“Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings” (DVD)

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings (DVD)
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Joe Mullins started this five-piece traditional bluegrass outfit several years ago, partly to promote his Classic Country Radio stations, with whose terrestrial broadcast signal I am privileged to reside.

They were rightly recognized as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012, and their stage show, which they’ve taken far and wide, is a big part of why. Mullins is one of the finest bluegrass five-stringers aline today, and the Ramblers’ four studio albums have been first-rate, but this 16-song DVD that clocks in at more than 70 minutes will show you why they were honored by the IBMA and are in demand by bluegrass promoters and festival-goers.

Mullins is just as friendly and engaging on stage as he is as a radio deejay—he learned a lot from his father, the late, legendary broadcaster and fiddler Moon Mullins, and his son Daniel is just as good on the air—and this trait sets him apart from other great pickers who often neglect to hone their skills as stage presenters.

This show, recorded at Centerville (Ohio) High School, features a nice sampling of songs from the Ramblers’ four releases, including personal favorites “Worth It All” (a bouncy gospel number), “Lily” (borrowed from the Boys from Indiana), and “Katy Daley” (a poem turned into a classic bluegrass song by Moon Mullins).

Duane Sparks ably fills the guitarist/vocalist slot vacated by Adam McIntosh, and longtime Ramblers Mike Terry (mandolin, lead, and trio harmony vocals) Evan McGregor (fiddle and some quartet harmony) are as good here as they are in the studio.

The Centerville Alternative Strings, orchestra students from the host high school, join in with conductor Doug Eyink to close the show in grand style with the David Harvey instrumental “Cruisin’ Timber” and the Bill Anderson-penned “Some Kind of War.” Eyink’s arrangements are uncomplicated but powerful, and played with heart and artistry—just like the music played Mullins’ fine band.

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“Too” by Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It’s long been rumored that some big–name country stars can’t sing on key, so they use auto–tuners in the studio and on the road. Bluegrass producers might use it in the studio (although I doubt it’s widespread) but I asked Tom Feller, who provides sound to venues like Bean Blossom (and is half of Feller & Hill) about having it in his equipment. He’s not aware of any bluegrass group using them on their live shows.

I’ve heard Flatt Lonesome’s live show. What you get on their CDs is what you’d hear jamming with them around the campfire. Their pitch is excellent and their harmony is as good as you’ll hear anywhere. This is their second CD and they continue to make excellent bluegrass music. “Slowly Getting You Out of the Way” is a hard–driving Randall Hylton song that features some good breaks. “I’m Ready Now” is another pure bluegrass number on the gospel side. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill sings the lead with siblings Buddy and Charli Robertson adding their signature harmony vocals.

The musicianship of the group is excellent, too. Buddy Robertson plays guitar; sister Charli Robertson plays fiddle while sister Kelsi Harrigill adds mandolin. Her husband, Paul Harrigill, plays banjo and guitar and the band is rounded out with Dominic Illingworth on bass and Michael Stockton on resophonic guitar.

“Dangerous Dan” is a Tim Stafford/Barry Ricks number with a twist. It’s the story of a hard times moonshiner who ends up as a God-fearing preacher. It seems there’s hope for all of us. Another good Hylton song is “So Far,” yet another story of broken love.

Then there’s the countrygrass. It’s been part of bluegrass almost forever: how many Louvin Brothers songs have appeared on bluegrass recordings? Crowds I have seen at live shows seem to like it; they certainly applaud it. Some people don’t. A banjo–playing friend called me this morning complaining about a bluegrass–marketed CD that sounded too much like country. If you don’t object to countrygrass, there’s some very good numbers on this CD.

“Letters Have No Arms” is a 1949 Ernest Tubb song that’s a great love song. (Bluegrassers may recognize a couple of other Tubb recordings: Wabash Cannonball and “one of his old favorites,” Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin.) “I Thought You Were Someone I Knew” is a waltz beat love song with an unusual fiddle interlude (some people might mistake the intro as flutes). “It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again” makes good bluegrass to my ears, but I can also imagine standing on the stage in a club singing it to a country crowd. Most times the country/bluegrass division is just the delivery and the instruments. “I Can’t Be Bothered” is very country, which is hardly surprising since it was recorded by Miranda Lambert. Of the two, I like Flatt Lonesome’s harmony better.

