“Sorrow Bound” by Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater
Sorrow Bound
Kingswood Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Toronto, Ontario—hotbed of Appalachian music.

Alongside the recent release of the Slocan Ramblers’ Coffee Creek, one might well have growing evidence that Canada’s most cosmopolitan city has more than a few inhabitants who know their way around the music of the holler.

Originally released a year ago, Sorrow Bound receives wider distribution this summer and deservedly so. Low and mournful are the sounds Kaia Kater, a traditional musician in her early 20s, appears to favour. Playing in the traditional clawhammer style—Art Menius has identified her as “the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century”—Kater has spent a great deal of time in West Virginia studying the traditions of Appalachian balladry and dance.

Much like Anna & Elizabeth have done, Kater plays with traditional music to gently knit together connections between ancient tones and modern times. Whereas that duo does so largely through their interpretation of traditional songs, Kater takes a more modernist approach, one equally necessary to allow the music to thrive and flourish. “Southern Girl ,” one of several originals contained on this stunning debut, has its foundation in the remnants of another time, but its passionate hopes are well observed in the changes our society is currently undergoing.

The title track is a revelation. Featuring what sounds like bowed bass, this atmospheric song explores dark challenges of previous times and personal yearning through poetic snatches of language, leaving the story open to interpretation; Kater’s frailing banjo flourishes provide percussive punctuation. Another Kater song, “Oh Darlin’,” in lyric, essence, and structure, could easily be a couple of centuries old.

Kater, who knows her way around the old songs like someone raised in the tradition, is nothing if not unconventional. A song borrowed from Anna & Elizabeth, “Sun to Sun,” flows into a French-language old-timey ballad. “Moonshiner,” familiar enough through interpretations from folks as varied as Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Buell Kazee, and the Sweetback Sisters—whose lead Kater follows—and like those sizable talents, Kater makes the song all her own. “Come and Rest” provides a coda of comfort and belief, while “West Virginia Boys” is less volatile than other renditions of the “cornbread, molasses, and sassafras tea” tune.

This album is an ideal balance of then and now, the past and present, of originality and influence.

Kaia Kater, who has performed throughout the eastern United States and Canada, is one of the many youthful performers by whose sure hands the traditions so many of us appreciate and love are being tended.

“Me Oh My” by the Honeycutters

The Honeycutters
Me Oh My
Organic Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I had a baby but the good Lord took her, she was an angel but her wings were crooked.” I love writing songs and sometimes I hear a lyric that I sorely wish I had written. One of our sons has handicaps (I know, that’s not the politically correct term) and, for me, the lyric nails it: an angel with crooked wings. That’s the opening line of the title song and it does not go downhill from there.

The Honeycutters label their music as country roots (watch lead singer Amanda Anne Platt discuss her music). That’s different than classic country (Jim Ed Brown, George Jones) but it’s a close cousin. Two of country’s enduring stars, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, have composed some songs that you’re not likely to hear on a Bill Anderson or Ray Price recording. I can imagine Haggard and Nelson in an intimate setting (a resort bar at Lake Monroe, Indiana, where Nelson likes to stay when he’s in town) with something less than a thousand fans somewhere in the dark at the tables, jamming and drinking a beer or two. Some of those songs could come from this CD. Another surprise with this CD is all the tracks were composed by Platt. It isn’t unusual to see a CD with songs composed by the band or one person in the band, but not many are consistently this good from track to track.

“Lucky” is a quiet song of pathos, a love affair going down hill: “I’ve got the mind of a junkie, you’ve got the heart of a child.” That’s not a recipe for success but falling in love is rarely affected by the probability of success. There would be far fewer divorces if we were all that logical. “Jukebox” is on a different plane, as country as anything you would have heard on the radio back in the day. Rick Cooper’s bass supports the band and Josh Milligan’s percussion is enjoyable, not the thunk, thunk you hear too often on “country” records. Matt Smith adds to the mix with some very good steel guitar. “Not That Simple” includes some fine mandolin from Tal Taylor while Phil Cook appears with piano and organ. You’ll find yourself hoping Platt’s life isn’t as complicated and sad as all her songs. This song tells about a man and woman who love each other but have commitments to others. There are too many good lines in this song to list without just writing the lyrics.

