“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Fiddle Tune X” by Billy Strings & Don Julin

Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X
No label
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Michigan acoustic duo Billy (Apostol) Strings and Don Julin have released their second recording, a live album entitled Fiddle Tune X. It is an animated, forceful collection of mostly very familiar songs, none of which appeared on their debut album of last year.

I have heard it argued—and may have taken this position myself—that a duo cannot play bluegrass as it is impossible to include the necessary elements of the genre with only two instrumentalists. Strings (guitar) and Julin (mandolin) may not feature fiddle or bass, but everything about their stance suggests deep interest in and respect for bluegrass. They are certainly a bluegrass duo.

While the sound may not be bluegrass in its purest form, the essence of the music is certainly concentrated within the duo’s sparse framework. They draw on the fiddle-tune foundation of bluegrass (“Salt Creek”/”Old Joe Clark”), the influence hillbilly and country sounds had on its founders (“Beaumont Rag,” “Walk On Boy,” and “Miss the Mississippi and You,”), and the standards that are at the core of the music (“Poor Ellen Smith,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”)

While such a repertoire may appear tired or pedestrian, such is not the case. Strings and Julin bring an abundance of energy to their performance, feeding off each other and their audience to elevate these frequently encountered songs. While most of the songs have been around next to forever, the pair—working around a single mic—have found a way to make the overly recognizable extremely appealing.

Without overstating things, Doc Watson—whose spirit doesn’t seem to be too far removed from these boys’ hearts—comes to mind; you comfortably anticipated how a Doc Watson performance would unfold, but that didn’t stop you from leaning forward to listen. Same here, although the familiarity factor is obviously less apparent.

Strings sings the lead throughout with Julin coming in with complementary tenor. The bulk of the songs were recorded at various venues including small halls, bars, and homes. These songs have the most vigour, with the audiences’ enthusiasm for the duo readily apparent. They play to the crowd rather shamelessly and good-naturedly, extending both “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie” to six minute-plus jams, guitar and mandolin exchanging the leads while also coming together in impressive displays of companionable accompaniment. The opening pairing of “Beaumont Rag” and “Walk On Boy” showcase Strings considerable flatpicking skills.

A large handful of songs were recorded without second guessing or overdubs in a snowbound farmhouse early this year, and it is on these cuts that the duo are at their strongest. Absent the whooping and hollering of the more exuberant members of their fan club, one can more readily appreciate their talents.

Julin’s title tune is a driving bluegrass instrumental that threatens to go by a bit too quickly were it not for Strings’ judicious tempo adjustment on his break. “Dos Banjos,” Strings’ composition, has a real mountain sound with timeless lyrics that could be lifted from a Hobart Smith side. Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” is perhaps the album’s most pensive tune, and showcases the duo at the highest level. Strings’ playing, while considerable throughout the 17-track recording, is especially appealing here with Julin serving up delicate notes that are terribly impressive. The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son” is another highlight.

The closing rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded on Third Man Records Voice-o-Graph is the only jarring bit on an otherwise terrific collection; given this and Neil Young’s indulgent A Letter Home, let’s hope the fascination with this low-fi method is a quickly passing fancy.

Billy Strings and Don Julin have captured some of their favorite live performances within this collection. Augmented with their isolated farmhouse recordings, the duo have crafted a very pleasing set of acoustic music. I anticipate frequently returning to Fiddle Tune X. Especially recommended for those who appreciate Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien.

“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.

“Follow the Music” by Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard
Follow the Music
Tompkins Square Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Follow the Music is a worthy follow-up to Bittersweet, the album that again brought Alice Gerrard to the attention of the old-time/folk music community. Whereas she had released only three solo albums over the course of twenty years, Follow the Music comes just a year after that exceptional release.

An Alice Gerrard album must be centered around three things. First, her impeccable voice must be front and centre. Equally capable of wringing every bit of darkness from a timeless song such as “The Vulture,” or easing the blues out of a double-barrelled country song like Leona Williams’ “You Take Me for Granted,” Gerrard has long been recognized as a vocal master among her peers and devotees.

Second, there has to be the songs, and on Follow the Music Gerrard and album producer M.C. Taylor have delved into her past for a few (including her own “Love Was the Price”) and into the past for others (“Boll Weevil” and “Bear Me Away.”)

Finally, the production has to be balanced—keep the instrumentation sparse, and let the lady take the songs to the places they must go. Simultaneously, as Gerrard has played with the best, anyone wishing to be one of her backing musicians had better be up to the task.

I would suggest each of these targets have been firmly accounted for within the album’s 46 minutes.

“Follow the Music” is a new song, one that Gerrard credits as “sort of my story.” “Since I was a child, I’ve been looking for a home; been everywhere and I’ve been nowhere at all,” is how she begins this warm lament. With refreshing banjo and resophonic guitar brightening the path, the lead guitar work (possibly from Phil Cook) paces Gerrard’s rumination on the power music holds over many of us. Much of what the song expresses comes in the first minute, but the bulk of the song articulates what we know: “If I follow the music to where I want to go, it will take me to safe harbour and guide me home.” That is what music does for those who embrace its influence.

