“Live at the Isis” by Town Mountain

Town Mountain
Live at the Isis
self-released

3 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Asheville, North Carolina’s Town Mountain hasn’t released an album since Leave the Bottle broke through in 2012. That well-received disc opened some doors for the quintet, and it appears that they have been on the road for much of the interim.

They won a couple of IBMA Momentum Awards in 2013, and their name has been mentioned as one that needs to be experienced ‘live’ for full effect. Not surprising then that they’ve put together a set recorded earlier this year to encourage table sales until the next recording is ready to go.

Live at the Isis includes a handful of songs from Leave the Bottle—including the exceptional “Lawdog” and the impressive “Up the Ladder,” a soulful bluegrass song that I quite appreciate. Selections from earlier releases include “Tarheel Boys” and “Texas/New Mexico Line.” Another older song, “5 Shots of Whiskey,” reaches quite a ways past bluegrass into Americana/country-shuffle territory.

Town Mountain features a new bassist with this release as Nick DiSebastian signs on. The core of the band— vocalists Robert Greer (guitar), Phil Barker (mandolin), and Jesse Langlais (banjo) with fiddler Bobby Britt—remains consistent.

The recording does sound a bit flat to my ears, much like a show simply captured off the soundboard often does. Perhaps that is the case here, but one would expect more effort to have gone into the live recording to ensure the dynamic qualities of the band’s performance were fully captured.

I must admit I never need to have another live bluegrass album include “Orange Blossom Special,” no matter how ably it is performed; who are the folks who are actually clamoring to hear that one over and over again?

Hardly an essential recording, Live at the Isis provides those of us who have yet to see the band live a small (31 minute!) sample of their show. That the recording is a bit aurally soft is a disappointment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LRR’s picks for the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards

The 25th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show is Thursday, Oct. 2 in Raleigh.

Here are Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s picks from the final ballot IBMA voters were presented with. (Aaron is an IBMA voting member.)

One suggested change: If a someone has won a particular vocalist or instrumentalist award more than five times, why not make him ineligible for future awards in order to give others a chance? I don’t think Del McCoury, Adam Steffey, or Michael Cleveland would mind.—AKH

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Donald’s pick:
The Gibson Brothers

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Blue Highway
The Del McCoury Band

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Donald and Larry’s pick:
Balsam Range

Aaron’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Other nominees:
Blue Highway
The Gibson Brothers
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
The Del McCoury Band

Donald’s pick:
Blue Highway

Larry’s pick:
The Boxcars

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

SONG OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
“Grandpa’s Way of Life” – The Spinney Brothers (artist), Mark ‘Brink’ Brinkman (writer)

Larry’s pick:
“You Took All The Ramblin’ Out of Me” – The Boxcars (artist), Jerry Hubbard (writer)

Other nominees:
“Dear Sister” – Claire Lynch (artist), Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb (writers)
“It’s Just a Road” – The Boxcars (artist), William Keith Garrett (writer)
“The Game” – Blue Highway (artist), Shawn Lane and Barry Bales (writers)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Hall of Fame Bluegrass – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artist), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers), Rebel Records

Donald’s pick:
Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band (artist), Del McCoury (producer),  McCoury Music

Larry’s pick:
It’s Just A Road – The Boxcars (artist), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home LS

Other nominees:
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Noam Pikelny (artist) Gabe Witcher (producer), Compass Records
The Game – Blue Highway (artist), Blue Highway (producer), Rounder Records

GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Won’t It Be Wonderful There” – Dailey & Vincent (artist), Brothers of the Highway (album), Mildred Styles Johnson (writer), Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (producers), Rounder Records

Donald’s pick:
“Love Does” – Darin and Brooke Aldridge (artist), Flying (album), Jamie Johnson, Suzanne M. Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (writers), Darin and Brooke Aldridge (producers), Organic Record

Larry’s pick:

“The Day We Learn to Fly” – Volume Five (artist), The Day We Learn To Fly (album), Stacy Richardson and Leroy Drumm (writers), Volume Five (producers), Mountain Fever LS

