“Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle” by Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Rural Rhythm Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley has been around the block a time or two. A veteran of Renfro Valley, he hit the national scene with Doyle Lawson, was a founding member of both Mountain Heart and Grasstowne, and spent some time with Dale Ann Bradley. He is a great tenor and lead singer and could have been a country music star back when they still played country music on the radio. It’s always a crowd-pleaser when he does a number like “The Grand Tour” and I’m looking forward to seeing him at Bean Blossom on June 18.

This new venture is a combination of country and bluegrass. Banjo player Matthew Cruby wrote “Mattie’s Run,” a fast moving instrumental also featuring Gary Robinson, Jr. (mandolin), guest Tim Crouch (fiddle), Bryan Turner (bass), and Gulley (guitar). As expected, they all pick like they were born with instruments in hand. Phil Leadbetter guests on Dobro and Mark Laws adds percussion on some of the tracks. If you like country music, you have to hear this version of Hank Cochran’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.” “It’s a Long, Long Way To the Top of the World” is a well known number done by Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers. The latter is the more soulful version and Gulley adds a big dose of soul with this version, sounding more country than bluegrass. “Every Time You Leave” is a Louvin Brothers song. Gulley’s version, with Amanda Smith, is reminiscent of the Emmylou Harris duet with Don Everly from her Blue Kentucky Girl CD. This is excellent music.

Gulley had a hand in writing several of the bluegrass numbers. “Leaving Crazy Town” is a hard-driving number while “She’s a Taker” is slower but still with good drive and shows off the band’s good harmony singing. Both were written with Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford. “You’re Gone” (written with Adam Haynes) has more of a country feel though played as bluegrass with a banjo/mandolin break. Winning the award for catchy hooks is another Gulley/Stafford song, “That Ground’s Too Hard To Plow” with the song’s title as advice about a heartbreaking woman.

“Not Fade Away” makes a good bluegrass number even though it was written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty and is a well-traveled rock number, performed by the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, to name just two more groups. It’s not always the song that makes the music bluegrass. Gulley also wrote the CD’s gospel number, “You Can’t Take Jesus Away.”

Gulley’s talent and style coupled with top quality musicians makes this a CD lovers of bluegrass and country will want to hear.

“The Legacy Continues” by Nathan Stanley

Nathan Stanley
The Legacy Continues
Nathan Stanley Entertainment

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Nathan Stanley will soon be twenty-three years old and already has twenty-one years of experience on the road. He’s done a good job in the transition from playing spoons by the side of his papaw, Dr. Ralph Stanley, to being a full-fledged entertainer on his own. He still travels and appears with Dr. Stanley, but his tour schedule shows a handful of dates on his own with the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph Stanley, in his sixty-ninth year on the road playing bluegrass, still maintains a very busy touring schedule even if his on-stage performances have been scaled back in favor of his grandson and son, Ralph Stanley II. Since Ralph II has carved his own niche in the bluegrass world, many may conclude that the future of the Clinch Mountain Boys, possibly the longest-running band in bluegrass, rests with Nathan Stanley.

This CD saw a limited distribution in 2013 but has now been repackaged with two additional tracks. “(The) Rank Stranger” has been done countless times and is a Stanley Brothers original. Carter Stanley sung from a deep well of emotion and Nathan Stanley does a fine job of recreating that emotion while Dr. Ralph recreates his part in the song. “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” is another Stanley original. Here Brad Paisley joins Nathan Stanley in a slightly different version that is a beautiful rendition of this old song.

“Are You Missing Me” goes back to the Louvin Brothers and has also been recorded (1952) by Jim & Jesse and the Bluegrass Cardinals. Stanley stays true to the Jim & Jesse version, not dressing it up with a modern interpretation. “Love of the Mountains” is a Larry Sparks’ signature song. Sparks joined the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1964 and became Ralph Stanley’s singing partner when Carter Stanley died at the end of 1966. Nathan Stanley does ample justice to this great song that was penned by Allen Mills.

