“South Holston” by Jerry Castle

Jerry Castle
South Holston
My World Records

3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

A funny thing happened as I listened to this CD. I closed my eyes and imagined I was looking at the face of a cliff and embedded in it was a talking head. That’s the sound of a lot of this CD. It sounds like the compression was dialed up, the volume was dialed up, the sound hits you like a hurricane and someplace in the middle of all that is Castle singing. A good track to get the full effect of this is “Write My Own Ending.” The first few bars sound like a lot of country songs: you can hear the different instruments and they support the vocals. At :40 the background players step on their volume pedals and start to overwhelm the singer.

Castle’s enunciation takes getting used to. He has a habit of making adding syllables to words, and not in the way you expect some southerners to. For instance (in “Write My Own Ending”):

“… for this one feels wro-ong”

“… grow my hair like a hippie-uh”

It takes some getting used to. “Write My Own Ending” expresses a desire many of us have. We want to control our destiny, be in charge of our life. “Life Gets Better” has a nice intro, a strumming guitar and a lonely steel that plays a thread through the song. It then builds to his in-your-face volume. The song has a nice sentiment. Castle wrote or co-wrote all the tracks so the feeling of a personal point of view is probably just that. “Need You” is a nice song and has a little more space in the music than other tracks. You get more of a feeling of individual musicians instead of a wall of sound.

The central theme is about being yourself in a world that tries to mold you into some norm and the struggle to just survive. “Drown” is about a broken love affair. I think “Maybe” is, too, from what I can hear in the auditory assault of the instruments.

I wasn’t at all familiar with Castle before this one landed in my mailbox, but the album’s news release quotes some opinions that prove there are people that get into his music. It’s interesting that Castle feels this is country music (“… this record covers a wide spectrum of country music …”), while I mainly hear references to pop and rock from other people. I get that my kind of country is now second-shelf on radio and sales, but if you measure the distance between Stonewall Jackson and Kenny Chesney, then add that number to Florida Georgia Line you may get in the vicinity of Jerry Castle. It’s not bad music or writing, just different and no part of country that I can imagine. Go to iTunes and sample it.

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“On a Winter’s Night” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds

John Reischman and the Jaybirds
On a Winter’s Night
Corvus
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

John Reischman is an excellent mandolinist (who also makes occasional use of mandola and octave mandolin) and the Jaybirds are all accomplished musicians. They have put together an appealing extended-play CD for Christmas.

Their music is sometimes described as roots bluegrass and the emphasis should be on the roots part. Most would call it old-time music with an occasional venture into bluegrass and even folk music. A number on this CD that would fit into most any bluegrass show is “Shine Like a Star In The Morning.” It can be found on American Folk Songs for Christmas, a 1957 release by the Seeger Sisters on Smithsonian Folkways. This is a compilation made by Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed by her daughters, Peggy, Barbara and Penny. The quartet version here is very well done.

Two other tracks from the Seeger’s LP that found their way here are “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Oh, Watch the Stars.” The latter is beautifully presented by bassist Trisha Gagnon with Greg Spatz’s fiddle adding a Civil War-era feel to it. Gagnon also performs “Joseph and Mary,” telling the Bible story of Joseph and Mary when Mary reveals she is pregnant (with the baby Jesus) and Joseph unhappily responds. This is #54 on the list of Child Ballads. Gagnon also performs an old black spiritual, “I Heard From Heaven Today.”

Jim Nunnally (guitar) sings lead on a song you may identify with Doc Watson, “A-Roving On A Winter’s Night,” a folk song with Appalachian roots. Nick Hornbuckle adds some exquisite banjo work on this number. “Christmas Eve” is a sparse instrumental played by the banjo and (although not identified by track, I believe) the octave mandolin, while the banjo and fiddle are the leads, with a good guitar break, in an old fiddle tune “Breaking Up Christmas.” The quartet adds a bouncing traditional spiritual, “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby?

Reischman and the Jaybirds have put together eight fine tracks that center around, but are not limited to, Christmas. If you like some old-time in your bluegrass and appreciate good picking and harmony, you need to hear this one this holiday season.

“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.