Whether it’s a quiet song like “Little Bird,” an ode to wanting to break away from the life you’re living (“Hearts of Men”) or a critique (“Well, look at you, you’re like a pony with a broken leg, You’re always scared ’cause you can’t run away” from “All You Ever”) Platt consistently hits the mark musically and lyrically.

I suppose, if you live a Pollyanna life, if it’s all sunshine and roses, then this CD might puzzle you, you won’t get what she’s telling. On the other hand, if your life’s ups and downs look like the pulse line on a heart monitor, if you’ve ever felt the blues sucking at your soul, cursed and laughed at love, there are fourteen messages on this CD that you’re going to really enjoy. Me? I’m going to look for their first two CDs.

TheHoneyCuttersMeOhMyBigCov

 

 

“Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” produced by Carl Jackson

Various artists
Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
Legacy Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Country music is obsessed about the past. The same technological changes that enabled it to be captured on record and broadcast on radio also helped hasten the urbanization of America, and country people used their music to help them make sense of the ways they chose to meet those changes—nostalgia as therapy.

Organized by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the crucible in which a centuries-old Anglo-American folk music tradition that found expression in barn dances, church choirs, fiddle contests at market day, minstrel shows, tent revivals, and families picking on the front porch became a business that would enrich the lives of millions with music and enable gifted musicians to make a living making music rather than in the coal mines, the field, the fox hole, or the whorehouse—it’s amazing what freedom of expression and free markets can accomplish.

Many of the 76 tracks from 19 different acts recorded by Peer were commercially successful, and two superstar careers were launched: those of Jimmie Rodgers—one of the first modern American celebrities and the prototype for songsters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and even, I would argue, Bob Dylan—and the Carter Family, who are perhaps responsible for collecting, preserving, and popularizing more pre-modern American music than anyone else. (See also the story of Lead Belly.)

Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited—a two-disc tribute to those sessions, made under the aegis of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol—should be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about country music—especially those with little previous exposure to Southern music or culture outside of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, or a television episode of Nashville.

Eddie Stubbs, whose resonant tones are familiar to Grand Ole Opry fans and WSM-AM 650 listeners everywhere—guides the listener through 18 contemporary takes on classic Bristol material, with ambient clips of the rough-and-ready original recordings to provide contrast to the modern, clean recordings and arrangements we’re more used to. The script, written by Cindy Lovell, concisely retells the story of the Bristol Sessions with telling biographical detail and historical context that even knowledgeable country fans will find enriching.

As a consummate Nashville professional on both sides of the studio glass, Carl Jackson is a perfect choice to produce this record. His choices arranging this well-known material, and manning the sound board, all pay off, and he even plays and sings on several cuts—including a bluesy duet on “In the Pines” with Brad Paisley and a wild run through “Pretty Polly” as lead singer and banjo picker.

Jackson expertly pairs artist to song throughout, including country music royalty (Dolly Parton on “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Emmylou Harris on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” Marty Stuart on “Black Eyed Susie,” and Vince Gill on “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”), A-listers from other genres (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,”
Sheryl Crow on “The Wandering Boy,” Keb’ Mo’ on “To the Work”), and bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “I’m Redeemed” and Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time on “Train on the Island”).

Ashley Monroe (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), the Shotgun Rubies (“I Am Resolved”), and the Church Sisters (“Where We’ll Never Grow Old”), and Ashley & Shannon (children of Glen) Campbell (“The Wreck of the Old Virginian”) add a touch of youth, as does Corbin Hayslett, who won a contest to be on this record with his thrilling take on “Darling Cora,” the standout track from this project.

And though the Bristol Sessions seem like ancient history, a couple of tracks show just how young country music still is. Eighty-five-year-old Jesse McReynolds—a hall-of-famer in both country and bluegrass music—scrapes out “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind” on the very same fiddle that his grandfather Charles McReynolds used when he recorded the same song with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. And the Chuck Wagon Gang, a Southern Gospel quartet that’s been working continously since 1935—with a revolving roster of members, of course—lead a choir comprised of all the Orthophonic Joy artists on a valedictory “Shall We Gather at the River,” one of their biggest hits, which they recorded in 1949 based on the Bristol recording by the Tennessee Mountaineers (actually a church choir from Bluff City, Tenn. given that soubriquet by Peer).

