“If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice” by Larry Rice

Larry Rice
If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Larry Rice was an understated and brilliant singer, songwriter, and mandolin player who never really achieved the recognition he deserved while living, partly because of the long shadow cast by his brother Tony Rice . Larry’s virtuosity is prominent on If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice. This collection gives listeners incredible insight into his laid back vocal style, distinct mandolin picking, and his choice of material. This album collects work from his albums Hurricanes and Daydreams, Time Machine, Artesia, Notions and Novelties, and Clouds Over Carolina—a body of work spanning 20 years.

In the early 1970s, Rice was an integral part of JD Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys, as well as Crowe’s New South. During his time with Crowe, he was part of two very distinct vocal configurations and he brought different material to the group from the West Coast like “Devil in Disguise”, “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do?”, and “You Can Have Her.”

On this anthology, there are tremendous renditions of straight-ahead bluegrass classics like “Used to Be,” “Take my Ring from your Finger,” and “Four Wheel Drive.” These songs put Larry up front singing lead and playing fiery mandolin licks. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is an extremely intimate cut with Larry and his brother Tony; it is essentially a jam in their living room with just guitar and mandolin. The material presented here is actually quite diverse. “Pretty Polly” is given a modal treatment featuring Larry on a lower lead vocal than traditionally done on this song. The use of a low-tuned clawhammer banjo really emphasizes how different this arrangement is.

“Hurricane Elena” and “Plastic People Town” are incredibly sensitive songs—delivered in ’70s singer-songwriter style—about natural disaster and the shallow nature of huge cities and how lost love feels in such a place.

Stop reading this review. Go purchase this classic album. It showcases Larry Rice at his absolute best as a singer, instrumentalist and performer. Every true fan of incredible acoustic music needs this record.

“Songs from My Mother’s Hand” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Songs from My Mother’s Hand
Wrinkled Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

For those born after 1960, Mac Wiseman is little more than a name occasionally encountered when reading the history of popular country music.

Wiseman hasn’t recorded for a major label since 1973, and hasn’t made a country Top 40 chart appearance since a novelty song (“Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride”) in 1969. Even prior to that, he didn’t have the chart presence of many of his contemporaries. Why then does Mac Wiseman remain significant as we move into 2015?

In 1993, Wiseman was inducted as part of the third class of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame (then called the Hall of Honor) alongside Jim & Jesse McReynolds—ahead of luminaries including the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and the Country Gentlemen. “The Voice with a Heart,” certainly one of bluegrass and country music’s most emotive and sentimental singers, Wiseman joined first the Foggy Mountain Boys and then Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

Wiseman’s signature song, “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” has been recorded by scores, but it was Wiseman who made it a Top 5 number in 1959. He participated in the folk revival of the 1960s, and has released more albums than can reasonably be counted, including a spectacular set with Del McCoury and Doc Watson in 1998.

On the business side, Wiseman co-founded the Country Music Association, worked in A&R for Dot Records, and has remained a fiercely independent artist within the confines of the country and bluegrass worlds over the past several decades. Nearing his 90th birthday, the Virginia native has most recently been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and is said to have the longest running recording career in history.

Songs From My Mother’s Hand is a truly remarkable album. Not only are the performances enjoyable and heartfelt, but the album’s foundation stretches back some 80-plus years. Within the Wiseman family home, Mac’s mother Ruth would transcribe songs heard on the family’s Victrola radio, collecting them in a series of composition booklets that helped the youngster learn the popular songs of the day. Preserved through his long career, Wiseman hauled the notebooks to Nashville (apparently in a green plastic bag) and used these old transcriptions as the basis for the songs recorded for this album: truly then, these are songs from his mother’s hand.