Other nominees:
“Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” – Donna Ulisse (artist), I Am a Child of God (album), Hazel Marie Houser (writer), Bryan Sutton and Donna Ulisse (producers), Hadley Music Group
“When Sorrows Encompass Me Around” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just A Road (album), Paul Edgar Johnson (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Johnny Don’t Get Drunk” – Adam Steffey (artist), New Primitive (album),  Public Domain, Adam Steffey (producer), Organic

Donald’s pick:
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”- Special Consensus with Buddy Spicher, Michael Cleveland and Alison Brown (artists), Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (album), John Martin Sommers (wrtier), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Larry’s pick:
“Five Miles to Milan” – The Grascals (artist), When I Get My Pay (album), Danny Roberts (writer), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home

Other nominees:
“Graveyard Fields” – Steep Canyon Rangers (artist), Tell The Ones I Love (album), Mike Guggino (writer), Larry Campbell (producer), Rounder Records
“Skillet Head Derailed” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just a Road (album), Ron Stewart (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School)” – Peter Rowan with Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Donald’s pick:
“Martha White, Lester & Earl” – Terry Baucom with Marty Raybon & Buddy Melton (artists), Terry and Cindy Baucom (producers), John Boy and Billy Records

Larry’s pick:
“Wild Mountain Honey” – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artists), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers) Rebel Records

Other nominees:
“American Pickers”- The Grascals with Dierks Bentley (artists), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home
“Wild Montana Skies” – Special Consensus with Claire Lynch & Rob Ickes (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Flatt Lonesome

Donald’s pick:
Town Mountain

Other nominees:
Detour
The Spinney Brothers
Volume Five

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Del McCoury

Larry’s pick:

Buddy Melton

Other nominees:

Tim O’Brien
Frank Solivan
Dan Tyminski

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Claire Lynch

Donald’s pick:
Dale Ann Bradley

Larry’s pick:
Rhonda Vincent

Other nominees:
Alison Krauss
Amanda Smith

INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMERS OF THE YEAR

BANJO

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Noam Pikelny

Larry’s pick:
Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jens Kruger
Mike Munford
Sammy Shelor

BASS

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Mike Bub

Donald’s pick:
Barry Bales

Other nominees:
Missy Raines
Mark Schatz
Darrin Vincent

FIDDLE

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Michael Cleveland

Larry’s pick:

Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jason Carter
Stuart Duncan
Bobby Hicks

DOBRO

Aaron’s pick:

Rob Ickes

Donald and Larry’s pick:

Phil Leadbetter

Other nominees:

Jerry Douglas
Andy Hall
Randy Kohrs

GUITAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
James Alan Shelton

Other nominees:
Tony Rice
Kenny Smith
Tim Stafford
Bryan Sutton

MANDOLIN

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Adam Steffey

Donald’s pick:
Frank Solivan

Other nominees:
Sam Bush
Sierra Hull
Chris Thile

“Blue Smoke” by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke
Sony Masterworks

2 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Dolly Parton has been making country music for well over fifty years, some of it wonderfully timeless.

In this category, I would place a range of her releases, including early albums such as Just Because I’m A Woman, Coat of Many Colors, and My Tennessee Mountain Home, almost all of those RCA singles from 1968-1979, the reinvigorated burst of early 90s energy on White Limozeen, Eagle When She Flies, and Slow Dancing With The Moon, to more recent recordings including Hungry Again and the Sugar Hill ‘bluegrass’ trilogy that started with The Grass Is Blue in 1999.

But some of the Parton catalog is unquestionably rather disposable—over-produced, throwaway albums; multiple slick duets and soundtrack songs no one needs to remember; silly concepts (2005’s Those Were The Days, for instance); and the plain ill-conceived: 1984’s The Great Pretender and covers of “Walking On Sunshine” and “Peace Train” that will never make sense to me.

One sometimes wonders what Dolly is thinking, but we are impressed by both her longevity and the balls she brings to much of her music. Unfortunately, Blue Smoke has more in common with the questionable aspects of Parton’s recording history.

