“The Game” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
The Game
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s hard to write a review of an album you know is going to be good. Blue Highway started with a five-man lineup 20 years and 10 albums ago, and it’s still the same five guys making great music (Tom Adams replaced Jason Burleson on banjo for the group 1999’s self-titled fourth album.)

All the elements of this versatile and durable combo are in place for the 12 tracks and 40 minutes of The Game: Burleson’s firm right hand, three singer-songwriters—Shawn Lane (mandolin and fiddle), Tim Stafford (guitar), and Wayne Taylor (bass)—who could easily front their own bands, and the second greatest Dobro player to ever put steel on steel in Rob Ickes.

“The Game,” “Where Jasmine Grows,” and, especially, “Talk is Cheap” are the kind of groove-heavy tracks that Blue Highway does better than anyone else.

“Just to Have a Job,” “All the Things You Do,” and “Remind Me of You” are the kind of irrepressible, perfectly crafted and sung tunes that outclass just about every other bluegrass songwriter.

Burleson’s celtic hop “Dogtown” and Ickes’ breezy “Funny Farm” are inventive instrumentals that aren’t merely excuses for showing off.

All of that is—please forgive me—just a little bit of a letdown. The Game is a great album, but it’s great in essentially the same way that their last two or three albums have been. I suppose that’s a little bit like complaining that Sandy Koufax just pitched another no-hitter, but I can’t help but think that tinkering with the mix a little—perhaps by collaborating with a producer (instead of self-producing) or by adding another musician (as the Del McCoury Band did with Jerry Douglas on The Cold Hard Facts)—would be a catalyst for something even more creative.

The traditional “Hicks’s Farewell” is the one track on The Game that a band member didn’t have a share in writing, and it’s the most striking—master musicians calling down the ancient tones that resonate deeper than even the best of modern craftsmanship.

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“A Dotted Line” by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been a decade and a half since Nickel Creek released their self-titled third album, the one that introduced them to music fans outside the bluegrass festival circuit that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother Sean Watkins had been popular on since they were kids.

Now in their thirties, each is rightly considered among the very best musicians on their instruments—especially Thile, who is nothing less than the Babe Ruth of the mandolin. But their sum here on A Dotted Line is considerably less substantive than their parts.

Twee is the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this one several times. Rather than trusting their talent to just play, the trio can’t get out of their own way when it comes to writing, choosing and arranging material.

Even on what could have been a simple and beautiful instrumental track like “Elephant in the Corn,” they have to throw in a couple of bits that are—to copy and paste from my dictionary app—”affectedly quaint.”

I suppose Thile thinks he’s being Byronic on “Rest of My Life,” “Love of Mine,” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” but he’s really still just doing John Mayer’s tired act. What’s worse is that Sean tries the same thing on “Christmas Eve.” You’d think a couple of grown men would know how to talk to women more effectively, but I guess when you’re in a band, you can let that part of your game slide.

Sara comes through with lead vocals on the disc’s only two listenable tracks, the self-penned perfect pop of “Destination” and a gorgeous take on Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” Her voice is as sweet as it was on “The Hand Song,” but she’s got the maturity that her bandmates don’t.

The most important track here is the cover of “Hayloft,” by Canadian indie rockers Mother Mother. It took great skill to play and produce a track so awful, which makes it so disappointing that these three seem so intent on proving their hipster bona fides when they should just relax and play (see the Infamous Stringdusters).

“Taproot” by Three Tall Pines

Taproot
Three Tall Pines
self-released
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Taproot is a six-song, 23-minute EP, the third studio effort from New England bluegrass/Americana quartet Three Tall Pines.

Dan Bourdeau (guitar, vocals), Nick DiSebastian (bass, guitar, vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin, vocals), and Conor Smith (fiddle, vocals) are joined by guest banjo picker and producer Ron Cody on five bluegrass standards and one fine Bourdeau original—the decidedly Welchian “Stonewalls.”

TTP won’t be mistaken—especially vocally—for most of the bluegrass bands that include “Walls of Time,” “Crying Holy,” and “Angel Band” in their repetoire, and that’s a good thing. Their arrangments have a hint of the rock/jam band sound to them, getting the right mix of reverent and refreshing.