According to album co-producer Peter Cooper, Wiseman recorded the vocals for this new collection in a single session. Wiseman’s voice remains rich and mellow, although there is no shortage of hints that he isn’t as vocally flexible as he may once have been. No matter such limitations when the execution of these timeless songs is so obviously masterful; Wiseman knows these now classic folk songs by heart, having sung them both as a child and throughout his life. Not every lyric matches the most frequently documented rendition, but such quibbles are inconsequential.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of Nashville instrumental and vocal A-listers, co-producers Thomm Jutz and Cooper have ensured that Wiseman’s singing be the focal point of the recording. Justin Moses (fiddle and vocals), Seirra Hull (mandolin and vocals), Mark Fain (bass), and Jimmy Capps (guitar, reso), along with folks like Alisa Jones Wall (Grandpa Jones’ daughter, hammered dulcimer), Jelly Roll Johnson (harmonica), Cooper (vocals), and Jutz (guitar and vocals) create an instrumental and vocal canvas that is brightened and highlighted by Wiseman’s warm timbre. The effect is that one has been invited into Wiseman’s home to listen to the man, perhaps seated at his mother’s kitchen table, sing these songs within a jam conducted amongst great friends.

The disc package is also top-notch. Created by Latocki Team Creative and Backstage Design, and with excellent  liner notes by Cooper and photos from Wiseman’s family collection, it is a beautifully composed offering, worthy of attention when awards for such are considered.

Each song offers something special, with the less frequently encountered songs notable. “Old Rattler,” a timeless song about an old coon dog, is infused with energy from the harmony chorus; Wiseman’s voice reveals his personable chuckle during the final verse. The album’s saddest song, “Answer to Weeping Willow,” is as grim as the more familiar “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow,” while the pure pitiful “Eastbound Train” pulls in as a tight second.

These songs, including “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and “Little Redwood Casket” have great meaning to Wiseman, and he communicates their importance in every vocal nuance. That songs composed and performed eighty, a hundred, and several hundreds of years ago remain engrained within our musical vocabulary is a testament to the density of their message, the value of their stories.

That they sound fresh and relevant today is a measure of Mac Wiseman’s talents as a great musical communicator.

“The Legendary J. E. Mainer” by J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cut-Ups


J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cutups

The Legendary J. E. Mainer
Rural Rhythm Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Mainer was 70 years old by the time he made this album, released in 1968. He had been on the national music scene for more than four decades and was a well-known personality, playing “gospel, bluegrass, comedy, love ballads, wild mountain fiddle breakdowns and traditional folk and country blues.” Mainer and Smiley were both North Carolina natives. Mainer died June 12, 1972, just six months before Smiley passed.

The pairing of Mainer and Smiley was likely one of convenience and marketing aptitude. Though some gave Mainer’s music a bluegrass label, what you’ll hear is more old-time or roots music. It’s not likely to be of interest to people only interested in the music of bluegrass, but those who want to know the history of the music will be drawn to it. Bluegrass wasn’t invented from some vacuum by Bill Monroe; it was a refinement of music that was played for more than a hundred years in the mountains and frontier settlements. Looking down the list of cuts you won’t find many that are played on the bluegrass stages today. “Arkansas Traveler” is familiar as a fiddle tune, but Mainer does it as a comedy routine, as it was done in vaudeville. It was also the Arkansas state song (with lyrics written by a committee) at one time. “Shady Grove” has been recorded over 100 times by such diverse artists as Patty Loveless, Hot Rize, Taj Mahal and, of course, Doc Watson. Mainer’s version is a good listen, featuring a juice harp —something you don’t hear on a recording every day. Mainer does “Home Sweet Home” with a harmonica and many of us will remember “Shortnin’ Bread,” though you may not know it was composed by James Whitcomb Riley.

This CD, while a studio recording, is more like the recording of a live show. Songs may start with a dialogue between Mainer and someone in the band, like Gene Burris on “Shortnin’ Bread.” The cuts aren’t arrangements, there’s no intricate interweaving of parts. The music starts, showcases Mainer, and it ends. The quality of the music is generally good, though some of the fiddle playing (probably Mainer rather than Tater Tate) gives an understanding of “sawing” on the strings. The enjoyment of music is in the ear of the beholder (consider the very basic sound of the Tennessee Two) and people enjoyed the comedy as much as the music. Other groups employed these simple, vaudevillian comedy routines (Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers’ “Model T” routine) though you don’t see them much today.