Blue Smoke has a couple things going for it. Parton re-imagines “Banks of the Ohio” a little, taking on the role of the murderer’s confessor; joined by Bryan Sutton (guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and especially Carl Jackson (vocals), a fresh interpretation of the oft-recorded classic is achieved. Overwrought it may be, “Unlikely Angel” is the kind of sentimental song that has served Parton well over the years, and features Sonya Isaacs and Rebecca Isaacs Bowman vocally. “If I Had Wings” is similarly overly emotive, but remains listenable.

The pulsing title track starts off promising, but goes off the rails when Parton and album producer Kent Wells insert a little too much into the proceedings: this snapping, southern sing-a-long could have been great, but ‘clickety clack’ and ‘choo-choo, woo-woo’ are a bit much, as is the mid-song testimonial. It becomes a bit of a—forgive me—train wreck. Three of the male Grascals appear here either instrumentally or vocally, as does the deep-voiced Christian Davis.

The majority of the album is tinged in desperation. “Lover Du Jour” comes off as pathetic, “Miss You-Miss Me” is cringe inducing, and “Try” is just plain heavy handed. A song that could have been good, “Home” is beaten down by relentless drums, guitar effects, and confused production choices. Duets with Kenny Rogers (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Willie Nelson (“From Here to the Moon and Back”) are better than expected, but both were previously released elsewhere.

A cover of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” is supposed to be part of her, in Dolly’s words, “never-ending desire to try to uplift mankind.” Unfortunately, there is nothing inspirational about the song, and Parton’s revamping of the lyrics and inserting the occasional ‘Lord’ to the proceedings does nothing to bridge a fairly significant gulf between the self-indulgent, hair-metal original and Parton’s attempt at country gospel. At least she didn’t try to reinvent “Every Rose Has A Thorn” as a crucifixion observance.

I love Dolly Parton’s music. I love the spunky firebrand image she has created, the assertiveness with which she conducts herself, and I appreciate her commitment to her home community. “The Bargain Store,” “Joshua,” and “The Seeker” are three of the greatest songs ever written, regardless of genre.

So it pains me to write a review of Blue Smoke that is largely negative. But, that’s how it goes. If you unleash a stinker, someone has to call you on it.

And, she has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Heartland” by the Downtown Mountain Boys

Downtown Mountain Boys
Heartland
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

If you like bluegrass the way Bill Monroe did it, you’ll get excited as soon as you hear the first notes of this CD, “Riding On the L&N”. This is a Bluegrass Cardinals’ number from the ’80’s and the Boys do it well. Staying with the railroad theme, they offer a Seldom Scene number from four decades ago, “Raised By The Railroad Line” and a tune many have heard from the Lonesome River Band, “Like a Train Needs a Track” with guitarist Don Share singing lead. Speaking of Mr. Monroe, included is one of his compositions, “Old Ebeneezer Scrooge.” This is a great instrumental that should be played more often. Paul Elliott plays fiddle and does an excellent job. He’s performed with a number of well-known acts (Alison Brown, John Reischman) and is also a composer. The mandolin is the centerpiece of this number, of course, and Tom Moran turns in a masterful performance.

Animals have cropped up in bluegrass through the years (“Molly & Tenbrooks,” “Echo Mountain” and, of course, “Old Shep”) and now there’s another song that should join that group. Bassist Terry Enyeart wrote and sings lead on “Shannon’s Last Ride,” a story about having to “put old Shannon down.” The old horse has been around thirty years and it’s just time. The number was inspired by Enyeart using his backhoe to bury a neighbor’s favorite horse. A song based on a lifetime of stories is “Timber.” This number has an old-timey sound and was written by Enyeart based on stories told him by his logger camp fiddler grandpa and grandmother, a cook in the camp. It tells a story you might expect, including the man who was killed by a falling limb then covered by a gunny sack while the work went on. Elliott composed the fiddle music and also composed the title song. It’s a bit unusual (on a mixed vocal-instrumental CD) to name the CD after an instrumental, but this is a beautiful number.

