“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.

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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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“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.

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“Walking Song” by Ron Block

Ron Block
Walking Song
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

As longtime banjo player and guitarist for Alison Krauss’ Union Station, Ron Block’s clean and woody tones are familiar to most fans of bluegrass and acoustic music. His singing voice—heard on lead vocal occasionally on an AKUS album or live show—is more suited to the folky Americana sounds prevalent on his two previous releases for Rounder—Faraway Land (2001) and DoorWay (2007).

Walking Song is even more folky, even though the A-list of bluegrass pickers one would expect are in attendance: fellow AKUS members Barry Bales (bass), Dan Tyminski (vocals and mandolin), and Jerry Douglas (Dobro) are here, along with mandolin aces Sam, Bush, Mike Compton and Sierra Hull and everyone’s first-call Nashville fiddler, Stuart Duncan. Evelyn and Suzanne Cox are also along for harmonies on a couple of tracks.

Kate Rusby’s gorgeous voice adds sweet, rich harmony to Block’s on “Walking Song,” “Summer’s Lullaby,” and “Chase Me to the Ocean,” all of which, along with “Colors,” are highly mannered pastoral songs with a James Taylor flavor.

“The Fields of Aidlewinn,” featuring an Irish bodhran and accordion along with soaring harmonies from Tyminski, and “Ivy,” a solo guitar and voice workout that would make Tony Rice proud, are more engaging, as are the two gospel songs “Jordan, Carry Me” and “Rest, My Soul.” Another sacred song,”What Woundrous Love is This?” is given a grand instrumental treatment by Block (banjo, guitar, and National Duolian) and Jeff Taylor (accordion and pipe organ).

The combo of Block, Bales, Duncan, and Hull do cut loose on bluegrass versions of “Devil in the Strawstack” and “Shortnin’ Bread,” while Alison herself sings harmony on “Nickel Tree Line,” a driving number that should make it into future AKUS live setlists.

Block wrote all but three of the fourteen tracks on this disc, which could have benefitted from more variety in the form of a couple of well-chosen covers and perhaps a couple of lead vocal turns from one of the fine singers who offer only harmony vocals here.

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“The Bluegrass Album” by Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson
The Bluegrass Album
Alan’s Country Records/EMI Nashville
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

You don’t hear it as often as you did, but it rankles me when anyone speaks of “keeping bluegrass alive.” It’s a music half as old as jazz, and just a few years older than rock ‘n’ roll, and it survived the era of big record companies without being debased by commercialization.

Pure strains of the original bluegrass still thrive—in the work of the handful of its creators who survive and with dozens who learned from those creators—while most of the music’s new varieties have developed organically, rather than being imposed by music merchants.

Why then do bluegrassers still react to forays into their music by country stars—at least those without bona fides like Ricky Skaggs and a few others—with a deference nothing short of dispiriting?

The latest NashVegas personality to deign to get back to his roots or whatever with some pickin’ and grinnin’ is Alan Jackson. By no means the worst offender of the CMT era of Nashville—I actually liked his country covers album Under the Influence (1999)—Jackson doesn’t come close to having the hillbilly cred to have covered Larry Cordle’s “Murder on Music Row,” much less to cut a bluegrass record.

But he did, writing eight of the thirteen cuts on The Bluegrass Album—apparently with a songwriting Mad Libs booklet and liberal use of terms like “ain’t,” “hard road,” “blacktop,” “Heaven,” and, of course, “blue” (ridges, sides of town, moons, a state of being, especially when coupled with “wild”), “mountains” (Appalachian, Blue Ridge)—while throwing in de rigueur covers of a couple of bluegrass standards: Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and the Dillards’ “There is a Time.”

Jackson’s easy croon, which works well on his palatable country recordings, is not at all suited for bluegrass, and he sounds positively somnolent on this record—not a hint of the soulfulness that actual bluegrass requires, but just a little more effort than was put into the album cover (see below). The house band here does include Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar), Sammy Shelor (banjo), and Adam Steffey (mandolin), so the music itself is more than adequate, but the only use I can imagine for this lot is to soften up a fan of modern country music before slipping him some of the real thing.

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“Cluck Ol’ Hen” by Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
Cluck Ol’ Hen

Skaggs Family Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Since I caught the bluegrass true religion fifteen years ago, I have been a firm traditionalist on the issue of instrumentation. For it to be bluegrass, it must have a banjo, first, and then some combination including fiddle, guitar, mandolin, upright bass, and, reluctantly, the Dobro—with no cables connected to any of the aforementioned. City folk often think harmonicas, jugs, washboards, and spoons are appropriate for bluegrass, but seldom do decent musicians attempt this foolery.

Many bluegrass bands, for some reason, have tried percussion in the form of a snare drum or even some sort of drum kit, but the result is always at best superfluous; usually it’s just distracting enough to make me notice the extra guy on stage and wonder why the band is choosing to incur the extra expense.

The mandolin chop, the banjo’s right-hand rhythm, and the low tones of guitar and bass are, when properly played, the the sonic plow that lands ahead of the beat, distinguishing bluegrass music from most other popular forms of Western music, which are content to lay in the groove just behind the beat. I’ve never heard of percussionist who could grab this essential nuance. Even if such a person could get the rhythm right, he would still have to figure out a way to add something meaningful—something my imagination just cannot fathom.