Several of the numbers are borrowed from other performers who, in turn, adapted them from old songs. “Devilish Mary” was a favorite of the Skillet Lickers and “Papa’s Billy Goat” is associated with Fiddlin’ John Carson. One reason why this CD is important is you’re not going to find many modern recordings of these links to the past, songs like “I Had An Old Grey Mare,” “Old Blind Horse” or “Eleven Cents Cotton.”

If you’re interested in old-time music, in music history, or searching for hidden gems to arrange to your liking, this CD should be in your collection.

“Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two” by Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups

Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups
Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“Bluegrass” is indefinable because it’s a notion in your mind. Some will insist it must be something Bill Monroe would have played. Others prefer the Old Crow Medicine Show or newgrass pioneers like Sam Bush (who does a fine job on traditional numbers, too). Some will say it must have a banjo to be bluegrass, or it needs that “high, lonesome” sound. It can’t have drums, some say, while others scoff amplified instruments. Most of us take a middle-of-the-road approach and simply say, “I know it when I hear it,” which, of course, does nothing to quell the arguments.

In general, though, the core music is comprised of some combination of banjo, flattop guitar (preferably a Martin), mandolin, fiddle (violins are for highbrow music), resophonic guitar and upright bass. A common compromise is the bass because of its bulk. Bands substitute an acoustic flattop bass, a “stick” bass or a “Fender” bass. Mr. Monroe once had an accordion, though that’s as rare as hen’s teeth. Variations of core instruments may include a viola (in the case of Nancy Blake, a cello) or a mandola (IIIrd Tyme Out’s Wayne Benson) and sometimes a snare drum, steel guitar or piano.

It’s the music more than the songs that make it bluegrass. As we look at the songs included in these two CDs, songs that are cross-genre will be noted but I believe few will argue their inclusion in bluegrass. Harmony singing, sometimes two part, sometimes three part and, more rarely, four part, is very important and the harmony on these tracks is beautiful.

Bill Monroe is heralded as the father of bluegrass and Jimmy Martin declared himself to be king of bluegrass, but there is a sizable list of people who were there in the early years and helped shape the music. Arthur “Red” Smiley appeared on the scene at the age of twenty-one. In 1949 he joined Don Reno, fresh from a stint as a Blue Grass Boy, in the Tennessee Buddies of Tommy Magness then Reno & Smiley went on their own in 1951. They were a popular pairing and you can still see parts of their TV shows on Ronnie Reno’s show on RFD-TV (featuring a very young Ronnie Reno on mandolin and Mac Magaha – later Porter Wagoner’s fiddle player). Reno & Smiley made great music but disagreement over their touring schedule lead to a split in late 1964.

Smiley and his band, the Blue Grass Cut-Ups, made three recordings for Rural Rhythm before his TV show was cancelled in 1968. Smiley briefly retired, then joined Reno and Bill Harrell in 1970. Red Smiley died January, 2, 1972 at the age of 47.

These two separately released Red Smiley CDs (how could you buy just one?) have a slew of titles most fans will recognize. “Summertime Is Past and Gone,” a Monroe number, features excellent bluegrass harmony. “Roll On Buddy” has been recorded by countless bands through the years. Billy Edwards has a hot hand on the banjo on the recordings. Tater Tate is playing fiddle and tears into a short (1:09) “Big Sandy.” and a hot “Black Eyed Susan.” “Wreck of the Old No. 9″ isn’t as widely played as “Wreck of the Old 97″ but is still recognized by older fans. “Take This Hammer” is associated by many with the folk music movement but was made popular long before that by Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter. “900 Miles” is another old song that is often associated with it’s Folk renditions. “Darling Corey” was made popular by the Monroe Brothers but it’s origin dates well before then and no one knows for sure where it came from.