Banjoist Dave Keenan sings lead on a “Up and Down the Mountain,” another number traced to the Bluegrass Cardinals but performed by a long list of bands through the years. There are no bad songs on this CD but my favorite is “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.” Played in a minor chord, it’s another murder song but it’s a pretty one. It’s been recorded by such diverse artists as the Steeldrivers (band members Chris Stapleton and Michael Henderson composed the song) and Adele. This goes on my “gotta learn it” list.

The band is from the northwest and their schedule shows their touring limited to that area. If you’re lucky enough to see them in person, grab the opportunity. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this CD if you like traditional bluegrass.

“Fiddle” by Smoke Dawson

Smoke Dawson
Fiddle
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The violin—or rather, for our purposes, the fiddle—has carried the implication that it is the devil’s instrument long before the Charlie Daniels pop-country operetta “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” From the legends surrounding Paganini on back to an ancient Greek music critic by the name of Aristotle, the fiddle has evoked suspicion and curiosity.

Some attribute this to apprehension at the debauchery that comes with drink and dance—the skilled fiddler for centuries before turntables and synthesizers performed the function now manned by the likes of Avicii and Skrillex, with wine or moonshine lubricating the proceedings as molly and mushrooms now do for many.

But I suspect that the fiddle is regarded as fiendish because of the visceral reaction only it can provoke. Neither the piano nor the guitar—and certainly no horn—can approach the infinite range of microtones and timbres possible with strings grabbing and scratching and pulling over a fretless fingerboard. Our ears can hear so much from a fiddle, and its sounds are often familiar and frightening in the same moment.

I was playing a digital copy of this reissue of this record—Smoke Dawson’s privately pressed “Fiddle” LP from 1971, with fascinating liner notes by Josh Rosenthal—the other day, and someone in the next room later remarked on the Celtic music they had heard.

It’s more the American folk or Appalachian style of fiddling that Dawson does here, but he’s definitely calling up the ancient tones and voices that poets like Bill Monroe and Van Morrison are always going on about.

“John Brown’s Dream,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—indeed most of the 17 tracks here—have melodies recognizable to even casual listeners to bluegrass and American folk and country music—sometimes those melodies are known by other names, which underscores the magpie nature of the fiddlers that have passed them along—renaming, stealing, reworking, and reinvigorating at every pass. Dawson’s “Pretty Polly” is every bit as bracing as Ralph Stanley’s version, right down to the plucked-string kickoff that mimics the sound of Stanley’s banjo. If you listened to each version side by side for the first time with no context, you couldn’t say which was older or even when they were recorded.

Dawson also played the bagpipes, which make a striking appearance here on the third leg of the “Connaughtman’s Rambles/Devil’s Dream/Marche Venerie” medley.

“The Minotaur” closes the album with stutters and hums and an unworldly aura made more affecting by the knowledge it’s coming not from Satan but from one of us.

 

 

“Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray” by Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick

Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick
Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray
Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (Out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

“Now come, let’s gather round me, here’s what I’ve got to say,

About this blue grass music, I know it’s here to stay;

Can’t you hear that 5-string talkin’, that lonesome fiddle whine,

Take off your hat, hang up your coat: we’re gonna have a time!”

-“Blue Grass Style”

Vern Williams and Ray Parks were an influential west coast bluegrass act from their formation in 1959 until their dissolution in the mid-70s. Their lone album, 1974’s Sounds of the Ozarks, is a rarely heard but much sought after slab of Ozark mountain-raised, California hewn bluegrass. Following Vern and Ray’s disbanding of their group, the Vern Williams Band remianed a prominent presence in bluegrass, especially on the west coast.

Written by band member Clyde Williamson and Cal Veale, Vern and Ray’s song “Cabin On A Mountain” is rightly considered an exceptional bluegrass performance, with the song going on to be recorded numerous times including by Larry Stephenson, the Spinney Brothers, and Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass. Longview, Open Road, and many others have recorded their songs.