There’s little doubt that the Stanley legacy is in good hands with young Nathan Stanley (not to sell Ralph Stanley II short in any way). He speaks to his love of the music and his grandfather in “Papaw I Love You,” a song he wrote in honor of Ralph Stanley. He serves as front man for the Clinch Mountain Boys. Joining him on this CD are Dewey Brown (fiddle, baritone), Randall Hibbitts (upright bass, harmony) and Mitchell Van Dyke (banjo). Former CMB member Junior Blankenship plays guitar and sings baritone and Tony Dingus plays Dobro. Don Rigsby joins the group playing mandolin and singing harmony. This is an excellent lineup of musicians and singers.

The list of familiar bluegrass songs is long, including “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine” and “For All the Love I Had Is Gone.” “Casualty of War” comes from a 2007 Larry Sparks’ CD, The Last Suit You Wear. “Calling My Children Home” has been recorded by Ralph Stanley and was the title of a 1977 album by the Country Gentlemen. “Let Me Rest At The End Of My Journey” is another familiar number, recorded by many artists through the years.

Nathan Stanley has put together an excellent tribute to his grandfather and to classic bluegrass. If anyone doubts his ability as an artist they need to hear this CD. If you like bluegrass the way it was done by Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Johnson Mountain Boys and, of course, the Stanley Brothers, you’ll enjoy every track on this CD.

 

“Powerlines” by Mustered Courage

Mustered Courage
Powerlines
Travianna Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This CD is a mixture of some good bluegrass that segues into a combination of what you might call indie-newgrass-roots. It’s full of good instrumental work with all the instruments found in a traditional bluegrass band, and a little harmonica thrown in.

“Standing By Your Side” makes a good bluegrass number. I don’t hear the Stanley Brothers in it but Nothin’ Fancy might do it. “Cruel Alibis” starts off with some minor chords, slow, bluesy, then kicks into high gear with good breaks by the instrumentalists. “Old Steam Train” has a strong drive, a story about love gone bad. If you want a good, hard driving instrumental, “Allegheny” will fill the bill and it does an excellent job of showcasing the skill of the pickers on this CD.

The band is made up of people most of the bluegrass world won’t recognize. One factor in the lack of name recognition is they hail from Melbourne, Australia, where they are described as “the link between Bill Monroe and Mumford & Sons.” They are stars in the Austrlian folk and roots scene. The band includes Julian Abrahams (guitar, vocals), Paddy Montgomery (mandolin), Texas native Nick Keeling (banjo, lead vocals) and Joshua Bridges (bass and vocals). CD guests include Kasey Chambers (vocals), Yen Nguyen (bass vocals), Kat Mear (fiddle), Peter Fidler (Dobro) and Christi Hodgkins (harmonica). Lack of name recognition has nothing to do with ability and these folks can pick the strings off their instruments.

Nothing shows off singing skill like an a cappella number and they nail it with “Towin’ the Chain.” “Go To Hell” goes off into the indie field (doubt you’d ever hear this at a typical bluegrass concert), an unhappy lover who is telling his mate where to go. “Behind the Bullet” is close to Grateful Dead rock and you’ll have to work a bit to figure out the lyrics, while “My Hometown” is softer while still sounding like a close cousin to a rock song.

If I was booking bands for a show and snagged Old Crow Medicine Show, Mustered Courage would make a good addition to the show. If I had Doyle Lawson, not so much. If you’re into roots and indie with a touch of bluegrass, this is your ticket.

“The Music of the Stanley Brothers” by Gary B. Reid

Gary B. Reid
The Music of the Stanley Brothers
University of Illinois Press (2015)

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

At Bean Blossom you sit on a gentle upslope from the stage. To your right is the entry road that goes down to the tail of the pond and the back of the stage before going back up to the Hippie Hill section of camping. The regulars all know when Dr. Ralph Stanley arrives or leaves, his long, white tour bus sliding along, all within hidden behind its windows. Soon after he arrives, someone will erect his pop-up shelter where he holds court to sign autographs and say hello to his fans. It wasn’t always like this.

When Carter Stanley was alive it was the Stanley Brothers show. Still today, a half century after Carter Stanley’s death, there are many songs sung on stage and around campfires that bear the Stanley Brothers name. Travel during the twenty years the brothers were active was by car or station wagon. The pace was often hectic, the financial rewards meager. Band members came and went frequently, as is still the case with many bluegrass bands. Bluegrass music, generally speaking, isn’t a lucrative endeavor unless you’re a breakout star, and many professional bluegrass musicians have another job to make ends meet. The Stanley Brothers stayed the course, putting their names into the bluegrass history books.

