“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“Holiday!” by the Claire Lynch Band

The Claire Lynch Band
Holiday!
Thrill Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to avoid holiday music, but Claire Lynch has finally got me in the Christmas spirit with this gorgeous album.

Writers, including myself, have emptied out the thesaurus trying to describe Lynch’s singing, which brings both a fresh sound and a sweet nostalgia to songs—“Home for the Holidays,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “White Christmas,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and “All Through the Night”—that we’ve all heard so many times.

It helps to have a band that includes the incomparable Mark Schatz on bass, along with Bryan McDowell (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) and Matthew Wingate (mandolin and guitar, including some fine archtop playing). The trio, appropriately, jazz up “We Three Kings,” the album’s lone instrumental cut, and their take on “Jingle Bells”—featuring Schatz on clawhammer banjo—is the first version of that chestnut I’ve enjoyed hearing in years.

New or less-familiar (to me, at least) songs include the cool and crisp Lynch/McDowell vocal duet “Snow Day” and the warm Nativity ballad “Heaven’s Light” (with Jim Hurst guesting on guitar).

Schatz also sings lead on “In the Window,” a Hanukkah song whose splendid performance and intricate arrangement underscore the talent of Lynch, her band, and Todd Phillips, who recorded, mixed, and mastered this fine album.

“Nashville” by the Osborne Brothers

The Osborne Brothers
Nashville
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Give the folks at the resurgent Pinecastle Records credit for issuing this fourth and final chapter in an ambitious Osborne Brothers career retrospective—begun in 1998—in spite of many obstacles, most notably Sonny’s retirement.

The three previous installments—Hyden (1998), Dayton to Knoxville (2000), and Detroit to Wheeling (2003)— were mostly new recordings of Osborne classic tracks associated with different segments of their career, and Nashville seems to have been planned as a similar revival, this time of their most commercially successful period as veteran Grand Ole Opry stars who grabbed lots of country airplay in the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s after adding steel guitar, drums, and electric bass to Sonny’s unique banjo picking and Bobby’s soaring lead singing.

Instead, Nashville brings to light seven lost recordings from a album abandoned by the group when they abruptly, and unhappily, left MCA Records, which had appropriated their previous label, Decca. Cut in Bradley’s Barn in 1973 (which I think is correct, though in one place, the liner says 1975) with studio pros including Vassar Clements (fiddle), Pig Robbins (piano), and Hall Rugg (steel and Dobro), it’s pretty stout stuff.

The Bobby composition “Gonna Be Raining When I Die” surely would have been a radio hit that year, and Phil Rosenthal’s “Muddy Waters,” cut by the Seldom Scene the same year, shows just how sophisticated the brothers from Hyden, Ky. could be.

With two killer Louvin tracks (“My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”) and three from the pen of Jake Landers (“The Oak Tree,” “Going Back to the Mountains,” and “The Hard Times”), they were clearly in the home stretch of a project that would have stood with their best.

Quite satisfying that we finally have them here—along with an eighth track, Roger Miller’s “Half a Mind” from a strictly acoustic 1995 session that features Terry Eldredge joining the vocal trio and Gene Wooten’s Dobro trading licks with Sonny’s crisp and woody guitjo.

“The Earls of Leicester” by the Earls of Leicester and “Three Bells” by Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes

The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes
Three Bells

Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life when I got and started listening to these two albums, which were released simultaneously by Rounder. He writes about the unlikelihood that a few teenagers in London would make it their life’s mission—at least foe a few years—to become a Chicago-style blues band, and that such a thing was only possible because of the invention of recorded music. Though he first picked up a guitar only about 25 years after the death of Robert Johnson and while the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter were still alive and productive, there’s simply no way he would have ever heard their music were it not for vinyl records and radio waves. Before their invention, musical styles grew slowly. Music was tied to a particular place and people, and to activities like Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning worship—a juxtaposition that influenced bluegrass music as much as it did the blues.

