“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.

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“Standing Tall and Tough” by Crowe, Lawson & Williams and “Open Carefully, Message Inside” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Crowe, Lawson & Williams
Standing Tall and Tough
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Open Carefully, Message Inside
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

An 18-year-old Doyle Lawson joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys as the groups banjo player in 1963, not long after JD Crowe made himself a bluegrass legend in that same post. If at that time I would have told you that Lawson would end up (arguably) having a greater influence on the direction of bluegrass music than either the King or the Claw, you wouldn’t have bought it. But here we are 50 years later with two fine albums that help make that argument.

By Lawson’s count in the liner notes, Open Carefully is the 36th Quicksilver album in 35 years—an impressive achievement of excellence (for the most part, see here) and longevity even before you consider the lengthy roster of master musicians in that stretch whom Lawson has trained up and sent forth.

Eli Johnston (bass guitar) and Dustin Pyrtle (guitar) are up to the difficult task of sharing lead, duet, and trio vocal duties with Lawson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their names were one day added to the list of storied Quicksilver vets. (However, I’m not familiar yet with either one, and just from the liner notes, I can’t be sure who’s who from track to track).

Jason Barie (fiddle), Joe Dean (banjo), and Josh Swift (Dobro, guitar, and, yes, percussion) create a hard instrumental bluegrass edge on “Climbing Upward,” “Will You Go?,” and the delightfully McCouryesque “It’s Done” and country-gospel backing on “He Made the Tree,” “O Far Country,” and the album-opening “Coming Soon,” which might be the track you’d pick from this project to demonstrate how Lawson can blend together bluegrass and Southern gospel, old and new.

But what I love most about DLQ are the quartet recordings—whether a cappella or with solo guitar— that owe as much to the likes of black groups like the Golden Gate Quartet as to white groups like the gospel quartets of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. There are four great examples of that here: “Get on Board” (an old spiritual to which Lawson added a new final verse), “Lead Me to that Fountain” (with a perfectly understated bass vocal from Swift), “He’s In Control,” and the stunning nostalgia of “I Sailed Back.” Classic Quicksilver.

Standing Tall and Tough has Lawson back with Crowe and their fellow Martin alumnus Paul Williams for a second trio CD, and it’s as good as 2010’s Old Friends Get Together, with the more famous contributors content with creating a well-blended band sound that allows Williams’ grand voice to steal the show.

That disc was an all-gospel affair; this one isn’t. Lawson’s liner notes indicate that the trio wanted to do “a few songs that we hadn’t recorded during our time working with Jimmy Martin.”

There is a nucleus of Martin songs here: the Martin/Williams co-writes “My Walking Shoes,” “Little Angel in Heaven,” and “Pretending I Don’t Care,” as well as Williams’ peerless version of “Fraulein.”

Three Louvin Brothers songs—”Do You Live What You Preach?,” “Don’t Laugh,” and “Insured Beyond the Grave”—also get a masterful treatment, as do Bill Anderson’s “Once a Day” and the Jimmy Wakely/Johnny Bond “Those Gone and Left Me Blues.”

Williams stops the show with his version of “The Hills of Roane County”, his operatic tenor spinning out one of the strangest story songs in bluegrass prompting the chills up the spine just like Roy Orbison could on songs like “Leah” or “It’s Over.” (Has anyone suggested to Williams that he cut a record of Orbison covers?)

Lawson’s touch as producer is quite evident on Open Carefully, much less so on Standing Tall. But that’s what a great producer like Lawson does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

“Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Larry Sparks is an undisputed bluegrass icon, as much for his prodigious talent—the mournful, masculine voice pitched a little lower than “high lonesome” and his commanding guitar technique—as his niche somewhere between bluegrass music’s first and second generations (as Carter Stanley’s successor alongside Dr. Ralph starting in 1966, he played a key role in that period of transition when followers of the founders started, ever so gently, branching out).

Fifty years a professional, he’s still as good a bluegrass (or country or gospel, for that matter) lead singer there is, and the band he’s got on this disc—David Harvey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (fiddle), Tyler Mullins (banjo), Larry D. Sparks (bass), and Jackie Kincaid (tenor vocals)—does him justice, especially Kincaid’s old-school harmony on the opening cut, Jimmie Skinner’s “Will You Be Satisfied That Way?” and the simmering gospel bluegrass of “We Prayed.”

Sparks offers up some more trad grass with tenor harmonies from fellow legends Ralph Stanley (on Carter’s “Loving You Too Well”), Bobby Osborne (“Letter to My Darlin’), and Curly Seckler (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”), while Seckler and Jesse McReynolds join in on Hank Williams’ gospel shouter “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.”

But Sparks’ vocal virtuosity is in his ability to master both more contemporary bluegrass songs and banjo-less gospel. Here, the latter style is represented by “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” (which never gets old, especially with Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall joining Sparks and solo guitar), and “Savior’s Precious Blood,” also with just bluesy guitar and that majestic voice.

Sparks again shows on the album’s three bluegrass story songs—the nostalgic “In Those Days,” the realistic coal mining ballad “Journey to the Light,” and the Southern gothic “Bitterweeds” how he can turn a good song into a great one.

The crowning touch of this 12-track disc is a 1995 live cut of Sparks joining Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on stage at Bean Blossom for “In the Pines,” which is predictably grand.

“Great Big World” by Tony Trischka

Tony Trischka
Great Big World
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you’re not sure of Tony Trischka’s banjo cred, take it from Bela Fleck:

Tony was the right guy at the right time to take advantage of all the new lessons that were being taught right and left by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Miles Davis and so many more…and apply them to banjo music. This enabled him to propel the fine art of banjo playing three giant steps forward.

That’s from Fleck’s liner notes to Great Big World, aptly titled when one considers that the diverse and beautiful sounds Trischka makes on this 13-track disc are possible only in the musical world that he did so much to create.

A core unit of guitarist/vocalist Michael Daves, mando picker Mike Compton, fiddler Mike Barnett, and bassist Skip Ward join Trischka for trad-grass arrangements of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” and—with Chris Eldridge on guitar and lead vocals—”Say Goodbye.” Daves and Aoife O’Donovan trade vocals on the latter part of “Belated Wedding Hoedown/Angelina Baker,” with the Trischka-penned instrumental first half setting up Stephen Foster’s familiar melody perfectly.

Trischka’s instrumental compositions have always been both intricate and tuneful, and that’s what he delivers with “The Danny Thomas,” “Promontory Point” (with Steve Martin on banjo), the solo front parlor picking of “Swag Bag Rag,” and the seven-minute “Single String Medley,” which features a unique tune for each of the banjo’s five strings.

“Great Big World/Purple Trees of Colorado” is another seven-minute frolic, with Noam Pikelny picking second banjo and longtime Trischka pal Andy Statman pitching in with both mandolin and clarinet.

Trischka is also a gifted lyricist whose melodies work just as well sung as played, and it doesn’t hurt to have voices like harpist Maeve Gilchrist (who also adds her harp to “Ocracoke Lullaby,” which indeed does sound like a gentle night on the coast of its eponymous island), the ethereal Abigail Washburn (“Lost,” arranged with violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet), and Catherine Russell, who’s backed by Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on pedal steel and latter-day Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbidge for the ecumenical gospel rave-up “Joy.”

All that’s enough to make this one of the finest records released this year—and to serve as proof that Trischka can do well whatever he sets his hand to—but the coup de maître is “Wild Bill Hickok,” a miniature Western with laconic vocals from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and narration by John Goodman.

“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.