I expect the “too much country” argument will continue longer than it takes the pines to grow tall. If you aren’t concerned by it and like really good music, you need to run out and get this CD.

“Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
Rounder Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Steep Canyon Rangers play good music. “Knob Creek” is as pretty a bluegrass tune as I’ve ever heard. Their album Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and 2012’s Rare Bird Alert was nominated for the same award. In 2011 the Rangers and Steve Martin won Entertainers of the year at IBMA. Pretty heady stuff.

I saw the Rangers in Georgia a few years ago. I liked the show. I like Steve Martin. I haven’t heard much of them together because I don’t often listen to radio. My go-to-work car doesn’t have satellite radio and my wife likes the ’60’s channel in her car. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started the CD and that’s why you’re reading these reviews, trying to decide if a CD is worth your money.

This package includes a DVD (the show was taped live) and the DVD tells a better story than the CD. The DVD has two additional tracks and includes the stage banter, audience shots, and gives you better context than the CD. From the start it’s clear that this is the Steve Martin show. He’s the front man, he tells the jokes and plays or trades lead on the banjo. When you visit SCR’s website it becomes clear this is a collaboration but they are in a supporting role with Martin (50 shows a year) while keeping their identity as they perform separate from him. Other clues about what to expect are subtle: the website listing shows SCR last after Martin and Edie Brickell and SCR’s members aren’t named in the package.

The SCR aren’t just window dressing, though. The first number is “Katie Mae,” a hot one that whets your bluegrass appetite. Despite not being familiar with it I figured it was adapted from Flatt & Scruggs or someone like them, but the only other number with that name I can find is a Grateful Dead piece adapted from the blues and they aren’t even cousins. It turns out it was composed by Brickell. Other than the music on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (by SCR members) the songs all list Martin or Brickell as composer or co-composer and SCR isn’t involved. “Katie Mae” on the DVD shows Martin playing lead banjo, trading off in spots with Graham Sharp. Martin’s a good banjo player and enjoys carrying the bluegrass message in his TV appearances.

One of Martin’s funny lines is at 11:00 on the DVD: “I know what you’re thinking: There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” It’s hard to tell from shots of the audience how many of them follow bluegrass—I suspect a substantial number were there for the Steve Martin show—but they liked that line while veteran bluegrassers really understand the punch line. “Jubilation Day” is one of his comedy song routines (a breaking up story from a “whew, it’s over perspective”) and the bass player takes an impressive break on the number. “The Crow” is a good instrumental bluegrass number and is the title track of Martin’s 2009 album that won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards.

Edie Brickell is associated with the New Bohemians and the Gaddabouts, and is now closely allied with Martin and his bluegrass shows. She comes in at 26:40 (DVD) to sing “Get Along Stray Dog.” This is more old-timey than anything else. The music takes a turn at this point to some sort of fusion between old-time, folk, and Irish jig with her singing somewhere in Dylan’s camp, breathy with a rising and falling inflection. There’s an electric guitar and drums and a keyboard have been added. The audience liked it. Bill Monroe fans probably not so much. It’s unclear if she has a genre in mind. I suspect she’s following her own muse: infused with acoustic music but still very influenced by rock/pop. If you listen to “Love Like We Do” (New Bohemians) you’ll find a lot of similarities with her work on this CD.

“Stand and Deliver” is the SCR (Martin and Brickell are off stage) plus some percussion doing bluegrass on the progressive side. They follow that with “Hunger,” a blues number with an electric guitar. Not bluegrass but I liked the song and the arrangement.

There’s far too much material to cover it all, especially on the DVD. Some other highlights are “Pretty Little One,” close to a bluegrass story song but it also has an old-time sound. The verses tend to have a repetitious melody and go on and on with both murder and comedy woven into the lyrics. Martin sings lead with Brickell joining in now and then. Next “Auden’s Train” kicks off, credited to Martin and Nicky Sanders. That may confuse you because it’s the “Orange Blossom Special” with lyrics borrowed from W H Auden’s Calypso.

Woody Platt (guitar) sings lead on “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a Martin number that makes good bluegrass. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” isn’t politically correct, but it’s funny. Maybe we worry too much about being politically correct.

