“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.

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“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.

“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.