“Brownsboro” by the Misty Mountain String Band

The Misty Mountain String Band
Brownsboro

No label
3 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Louisville’s Misty Mountain String Band sounds like many new wave string bands you may have heard—but, they do it better than most. Their sophomore release Brownsboro is full of genuinely good picking and singing, and is firmly tied to this decade.

A Kickstarted project with pop sensibilities, it’s clearly influenced by the Infamous Stringdusters, and the String Cheese Incident, Mumford and Sons (the banjo, when included, is played in either a Pete Seeger style or clawhammer style; however, it is not too prominent).

A lot of crowdfunded music projects have produced very slick presentations with all the trappings of a good band that were formerly provided by record companies—high resolution pictures, videos, t-shirts and web sites—but the music sometimes doesn’t cut it. But the 10-song, 40-minute Brownsboro overall is breezy, melodic, and well-played.

Brian Vickers (guitar), Neal Green (fiddle), Paul Martin (mandolin and banjo), and Derek Harris (bass) have created songs on this album that showcase melody focused picking (eight of the 10 tracks are originals) and their pop-flavored harmony singing is pretty refreshing. “Caged Bird” grabs a nice gypsy jazz feeling, and “Ship in a Bottle” is a perfect example of their influences outside of Americana, with Green’s fiddle and Martin’s mandolin closing the song with a brief but lovely baroque outro.

The two strictly instrumental tracks on the album are mid-tempo and sans banjo: the slightly Celtic title track and the haunting, lonesome “Turin’s Lament,” which evokes Bill Monroe’s “Dead March” and features a slow flat picked intro by  Vickers with a bowed bass counter point by Harris.

The truly standout track is “Everlasting Arms,” beautifully arranged and sung in a powerfully subtle way with fine fiddling from Green.

“Steam Powered Aero Plane,” the album’s other familiar track, doesn’t come off as well, as both the picking and singing sound tentative compared to the legendary original from a legendary band, but that’s merely a quibble about a nice disc from a band with real potential.

 

“The Way I’m Livin'” by Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lee Ann Womack had an extended reign as one of the most prominent country music entertainers of the late ’90s through to the late-aughts. But country music record companies are fickle these days, so Womack returned this autumn with her first album of new material in six years on Sugar Hill.

The Way I’m Livin’ is pure country with all the duality such entails. The difference this time out is that the songs come from a selection of the finest Americana writers of recent decades.

Some songs are sad and sentimental (“Send It On Down,” from Chris Knight and David Leone), while others find her dancing with the devil (the album’s wonderful—but largely ignored by country radio—lead single from Adam Wright, “The Way I’m Livin’.”) Julie Miller’s “Listen To The Wind” provides depth, and allows Womack to cut loose vocally while playing off the band, notably electric guitarist Duke Levine. Also among those contributing songs are Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, Brennan Leigh, and Bruce Robison, with two.

Folks like Mac McAnally (guitar, piano), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Hank Singer (fiddle, mandolin) and Glenn Worf (bass) create a throwback country sound that is clearly appealing.

Throughout this expansive album, Womack is in exceptional voice. Too mature to confuse histrionics for passion, to these ears Womack has never sounded better, more comfortable, or assured. “Nightwind” is a showcase for Womack’s singing, with gentle backing allowing her to carry the emotional weight of the song. “Same Kind of Different” sounds familiar, in a light and positive way, from first listen. Roger Miller’s performance of “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore” just missed the Top 10 in 1971; here, Womack flips the perspective and in doing so softens the off-putting tale of a sad man obsessed with a dancer.

“Out On The Weekend” is yet another chance for Womack to shine as she enlivens and freshens Neil Young’s classic song. Instrumentally, the performance is fuller than Young’s, and Womack’s voice is so much warmer; swapping the gender of the teller allows Womack to inhabit the song, delivering intensified vulnerability.

Within an industry where Nashville is reality, there should be room for an artist of Lee Ann Womack’s quality and intensity on the charts and radio. It appears, however, that Womack is going to have to continue creating her own path well outside the commercial country mainstream, much like folks such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris did before her.

It has worked out pretty well for them; no reason it shouldn’t for the multiple Country Music Association Award-winning Womack.

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.