“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.

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“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.

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“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.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Friday

Bean Blossom: Friday

The morning is another beautful one here at Bean Blossom. Sunny but pleasant in the shade, I wouldn’t want to be sitting out in the full sun. Popup showers are forecast this afternoon and a chance of bad storms tomorrow. Such is life at an outdoors festival.

The music started at 10:00 and I’m a little late today, dragging a little after last night’s music marathon. I did catch some of Brand New Strings and was impressed. The early bands sometimes fail to catch the imagination but this was a great sounding five piece band (no Dobro). The crowd is good for early morning.

Next up is Blue Moon Rising. New music but it’s bluegrass mixing in some old songs, like "Freight Train Boogie." They have a standard four-piece band (no fiddle or Dobro) and have a good sound but a few misses here and there. Singing is split between the guitar and bass players and they have good bluegrass voices.

Tommy Sells and Big Country Bluegrass has been here several years in a row. There are traditional bands and then there is traditional bluegrass. Traditional bands tend to sound a lot alike, and a lot like Ralph Stanley (at least the ones this year) while most of the groups will do some traditional songs. Big Country concentrates on traditional music but they have their own sound, anchored by Lynwood Lunsford on banjo. A six-piece band (Tommy’s wife, Teresa, and Johnny Williams both play guitar and sing) they gave us a good set of older songs as well as some new ones such as "High Alleghenies."

Lou Reid & Carolina were up next. Reid is a great high tenor and mandolin player. He had a stint with Doyle Lawson and later with Ricky Skaggs and has spent almost two decades (over a couple of runs) with the Seldom Scene. He still appears with the Scene as well as heading up his own band. Wife Christy plays bass and he has a lead singer/guitarist and bass player. This is great bluegrass and gospel music with excellent harmony. Part of Rural Rhythm records, they added tracks to the project CD.

James King, a perennial favorite at Bean Blossom, was back again this year for four shows. A highlight for the past few years is James’ ‘mater (that’s "tomato" for you northerners) sandwiches at the supper break. James has had some health problems of late and comes to the festival with an all new band, with him just since March. Their harmony was good but they still have some kinks in their instrumental work. He always sings some of his big hits such as "Echo Mountain," "Thirty Years of Farming" and "Bed By The Window." It’s always good to see James here at Bean Blossom.

Ronnie Reno is another regular visitor and his band includes Mike Scott on banjo (his CD was reviewed here a few weeks ago). Reno is the son of the legendary Don Reno and hosts his own TV show on RFD TV. He started playing with his father when he was a teenager and later spent years working with Merle Haggard. You always expect a great show with Ronnie Reno and he never fails to deliver.

Melvin Goins finished out the afternoon.

After the ‘mater sandwich break, Brand New Strings opened the afternoon set. They included "Southern Flavor" and "I’ll Meet You In The Morning" in their set and closed with an encore of "Midnight Flyer." This was a good set to open the evening series.

In the soundbooth tent today is Dale Perry. Dale is an excellent bass and banjo player and has appeared with a number of bands, including Quicksilver and Continental Divide. Off the road he has his own recording studio and he appears to be here this week assisting in the Rural Rhythm recording project.

There’s a threat of bad weather but late afternoon (5:00) is comfortable in the shade and the crowd in the open grass left of the shade is starting to grow.

Blue Moon Rising puts on a good second set, part of the recording project, including "Dusty Miller" and "Body and Soul."

By 6:00 I’ve headed back to the camper. It looks like a lot of rain is on the way and the sets are being cut short again today. They’re waiting on one member of Ralph Stanley II’s band to make it in (last heard leaving Louisville) and then he may go on early. I may call it a night. Ralph II puts on his own show then tomorrow night will be with dad Ralph Stanley. He’s veered away from some of Dr. Ralph’s music, adding some country feeling, but it’s tough to escape from the shadow, especially since they sound so much alike.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Thursday

Bean Blossom: Thursday

It’s hard to believe but it’s another beautiful day. Despite the rain yesterday, this is the best weather I’ve seen in years at Bean Blossom. There’s a great lineup today and I’m ready to go.

Larry Efaw and the Bluegrass Mountaineers, a Ralph Stanley type band, were scheduled at 10:00 but were broken down on the road. They did make it in for their evening set.

Sierra Hull opened the day in the absence of Larry Efaw. She is a crowd pleaser, a very young woman on the road with her own band. Sierra plays the mandolin (and in the afternoon pulled out an octave mandolin) and can rip a tune on it. She has a five-piece band (no Dobro) that features Clay Hess (Ricky Skaggs) on guitar and vocals. Her songs are about love and angst and, to me, she sounds like the Taylor Swift of bluegrass. When it comes to a hard core bluegrass song she turns to Hess and he knows how to deliver.

