“Too” by Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome
Too
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.

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“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.

one_evening

“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.

Ricky-Skaggs-Bruce-Hornsby-Cluck-Ol-Hen

“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.

lou_down_home

“We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This” by Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien

Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien
We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This
Full Light Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Even as American television viewers are treated  to the glamourous side of Nashville through the ABC soap opera named after Music City, where brassy vixens young and old tear their way through the town’s menfolk on their way to the top of the necrotic popular country music industry, desperately grasping for the dwindling dollars and adoring, but thinning, crowds, fans of what can rightly be considered music can still find it on the banks of the Cumberland.

Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien are two of that city’s finest craftsmen, and first collaborated, on record, with 2000’s Real Time, melding two truly wonderful voices as different in timbre as they are alike in warmth and strength.

Four songs from that collection show up on this one, taken from two Asheville, North Carolina shows in 2005 and 2006 that prove the duo as fine a match live as in the studio, with the picking having a decidedly looser feel. The jaunty, life-is-good “Long Time Gone” (They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard / They got money, but they don’t have Cash / They got Junior, but they don’t have Hank) and “With a Memory Like Mine,” a welcome anti-war song that could be a sequel to Bob Dylan’s “John Brown,” were the best originals from Real Time; here they are just as good, as are the funky gospel of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and a knockout a cappella of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.”

Two more gospel numbers are among the 13 tracks: “Climbing Up a Mountain,” which opens the album with a Skaggs & Rice-style mandolin and guitar and Keith Whitley’s “You Don’t Have to Move that Mountain,” another groove as deep as “Keep Your Lamp.”

O’Brien and Scott pay welcome homage to songwriting heroes Townes van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”), Gordon Lightfoot (“Early Morning Rain”), and Lefty Frizzell (“Mom and Dad’s Waltz”) with covers, and to Scott’s songwriting father, Wayne Scott, with “The Hummingbird,” a song about a guitar Wayne played and Darrell played with.

The 58-minute album closes with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as the second half of a medley that starts with “When There’s No One Around,” an insistent introspection co-written by O’Brien and Scott that was recorded by Garth Brooks. One can doubt whether that mawkish huckster did it justice—I can’t be bothered to find out—but not that it has paid some bills for two proper musicians.

My favorite discovery here is “Mick Ryan’s Lament,” a song from O’Brien’s 2001 Irish folk album Two Journeys that I’m ashamed to have missed. Sung in his emphatic tenor, it’s about one of the countless Irishmen who fled the British-caused Great Famine for Americay, only to end up slaving away in a factory few hard years before putting on a blue coat to go kill their white-skinned cousins in the South and, soon after, their red-skinned ones in the West in fights that can hardly be called fair. Mick Ryan survives Vicksburg before meeting his end at Little Big Horn with the pompous fop Custer, dying to the strains of “Garryowen,” an Irish quickstep that some U.S. Army regiments revived in the latest Iraq war. “Mick Ryan’s Lament” is what a folk song should be, a cinematic story with sharp detail, sung with passion to an audience who needs to hear its message. Nothing this powerful is likely to show up on ABC.

“Bill Monroe: Live at Bean Blossom” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Bill Monroe: Live At Bean Blossom
Rural Rhythm Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This one is special to me because I was there. My wife and I were sitting thirty feet from the sound tent where Dale Perry (Bluegrass Cardinals and a host of other bands) was recording the music, and we were watching as the various artists contributed their parts over several days of the 2011 festival.

This was a celebration of Mr. Monroe’s 100th birthday. If not in Rosine, where better to celebrate than Bean Blossom. Purchased by Monroe in 1951 and operated by him (with the help of brother Birch and others) for forty-five years, it is an iconic spot for bluegrass music. You will find us within ten feet of the same spot – under the shade trees – every year.

Only a fraction of the music recorded found its way to the CD. Hopefully, more of this will surface in coming months. The artists are all members of the Rural Rhythm family.

Perhaps the most widely recognized Monroe tune across many genres is “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It’s done by another performer who was there close to the start, Bobby Osborne. “Footprints In the Snow,” which I learned (if memory doesn’t fail me) over forty years ago off a Jim Reeves album is another Monroe favorite. Both songs have been recorded and performed more times than anyone can accuately count with the Lonesome River Band doing the honors on “Footprints” here.

