“Powerlines” by Mustered Courage

Mustered Courage
Powerlines
Travianna Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This CD is a mixture of some good bluegrass that segues into a combination of what you might call indie-newgrass-roots. It’s full of good instrumental work with all the instruments found in a traditional bluegrass band, and a little harmonica thrown in.

“Standing By Your Side” makes a good bluegrass number. I don’t hear the Stanley Brothers in it but Nothin’ Fancy might do it. “Cruel Alibis” starts off with some minor chords, slow, bluesy, then kicks into high gear with good breaks by the instrumentalists. “Old Steam Train” has a strong drive, a story about love gone bad. If you want a good, hard driving instrumental, “Allegheny” will fill the bill and it does an excellent job of showcasing the skill of the pickers on this CD.

The band is made up of people most of the bluegrass world won’t recognize. One factor in the lack of name recognition is they hail from Melbourne, Australia, where they are described as “the link between Bill Monroe and Mumford & Sons.” They are stars in the Austrlian folk and roots scene. The band includes Julian Abrahams (guitar, vocals), Paddy Montgomery (mandolin), Texas native Nick Keeling (banjo, lead vocals) and Joshua Bridges (bass and vocals). CD guests include Kasey Chambers (vocals), Yen Nguyen (bass vocals), Kat Mear (fiddle), Peter Fidler (Dobro) and Christi Hodgkins (harmonica). Lack of name recognition has nothing to do with ability and these folks can pick the strings off their instruments.

Nothing shows off singing skill like an a cappella number and they nail it with “Towin’ the Chain.” “Go To Hell” goes off into the indie field (doubt you’d ever hear this at a typical bluegrass concert), an unhappy lover who is telling his mate where to go. “Behind the Bullet” is close to Grateful Dead rock and you’ll have to work a bit to figure out the lyrics, while “My Hometown” is softer while still sounding like a close cousin to a rock song.

If I was booking bands for a show and snagged Old Crow Medicine Show, Mustered Courage would make a good addition to the show. If I had Doyle Lawson, not so much. If you’re into roots and indie with a touch of bluegrass, this is your ticket.

“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“Ghosts in the Field” by Shantell Ogden

Shantell Ogden
Ghosts in the Field
Hip Farm Chic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Good singer-songwriters have it rough in the country market these days. If you’re too good, then your material won’t get much attention from programmers or from more popular acts looking for material to record. If you dumb down your lyrics and use the same chords melodies, chords, and arrangements that those popular acts are beating to death, then why bother?

On her seven-song Ghosts in the Field, Shantell Ogden offers up a nice range of first-rate songs with a bright sound that will stand out in anyone’s current country or Americana playlist. While “Just a Little” captures the fleeting excitement of falling in love, and “Who Comes First” charts love turning to disillusionment, “Be My Rain” is about the hope of trying to avoid either extreme, written with a maturity that had me thinking of Jackson Browne.

Both the title track and “Blossom in the Dust” richly evoke the real, deep connection with the rural past and small town life that many of us share, putting to shame the big Nashville labels who’ve created the current trend of hicksploitation to convert that nostalgia into cash before the whole mess goes under.

Shantell Ogden is an artist making music the right way.

 

“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.

“Memories and Moments” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Memories and Moments
Full Skies Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

On this, their second studio album, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien go together like soup beans and taters, or peanut butter and jelly. Memories and Moments conveys the love these two have for the songwriting process and the fun they have with the spontaneity of switching vocals, songs, and instruments.

Darrell Scott, born in eastern Kentucky, has won countless accolades for his songwriting, both on material recorded by more famous artists and that included on his solo releases. With an approach to Appalachian culture that is passionate and intentional, Scott has become one of my favorite songwriters in modern music.

Tim O’Brien became a bluegrass household name as a member of Hot Rize (formed in 1978), and his name is included on dozens and dozens of liner notes since, as a songwriter, guest vocalists, or session player.

