is also featured on an introspective “Jesus, My Old Dog and Me.” Harking back to Flatt & Scruggs, “Just Joshin'” was written by Josh Graves and Jake Tullock. Cory Walker (banjo), Kenny Smith (guitar) and Sierra Hull (mandolin) join Bub and Crouch to support Leadbetter, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas on this salute to the reso guitar. Leadbetter joins with son Matt on Dobro along with Thomas, Crouch and Bub plus Jarrod Walker (mandolin) to do a Leadbetter tune, “Leadbelly.”

“Sweet Georgia Brown” isn’t contained by genre lines and Leadbetter and crew give a rousing performance here, lots of swing and jazz, but hey, with Béla Fleck on banjo and Buck White playing piano (along with Hull, Thomas, Bub and Smith) what else would you expect? Another number in the jazz and blues vein is “Georgia On My Mind.” It’s been done by legions of performers but many associate it with Ray Charles. You need to hear Con Hunley’s rendition. Steve Thomas doubles on mandolin and fiddle and Mike Bub plays a great bass line with Jim Hurst doing the guitar work. Too bad they couldn’t make this one thirty minutes long.

Going country, Ken Mellons co-wrote and sings “I’m a Modern Day Interstate Gypsy” with musicians named already and Gulley and Mark Newton adding harmony. Gulley co-wrote “I’ve Never Seen a Love That Wasn’t Blind” and sings it along with Dale Ann Bradley, Leadbetter’s current bandleader. Steve Wariner plays guitar and also co-wrote and performs another number, “Hole In The Earth,” a song about escaping the fate of a coal miner’s life—almost. He leaves but he comes back and now spends his life digging for coal in this hole in the earth.

Rounding out the first eleven tracks are John Cowan and Sam Bush, along with Jake Stargel playing guitar, tearing it up with “I’m a Ramblin’ Rolling Stone” while Marty Raybon and Joe Diffie, with Paul Brewster singing harmony, soften the tone with “Baptism.” “Down with the old man, up with the new,” that says it all about baptism and Raybon’s soulful voice is impossible to beat on a song like this but Diffie is right there with him.

From his posts on the bluegrass listserv and Facebook, it’s clear that Phil Leadbetter is a man of faith. He closes with a soulful, peacefully slow solo rendition of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” Friends and fans alike will remember this cut forever.

This is bluegrass at its best from some of the best in the business joining a contemporary master in his labor of love and life.

 

LRR’s picks for the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards

The 25th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show is Thursday, Oct. 2 in Raleigh.

Here are Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s picks from the final ballot IBMA voters were presented with. (Aaron is an IBMA voting member.)

One suggested change: If a someone has won a particular vocalist or instrumentalist award more than five times, why not make him ineligible for future awards in order to give others a chance? I don’t think Del McCoury, Adam Steffey, or Michael Cleveland would mind.—AKH

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Donald’s pick:
The Gibson Brothers

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Blue Highway
The Del McCoury Band

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Donald and Larry’s pick:
Balsam Range

Aaron’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Other nominees:
Blue Highway
The Gibson Brothers
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
The Del McCoury Band

Donald’s pick:
Blue Highway

Larry’s pick:
The Boxcars

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

SONG OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
“Grandpa’s Way of Life” – The Spinney Brothers (artist), Mark ‘Brink’ Brinkman (writer)

Larry’s pick:
“You Took All The Ramblin’ Out of Me” – The Boxcars (artist), Jerry Hubbard (writer)

Other nominees:
“Dear Sister” – Claire Lynch (artist), Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb (writers)
“It’s Just a Road” – The Boxcars (artist), William Keith Garrett (writer)
“The Game” – Blue Highway (artist), Shawn Lane and Barry Bales (writers)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Hall of Fame Bluegrass – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artist), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers), Rebel Records

Donald’s pick:
Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band (artist), Del McCoury (producer),  McCoury Music

Larry’s pick:
It’s Just A Road – The Boxcars (artist), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home LS

Other nominees:
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Noam Pikelny (artist) Gabe Witcher (producer), Compass Records
The Game – Blue Highway (artist), Blue Highway (producer), Rounder Records

GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Won’t It Be Wonderful There” – Dailey & Vincent (artist), Brothers of the Highway (album), Mildred Styles Johnson (writer), Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (producers), Rounder Records

Donald’s pick:
“Love Does” – Darin and Brooke Aldridge (artist), Flying (album), Jamie Johnson, Suzanne M. Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (writers), Darin and Brooke Aldridge (producers), Organic Record