There are so many Monroe favorites, and each person has his or her own list, that it may be impossible to call any song his signature song, but “Uncle Pen” comes close. Composed about his early days with his uncle, James Pendelton Vandiver, Monroe included it in most appearances since he composed it in 1949 and hundreds of bands have sung it in honor of Monroe. Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out performed it at the festival for the recording (we heard it more than once) with Wayne Benson doing a fine job of emulating Monroe’s mandolin stylings. Another well-known favorite, “(With) Body and Soul,” perhaps covered most famously by the Seldom Scene, was performed by Blue Moon Rising.

Space doesn’t permit detailed descriptions of every band on the CD, but they are all accomplished musicians giving the kind of performances the bluegrass world expects from the best.

One of my favorites, “Molly and Tenbrooks,” has some puzzling credits. It’s listed as “Wasson and McCall (featuring J.D. Crowe). J.D. and the New South didn’t do anything differently than the other bands so I’m sure why the credits are different. Rickey Wasson introduces the song, as he does most every New South number, and Dwight McCall sings it, as he does every time I’ve seen them perform it. The only addition to the band is a guest appearance of former bandmate Ronnie Stewart (now heading up the Boxcars with Adam Steffey) on fiddle. Always sung at breakneck speed, this is a long song and takes some stamina to finish.

The CD includes two favorite Monroe instrumentals, “Bluegrass Breakdown” performed by Ronnie Reno & The Reno Tradition, features three mandolins. Ronnie learned the song from Mr. Monroe during a visit to the Reno home. “Big Mon,” a nickname some had for Monroe, is performed by the Bentley Brothers.

They, of course, didn’t forget about gospel music. Gospel music was always a part of Monroe’s shows and I’m sure all who ever saw him peform will remember him sweeping off his ever-present hat as the song was introduced. “This World Is Not My Home” is credited to Jimmy Martin and Paul Williams (probably for an arrangement) but pre-dates their earliest times in music by decades. It’s performed here by Carolina Road while Grasstowne added an acapella version of “Were You There” featuring the fine lead singing of Steve Gulley.

Rounding out the CD is Lou Reid & Carolina giving us “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and Audie Blaylock & Redline singing a now rarely heard “Six Feet Under The Ground.”

This is great work by superb bands honoring the father of bluegrass music.

“Live at the Down Home” by NewFound Road


NewFound Road
Live At the Down Home
Rounder Records
4¾ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Seeing a live performance where several of the songs on a new CD are performed gives you a different perspective of the music. The best performers will make mistakes in a live show that can be corrected in a recording but, on the other hand, weaknesses may be overlooked in the enthusiasm of a good performance. I recently saw these four young men live at Bean Blossom and, if they made any mistakes, I didn’t hear them. Their performance was strong and won many new fans including my wife, who is more of a bluegrass liker than bluegrass lover. I made my way to their record table to buy my copy of their new CD, Live At The Down Home as soon as their set ended.

The Down Home is a club in Johnson City, Tennessee which is the heart of bluegrass country. As the title says, this was recorded live and they had another enthusiastic audience there. The band has morphed from a gospel band into a bluegrass band and has a stong lineup of musicians. Founder Tim Shelton, who plays guitar and sings lead, is an excellent bluegrass singer who listened to a variety of music growing up and the song selection for this CD reflects that. Brothers Joe (mandolin, harmony) and Jamey (bass, harmony) Booher and Josh Miller on banjo, lead guitar, lead and harmony vehicles (and dancing – you have to be there) complete the roster. They are excellent musicians and singers who stay engaged with the audience and put on a show, not just standing in front of a microphone and singing. They are joined on the CD by guest Jim VanCleve (Mountain Heart). One interesting comparison I can make now is their sound with and without the fiddle. While it’s easy to understand why many bands limit their size to four members, and most others to no more than five (scarce financial resources), I do miss the extra richness of the fiddle in the live performance.

With a CD you can fix mistakes made in recording and you can bring in guests, but you have a greater challenge attracting listeners (especially buying listeners) and holding their attention – which translates into buying future CDs and recommending your music to their friends. I’m obviously enthusiastic about them on stage, so how is the CD?

I love it. They went to a variety of sources but present them all in a way that keeps this a bluegrass CD. I don’t hear Lester Flatt singing all of them, but to my ear they make it work. Perhaps the farthest venture from traditional (like “Little Bessie”) bluegrass is Bill Wither’s hit from the early ’70’s, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” I have to admit that, depending on the artist, I might be singing the”this ain’t no part of nothing” lament, but I like it and here’s the advantage of seeing them live: I’m sitting in an after-dark crowd of die-hard bluegrass fans at the granddaddy of bluegrass festivals and I’m hearing a wilder response than I did to a good number of very traditional bands (i.e., it’s not just me that likes this tune). The three minutes twenty seconds mandolin intro is a bit much, not just in length but in composition (someting more like Tony Rice would have done [and did at Bean Blossom] would have been better) but you have to remember this is being recorded live. If this was a studio album it might have been done differently.

