“Country Livin'” by Big Country Bluegrass

Big Country Bluegrass
Country Livin’
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

When it comes to truth-in-labeling, it doesn’t get more on-the-nose than Country Livin’ from Big Country Bluegrass. This is the 18th release from the Independence, Virgina-based band founded by the husband-and-wife team of Tommy Sells (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar) in the late 1980s. And not only is it one of the group’s best, it’s one of the very best bluegrass albums of the last couple of years.

The six-member lineup—joining the Sellses are Eddie Gill (guitar), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo), Tim Laughlin (fiddle) and Tony King (bass)—picks in a solid, propulsive style pure enough that it sounds like none of them have paid any mind to any record released since Carter Stanley died.

“The Bluefield West Virginia Blues,” with Lunsford’s hound dogging, five-string, Laughlin’s fluid fiddle, and Gill’s paint-stripping vocals, takes less than a minute to let us know what we’re in for in the rest of this 13-track, 41-minute album—throwback lyrics, cutting harmonies (usually provided by Tammy Sells (tenor) and Laughlin (baritone)), and crisply expert instrumental breaks.

Tammy Sells changes things up—with no dip in quality—by singing lead on “The Cotton Mill Song” and “Hold Me Closer, Jesus,” a driving gospel song that does not eschew the banjo.

“Easy Memories” is one of the best new bluegrass songs I’ve heard in a while, distilling the music’s main theme of connection to a more primitive, and probably less-comfortable, past by recalling it in song—

Hard times brings [sic] easy memories

Workin’ in the cotton fields

Restin’ beneath the trees

I can still hear Mama singing “Bringing in the Sheaves”

Hard times brings easy memories

But “Easy Memories” is not new after all. Recorded by Dave Leatherman, it’s the best example of this band’s uncanny knack for picking great songs—often from lesser-known artists—that fit together perfectly.

You may be acquainted with the original cuts of great songs like “Country Livin’,” “Blue River,” “The Boy From the Country,” and “Just an Old Friend,” but I wasn’t. Jimmy Martin’s “Snow White Grave” and Bobby Osborne’s “My Lonely Heart” weren’t top of mind either, but BGB makes them all their own, as they do with the aforementioned “The Bluefield West Virginia Blues” and “The Hound Dog from Harlan,” both penned by Tom T. & Dixie Hall.

With Country Livin’, Big Country Bluegrass shows—when you apply its timeless style to songs that haven’t been dulled by overuse—old-school bluegrass can be as fresh and exciting as its creators first made it sound.

“Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” produced by Carl Jackson

Various artists
Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
Legacy Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Country music is obsessed about the past. The same technological changes that enabled it to be captured on record and broadcast on radio also helped hasten the urbanization of America, and country people used their music to help them make sense of the ways they chose to meet those changes—nostalgia as therapy.

Organized by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the crucible in which a centuries-old Anglo-American folk music tradition that found expression in barn dances, church choirs, fiddle contests at market day, minstrel shows, tent revivals, and families picking on the front porch became a business that would enrich the lives of millions with music and enable gifted musicians to make a living making music rather than in the coal mines, the field, the fox hole, or the whorehouse—it’s amazing what freedom of expression and free markets can accomplish.

Many of the 76 tracks from 19 different acts recorded by Peer were commercially successful, and two superstar careers were launched: those of Jimmie Rodgers—one of the first modern American celebrities and the prototype for songsters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and even, I would argue, Bob Dylan—and the Carter Family, who are perhaps responsible for collecting, preserving, and popularizing more pre-modern American music than anyone else. (See also the story of Lead Belly.)

Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited—a two-disc tribute to those sessions, made under the aegis of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol—should be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about country music—especially those with little previous exposure to Southern music or culture outside of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, or a television episode of Nashville.

Eddie Stubbs, whose resonant tones are familiar to Grand Ole Opry fans and WSM-AM 650 listeners everywhere—guides the listener through 18 contemporary takes on classic Bristol material, with ambient clips of the rough-and-ready original recordings to provide contrast to the modern, clean recordings and arrangements we’re more used to. The script, written by Cindy Lovell, concisely retells the story of the Bristol Sessions with telling biographical detail and historical context that even knowledgeable country fans will find enriching.

As a consummate Nashville professional on both sides of the studio glass, Carl Jackson is a perfect choice to produce this record. His choices arranging this well-known material, and manning the sound board, all pay off, and he even plays and sings on several cuts—including a bluesy duet on “In the Pines” with Brad Paisley and a wild run through “Pretty Polly” as lead singer and banjo picker.

Jackson expertly pairs artist to song throughout, including country music royalty (Dolly Parton on “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Emmylou Harris on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” Marty Stuart on “Black Eyed Susie,” and Vince Gill on “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”), A-listers from other genres (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,”
Sheryl Crow on “The Wandering Boy,” Keb’ Mo’ on “To the Work”), and bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “I’m Redeemed” and Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time on “Train on the Island”).

Ashley Monroe (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), the Shotgun Rubies (“I Am Resolved”), and the Church Sisters (“Where We’ll Never Grow Old”), and Ashley & Shannon (children of Glen) Campbell (“The Wreck of the Old Virginian”) add a touch of youth, as does Corbin Hayslett, who won a contest to be on this record with his thrilling take on “Darling Cora,” the standout track from this project.

And though the Bristol Sessions seem like ancient history, a couple of tracks show just how young country music still is. Eighty-five-year-old Jesse McReynolds—a hall-of-famer in both country and bluegrass music—scrapes out “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind” on the very same fiddle that his grandfather Charles McReynolds used when he recorded the same song with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. And the Chuck Wagon Gang, a Southern Gospel quartet that’s been working continously since 1935—with a revolving roster of members, of course—lead a choir comprised of all the Orthophonic Joy artists on a valedictory “Shall We Gather at the River,” one of their biggest hits, which they recorded in 1949 based on the Bristol recording by the Tennessee Mountaineers (actually a church choir from Bluff City, Tenn. given that soubriquet by Peer).