Bluegrass fans attend a performance or buy a CD expecting the music to be the show. Some of the best bluegrass bands out there don’t try too hard at showmanship. When you buy this package expect the Steve Martin show with music added. You’ll enjoy the DVD if you’re a Steve Martin fan because he puts on a good show. If you’re considering the CD expecting more “Knob Creek” bluegrass, you’ll be a little disappointed.

“Radio Shows” by Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys

Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys
Radio Shows
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There was a time when AM radio was rural America’s link to the outside world. I can remember Dad searching for WSM650’s (The Grand Ole Opry), usually a good signal here in southern Indiana but sometimes it faded away. I can remember the Lone Ranger on the radio. At some point in the early ’50s, Dad brought our first TV set home. Color TV was achieved by taping a piece of plastic with rainbow hues onto the screen. We didn’t have “city water” but, by golly, we had TV.

By 1962 indoor plumbing had reached many of us and radio and TV quality were better. The internet was just a nugget in the minds of some scientists. The Virginia Boys were appearing on WBAM in Montgomery Alabama, where these tracks were recorded. This CD lets us “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear,” when Jim & Jesse appeared in a variety of 15-minute radio spots and grainy TV shows.

The CD starts and ends with Jesse McReynolds speaking to us, making this a super-long, twenty-four song radio show. Some of the tracks will be familiar to most of us, some will be heard for the first time by some. Few will not know the Martha White theme song, the tradition now carried on by Rhonda Vincent. A great mandolin number is “Cheyenne,” kicked off here by Jim Buchanan. Another instrumental is the “Beer Barrel Polka”. This number dates back to 1927 and, despite being a polka, has jumped genre like a bunny on steroids. Among those who have recorded it are Liberace, the Andrews Sisters, Bobby Vinton, Billie Holiday and Frankie Yankovic. I’ve played it as part of a country band and as a bluegrass band. Another number that didn’t enjoy that much success, but has been around a while, is the “Snowflake Breakdown”—and don’t forget Bill Monroe’s classic “Bluegrass Breakdown.”

Allen Shelton kicks off the popular “Sitting On Top of the World” on the banjo. This is another song that has crossed many genre lines, often with variations in the lyrics. It’s attributed to two members of the Mississippi Sheiks, a popular country blues group from the ’30’s, but jumped to Western Swing, jazz/blues, and country.

Gospel music has always been an important part of bluegrass music. The radio shows included a number of well known gospel numbers such as “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown,” “Press On Oh Pilgrim,” featuring Jim McReynolds singing a tenor lead on the chorus, “The Family Who Prays Together,” and “Precious Memories.” Other numbers that should be familiar include “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rowdy,” a number Flatt & Scruggs made popular in the early ’50′; Webb Pierce’s “How Do You Talk To a Baby,” a solo by Jim McReynolds; one of bluegrass music’s best known murder ballads, “On the Banks of the Ohio;” and the popular “Foggy Mountain Top.” Other band members were Don McHan (guitar) and David Sutherland on bass.

These radio and TV shows were important in bringing bluegrass music to the people. The festivals were yet to come. Bluegrass (and country) were still suffering from the rock-and-roll steamroller and their inclusion in the folk music movement had been helpful, but they still needed a boost and the exposure provided by radio and TV in some parts of the country helped them regain popularity. This CD is a reminder of those days and should be valued for the memories as well as the great music Jim & Jesse made more than a half century ago.

“One Evening in May” by Laurie Lewis

Laurie Lewis
One Evening in May
Spruce and Maple Music
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Laurie Lewis’ brave and challenging One Evening in May will likely confound some listeners as much as it impress others. This album is unconventional, surprising, and no little bit excellent.

Lewis’ new live album is both brave and challenging for good reason. She leads a trio that includes long-time collaborator Tom Rozum and electric guitarist Nina Gerber and has elected to capture songs recorded live on a single evening at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage.

Not only that, but she has chosen to build the bulk of the album around newly written songs. Therefore, few of these songs will have been heard by any but the most ardent of Lewis’ listeners. I’ve been intently listening to Lewis for more than a dozen years, and nothing sounded familiar to me. Well, almost nothing; more on that later. No “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” No “Tall Pines.” No “The Wood Thrush’s Song.”