Remember when the brothers were doing that Rich-R-Tone session (#480700) back in 1948? When Art Wooten joined them? You don’t remember that?

Truth is, there are probably no more than a pickup-load of people who can remember all the band members through the years, let alone anything about the recording sessions or what was recorded when. But Gary B. Reid knows. In 1976 he sent a letter to Neil Rosenberg, a name known to many bluegrassers and author of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (1974), that started, “For the past several years I have been trying to compile a combination biography/discography on the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.” Reid was nineteen and it would be another thirty-nine years before that book was published. That is dedication. He did other things along the way, including starting Copper Creek Records.

The book covers the two decades the brothers were a professional act. Both served during World War II. Carter was discharged in February 1946 and joined up with Roy Sykes for a while. Ralph’s discharge was in October 1946 and by November they were making appearances along with mandolinist Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert and fiddler Bobby Sumner. Their last full concert was at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom facility. Carter died December 1, 1966, the victim of alcoholism.

This book is rich with information about their professional lives from one recording session to the next, where they were working and who was in the band. The data on the recording sessions is extensive. A typical entry is:

501103 Columbia session; producers: Art Satherly and Don LawCastle Studio, Tulane Hotel, 206 8th Ave., Nashville, TennesseeNovember 3, 1950

Carter Stanley: g|Ralph Stanley: b|Pee Wee Lamber: m

Lester Woodie: f|Ernie Newton: sb

4311 The Lonesome River (Carter Stanley)C. Stanley-L, R. Stanley-T, PW Lambert-HB 20816 HL-7291,HS-11177,ROU-SS-10,BCD-15564,CK-53798,B0007883-02

Neither the uncertainty surrounding song titles or the “borrowing” of songs are a focus of the book, but both are mentioned many times in these pages and this provides an interesting insight into the music business. Sometimes it’s using the same (or very similar) melody with more than one set of lyrics.

“The first song is ‘A Life of Sorrow.’ Carter and Ralph Stanley wrote it with an assist from George Shuffler. The melody is strikingly similar to a tune the Stanley Brothers had recorded earlier on Columbia, ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and is a good example of how the Stanleys recycled old tunes to create ‘new’ material.” [p. 32, Columbia #4 (Session 520411)]

and

“… used it as an opportunity to recycle the melody to one of their earlier recordings, ‘Little Glass of Wine.’ Known by a number of titles, ‘Tragic Love’ is most commonly called ‘Silver Dagger.'”

There are other examples of songs known by a variety of titles, as well as songs with disputed ownership, songs sold by their composer then the buyer taking songwriting credits, and the practice of claiming credit before agreeing to record the song.

While information about their travels is provided as part of their story, it also becomes a story of its own. Their nomadic lifestyle wasn’t (and isn’t) unusual in the bluegrass world, nor for most other musicians. You have to wonder how families survived and that’s one place the book will leave you wanting. Other than a few mentions of Ralph Stanleys ex-wife, Peggy, and the tidbit that Carter Stanley wrote “Baby Girl” in honor of his year-old daughter, Doris, you won’t get a peek into their family life. There is no mention of how Carter’s bouts with the bottle affected their music. Given the amount of information contained in the book, it’s easy to believe Reid might have another book in him to let us better know Ralph and Carter Stanley as people.

This is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the Stanley Brothers years (but understand it stops with Carter Stanley’s death). I found it an interesting read with my only caution that you may find yourself getting bogged down trying to follow and remember all the histories of people and changes in the band. Don’t get lost in the detail, just keep the book handy when you need to look up something.

 

“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Lessons Learned” by Ronnie Reno

Ronnie Reno
Lessons Learned
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ronnie Reno is a seasoned professional who makes good bluegrass music—and he makes it his way.

Being the son of a legend doesn’t guarantee success, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Reno is the host of Reno’s Old Time Country Music on RFD-TV and often shows clips of his father, Don Reno, with a young Ronnie playing mandolin in dad’s band. From that start, he’s carved a path through music that includes five years with the Osborne Brothers, nine years with Merle Haggard, then seventeen years with his family (father Don Reno for two years until his passing, the entire time with brothers Dale and Don Wayne Reno). He continues on today with his band, the Reno Tradition, and is seen at many festivals and shows throughout the year.