Volume One’s gospel numbers are still popular today. “Working On A Building” and “Somebody Touched Me” are heard most often but “Something Got Hold of Me” is still heard in bluegrass circles. “Tupelo County Jail” may be most familiar to many as a Webb Pierce or Mel Tillis recording. (Coincidentally, there is an insight into the music business connected to this song. The video linked above includes an introduction to the song by Webb Pierce. He attributes the song to Mel Tillis. On another site you’ll see the song attributed to Tillis and Pierce and the image of the 45 r.p.m. record clearly shows both names. It’s likely Pierce followed a fairly common practice of recording the song only if he got partial writer’s credit.)

Other musicians on these recordings include John Palmer playing bass and Gene Burris/Burrows playing mandolin (which you hear little of) and guitar. Smiley plays guitar, also.

“In The Pines” has crossed genres several times and is heard on a regular basis at bluegrass shows today. “Silver Bells,” a number I’ve heard on guitar, is played here with a banjo-fiddle lead. The last time I heard “Little Birdie” was a couple of years ago on Dr. Ralph Stanley’s show. “Oh! Monah” has an interesting pedigree as a pop song being played in bluegrass. Listening to the intro to Ted Weem’s version, you have to wonder how this could ever translate to bluegrass. The lyrics give a clue but still it’s evidence of the importance of the music making the bluegrass.

“Shady Grove” has been around about forever. Smiley’s version is played at breakneck speed and my preference is Doc Watson’s version. This is one of those songs that has countless versions floating around. “Fallen Leaf,” on the other hand, was a new one for me. A 1952 recording from the John Quincy World Folklore Collection is another example of a genre-jumping number rearranged for bluegrass.

Take a break, let your ears rest, then drop in Volume Two.

The Cut-Ups included several gospel numbers that you’ll hear over and over at bluegrass shows. “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “Take Me In the Lifeboat,” “I’ll Be No Stranger There,” (and you’ll hear some mandolin on this one) and “A Beautiful Life” are all familiar songs. Some may remember “The Pale Horse and His Rider,” a song co-written by Walter Bailes and recorded by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Williams also recorded “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” a popular song a few decades ago. Listen to the melody and you’ll be reminded of another popular song. “The Man of Galilee” is less known, at least today. “Living the Right Life Now” was recorded around 1961 by Molly O’Day with more of an old-time sound.

Another popular theme in bluegrass is death, sometimes with violence. The death of a child is recorded with “Budded On Earth To Bloom In Heaven.” For all you eclectic music collectors, this is the version recorded by Martha Carson, not Freaky Chakra’s version. Jimmie Davis co-wrote a song Bill Monroe recorded and is remembered by fans, “Plant Some Flowers By My Grave.” This is another example of very good lead singing by Smiley along with good harmony from Tate and Burris/Burrows. These CDs have value for the fan who has been around some years, good singing and good picking, but should not be disregarded by newer fans of bluegrass. Smiley wasn’t breaking new ground with these recordings but they were a part of marking the trail for traditional bluegrass.

It’s a rare festival that doesn’t feature at least one rendition of “Katy Hill.” “Banks of the Ohio,” a popular murder ballad has been recorded by such diverse talents as Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Olivia Newton-John and a host of others, while Willie kills Molly in “Little Glass of Wine.” None of them have anything on Smiley’s version. “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail,” “It’s Raining Here This Morning” and “Prisoner’s Dream” all touch on another familar theme, jail time.