This album then is a whole new listening experience, one that captures Lewis and her cohorts in a very comfortable setting, and I imagine this will be what confounds some who experience this album expecting the tried and true. As most who have listened to Lewis for longer than a festival weekend will attest, it is this very unconventional approach to music that has helped Laurie Lewis remain at the fore of string-band influenced, modern folk.

While there is little to connect the music contained within One Evening in May with bluegrass, neither is there a great deal beyond instrumentation removing it from that world. The themes Lewis explores are definitely ‘grass-friendly, and it is to her credit that she effortlessly breaks the confines of genre. More Blossoms than Skippin’ and Flyin’, those attracted to Lewis’ warm personality and charming music will find One Evening in May very attractive. Select songs also feature harmony from the T Sisters, and a pair have fiddling by Tristan Clarridge, providing a more fully enveloped context.

While the songs are unfamiliar, they don’t remain that way for long. “Arson of the Heart” and “Garden Grow” are jumpy little numbers that allows the trio to rock out, joined on the latter by the exuberant Tietjen Sisters. After this bit of frivolity, Lewis settles into one of the album’s most significant songs.

“Sailing Boat” could have come from Guy Clark or Mary Chapin Carpenter, and now that I think about it, so too could have “Garden Grow.” Like many of Lewis’ compositions, “Sailing Boat” uses finely hewn lyrical phrases to create vivid images and a contemplative mood that remain fixed in the psyche long after the chords fade. The metaphor is indeed a boat bound for the reef, but the human relationship is unambiguous.

“Barstow” is quite wonderful, a short story in song deserving of a literary label. Her personal compendium of “Kisses” balances the density of the songs that surround it, while simultaneously revealing a depth of consideration that may escape notice within clever wordplay. “En Voz Baja” and “The Crooked Miles,” a song of joyful reflection, would not be out of place on Emmylou Harris albums of the 70s.

I quite appreciate the spritely banjo tones that Lewis brings to the rousing album closer, “With Me Wherever I Go.”

Mandolinist Tom Rozum is afforded considerable space within this recording, providing his impeccable rhythm and tone throughout. He takes the vocal lead on “Down to Tampa” and “One Sweet Hello,” but it is the colorful fills and supportive notes he provides on songs such as “Barstow” and “Kisses” that are his most true contributions. Nina Gerber is allowed to showcase her playing on the instrumental “Winthrop Waltz,” and like Rozum she is a gifted collaborator whose talents are essential within this trio. She cuts loose on “I Missing You Tonight,” laying out classic-sounding guitar lines.

Beyond the overall quality of the production—the sound recording and both the understated album packaging and graphics (kudos, Mr. Rozum) are immaculate. What is readily apparent with this recording is that Laurie Lewis continues to peak. Her albums stretch back more than thirty years, and among them are several bona fide classics including The Oak and the Laurel, True Stories, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Skippin’ and Flyin’, and Guest House.  I would suggest that we add One Night in May to that list.

The one familiar note in this work of remarkable originality? A stout take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to kick things off.


“Cluck Ol’ Hen” by Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
Cluck Ol’ Hen

Skaggs Family Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Since I caught the bluegrass true religion fifteen years ago, I have been a firm traditionalist on the issue of instrumentation. For it to be bluegrass, it must have a banjo, first, and then some combination including fiddle, guitar, mandolin, upright bass, and, reluctantly, the Dobro—with no cables connected to any of the aforementioned. City folk often think harmonicas, jugs, washboards, and spoons are appropriate for bluegrass, but seldom do decent musicians attempt this foolery.

Many bluegrass bands, for some reason, have tried percussion in the form of a snare drum or even some sort of drum kit, but the result is always at best superfluous; usually it’s just distracting enough to make me notice the extra guy on stage and wonder why the band is choosing to incur the extra expense.

The mandolin chop, the banjo’s right-hand rhythm, and the low tones of guitar and bass are, when properly played, the the sonic plow that lands ahead of the beat, distinguishing bluegrass music from most other popular forms of Western music, which are content to lay in the groove just behind the beat. I’ve never heard of percussionist who could grab this essential nuance. Even if such a person could get the rhythm right, he would still have to figure out a way to add something meaningful—something my imagination just cannot fathom.