Music also passed from hand to hand, from master to apprentice. Musical mutations into new styles only occurred when a genius came along to synthesize and create from what already existed—the example most obvious to readers of this site is of course bluegrass music, which happened when the cross-eyed boy from Kentucky played dances with his fiddling uncle and a black guitar player at the same time and place musical evangelists were teaching the shape-note choir singing style. Without proximity to those three elements, Bill Monroe would not have created what Alan Lomax called “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British—American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

You wouldn’t quite call Josh Graves a genius on Monroe’s level, but he certainly was a virtuoso, much like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who hired Graves so his Dobro sound could further distinguish the Foggy Mountain Boys from other early exponents of Monroe’s art. (For the full story, read Bluegrass Bluesman.) Graves’ innovations led to a new vein of gifted musicians deciding to play bluegrass, including Mike Auldridge, who bought his first Dobro from Graves himself.

It’s to pay homage to Graves and the sound he helped create, of course, that prompted Jerry Douglas, the undisputed Dobro master, to form the Earls of Leicester. Walk down Broadway in Nashville, and you’ll bump into enough pickers who could play an impromptu Lester & Earl set, but the five that Douglas has enlisted do it as good as it could possibly be done: Union Station’s Barry Bales plays upright bass, Johnny Warren fiddles as good as his father Paul did with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Shawn Camp (lead vocals, guitar), and Charlie Cushman (banjo) play the parts, respectively, of Curly Seckler, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The effect they achieve on this 14-track album is uncanny—they don’t sound exactly like the source material, but they capture the key element of the Flatt & Scruggs sound—its effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication. It’s great to hear Camp, an accomplished country-rock singer songwriter, sing bluegrass, coming closer to Lester’s vocal style than one could imagine anyone else doing, and O’Brien and Cushman have Curly’s chop and Earl’s roll down pat. Warren’s fills and breaks are as exciting as his daddy’s were, and Douglas’ vicariously reminds us just how important the grafting of Graves on to the bluegrass family tree was for what we hear and appreciate today. Adding the Dobro’s six strings as the music’s sixth instrument gave it so much more depth without sacrificing a bit of its integrity.

After Graves and before Douglas, there was Mike Auldridge. As a founding member of the Seldom Scene, Auldridge helped that band firmly establish the “progressive” approach to bluegrass—mixing in both the songs and the sensibilities of the country-rock and singer-songwriter styles of the 1970s. You can do a lot with a traditional five-piece bluegrass unit, but you absolutely cannot put across a song like “Sweet Baby James,” much less make it far superior to the original, without that small taste of Auldridge’s Dobro.

In the months before Auldridge died in 2012, he recorded Three Bells with Douglas and Rob Ickes—no backing band, just the three of them—with Auldridge’s instrument in the middle of the stereo mix, Douglas left, and Ickes right. I don’t think an approach like this could work, in a simply technical sense, nearly as well with any other instrument—especially not among the other five bluegrass tools. And it’s hard to imagine three other players could use this approach to create a sound so skilfully woven, as if all 18 strings were played by only one musician.

The 11-song, 45-minute track list is free of cliché—only “Panhandle Rag,” a composition of Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys) is from the bluegrass/country instrumental canon, which makes sense. Such tunes are written with the idea that each instrument in the band can have a turn showing what it can do before passing off to the next man.

Instead, this ensemble refashions old parlor, jazz, and easy listening songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Sunrise Serenade,” and “The Three Bells” into brocaded tone poems free from the schmaltzy sheen present in their most popular versions. Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” is similarly refined into a stately hymn.

But of course, Auldridge, Douglas, and Ickes are all gifted composers as well, and their own songs are the best on this album: Auldridge’s bright and bouncy “For Buddy,” Douglas’ propulsive “North,” and Ickes’ perfectly titled “Dobro Heaven.”

Each man also contributes a solo performance—Auldridge a gorgeous medley of “‘Till There Was You/Moon River,” Ickes his own reflective “The Message,” and Douglas the truly sublime “The Perils of Private Mulvaney”—to remind us both the emotional richness a single Dobro can convey, and of why this trio making this record just in time is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
Masterworks
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.

“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.