Though the current state of popular country music is worse than ever, thanks to commercialism, there is more opportunity for today’s listener than ever before to experience the joy of good music—of every variety, especially country—than ever before, also thanks to commercialism. Think of this record as good whiskey cut with water—not quite the pure stuff, but plenty good enough to give you a thirst for the real thing.

“Sundown” by Steve Harris

Steve Harris
Sundown
Orange Blossom Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Harris is the lead singer for Circa Blue, a band he formed in 2010. This is a solo project, tapping into the talents of musicians like Marshall Wilborn (bass), Emory Lester (mandolin), and Gaven Largent (Dobro). The musicianship is, as expected with pickers like this, good, if not spectacular, and the the singing is all good, both lead and harmonies.

Harris dedicates the CD to the memory of his father and picked the songs because of personal sentiment, which might help explain why his recordings of these well-known songs feature simple and straightforward bluegrass arrangements, with a piano on some cuts. The songs are all gospel (except, perhaps, “Falling Leaves”), a mixture of familiar hymns and southern gospel: Grandpa Jones’ “Falling Leaves,” “Little White Church,” “Where Could I Go,” “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “In the Garden” and “Softly and Tenderly.”

The title cut, a Mosie Lister composition, is a beautiful song that first appeared in 1961 in a Chuckwagon Gang album (Sings the Songs of Mosie Lister). “Someday My Ship Will Sail” (lead vocal by Mary Paula Wilson) has been done by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash. If you love gospel music you’ll certainly enjoy “Come Morning.” Written by Dee Gaskin and made famous by the Nelons back in the ’80s, it’s a great song.

 

“Liz Longley” by Liz Longley

Liz Longley
Liz Longley
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Liz Longley begins her self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut with “Outta My Head,” a perfect slice of late 1990s Lillith Faire-style pop that has her remembering the good things about an old flame—the road trips to concerts, the exchange of mixtapes, and “the John Martyn record that we spun till it was dead.”

Memory usually tells us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves, suppressing the messy bits and turning the mundane into nostalgia—it’s easy to build a hit song merely by making lists of things from the years when your target audience felt like their lives were still ahead of them.

Good songwriters deal with the mess head-on, and their insight lets you make your own nostalgia about the stuff that’s unique to you.

Longley has had me feeling like that as I’ve played this record over and over the last several weeks. Something about “Outta My Head” made me think of Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing,” which made me remember how I used to feel whenever I would hear it, which made me start thinking a lot about that time in my life, which has lots of parallels to the things Longley must have been turning over in her head when she wrote “Outta My Head.” It’s that kind of interplay between artist and listener that makes music so much a part of our inner lives.

Though it’s Longley’s songwriting that makes this a great record, it’s her voice that most people notice first. Fans of modern country music will notice her voice is every bit as strong and of roughly the same type as the popular female singers of today; more discerning listeners will note that it’s clearly better than any chart-topper you’d care to name—and that Longley can actually sing, and in just about any style she cares to try. The 11 tracks on this record have a unified sound with lots of different influences—subtle ones—from pop and country music from the 1970s and each decade since.

All of this helps Longley put across an impressive cycle of songs about love and memory—the stab of excitement tinged with fear when we feel intense desire for the first time that’s so strong we keep chasing it (“Camaro”), the disbelief when someone is taking that feeling away from you (“This is Not the End”), the mix of shame and resolve when you take that feeling away from someone because they can’t come with you where you’re going (“Memphis”), the rush when you find someone who makes it all feel new and risky again (“Never Loved Another”), the feeling you get from that one person you know you shouldn’t keep coming back to (“Bad Habit,” which is also might be the best song ever written about cigarettes), and the renewed optimism that you may have actually found someone good for you (“You’ve Got that Way”).

A couple of songs included on this album don’t quite fit this theme, nor are they quite as good, but Longley ties everything together with a love song of incredible emotional intensity and simplicity. With the aptly titled “Simple Love,” she tells us how it feels to escape the cycle that has obsessed countless songwriters, offering hope to those who are still caught there.

“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.