“Little Darling Pal of Man,” a Carter Family number, is presented here as an instrumental and, for this pair of CDs, the rare track that should probably have been left off. It features a couple of bass breaks played enthusiastically but with questionable intonation. After the break it seems like the band hasn’t figured out what to do with the banjo jumping in while the rest must be having a cup of coffee for a measure or so. Oh, well, they weren’t perfect. “Prosperity Special,” a 1:02 quickie is a better number that traces back to Bob Wills. Rounding out the CD are “Baby Girl” and the lament “Ain’t Nobondy Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”

Red Smiley was a first-generation pioneer in bluegrass, coming on the scene a handful of years after Bill Monroe. It would be a shame if he disappears from the collective bluegrass psyche as the years march by and older fans are no longer here to jostle our memories. Taken one by one this collection doesn’t offer the very best of his work—the cuts are too abbreviated, there’s too much of a feeling that Uncle Jim O’Neal was looking for songs to memorialize rather than putting together an instrument for Smiley and his band. But Smiley did a good job with what he was given and this is a rare opportunity to buy a collection of his music. If you love traditional bluegrass you should be listening to these CDs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“South Holston” by Jerry Castle

Jerry Castle
South Holston
My World Records

3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

A funny thing happened as I listened to this CD. I closed my eyes and imagined I was looking at the face of a cliff and embedded in it was a talking head. That’s the sound of a lot of this CD. It sounds like the compression was dialed up, the volume was dialed up, the sound hits you like a hurricane and someplace in the middle of all that is Castle singing. A good track to get the full effect of this is “Write My Own Ending.” The first few bars sound like a lot of country songs: you can hear the different instruments and they support the vocals. At :40 the background players step on their volume pedals and start to overwhelm the singer.

Castle’s enunciation takes getting used to. He has a habit of making adding syllables to words, and not in the way you expect some southerners to. For instance (in “Write My Own Ending”):

“… for this one feels wro-ong”

“… grow my hair like a hippie-uh”

It takes some getting used to. “Write My Own Ending” expresses a desire many of us have. We want to control our destiny, be in charge of our life. “Life Gets Better” has a nice intro, a strumming guitar and a lonely steel that plays a thread through the song. It then builds to his in-your-face volume. The song has a nice sentiment. Castle wrote or co-wrote all the tracks so the feeling of a personal point of view is probably just that. “Need You” is a nice song and has a little more space in the music than other tracks. You get more of a feeling of individual musicians instead of a wall of sound.

The central theme is about being yourself in a world that tries to mold you into some norm and the struggle to just survive. “Drown” is about a broken love affair. I think “Maybe” is, too, from what I can hear in the auditory assault of the instruments.

I wasn’t at all familiar with Castle before this one landed in my mailbox, but the album’s news release quotes some opinions that prove there are people that get into his music. It’s interesting that Castle feels this is country music (“… this record covers a wide spectrum of country music …”), while I mainly hear references to pop and rock from other people. I get that my kind of country is now second-shelf on radio and sales, but if you measure the distance between Stonewall Jackson and Kenny Chesney, then add that number to Florida Georgia Line you may get in the vicinity of Jerry Castle. It’s not bad music or writing, just different and no part of country that I can imagine. Go to iTunes and sample it.

“Pull Your Savior In” by the Larry Stephenson Band

Larry Stephenson Band
Pull Your Savior In
Whysper Dream Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There’s comfort in hearing familiar songs. Hearing hymns that you know by heart is—for those who believe—like having welcoming arms wrapped around you.

Larry Stephenson offers up a mix of well-known hymns, others you’ll recognize but don’t get recorded all that often, and a surprise or two. The lead number is an excellent a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony. Stephenson leads off with his familiar tenor/high lead voice, slow and clear as a ringing bell. Joining in on the second stanza is one of the best tenor singers you’ll hear, Jimmy Fortune. Add Dale Perry singing bass and David Parmley on baritone and you have an all-star quartet.*

Other familiar hymns are “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and “How Great Thou Art.” Parmley-Perry-Fortune are only on the first track but you need not be dismayed: Stephenson’s bandmates add some great harmony on the other tracks. Stephenson, of course, is the mandolin player. Kenny Ingram, a veteran bluegrasser (James Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Nashville Grass), sings harmony and plays banjo plus lead guitar on one number. Colby Laney (who has since returned to Volume Five, replaced by Kevin Richardson) sings lead and harmony and plays guitar while Danny Stewart (since replaced by Matt Wright) plays bass and sings bass on “If You Want To Live Forever” (the track with Ingram on the guitar), a good up-tempo number co-written by Randall Hylton. This band makes excellent music, with plenty of drive.