The Expedition Show was next. Formerly known as the Williams & Clark Expedition, they changed their name after Bobby Clark left. Blake Williams is on banjo and he has the honor of having the longest tenure as a Bluegrass Boy banjo player and later spent a number of years with Mike Snider. He’s joined by his wife Kimberly and two others (no fiddle or Dobro). Williams is a joke teller and the crowd enjoys it but it does cut into the music which is a mixture of country and old and new bluegrass.

The Boxcars were next. This is a super good group of musicians including Ronnie Stewart, a Paoli Indiana native who has appeared with many bands, including J D Crowe, and appeared on many more recordings as a studio musician, veteran Adam Steffey (Lonesome River Band, Dusty Miller, Alison Kraus, The Isaacs, Dan Tyminski Band), Keith Garrett (Friday’s Blue Moon Rising), Harold Nixon (J D Crowe) and John Bowman (The Isaacs, husband of Becky Isaacs). Their first CD was reviewed here a few months ago. They can do new bluegrass or old standards ("Pretty Polly"). Bowman does a touching song, "In God’s Hands," This is a super group that should have a great future.

Melvin Goins & Windy Mountain are Bean Blossom veterans and Melvin and his brother Ray are members of the Hall of Fame here. He started out in 1954 at Renfro Valley with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and was later with The Stanley Brothers then with Ralph after Carter’s passing. He’s one of the nicest men in the business and his show is always laid back and entertaining. Melvin is a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Featured in his current lineup is former Bluegrass Boy, Jack Hicks (here’s Jack in 1972).

Special Consensus is back for their second day and then it’s Audie Blaylock & Redline. Talk about drive! Audie spent nine years with Jimmy Martin and has also been with Rhonda Vincent and Michael Cleveland. He can go from Ray Price ("Talk To Your Heart") to bluegrass that pegs the speedometer. Today he included Hank Snow’s "A Fool Such As I," three Monroe numbers for the Rural Rhythm project and closed with "Sunny Side of the Mountain." By the time he was done we were all exhausted.

Marty Raybon finished the afternoon. I’ll come back to him.

The evening set is much the same as the afternoon until 9:40. That’s when Bean Blossom takes a turn.

J D Crowe was here last night and, as always, it was a great set. As they take the stage tonight there’s a difference. Holding a fiddle is former New South member Ronnie Stewart. You can feel the excitement in the crowd as night falls and they start to sing. Make no mistake, the New South are all masters of the trade and J D Crowe is an icon, but Ronnie’s fiddling adds a special element and we can tell he’s having a ball. His family is in the crowd (earlier I met and talked with uncle, Ivan Stewart) and he’s putting on a show. We watch him walk the stage, helping orchestrate breaks, making sure too much attention isn’t centered on him. It’s clear that Crowe has missed him and they do one piece, just the pair of them. The clock passes the hour mark and still they play. Finally, at 11:30, the crowd lets them leave.

We barely draw a breath when Marty Raybon is on the stage. A bluegrasser turned country superstar (Shenandoah) turned bluegrass star, Marty always makes it clear that his focus in on satisfying the audience. A deeply religious man, he shares insights of his life as he performs, but talk is held to a minimum and they perform! Their harmony is good and the banjo player, with him only two weeks, has obviously been working hard. 12:30, which should have marked the end of his set, goes by and emcee Sam Jackson is nowhere in sight, letting Marty party on. As we sit there in the dark, the coolness and damp and twelve hours of music sapping strength and resolve, Marty keeps singing. He goes from bluegrass to Shenandoah and the crowd eats it up. People filter out in twos and threes, too cold and tired to stay, but there’s still a better crowd than on many afternoons. Their excitement is heard in the darkness as he goes to the next song. At 1:10 Sam appears. Is it over? Sam gives the signal for one more song.

There’s no timetable to keep now. One song turns into two or was it three? Are we listening to Marty Raybon or Marty Robbins? (Many years ago the Ernest Tubb Record Shop was supposed to start on WSM when the Grand Ole Opry ended at midnight. But crowds wouldn’t let Marty Robbins off the stage and the Opry started putting him on last. Unlike today, it wasn’t at all unusual for the ETRS show to start thirty or more minutes late as Robbins answered curtain call after call.)

Finally, he says good night. No, the crowd calls him back for an encore. Two songs later he tries again. Back again he comes. He closes with an old Merle Haggard song, "I’ll Never Swim Kern River Again" then brother Tim (on bass) kicks into "Rocky Top." Finally, the crowd lets him go.

Over three hours of fabulous music. This was one of the best nights I’ve ever had at Bean Blossom.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Tuesday

Bean Blossom: Tuesday

Tuesday morning is a cool, overcast day. If it stays like this it will be a great day to sit under the trees and listen to bluegrass. We’re all keeping a wary ear to the weather forcasts for the next two days with a deluge predicted for tomorrow.