Larry’s pick:

“The Day We Learn to Fly” – Volume Five (artist), The Day We Learn To Fly (album), Stacy Richardson and Leroy Drumm (writers), Volume Five (producers), Mountain Fever LS

Other nominees:
“Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” – Donna Ulisse (artist), I Am a Child of God (album), Hazel Marie Houser (writer), Bryan Sutton and Donna Ulisse (producers), Hadley Music Group
“When Sorrows Encompass Me Around” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just A Road (album), Paul Edgar Johnson (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Johnny Don’t Get Drunk” – Adam Steffey (artist), New Primitive (album),  Public Domain, Adam Steffey (producer), Organic

Donald’s pick:
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”- Special Consensus with Buddy Spicher, Michael Cleveland and Alison Brown (artists), Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (album), John Martin Sommers (wrtier), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Larry’s pick:
“Five Miles to Milan” – The Grascals (artist), When I Get My Pay (album), Danny Roberts (writer), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home

Other nominees:
“Graveyard Fields” – Steep Canyon Rangers (artist), Tell The Ones I Love (album), Mike Guggino (writer), Larry Campbell (producer), Rounder Records
“Skillet Head Derailed” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just a Road (album), Ron Stewart (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School)” – Peter Rowan with Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Donald’s pick:
“Martha White, Lester & Earl” – Terry Baucom with Marty Raybon & Buddy Melton (artists), Terry and Cindy Baucom (producers), John Boy and Billy Records

Larry’s pick:
“Wild Mountain Honey” – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artists), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers) Rebel Records

Other nominees:
“American Pickers”- The Grascals with Dierks Bentley (artists), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home
“Wild Montana Skies” – Special Consensus with Claire Lynch & Rob Ickes (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Flatt Lonesome

Donald’s pick:
Town Mountain

Other nominees:
Detour
The Spinney Brothers
Volume Five

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Del McCoury

Larry’s pick:

Buddy Melton

Other nominees:

Tim O’Brien
Frank Solivan
Dan Tyminski

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Claire Lynch

Donald’s pick:
Dale Ann Bradley

Larry’s pick:
Rhonda Vincent

Other nominees:
Alison Krauss
Amanda Smith

INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMERS OF THE YEAR

BANJO

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Noam Pikelny

Larry’s pick:
Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jens Kruger
Mike Munford
Sammy Shelor

BASS

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Mike Bub

Donald’s pick:
Barry Bales

Other nominees:
Missy Raines
Mark Schatz
Darrin Vincent

FIDDLE

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Michael Cleveland

Larry’s pick:

Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jason Carter
Stuart Duncan
Bobby Hicks

DOBRO

Aaron’s pick:

Rob Ickes

Donald and Larry’s pick:

Phil Leadbetter

Other nominees:

Jerry Douglas
Andy Hall
Randy Kohrs

GUITAR

Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s pick:
James Alan Shelton

Other nominees:
Tony Rice
Kenny Smith
Tim Stafford
Bryan Sutton

MANDOLIN

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Adam Steffey

Donald’s pick:
Frank Solivan

Other nominees:
Sam Bush
Sierra Hull
Chris Thile

“Fiddle” by Smoke Dawson

Smoke Dawson
Fiddle
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The violin—or rather, for our purposes, the fiddle—has carried the implication that it is the devil’s instrument long before the Charlie Daniels pop-country operetta “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” From the legends surrounding Paganini on back to an ancient Greek music critic by the name of Aristotle, the fiddle has evoked suspicion and curiosity.

Some attribute this to apprehension at the debauchery that comes with drink and dance—the skilled fiddler for centuries before turntables and synthesizers performed the function now manned by the likes of Avicii and Skrillex, with wine or moonshine lubricating the proceedings as molly and mushrooms now do for many.

But I suspect that the fiddle is regarded as fiendish because of the visceral reaction only it can provoke. Neither the piano nor the guitar—and certainly no horn—can approach the infinite range of microtones and timbres possible with strings grabbing and scratching and pulling over a fretless fingerboard. Our ears can hear so much from a fiddle, and its sounds are often familiar and frightening in the same moment.

I was playing a digital copy of this reissue of this record—Smoke Dawson’s privately pressed “Fiddle” LP from 1971, with fascinating liner notes by Josh Rosenthal—the other day, and someone in the next room later remarked on the Celtic music they had heard.

