“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 (bass) Stephens.

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.

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“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.

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“Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” by Noam Pikelny

Noam Pikelny
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

There couldn’t possibly be a better idea for an album than this, and the perfect man to execute that idea is Pikelny, the most interesting banjo player of this decade.

An endless—and pointless—debate in bluegrass music circles is always running. Are we too limited by tradition? Is this newest whatever that claims to be bluegrass enititled to that title? While I tended to side with the traditionalists when I still took part in such discussions, I still believe a) there are only two labels that really matter when we’re talking about music—good and bad—and b) the music speaks for itself.

NPPKBPBM, as I’m calling this instant classic, is a perfect example of how good musicians can and should transcend the “What Is Bluegrass, Anyway?” question. Giving the banjo treatment to the most famous bluegrass fiddle album ever is just the macguffin—as Hitchcock called it—allowing Pikelny—whose playing recalls the bracing effect that Bill Keith’s innovative style had on Monroe’s music—to mix old with new and make something compelling.

Stuart Duncan’s fiddling maintains the strong flavor Baker brought to these miniature symphonies, and the trio of Mike Bub (bass), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), and Bryan Sutton (guitar) could not have been more well-chosen to inhabit the Monroe sound without leaning on cliche.

If I had to make a chronological list of 20 albums to represent the four score and ten years of recorded bluegrass music from 1946 to today, this would be the final entry.

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“Tell The Ones I Love” by the Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers
Tell The Ones I Love
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Of the bluegrass bands that have emerged during the past decade, the Steep Canyon Rangers are the group, in this writer’s opinion,  that have most acutely established a positive career trajectory balancing a palatable regard for the roots of bluegrass music while taking it to new and eminently listenable places.

Since 2002, each of their album has been a demonstration of their evolving vision of bluegrass, one that challenges perceptions of the music while ensuring it retains all the elements that make the music so emotionally and aurally satisfying. The quintet adds to the music certainly, but nothing they do—whether it be brushed percussion, more propulsive drumming (as on “Stand and Deliver”), or bringing in gutsy gospel touches—detracts from allowing the music to stand as bluegrass.

Maintaining a stable lineup enhances familiarity, and their cohesion is apparent. Everything is tight, the arrangements impressive. Trills of mandolin and banjo fill quiet spots, while at other times they provide drive, fiddle sweeps in and out, and the bass pulses. Woody Platt’s guitar leads are notable and well-placed, while his rhythm parts sound true. In particular, Nicky Sanders comes to the fore throughout the album, with lively, playful, and evocative fiddling.

Platt has two distinctive voices, one slightly languid and bluesy (as on the outstanding “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken,” a song co-written by bassist Charles R. Humphrey III and Jonathan Byrd), the other more frequently utilized, smooth country soul, as on the gentle epic “Camellia” and “Tell The Ones I Love,” which also features a mystical mandolin preface from Mike Guggino. In a deeper register, banjoist Graham Sharp takes the lead vocals on “Stand and Deliver.” The instrumental “Graveyard Fields” showcases the band’s collective chops, something every track seems to be best designed to do.

Mid-album, “Boomtown” and “Mendocino County Line” take the group further into the rootsy Americana field than some will be comfortable with, but these are simply amazing performances.

Advancing bluegrass while maintaining its focus, the Steep Canyon Rangers retain a natural approach to acoustic music. Recorded largely off the floor, with producers Larry Campbell and Justin Guip at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, Tell The Ones I Love is a stunning collection of modern bluegrass, and arguably their best to date.

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“Hall of Fame Bluegrass” by Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk

Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk
Hall of Fame Bluegrass!
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Son!

The common exclamation is bound to repeatedly come to mind while listening to this destined-to-be-classic outing honoring (select) pioneers of this music called bluegrass.

Junior Sisk is the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year according to the professionals within the International Bluegrass Music Association, but he could have justifiably received the award at any point during the past decade. Joe Mullins is a bluegrass industry all his own: radio station owner, vocalist, bandleader, banjo player. As they both record for Rebel, it makes perfect sense that they should come together to record a baker’s dozen certified bluegrass classics, paying tribute to their industry’s forebears who have made their way into the IBMA’s Hall of Fame.

This set would have IBMA 2014 Recorded Event of the Year written all over it if entire album projects were still eligible for the recognition. As it stands, with thirteen superior cuts of bluegrass splitting potential votes, such is not assured but certainly this 38-minute collection is worthy of such.

Each and every track on this album has something about it that could make a listener declare with no shortage of fervor, “That’s the best thing I’ve heard this week!”

“Wild Mountain Honey,” made famous by the Osborne Brothers & Red Allen and the album’s lead track, has rightfully received a great deal of attention from radio programmers: the song is a sparkling example of up-tempo bluegrass. Jason Carter’s contribution to this song is just the first of several examples of why he has been among the most significant fiddlers of the past two decades.

On Doc Watson’s  (okay, James Jett’s) “Greenville Trestle High” it is the pairing of Sisk and Mullins’ voices, complemented by either Sisk’s or Dudley Connell’s lead guitar—the credits do not distinguish between the two, not that it matters a lick when it comes to listening. Further vocal showcases are provided within “Single Girl, Married Girl” and Don Reno’s “I’m Sorry Happy.”

While paying tribute to Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe by recording the pitiful “I’ll Drink No More Wine,” it is Jesse Brock’s mandolin that emerges alongside the foundation created by Mullins’ 5-string, and Mullins ensures that “No Blind Ones There” is made all the more powerful with the punctuation he provides. Rob Ickes’ Dobro naturally comes to the fore on “No Doubt About It.”

Marshall Wilborn handles the bass in his customarily enviable fashion. I wouldn’t have minded a bit had he contributed some harmony singing.

While Sisk and Mullins—who also co-produced this superior recording—have touched on many of the most prominent members of the IBMA’s Hall of Fame, there remains many to choose from when it comes time to revisit this noble concept within the anticipated Volume 2.

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