First up was the Magnolia Ramblers. A four-piece band, without fiddle or Dobro and using an electric bass, they were good instrumentalists though the bass player did get lost a time or two. Their lead singer and spokesperson, Alan Sibley is the mandolin player and he’s as folksy as they come when he talks but is a very good singer. He appeared for several years with the Sullivan Family (scheduled for Sunday) and has appeared with some of the top names in country and bluegrass. The crowd liked them, calling them back for an encore, something unusual for the early shows.

Even though it’s a great morning for music it’s still early for a lot of people. I’ve played for crowds this big at a pizza parlor. They’ll be here later, though, because this is IIIrd Tyme Out day.

The schedule is tight today, maybe a band or two too many. Most of the bands have a thirty minute slot and that’s just not enough. Today’s the day the kids in the Bluegrass Camp play and they are a demonstration that bluegrass has a great future.

First-timers Remington Ryde were up next. A five-piece band that now includes Indiana native and James King Band veteran Greg Moore, their music was traditional-based and okay. Their harmonies were not the tightest of the week so far and their one-mic approach just didn’t work well, making it hard to hear them sing. Their lead singer isn’t a bad singer, but his voice lacks the sparkle of, say, Tim Shelton of NewFound Road. The best backup musician in the group is the fiddle player. For his fiddle piece he at least didn’t play "Katy Hill" (one of a handful of tunes that get worn out at festivals). He picked "Angeline the Baker" and did a fine job on it. Now, if they could just come up with better jokes …

The Moron Brothers were up next. (See Monday for more about them.)

The Wildwood Valley Boys are always a treat for me. They come from southeastern Indiana and are lead by Tony Holt, a fine singer. If you’ve been a fan of bluegrass for a while you’ll remember one of the great groups of the past, The Boys From Indiana. Aubrey Holt, Tony’s father, has aged a bit from the appearance seen in the video, but he sings as good as ever and travels with son Tony and the band. John Rigsby helped out on fiddle and they played some songs from their new CD. This was great traditional bluegrass.

Charlie Sizemore is another artist who supports traditional bluegrass. He’s a singer and songwriter who spent time with Ralph Stanley in his younger years then left the music to become an attorney before coming back into the fold. His band is without a fiddle player but does have a resophonic guitarist and a stick bass. He currently has one of the top bluegrass CDs in the nation. He kicked it off with a new, hard driving number and concluded with his number one hit about his longing to be in Alison’s (Krauss) band.

After another appearance by the Spinney Brothers, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper took the stage. I’ve seen Michael perform many times and he’s one of the best bluegrass fiddlers ever to play the music. Our mutual friend, Brian Leaver (late of the Wildwood Valley Boys) brought him out to my house to play one night and it was a pleasure to sit and play music with him for a few hours. But, this day I was curious. Just days ago I saw the news on bgrass-l that longtime bandmembers Jesse Brock and Tom Adams were gone, intent on starting their own band. Charlie Cushman, with him since just January is still with him, now joined by David Peterson (David Peterson and 1946) singing lead and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Guernsey on mandolin, at least on a temporary basis. Jeff played with Lloyd Wood along with my dad many years ago. Great traditional music with great playing and singing. The band is flying out to Telluride after they leave here tonight.

Appearing again this year is Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. Band members include Tommy Long, Ben Greene (James King, David Parmley, Bluegrass Cardinals), and Eddie Biggerstaff on bass. Lorraine is one of the founding members of the Daughters of Bluegrass and is committed to traditional bluegrass. She’s always a pleasure to watch. Rural Rhythm Records recorded part of her set (and IIIrd Tyme Out’s) for a "Live at Bean Blossom" theme album.

Closing both sets was IIIrd Tyme Out. Russell Moore is the sole founding member now and his singing is a good as ever. Steve Dilling on banjo and Wayne Benson on mandolin/mandola, friends for many years before joining 3TO, joined within six months of each other in the early 90′s. Justen Haynes on fiddle and Edgar Loudermilk on bass (and bass vocals) round out the musicians. Donnie Carver has been with the band since 1996 as their audio technician, running the sound board wherever they appear. Always a crowd favorite, they demonstrated again why they are one of the top bands in bluegrass with favorites like "Woman Dressed In Scarlet" and one of their most requested songs since debuting on their first album, "Erase The Miles." As part of their Bill Monroe tribute they closed with "The Old Crossroads," "Bluegrass Special," and "Uncle Pen."

And Tuesday was Bluegrass Camp day. Run by Rickey Wasson (J. D. Crowe) and wife Sarah, with the help of many volunteers, they give training each year to youngsters wanting to play bluegrass music. This year eighty kids appeared on the Bean Blossom stage.

It was a great day at Bean Blossom.