Though the current state of popular country music is worse than ever, thanks to commercialism, there is more opportunity for today’s listener than ever before to experience the joy of good music—of every variety, especially country—than ever before, also thanks to commercialism. Think of this record as good whiskey cut with water—not quite the pure stuff, but plenty good enough to give you a thirst for the real thing.

“Liz Longley” by Liz Longley

Liz Longley
Liz Longley
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Liz Longley begins her self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut with “Outta My Head,” a perfect slice of late 1990s Lillith Faire-style pop that has her remembering the good things about an old flame—the road trips to concerts, the exchange of mixtapes, and “the John Martyn record that we spun till it was dead.”

Memory usually tells us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves, suppressing the messy bits and turning the mundane into nostalgia—it’s easy to build a hit song merely by making lists of things from the years when your target audience felt like their lives were still ahead of them.

Good songwriters deal with the mess head-on, and their insight lets you make your own nostalgia about the stuff that’s unique to you.

Longley has had me feeling like that as I’ve played this record over and over the last several weeks. Something about “Outta My Head” made me think of Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing,” which made me remember how I used to feel whenever I would hear it, which made me start thinking a lot about that time in my life, which has lots of parallels to the things Longley must have been turning over in her head when she wrote “Outta My Head.” It’s that kind of interplay between artist and listener that makes music so much a part of our inner lives.

Though it’s Longley’s songwriting that makes this a great record, it’s her voice that most people notice first. Fans of modern country music will notice her voice is every bit as strong and of roughly the same type as the popular female singers of today; more discerning listeners will note that it’s clearly better than any chart-topper you’d care to name—and that Longley can actually sing, and in just about any style she cares to try. The 11 tracks on this record have a unified sound with lots of different influences—subtle ones—from pop and country music from the 1970s and each decade since.

All of this helps Longley put across an impressive cycle of songs about love and memory—the stab of excitement tinged with fear when we feel intense desire for the first time that’s so strong we keep chasing it (“Camaro”), the disbelief when someone is taking that feeling away from you (“This is Not the End”), the mix of shame and resolve when you take that feeling away from someone because they can’t come with you where you’re going (“Memphis”), the rush when you find someone who makes it all feel new and risky again (“Never Loved Another”), the feeling you get from that one person you know you shouldn’t keep coming back to (“Bad Habit,” which is also might be the best song ever written about cigarettes), and the renewed optimism that you may have actually found someone good for you (“You’ve Got that Way”).

A couple of songs included on this album don’t quite fit this theme, nor are they quite as good, but Longley ties everything together with a love song of incredible emotional intensity and simplicity. With the aptly titled “Simple Love,” she tells us how it feels to escape the cycle that has obsessed countless songwriters, offering hope to those who are still caught there.

“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.

“Ghosts in the Field” by Shantell Ogden

Shantell Ogden
Ghosts in the Field
Hip Farm Chic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Good singer-songwriters have it rough in the country market these days. If you’re too good, then your material won’t get much attention from programmers or from more popular acts looking for material to record. If you dumb down your lyrics and use the same chords melodies, chords, and arrangements that those popular acts are beating to death, then why bother?

On her seven-song Ghosts in the Field, Shantell Ogden offers up a nice range of first-rate songs with a bright sound that will stand out in anyone’s current country or Americana playlist. While “Just a Little” captures the fleeting excitement of falling in love, and “Who Comes First” charts love turning to disillusionment, “Be My Rain” is about the hope of trying to avoid either extreme, written with a maturity that had me thinking of Jackson Browne.

Both the title track and “Blossom in the Dust” richly evoke the real, deep connection with the rural past and small town life that many of us share, putting to shame the big Nashville labels who’ve created the current trend of hicksploitation to convert that nostalgia into cash before the whole mess goes under.

Shantell Ogden is an artist making music the right way.

 

“Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” by Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
Dualtone Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music and the Texas songwriter tradition are about as different from one another as any other pair of styles in country music, but Robert Earl Keen is not the first master of the latter to put his hand to the former. Though Happy Prisoner doesn’t approach the brilliance of The Mountain—Steve Earle’s 1999 classic with the Del McCoury Band for which he wrote original songs—Keen’s ramble through a 14-song set* of bluegrass standards is a fun listen, unlike similar projects from some Nashville stars looking to crow about how country they are.

Keen eschews the familiar lineup of first-call bluegrass studio players in favor of his own band—plus banjo guru Danny Barnes—who “played to bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us.” Barnes’ presence is most felt on the low groove “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” whose arrangement bears a welcome resemblance to the Groovegrass Boyz’ “Macarena,” and his idiosyncratic picking is a good fit for Keen and his band.

The result is a spirited freshness that makes up for the lack of technical brilliance. Keen’s easy drawl finds some new feeling in well-worn songs like “East Virginia Blues,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and “This World is Not My Home.” And grassy numbers like “The Old Home Place,” “Walls of Time,” and, with harmony from Peter Rowan, “99 Years for One Dark Day” would please even old-school pickers. (However, Keen probably should have picked a modern song other than “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which simply can’t get any better than the McCoury cover or Richard Thompson’s own version.)

Guest vocals from fellow Texans Lyle Lovett (“T for Texas”) and Natalie Maines (a gorgeous “Wayfaring Stranger”) are good enough to make one wish Keen invited more of his peers to help him put some Lone Star shine on the high lonesome sound.

*There’s a deluxe version with a few extra tracks, which weren’t included in our review copy.

“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.