I used to say the same about piano. And then came Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs with their eponymous 2007 album. They collaborated on a version of “Darlin’ Corey” for the 2000 Bill Monroe tribute album Big Mon on Skaggs Family Records, but that track, as great as it was, does not attempt the breakneck pace that Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder have done better than anyone for the last fifteen years or so. That’s especially true with banjo hammer Jim Mills on board, as he was for the studio album and the subsequent live dates from which the eleven tracks from Cluck Ol’ Hen appear to have been taken. (Mills wasn’t there for an amazing show I saw in Cincinnati in October.)

Hornsby’s ability not just to nail the difficult rhythm, but to spin off killer runs and breaks while adding harmonic backdrop to full-on pure-as-white-lightning standards from Monroe (“Toy Heart,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” and “Sally Jo”) and the Stanleys (“How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Little Maggie”) is—especially in concert—literally breathtaking.

Of the Hornsby compositions included here, only the instrumental “The Dreaded Spoon” (from the 2007 album) is taken at car-chase speed, while “Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues” (5:08), “White Wheeled Limousine” (14:20), and “The Way It Is” (10:24) serve as a master class for all the jam band wannabes that we’ve all had to put up with since Phish discovered Del McCoury.

Eastern-Kentucky favorite son Skaggs singing lead on “The Way It Is”—a deceptively grand and tuneful lament on issues of race and class that could not have been played on the radio or in public in many parts of the South in the 1960s—is an elegant example of how musicians who seek each other out in service to their craft often end up creating positive cultural changes as a by-product.

My only quibble with this remarkable album—which clocks in at seventy-one minutes with about six minutes of stage banter—is that there’s room for a couple of more numbers.


“20th Anniversary Concert – Live at the Down Home” by Lou Reid & Carolina

Lou Reid & Carolina
20th Anniversary Concert – Live at the Down Home
KMA Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve heard several versions of “Long Black Veil” through the years and performed it myself several times, but I’ve never heard a version I like better than Lou Reid’s. I’ve always held to the theory that the composed music (whether it ever found its way to sheet music or not) is a guideline, not a rule, and you need to make a song your own. Reid puts his mark on this one and it’s going onto my iPhone and my iPad.

Recorded live, you’ll hear a glitch or two along the way. At 23 seconds in “Long Black Veil” the band gets lost on a chord change and on “Grass Lover,” the top of the set, you can barely hear Kevin Richardson’s guitar. It’s hard to fix too soft when you’re mixing the recording session but you can hear the rather heavy bass being cut back so you can hear the guitar. But, these are minor quibbles and they don’t take away from the overall enjoyment.

Reid sings bluegrass the way it should be sung. You won’t be searching for some catchy description—newgrass, sawgrass, country-grass, progressive—of his sound. The musicians are all top-notch, too. Reid’s wife Christy plays bass and sings. She sings lead on one song (Reid points out she’s the one who makes the set lists), “She’s More To Be Pitied,” a Stanley Brothers song that’s been covered many times. Trevor Watson plays banjo and Reid plays mandolin. The four bandmembers all sing and they are joined here by Justin Moses (fiddle and Dobro). They show off their harmonies on several songs but especially on an a cappella version of “Lord Have Mercy (On My Soul).”

Reid can sing a ballad. He had a #1 hit in 2005 with a song written by John Cadley (The Lost Boys), “Time.” The first two lines of each of the three verses really hit home once you sport some gray on top.

When I was young I dreamed of being older

Now that I’m older I dream of being young

When I was young I dreamed of how I’d spend my life

Now that I’m older I spend my life in dreams

When I was young the road went on forever

Now that I’m older I see it isn’t so

Boy, I wish I’d written that. Just as good, a song about broken love, is “I Couldn’t Find My Walking Shoes.” My iToys are going to be filling up.

And he can carry a barnburner, too. “When It Rains” and “Carolina Moonshine Man” both set the strings on fire, while “Lost In A Memory” has a very bluesy touch.

If you love good bluegrass, get this one on your Christmas wish list or just log onto their website and buy it. This is true blue bluegrass.