Thirteen years after their release of the stunning Real Time (2000) and a year after the live disc We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This (2012)*, these Americana mavens turn in another classic—a 14-song album of superb songwriting, electrifying live-in-studio performance, and well-chosen covers of George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine, who appears as a guest vocalist singing one of his hits “Paradise.”

The album starts with a song written by O’Brien “Time to Talk to Joseph” about traveling in the hollers dark and deep. The clawhammer banjo adds a nice touch to harmonies from Scott. My favorite track is “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” it’s a song about how mining techniques have changed over time, while the miners’ struggle has not. Scott and O’Brien trade harmonies and lead throughout the song, which shows a different perspective on a song written by the two. The title track “Memories and Moments,” a song written by Scott, mourns the swiftness of life and being left with just memories.

“Just One More,” a song written by George Jones, has a reverence far classic country music, which Scott and O’Brien don’t veer far from. I like when artists create their own versions of songs by other artists but sometimes it’s really nice to “tip the hat” at the songwriter and create a memorial of their song. This is the case with the Hank Williams song “Alone and Forsaken,” where Scott and O’Brien create an eerie sound that one could mistake for the ghost of Hank himself.

Memories and Moments is a gem of an album.

*Editor’s Note: We normally try to review albums as close to the release date as possible, but this one was released about 18 months ago. We didn’t find out about this disc until months after its release, then it was assigned to a writer who had it for a while before backing out.

 

“The Best Kept Secret” by Chris Cuddy

Cris Cuddy
The Best Kept Secret
self-released

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If there’s one thing everyone should agree upon, Cris Cuddy’s CD isn’t boring. It’s indie music, a mixture of blues, rockabilly, and a little Mexican and calypso and other styles you may not describe. He switches tempos and styles and keeps it all interesting from start to finish. Cuddy, who hails from Canada, composed or co-composed (with Tom McCreight) all the songs, sings lead and plays harmonica and acoustic guitar. His voice tends to be on the soft side and the overall feel is laid-back and easy, a bit of Jimmy Buffet aura. The lyrics can be quirky: “I was hangin’ around a drive-through daiquiri bar, had my eye on a guy I think was thinkin’ about stealin’ my car” and “I was runnin’ the Elvis chapel in the all night church.” “Drive-Thru Daiquiri Bar” is a story about someone who is lost in his passage through life, told with a bit of a calypso beat. It’s not sad so much as reflective and it’s easy to picture a crowd kicked back with a drink at hand, nodding and saying to each other, “that’s the way it is, man.”

“IBMA Blues,” strangely named because nothing about this CD is reminiscent of the IBMA other than a couple of the musicians, is a story about love lost due to his passion for his music. A couple of familiar names are on this one. Jim Hurst (guitar) and Emory Lester (mandolin and fiddle) appear on several tracks and play in their usual brilliant styles. “She Reminded Me of You” is a lost love song with a Mexicali sound, complete with an accordion and quavering steel guitar. Unless your musical tastes are stuck in one genre it’s hard to not like this track. Next he channels Marty Robbins with “The Big Chill.” He doesn’t sound a bit like Robbins but this is a song Robbins would have sung if he was still around, a song about a gunfighter in the old west. Going with rockabilly, he offers “The Best Kept Secret,” a story about a secret love affair, except for the neighbor who ends up with the girl the other guy has been keeping hidden.

If you like blues, listen to “The Luck of the Draw.” Roly Platt plays some great harmonica and Keith Glass tears it up on guitar. This is track I could listen to all day long. Another bluesy number, with brushes on the drums and a good bass line, is “Amy,” a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse.

The musicians are all top drawer and the arrangements are good. This isn’t a CD that grabs you, it’s not a slap in the face to get your attention. The music sneaks up on you and you find yourself immersed in it, stopping whatever you were doing to listen. This one goes into my short stack that I play over and over.

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