It’s more the American folk or Appalachian style of fiddling that Dawson does here, but he’s definitely calling up the ancient tones and voices that poets like Bill Monroe and Van Morrison are always going on about.

“John Brown’s Dream,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—indeed most of the 17 tracks here—have melodies recognizable to even casual listeners to bluegrass and American folk and country music—sometimes those melodies are known by other names, which underscores the magpie nature of the fiddlers that have passed them along—renaming, stealing, reworking, and reinvigorating at every pass. Dawson’s “Pretty Polly” is every bit as bracing as Ralph Stanley’s version, right down to the plucked-string kickoff that mimics the sound of Stanley’s banjo. If you listened to each version side by side for the first time with no context, you couldn’t say which was older or even when they were recorded.

Dawson also played the bagpipes, which make a striking appearance here on the third leg of the “Connaughtman’s Rambles/Devil’s Dream/Marche Venerie” medley.

“The Minotaur” closes the album with stutters and hums and an unworldly aura made more affecting by the knowledge it’s coming not from Satan but from one of us.

 

 

“Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray” by Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick

Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick
Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray
Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (Out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

“Now come, let’s gather round me, here’s what I’ve got to say,

About this blue grass music, I know it’s here to stay;

Can’t you hear that 5-string talkin’, that lonesome fiddle whine,

Take off your hat, hang up your coat: we’re gonna have a time!”

-“Blue Grass Style”

Vern Williams and Ray Parks were an influential west coast bluegrass act from their formation in 1959 until their dissolution in the mid-70s. Their lone album, 1974’s Sounds of the Ozarks, is a rarely heard but much sought after slab of Ozark mountain-raised, California hewn bluegrass. Following Vern and Ray’s disbanding of their group, the Vern Williams Band remianed a prominent presence in bluegrass, especially on the west coast.

Written by band member Clyde Williamson and Cal Veale, Vern and Ray’s song “Cabin On A Mountain” is rightly considered an exceptional bluegrass performance, with the song going on to be recorded numerous times including by Larry Stephenson, the Spinney Brothers, and Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass. Longview, Open Road, and many others have recorded their songs.

Possibly no two individuals have more confidently and consistently beat the drum for Vern & Ray than Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Themselves leading denizens of the California bluegrass scene, Lewis and Kallick frequently pay tribute to Vern & Ray and their ongoing influence in concert. They come together here for their second album of duets (following 1991’s Together, which was dedicated to Vern & Ray) by releasing a wonderfully touching and musically significant tribute to the duo that so impacted them.

Critiquing Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray is patently silly. It is incredible from start to finish. There may be finer bluegrass singers than these inspirational stalwarts, but such scaling would be foolish. Songs have few better friends than these two; whether singing lead or harmony, their voices know each other so well as to make their efforts appear unrehearsed and familial.

That both are exceptional musicians—Kallick plays lead and rhythm guitar on all but one track, Lewis handles all the fiddle (augmented with frequent Kallick collaborator Annie Staninec on a pair of twin fiddle numbers) and bass—is indisputable. With their instrumentalists—primarily Tom Rozum (mandolin) and Patrick Sauber (banjo), but also Vern & Ray acolyte Keith Little (banjo) and Sally Van Meter (resophonic slide)— the duo naturally captures the passionate spirit Williams and Parks brought to their music.

A definite highlight is their interpretation of “Thinkin’ Of Home.” Featuring twin fiddles and lead vocals from both Lewis and Kallick, this Williams/Park co-write (from their debut Starday extended play recording of 1961) is reinvented by these formidable female voices. Whereas Williams’ voice cut across the melody in the most wonderful way, Lewis and Kallick gently support each other through the song’s desolate isolation, while simultaneously singing with no little bit of starch.

One of Vern & Ray’s most authoritative recordings was their take of “Touch Of God’s Hands.” Here Keith Little takes the lead with the ladies provide soaring harmony. “To Hell With the Land” is perhaps my favourite Parks composition, and here Lewis reminds us that there remains causes for the home place being abandoned.

The originals were incredible performances, under heard perhaps, but powerful and deserving of a wider audience. Lewis and Kallick, by recording these in such a redoubtable manner, have provided opportunity for more people to become familiar with the music of Vern and Ray.

It has been said that there is nothing better than the sound of bluegrass when performed by friends. Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick—with their compatriots—have created a recording a long time in coming, one that certainly gives Vern Williams and Ray Parks their bluegrass due.