What’s a good bluegrass CD without at least one killing song – bluegrass is full of them? “Blackadder’s Cove,” written and performed by Josh, is a good one full of betrayal, revenge and lifelong regret. For their instrumental they give a solid presentation of “Ruben.” (Earl Scruggs called it “Lonesome Ruben” when he composed it and, yes, it’s Ruben, not Reuben.)

They can do ballads, too. “That’s How I Got To Memphis” was written by Tom T. Hall and was a hit for Bobby Bare and Charlie Sizemore. A great song and a great rendition here. And bluegrass has plenty of rambling man songs. If you don’t have a few decades of rock-‘n’-roll history you might never suspect “Please Come To Boston” was a 1974 hit for songwriter Dave Loggins and has been covered by country artists like Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney and David Allan Coe. I like NewFound Road’s version as well as any and Tim’s voice puts the bluegrass stamp on their cut.

While they don’t have a gospel number on the CD, “Try To Be” (co-written by Sonya Isaacs) talks about the singer’s efforts to try to be the right kind of man. It’s a good, medium tempo song with lots of drive. Speaking of drive, people outside of bluegrass who sometimes mistake speed for drive should listen to “Room At The Top of the Strairs,” a Randall Hylton song about troubled love that moves along at only about ninety beats per minute but has drive to spare, and did I mention what a great bluegrass voice Tim Shelton has?

From Jackson Browne (“These Days”) to Carter Stanley (“Lonesome River”) to Tom T. Hall, they cover a lot of ground in this CD. Strict traditionalists may have a bone to pick at a spot or two but I’ll be playing it until it until it wears out and, judging from the crowd reaction I heard, so will a lot of other people.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Last Saturday

Bean Blossom: Last Saturday

It’s been a good week at Bean Blossom with mostly good weather. I’ve spent some weeks here in my rainsuit more than not, but not this year. Twice I’ve predicted storms would hit and they then passed us by, so I’m predicting rain today. The weather maps show storms on the way so maybe my prediction will steer them away. (I’ll carry my rainsuit just to be safe.) We spent a pleasant night listening to light rain on the roof of the camper.

First up is Tommy Sells & Big Country Bluegrass for their second day of shows. Behind them is Karl Shiflett & The Big Country Show. Karl is a performer, using a single vocal mic with the band dramatically weaving in and out of its range. Based in Texas, he always spends the week here and is a familiar sight in his bib overalls. Son Kris now lives in nearby Bloomington, married to Crystal Brummett. (Making the bluegrass connections, Crystal’s mother, Kim, was married to Bluegrass Boy Butch Robins for a few years and grandpa Don, an excellent mandolin and guitar player, and I have played country and bluegrass music together since the ’60’s.)

Campers are beginning to filter out. Some need to get home for church and other Sunday commitments, some have long trips ahead of them. The threat of rain all day no doubt dampens the enthusiasm of some, but some will stay until Sunday to start their trips back.

A walk around the grounds reveals a lot of now empty camper spaces but there are still jams here and there, friends getting in some last minute music. Dumpsters are starting to overflow but Dillman pays attention to a basic necessity: the septic trucks have been an almost constant presence this week. The parking area behind the stage – that’s where the performers park – is full today. They show up in nearly new Prevosts, old busses with hundreds of thousands of miles, 15-passenger vans, sometimes their cars. It just depends on how well they’ve been doing the past couple of years and how close they are with their money.

The vendors are still open, hoping for that last dollar. Guitars, pizza, oriental food, walleye and catfish, backrubs, coffee – a good variety of food and stuff. The artists sell their wares under the pavilion along with the University of Illinois, whose books about bluegrass are always a hit.

James King is up twice again today, singing a few songs pulled from the past and a lot of his hits. James spent several years with Ralph Stanley so he has a host of traditional songs to offer. It’s too bad he seems to be on some lean times right now with his band. Even though they’ve been together since March – not long but I’ve seen musicians learn a lot of songs in three or four months – the mandolin player especially was having a lot of trouble on his breaks. On his evening set he’s joined by former band member Adam Haynes, now part of Grasstowne.