The title number, composed by Stephenson, is an energetic number with some good advice, and features a hot guitar break by Laney. Guest Aubrey Haynie joins the band on fiddle and he’s always a welcome addition. Have you ever had a come-to-Jesus moment? Used to describe an epiphany when you realize an important truth, most of use have had one (but we all know at least one person who wouldn’t know an epiphany if it chewed their leg like a Pekinese), Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley turned it into a meaningful song. The singer has, literally, come to Jesus and hopes he didn’t wait too long. I know people who wear their faith like their skin—it’s been with them forever—but a lot of us needed that come-to-Jesus moment and the good news that it’s never too late.

I heard Roy Acuff sing “The Great Speckled Bird” countless times but, with the respect due Mr. Acuff, Stephenson’s version is one of the prettiest ones you’ll hear. Another good number, this one composed by Albert Brumley, is “The Prettiest Flowers Will Be Blooming.” It’s been recorded by many—the Legendary Marshall Family had a good turn with it—but I never get tired of this one. “Will You Meet Me Over Yonder” is another good traditional song. Other numbers rooted in bluegrass tradition are the Lester Flatt—composed “Thank God I’m On My Way” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Born Again.”

“Morningtime Always” is the promise of Heaven. Co-written by veteran writer Bill Castle, Stephenson and Laney share the lead.

Stephenson is tilling old but fertile soil with this CD. His band is always on the top of their game and he puts his own stamp on these songs. If you like your gospel bluegrass style, this is a good bet.

*The last news I’ve had about Parmley dates back two years when he announced he was “taking some time off from the music business to pursue other interests.” He had enjoyed a long run in the business, including the Bluegrass Cardinals (Stephenson was also a member), and will hopefully come back to bluegrass at some point.

Another Cardinals alumnus is Dale Perry. I’ve seen him as a banjo player, a bass player and a sound technician and he does all of them well. He’s also a good bass singer. Hopefully, he’ll find another niche on the circuit soon.

Jimmy Fortune had a great run with the Statler Brothers (21 years) and has been on his own since they retired in 2002.

“Christmas in the Smokies” by various artists

Various artists
Christmas in the Smokies
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

It’s the time of the year that jolly old St. Nick is checking his list and parents are hanging their stockings with care. Pinecastle Records is in on the festivities with the 15-track, 45-minute Christmas in the Smokies.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Christmas albums but just like Brylcream, a little dab will do ya.  Now before you start mailing me lumps of coal for this statement, Mr. Grinch, I really like this album and I found myself tapping my toes and enjoying the fabulous picking and singing from Pinecastle artists past and present, including crooners like Charlie Waller (with a grand “White Christmas”), Larry Stephenson (on the lullaby “Away in a Manger”), and Josh Williams (“My Christmas Dream”).

Other clever renditions of classic songs that everyone will recognize include a lush arrangement of “The Christmas Song” and a jazzy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from Newton and Thomas, and grassy takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” from Wild and Blue and Special Consensus, respectively. Celebrated pickers Phil Leadbetter (“Jingle Bells”), Ross Nickerson (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the trio of Scott Vestal, Wayne Benson, and Jeff Autry (“Frosty the Snowman”) chip in crisp instrumentals.

Two of the less familiar songs are welcome additions to anyone’s bluegrass Christmas playlist: “It’s a Time for Joy” from Matt Wallace and Jesse Gregory and the title track from Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road.

If you are a bluegrass fan and in the Christmas spirit, this would be a nice album to play while the children are opening presents by the fireplace in any home, not just in the Smokies.