Smith’s playing throughout is especially good, and he’s joined on two tracks by a couple of fellow fiddlers to great effect: Britanny Haas on a soaring “Raleigh & Spencer” and by Haas and Lauren Rioux on “With Body & Soul.”

This was my first notice of TTP, and I’ll be looking forward to more material, especially original compostions as good as the lone example here.

“Let it Go” by the Infamous Stringdusters

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

By Aaron Keith Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Long Time…Seldom Scene” by the Seldom Scene

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

By Aaron Keith Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dancin’ Annie” by Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie    
Dancin’ Annie
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

So many albums from notable bluegrass pickers these days feature the headliner with an assortment of other similarly famous pickers, and the results are usually satisfying—but that they are satisfying in the same way gets old after a while.

It’s refreshing to see banjo legend Bill Emerson (Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron) sticking to the tried and true approach of leading an actual band and trusting them to do great work in the studio.

Sweet Dixie is filled out by Teri Chism (bass), Wayne Lanham (mandolin), and Chris Stifel (guitar), all of whom play and sing with the effortless precision that we have long enjoyed from Emerson’s banjo. They split the vocal leads just about evenly, and their harmony singing and instrumental breaks are done in service of the song. Like I said: an actual band.

Stifel penned and sings a smooth lead on the bouncy title track, while the rest of this 12-track 39-minute CD features songs from other writers. The three on which Chism sings lead are particularly nice fits for her voice and this band: the hard-driving—both lyrically and sonically—”Two Hands on the Wheel,” Liz Meyer’s “The Only Wind that Blows,” and a simple, sweet version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

The three gospel numbers manage to be fresh and meaningful, rather than trite or preachy, and the two instrumentals—Emerson’s own “State Line Ride” and Lanham’s “Whistle Stop”—make this one a fun listen in the car.

The two best tracks here are “Days When You Were Mine” and “This Heart You Have Broken,” which isn’t surprising when you see that they’re both previously unrecorded songs from the songwriting team of Pete Goble and the late Leroy Drumm.

This approach to album-making has its roots in the 1970s, but Emerson and Sweet Dixie prove it still works.

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“Reflections” by Don Williams

Don Williams
Reflections
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Often when I dismiss most of what comes from Nashville these days as not being country music, people misunderstand. I think they’re inferring that I insist everything sound like the Carter Family, Hank Williams Sr., or Bill Monroe, or that I’m against any sort of elements from genres like pop or rock.

That’s not it at all. After all, the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash borrowed heavily from all sorts of other styles, but they’re rightly regarded as country originals. It’s not the addition of non-country elements that makes something not suitable to be called country, but rather the lack of individual artistic integrity. You can get away with a lot as long as your foundation is the proverbial three chords and the truth.

Don Williams is a classic country singer and songwriter, even though his sound would never be likened to honky-tonk. His sound isn’t twangy at all, but his simple words paired with his legendary, laconic delivery are as country as you can get, and 2012’s And So it Goes proved he’s as good as he’s ever been.

Reflections is an apt title for this collection of 10 tracks written by others, as it shows how the Williams style has both drawn from and help shape the best country songwriting of the last few decades.

Opening with Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Williams puts us out on a lonely highway dreaming of love at home, in the same place countless truckers experienced his music in the 1970s. Guy Clark’s “Talk is Cheap” takes us further toward the horizon with a gently ascending melody nudging along the chorus that serves as this album’s theme:

Talk is cheap

and time’s a-wastin’

get busy livin’

or at least die tryin’

Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” are the other two instantly recognizable songs, and Williams makes each his own with perfect, simple arrangements aided by co-producer Garth Fundis (Keith Whitley, Alabama).

The other six songs fit so well with Williams’ persona and the well-known covers—especially “Healing Hands” (with whispered harmony from the Issacs) and “Stronger Back”—that you’d assume they all came from the Gentle Giant’s own pen. The fact that they didn’t proves that, either as a singer or a songwriter, Don Williams is as country—and as great—as it gets.

don-williams-reflections

“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.

RhondaVincent_OnlyMe_cvr_med

“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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“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.

noam_kenny_bill