Each track serves as its own little highlight. “Strange Land” brings to the surface the fear of isolation and “Teardrops Falling in the Snow” is a classic, a heart song of the type seldom heard in today’s country music repertoire. Performing “Wedding Dress,” Gerrard sounds decades younger than her 80 years while still conveying the wisdom of one who knows of what she sings. The touching “Goodbyes,” written by Gerrard’s grandson Adam Heller, brings the album to a duly melancholy close.

Whereas other singers who have released music well into their senior years—Charlie Louvin, comes to mind, as do several Grand Ole Opry stars and even Johnny Cash—had to contend with notably diminished vocal skills, Gerrard faces no such loss. She remains strong vocally, more circumspect perhaps in the notes she attempts but with no deterioration in her abilities apparent.

When Alice Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. Listening to Follow the Music is a pleasure, and I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music.

“Hearts Like Ours” by Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White

Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White
Hearts Like Ours
Skaggs Family Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ricky Skaggs has been a major impact on bluegrass and country music for decades. His honors include 11 IBMA awards, 8 ACM awards, 8 CMA awards and 14 Grammys. He’s had 12 #1 hit singles. He started in bluegrass as a young man (at 17, with Keith Whitley, they joined Raplh Stanley’s band), moved to country, and now works in both worlds. Along the way, thirty-three years ago, he married Sharon White. She and sister Cheryl and dad, Buck, are widely loved bluegrass and country musicians and Buck is well known both for his faith and his honky-tonk piano. They made their movie debut in O Brother, Where Art Thou. They haven’t been forgotten in the awards categories, either, winning Dove, CMA and Grammy awards. Together, Skaggs and White won the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award (1987) with “Love Can’t Get Better Than This” (track 2 on this CD) but they’ve never recorded an album together before this.

Hearts Like Ours opens with a number from another well-known music couple, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart, “I Run To You.” Songs just don’t get prettier than this. They also penned “Hearts Like Ours,” another praise of love. This is country music with electric instruments and percussion. It’s all tastefully done, with the percussion adding to the mix instead of demanding a front seat. A track that everyone should recognize is by Townes Van Zandt, 1972′s “If I Needed You.”

If you didn’t pick up on the CD title, this is all about the love shared by two people married for a long time. They’ve spent many years traveling separate roads because of their musical careers. Along the way, their love has stayed true and they’ve borne and reared some talented kids. With all you have to face while touring, a bad combination of boredom and temptation, that’s saying something. It can go to your head, standing on a stage with hundreds, thousands of people applauding you and telling you how great you are, but they’ve survived it all and still have their marriage and careers. Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play more than eighty dates a year, certainly not an Ernest Tubb schedule, but that’s still a lot of time away from home. The Whites are still out there, too.

“It Takes Three” speaks to their faith in God, something they keep in the forefront of their careers. As White sings, “It takes You and him and me.” That’s a message we hear in church and take to heart. Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet contribute “Hold On Tight (Let It Go),” an interesting message about conflict in marriage and always resolving it in favor of love. “Home Is Wherever You Are” is a story about traveling far and wide, which they have, but none of it matters unless you’re together. It’s a good sign for marriage if that’s true rather than preferring to be apart (and I know couples like that, don’t you?).

“I hope they find my King James Bible, worn around the edges and open to the book of John.” So starts “When I’m Good and Gone,” and it continues “I hope they find more good than bad when I’m good and gone.” We don’t like to think about it but life is transient, we’re just visitors here until we go to our final destination. (The common themes for that are Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, or oblivion. White and Skaggs never hide their choice.) Good song. Another one for my have-to-learn list. “Reasons To Hang On” lists a bunch of reasons for slogging on through life even when times are bad. Good reasons, maybe not so obvious when the times are bad, but good reasons.

This CD underlines love, underlines faith between a man and woman and to God. If your thing is “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” or “Redneck Woman” or whatever the similar flavor is this week, this may not be for you. But, it will strike a chord with a lot of people. If you’re a fan of love, you’ll enjoy this CD.

“I Can’t Wait” by Fayssoux

Fayssoux
I Can’t Wait
Red Beet Records
4½ Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Rather than complain about the lack of ‘country’ within current country music offerings, how about we do some work and go looking for music that will satisfy our desires?

One might certainly start with the likes of Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Kasey Musgraves, and Holly Williams. Lee Ann Womack’s latest would be another fine place to visit. Craig Moreau and Doug Seegers recently released albums that would decidedly fall within most folks’ definition of country, and don’t forget Chuck Mead, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell: call ‘em Americana if you like, but that’s country, too.