My father loved country music but never thought much of bluegrass, especially the banjo. When I finally started playing bluegrass with some friends here in southern Indiana, I doubted I could do much singing because my image of bluegrass centered on Bill Monroe. While I love Monroe’s music, I was pleased to learn there are a variety of singing styles in bluegrass. Reno’s style is laid-back, relaxed—with neither the high tenor of Bobby Osborne nor the modern approach of someone like Dan Tyminski. You feel like it’s a warm, summer afternoon on the back porch with you and Reno sitting in cane back chairs and sipping lemonade.

This new CD is billed as a solo effort, though members of Reno Tradition are in the mix, including Mike Scott (banjo) and John Maberry (mandolin). It gets a little confusing after that. Robin Smith plays bass on one track and is shown as Reno Tradition’s bass player on the group’s web page, while Heath Van Winkle appears on an old version of the page and plays bass on the other tracks. Jackie Miller has been Reno’s fiddler for several years and also plays mandolin. He plays mandolin on one track while Steve Day, who has been seen playing fiddle on the TV show lately, is the fiddle player. They are joined by Marty Stuart’s drummer, Harry Stinson.

All but two tracks were composed by Reno. The title number is an easygoing song about the lessons learned through the years of life—a vantage point shared by those of us who have been around a few decades. “Trail of Sorrow” is a fine Don Reno song featuring Van Winkle singing tenor and Sonya Isaacs singing high harmony, while “I Think of You” is a love ballad Reno wrote with his wife on his mind. Turning the other direction is “Bad News at Home,” a story about those times a man messes up and knows what’s in the cards when he gets home. It features a lively tempo and a 6-2-5-1 chord progression for a different pace. “Lower Than Lonesome” is another uptempo song about the downside of love.

An extra treat that sorta, kinda breaks out of the easygoing love or loneliness pattern is Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late” with guest David Frizzell sharing the lead.

Ronnie Reno is to bluegrass what Red Skelton was to comedy: talented, easy-going, and always enjoyable.

“Honky Tonk Land” by James Carothers

James Carothers
Honky Tonk Land
self-released

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Have you heard of Junior Brown? James Carothers? You’ll probably answer yes to Brown and “Who?” to Carothers. You need to change that.

Like Brown, Carothers’ take on country music is just off-center enough to make it really interesting.

These new country singers

They all sing about drinkin’

How it makes ’em have fun

But it got me to thinkin’

Something was missing, to me it was puzzling

It only gets better from there in “New Country Singers.” Carothers wrote the songs (except for one track composed by his father, Jim), does the singing and plays guitar. He’s backed by a group of very good session musicians including Eddie Bayers (drums), J. T. Corenflos (guitar), Scotty Sanders (steel guitar) and Gordon Mote, well known for his appearances with Bill Gaither and other gospel groups, on piano, as well as several other musicians.

While this is unapologetic honky-tonk music—loud, driving, often irreverent and sharp-witted—Carothers shows a softer side with “Where Did We Come From,” a song of memories of a kind of childhood that seems to have faded away.

Now the family and farm and pastures gone

But we got our SUVs

And we eat from a chain’s trough

And buy stuff made overseas

Well things ain’t quite what they used to be

I grew up in the country. I can’t argue with that.

He even includes a mystery song. Love, jealousy and…

35 years ago she was a looker and quite the magnolia prize

Had every feller ‘tween Yazoo and Tupelo

Talkin ’bout her big brown eyes

You ain’t ever felt another daughter of the delta

That’ll make you do anything

And it’s been a lot of years since she went and disappeared

Underneath the Mississippi clay

(tag)

There’s a tin roof and some broke down cars

Covered in kudzu vine

Have you ever driven through rural Mississippi? This captures the feel of the countryside, sets the scene. Do I like his lyrics? You bet I do. The only downside is there are only seven tracks.

His drawling voice and his lyrics are not champagne music, but they don’t serve much of that in honky-tonks. If you like the music of Brown, Jennings, Haggard, Cash and a long list of like singers, you need to find a copy of this CD and spend some quality time with a dose of country.