I used to say the same about piano. And then came Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs with their eponymous 2007 album. They collaborated on a version of “Darlin’ Corey” for the 2000 Bill Monroe tribute album Big Mon on Skaggs Family Records, but that track, as great as it was, does not attempt the breakneck pace that Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder have done better than anyone for the last fifteen years or so. That’s especially true with banjo hammer Jim Mills on board, as he was for the studio album and the subsequent live dates from which the eleven tracks from Cluck Ol’ Hen appear to have been taken. (Mills wasn’t there for an amazing show I saw in Cincinnati in October.)

Hornsby’s ability not just to nail the difficult rhythm, but to spin off killer runs and breaks while adding harmonic backdrop to full-on pure-as-white-lightning standards from Monroe (“Toy Heart,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” and “Sally Jo”) and the Stanleys (“How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Little Maggie”) is—especially in concert—literally breathtaking.

Of the Hornsby compositions included here, only the instrumental “The Dreaded Spoon” (from the 2007 album) is taken at car-chase speed, while “Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues” (5:08), “White Wheeled Limousine” (14:20), and “The Way It Is” (10:24) serve as a master class for all the jam band wannabes that we’ve all had to put up with since Phish discovered Del McCoury.

Eastern-Kentucky favorite son Skaggs singing lead on “The Way It Is”—a deceptively grand and tuneful lament on issues of race and class that could not have been played on the radio or in public in many parts of the South in the 1960s—is an elegant example of how musicians who seek each other out in service to their craft often end up creating positive cultural changes as a by-product.

My only quibble with this remarkable album—which clocks in at seventy-one minutes with about six minutes of stage banter—is that there’s room for a couple of more numbers.

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“We Made it Home” by Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman

Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman
We Made it Home
Maker/Mender Records
5 stars (out of 5)

I’m glad to have encountered this dup for the first time, having been previously, and inexcusably, unaware of not only their award-winning progressive bluegrass band Front Country, but Walker’s debut solo project Gold Rush Goddess (2012).

We Made it Home—so named as the result of the duo’s unwinding at home after months of touring—is aptly intimate, but also open and wide-ranging, like the best conversations. Producer Laurie Lewis gets a warm sound from Walker and Groopman, who trade off on vocals, guitar, and banjo (with some mandolin from Groopman, and, on two cuts, Mike Witcher’s resophonic guitar).

What stood out for me on first listen were “Betelgeuse” and “Black Grace,” both Walker compositions and the type of modern singer-songwriter folk songs that normally send me running. I’d have thought it improbable for someone to write and sing just one song using astronomy as a metaphor for human emotion that I could stand, but here Walker gives me two in a row that might as well be perfect.

In contrast, “O Heartbreaker” is as visceral as it gets, and the best example here of Walker’s rich and sincere voice.

The title track recalls the arrangement of a Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott duet, and Groopman’s vocal delivery both on harmony and lead vocals (“Retinue,” “Sweet Sunny South,” and “Come On Mule”) recalls Scott’s gift for both soulfulness and storytelling, albeit in a more laid-back manner.

Every track here is a nice discovery, especially “Billy the Champ,” which is the most delightfully strange song I’ve heard in a long while. Telling you about it would take the edge off, so just take my advice and have a listen.

All of that, plus a languorous stroll through Peter Rowan’s “Mississippi Moon” and a fantastic cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” make this one my favorite surprise of the year.

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“The Streets of Baltimore” by the Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band
The Streets of Baltimore
McCoury Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music’s founders tended to think and record in terms of singles, as the radio era dictated, and when they had ten or twelve sides, they were packaged and sold as a set. Monroe and others did some “concept albums,” as they were called after Sinatra pioneered the concept, and second-generation acts like the Seldom Scene made a handful of great albums qua albums, but, now that the iTunes model seems to have triumphed, a case can be made that the Del McCoury Band has put out a discography of bluegrass albums that will never be bettered.

When Del and sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) in the early 1990s moved to Nashville full-time, brought in fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub (since replaced by the capable Alan Bartram), and signed on with Rounder Records, they started a run of more than a dozen great projects over twenty years using a formula that made them crossover stars and plowed the field for the O Brother phenomenon. The formula was, and remains, simple, straightforward, and accessible: mix bluegrass standards, new songs from Nashville songwriters, and well-chosen covers from other genres, and play them in a hard-edged bluegrass style with virtuoso instrumental flair, then let Del’s incomparable vocal range and power bring it home.

The Streets of Baltimore—so named for the version of Bobby Bare’s 1966 country hit done here in the style that Del and his Dixie Pals probably did it when they played frequently in that city at that time—sticks to that winning formula. It would be worth the price of a full disc just for Del’s transformation of the soft jazz standard “Misty” into a jaunty excuse for him to show off his irrepressible personality through his amazing, swooping tenor voice. Ronnie’s mandolin break shows that he can handle just about any style with an impeccable taste that other pickers often leave behind in a flurry of notes.

The Platters’ doo-wop classic “Only You” is another gem, transformed into an upbeat hop by Rob’s perennially under-heralded banjo and, again, Del’s obvious relish in singing a great song in a whole new way. Verlon Thompson’s “I Need More Time” has Del in a meditative mood, and the arrangement slightly recalls “City of Stone,” which has been a live show-stopper for the band for years.

“Once More With Feeling” introduces some country piano to the proceedings, which isn’t so shocking when you realize it’s Del’s nostalgic take on one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ more emotive country records from the Killer’s Nashville period.

The rest of the 13 tracks, which clock in at a total of 45 minutes, are pretty standard McCoury fare, which in this case amounts to really good but not great. “Blues Rollin’ In,” for example, sounds like an attempt to recapture the vibe of “I Feel the Blues Movin’ In” and a couple of other, better, songs from the back catalogue, which has now reached the point that even the men who made it will have a hard time improving upon it.

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