Which brings us to Fayssoux McLean, someone that many have heard but many more will not recognize. Back in the last century, Fayssoux Starling received vocal credit on early Emmylou Harris albums, ones that should be on most of our shelves: Pieces of the Sky, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and Blue Kentucky Girl. While she counts Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the aforementioned Crowell as admirers, Fayssoux (her albums are credited to her first name only) has released only a single album previously (2008′s Early,) one of the first to earn the Red Beet imprint.

I Can’t Wait is a pretty exquisite country music album. Again, call it Americana if it makes you feel better, but with its emphasis on instrumental support, vocal clarity, songs of quality, and clean production, this reminds me of the finest country music I’ve heard. I am well aware most country music isn’t acoustic (as this album is), and I’m also well aware that not all country music sounds like this, and thank goodness for that because we don’t need twenty identical albums released every month.

Fayssoux has a vocal approach that is assured, but measured; she isn’t out-belting the karaoke Patsy Clines and Miranda Lamberts. She sings with just enough passion and spirit to allow the song room to breathe. She sings, “You may rise, you may fall, that’s the way it rolls…it’s hell on the poor boy,” within RB Morris’ dark song (“Hell On A Poor Boy”), and you wonder how others have left this song unrecorded. Given a female voice, another layer of desperation is revealed within “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” likely the most recorded song on the album, and there is no reason “When the Thought of You Catches Up With Me” shouldn’t be on every country playlist this autumn…well, beyond the obvious quality it represents.

Fayssoux contributes five originals to the set, each of which can unabashedly stand with the songs from Lauderdale, Kieran Kane (and Sean Locke and Claudia Scott), and Mose Allison not already referenced. The swinging “Ragged Old Heart” recalls a long-gone time (and has some beautiful fiddling from Justin Moses to boot,) while her co-write with album co-producer Peter Cooper, “Golightly Creek,” captures an entirely different mood within its reflections and remembrances.

A pair of songs Fayssoux co-wrote with Cooper and the album’s other co-producer Thomm Jutz are the shining jewels within an album of gems. “Running Out of Lies” (“I’m running into trouble ’cause I’m running out of lies”) is worthy of Harlan Howard, and the Civil War-themed “The Last Night of the War” softly conceals its intensity within its bouncy bluegrass-infused trappings.

With core instrumentation provided by Fayssoux (acoustic guitar), Jutz (more acoustic guitar), Brandon Turner (even more acoustic guitar), as well as Sierra Hull (mandolin, natch), Moses, and Mark Fain (bass), the album benefits from acute vision. Cooper and Donna Ulisse provide vocal harmony, as do Jutz and Turner, again lending to the cohesive qualities of the album’s production. The addition of the splendid “I Made A Friend of a Flower Today,” recycled from the Red Beet Tom T. Hall set of a couple years back, does nothing to upset this balance.
Do you like gentle country music? Appreciate superior lead and harmony vocals within country music? Crave the clean lines of acoustic music and the clarity fine songwriting affords a listener? I Can’t Wait, out last month, should provide the satisfaction such descriptions suggest.

“White Wave Chapel” by I Draw Slow

I Draw Slow
White Wave Chapel
Pinecastle Records
4 Stars (Out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Dublin, Ireland five-piece I Draw Slow presents an attractive and compelling blend of modern acoustic bluegrass infused with a significant dose of Celtic-energy and old-world pride.

Recall again the roots of our bluegrass music, and now imagine even stronger—perhaps less diluted—influence and ties to the traditions and songs the founders of the music had. Now, triangulate the Duhks, the Lonesome Sisters, and Bearfoot with that foundation and you may start to get an impression of the slant this group brings to their modern interpretation of bluegrass.

Siblings Dave and Louise Holden are the songwriters of the band, providing the group with an astonishing range of material. Their lyrics are a bit more poetic and open to interpretation than one generally encounters within bluegrass, but there is no mistaking their commitment to originality within the genre.

Most songs are energetic and uplifting, although the lyrics of few are bright. For example, I’ve no clue to the inspiration of “Grand Hotel,” but it doesn’t appear to have been a positive experience; still, as with much contemporary, young, and innovative bluegrass, the desired emphasis is placed on mood and feel and in these areas I Draw Slow excel.

More straightforward are “Valentine,” an exploration of character, and “Whiskey Mirrors,” a case of star-crossed lovers, perhaps. Louise Holden has a charming voice, one I can well imagine listening to for hours within the confines of a pub or coffeehouse. Most songs appear to have been built around Adrian Hart’s fiddle, which is not to suggest that the 5-string of Colin Derham is hidden. Neither should Dave Holden’s guitar be discounted, and his playing is most appealing within the album closing “Old Wars.”

Each of these 13 songs offers something different, but it certainly isn’t terribly close to what most would consider traditional bluegrass.

But, it isn’t that far removed either!

(editor’s note: If you’re a fan of The Wire or Game of Thrones, check out I Draw Slow’s video for “Valentine,” featuring Aidan Gillen (aka Tommy Carcetti and Petyr Baelish))