One of the great ones who is no longer with us is Charlie Waller. The Country Gentlemen were one of the bands that kept bluegrass music going when rock ‘n’ roll threatened to kill it and country music. Charlie had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard and his son, Randy, sounds so much like him it’s eerie. Randy is traveling with the new version of the Country Gentlemen, I guess. While his website shows one set of musicians, the CG version we saw here was another group entirely, who seemed to be Jimmy Bowen & Santa Fe. This is a carryover from last year when his band was apparently a pickup group that included legendary CG banjo player, Eddie Adcock. Unfortunately, last year he and Eddie spent more time clowning around with each other and sharing vague jokes with the crowd that there was almost no music. This year was much better with a lot of good music, mostly old CG songs his dad made famous like "The Legend of the Rebel Soldier," "The Banana Boat Song" and "Little Bessie." Don’t sell Randy short, though. There’s more to him than just copying his dad’s music.

One connection he makes is interesting to longtime CG fans. One of their biggest hits (confirmed on a recent airing of an old Ronnie Reno TV show that featured Charlie Waller) was "Bringing Mary Home." Today Randy makes a connection between the song and Resurrection Cemetery in Justice Illinois where Resurrection Mary has allegedly been seen for decades. I can’t find a connection, but who knows?

In Randy’s evening set Jimmy Bowen sings a beautiful tenor line on "The Waltz of the Angels." Their version is one that leaves you wanting more and was much more powerful than most of the original versions, like the one by Lefty Frizzell. He closed out with the song that bluegrass bands love to hate, though I love to do it, "Fox On The Run."

Grasstowne was back again this year. Started by veterans Steve Gulley (Doyle Lawson, Mountain Heart) and Alan Bibey (IIIrd Tyme Out, BlueRidge), the band includes Justin Jenkins (Blue Moon Rising, here yesterday), Kameron Keller and Adam Haynes (Dailey & Vincent, James King, Continental Divide). They did songs off their recent CD (reviewed here a short time ago) as well as being part of the Bill Monroe tribute ("Heavy Traffic Ahead"). They also put on a "meet the band" showcase at the little cabin on the hill south of the stage. It was interesting listening to their stories about how they got started in the music business and details about their personal lives. As Steve Gulley pointed out, the ability to approach the artists is one of the better things about bluegrass.

A perennial favorite is Jesse McReynolds. On the road alone since brother Jim died at the end of 2002, Jesse proved again he still has star power. We’ve heard "Sitting On Top of the World" several times this week but Jesse was the only one to have a novel arrangement. His band includes grandchildren Luke McKnight, Garrett and Amanda McReynolds.

Last up was Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press. This is a day loaded with the stars who helped shape and form bluegrass. Osborne and McReynolds both ventured into country during the lean years and Osborne has always thought of his music as country (see review here) though his audience has always been primarily bluegrass. Mike Toppins is still with him on banjo but he has a different guitar player while his son is on electric bass today. There’s no mention of longtime sidemen Daryl Mosley or Tim Graves. Bobby does the set we expect including "Rocky Top," "Ruby" and "Kentucky."

The evening sets were cut to thirty minutes with no encores (though an exception was made for Bobby Osborne), trying to get everyone on stage including Ralph Stanley. The weather is threatening again, though it never materializes. Seats start to fill as Dr. Ralph takes the stage. Son Ralph II isn’t present, at least during the first part of the show, and that’s a change. He’s been at Dr. Ralph’s side for as long as I can remember. This is probably a stab at Ralph II establishing his own identity in the business, just as James Monroe separated from Bill many years ago.

Grandson Nathan Stanley is there, though (see a review of his CD here). Bluegrass has long been a genre in which the big names dress along a broad continuum of styles. Bobby and Sonny Osborne dressed to the nines, and Bobby still does, with a suit and broad rimmed hat. Several acts wore at least jackets this week. A few acts take the stage looking like they’ve slept in their cars while at least half are casual but neat in jeans.

The Clinch Mountain Boys are always in suits and hats but tonight Nathan appears to be channeling Elvis. His hair is coal black, his sideburns are heavy and looong and he takes the stage in a glittering jacket. Looks aside, he’s grown into a good singer and does well as his grandpa’s sideman. Also on stage is veteran James Alan Shelton, seventeen years with Dr. Ralph. His special guest tonight is Tom T Hall. Dixie Hall has been here off and on this week and both attend the festival often. They have contributed songs, time and money to bluegrass in recent years and have become an important influence.

I hate to miss Grasstowne’s last set, but it’s time to head for home. I’m looking forward to next year, which may include a J D Crowe reunion show featuring as many of his former sidemen as Rickey Wasson can line up. That will be a good night. My spot is already reserved.