Possibly no two individuals have more confidently and consistently beat the drum for Vern & Ray than Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Themselves leading denizens of the California bluegrass scene, Lewis and Kallick frequently pay tribute to Vern & Ray and their ongoing influence in concert. They come together here for their second album of duets (following 1991’s Together, which was dedicated to Vern & Ray) by releasing a wonderfully touching and musically significant tribute to the duo that so impacted them.

Critiquing Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray is patently silly. It is incredible from start to finish. There may be finer bluegrass singers than these inspirational stalwarts, but such scaling would be foolish. Songs have few better friends than these two; whether singing lead or harmony, their voices know each other so well as to make their efforts appear unrehearsed and familial.

That both are exceptional musicians—Kallick plays lead and rhythm guitar on all but one track, Lewis handles all the fiddle (augmented with frequent Kallick collaborator Annie Staninec on a pair of twin fiddle numbers) and bass—is indisputable. With their instrumentalists—primarily Tom Rozum (mandolin) and Patrick Sauber (banjo), but also Vern & Ray acolyte Keith Little (banjo) and Sally Van Meter (resophonic slide)— the duo naturally captures the passionate spirit Williams and Parks brought to their music.

A definite highlight is their interpretation of “Thinkin’ Of Home.” Featuring twin fiddles and lead vocals from both Lewis and Kallick, this Williams/Park co-write (from their debut Starday extended play recording of 1961) is reinvented by these formidable female voices. Whereas Williams’ voice cut across the melody in the most wonderful way, Lewis and Kallick gently support each other through the song’s desolate isolation, while simultaneously singing with no little bit of starch.

One of Vern & Ray’s most authoritative recordings was their take of “Touch Of God’s Hands.” Here Keith Little takes the lead with the ladies provide soaring harmony. “To Hell With the Land” is perhaps my favourite Parks composition, and here Lewis reminds us that there remains causes for the home place being abandoned.

The originals were incredible performances, under heard perhaps, but powerful and deserving of a wider audience. Lewis and Kallick, by recording these in such a redoubtable manner, have provided opportunity for more people to become familiar with the music of Vern and Ray.

It has been said that there is nothing better than the sound of bluegrass when performed by friends. Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick—with their compatriots—have created a recording a long time in coming, one that certainly gives Vern Williams and Ray Parks their bluegrass due.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Side by Side” by Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II
Side By Side
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), “Side By Side” is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy.

The selection of songs—four of which feature Ralph in strong lead voice—are almost exclusively older and well-known: the album kicks off with “Wild Bill Jones,” goes “Walking With You In My Dreams,” asks “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” and concludes with “I’ve Still Got 99.”

The musicianship is classic sounding—fresh and relaxed with a professional sheen that doesn’t get in the way of the emotions of the music. Clinch Mountain Boys alumni John Rigsby (fiddle and mandolin), Randall Hibbitts (bass), and Steve Sparkman (banjo) are the core band, with Two doing double duty on lead and rhythm guitar. Dr. Ralph lays out clawhammer-style on a solitary track, the aptly titled “Battle Ax.”

Doubting the senior Stanley’s vocal capabilities? Don’t. Instead, give “Don’t Weep for Me” a listen, or appreciate his excellent tenor contributions to any number of these songs including “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” “Nobody Answered Me,” or “Carolina Mountain Home.”

Two has become a fine singer in his own right, one of my favorites. If you haven’t heard him before, also consider his album of a couple years back Born To Be A Drifter. “White & Pink Flowers” is a sentimental weeper, while “Dirty Black Coal” is more my style. Start to finish, Side By Side is a superior album of bluegrass.

Perusing these song titles, it is readily apparent what Two and co-producer Rigsby had in mind—a celebration of the Stanley mountain music legacy. And they have pulled such off in a significant way. “Side By Side” is cause for celebration. We all know Ralph Stanley had planned on retiring this year, but with his continuing good health delaying that decision one of the last true ‘first generation’ bluegrass singers continues to make appearances. And his latest album is as good as anything—and certainly superior to some—he has recorded in the past 20 years.

I would suggest that Side By Side is among the strongest bluegrass albums that has been released in 2014.