“These Tears I’ve Cried” by Steve Scott Country

Steve Scott Country
These Tears I’ve Cried
self-released
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Here is another good entry in the country-rock field, songs called country by the radio stations and people who buy the records, but sound like rock music. There are any number of rock bands from some decades ago—like Credence Clearwater Revival—that you could plug into the playing of these tracks and no one would miss a beat. In that vein of music, Scott has come up with some good songs (all written by him). The title song is a ballad with the steel guitar the primary lead instrument. A good steel player can reach out and grab your heartstrings and the steel in this song has that sound, it just doesn’t match what he’s singing. He doesn’t touch you with the lyrics.

One issue for me is Scott’s elocution. He breaks out of the soundalike clutch of “country” singers on the radio today but his pronunciation is unusual. It’s not a twang, it sounds more like an affectation but seems to be his normal way of singing. It takes some getting used to before it stops stealing your attention from the song.

“Thoughts On Fire” is a love song that has some nice touches with an easy beat on a flattop guitar and some steel and fiddle in the background. It lapses into country-rock mode on every verse, though, with a wall of sound that makes it hard to sort out the background instruments. The music follows the country-rock formula with a bit of diversity in the kickoff then a lot of licks strung together through the rest of the song. It would be interesting to hear a country record with the instruments having space in each song, playing some creative fills and lead breaks that are more than just bending strings and making a lot of noise.

“Geronimo (You’ve Got Me Wonderin’)”has an unusual kickoff. Scott sounds like he’s down in a well doing some swamp rock, reminiscent of the theme song to Justified. This one has some interesting stuff in it. The lyrics don’t grab my attention and I could do without the thud-thud back-beat of the drummer, but there’s some resophonic guitar and very bluesy keyboard/organ work in this number.

“Don’t Say You’ll Walk Away (Tonight)” mixes some interesting, quiet mandolin work mixed with loud guitars crashing in the background. The guitar break is more of a formula than a solo. Like many of his songs, you have to work to piece together a cohesive story from his lyrics. This doesn’t seem unusual for this style of music so there are undoubtedly significant numbers of people who can get into this groove. I have to admit I miss songs like “Lonesome 7-7203.” They told the story; you didn’t have to piece anything together.

There’s good music here for fans of the country-rock-indie (the CD was #32 on the Roots Music Report for November 2013), lots of crashing guitars and a strong drum beat so you can dance. If “Come Sundown” is one of your favorites, you’ll be disappointed.

 

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“Fiddle” by Smoke Dawson

Smoke Dawson
Fiddle
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The violin—or rather, for our purposes, the fiddle—has carried the implication that it is the devil’s instrument long before the Charlie Daniels pop-country operetta “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” From the legends surrounding Paganini on back to an ancient Greek music critic by the name of Aristotle, the fiddle has evoked suspicion and curiosity.

Some attribute this to apprehension at the debauchery that comes with drink and dance—the skilled fiddler for centuries before turntables and synthesizers performed the function now manned by the likes of Avicii and Skrillex, with wine or moonshine lubricating the proceedings as molly and mushrooms now do for many.

But I suspect that the fiddle is regarded as fiendish because of the visceral reaction only it can provoke. Neither the piano nor the guitar—and certainly no horn—can approach the infinite range of microtones and timbres possible with strings grabbing and scratching and pulling over a fretless fingerboard. Our ears can hear so much from a fiddle, and its sounds are often familiar and frightening in the same moment.

I was playing a digital copy of this reissue of this record—Smoke Dawson’s privately pressed “Fiddle” LP from 1971, with fascinating liner notes by Josh Rosenthal—the other day, and someone in the next room later remarked on the Celtic music they had heard.

It’s more the American folk or Appalachian style of fiddling that Dawson does here, but he’s definitely calling up the ancient tones and voices that poets like Bill Monroe and Van Morrison are always going on about.

“John Brown’s Dream,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—indeed most of the 17 tracks here—have melodies recognizable to even casual listeners to bluegrass and American folk and country music—sometimes those melodies are known by other names, which underscores the magpie nature of the fiddlers that have passed them along—renaming, stealing, reworking, and reinvigorating at every pass. Dawson’s “Pretty Polly” is every bit as bracing as Ralph Stanley’s version, right down to the plucked-string kickoff that mimics the sound of Stanley’s banjo. If you listened to each version side by side for the first time with no context, you couldn’t say which was older or even when they were recorded.

Dawson also played the bagpipes, which make a striking appearance here on the third leg of the “Connaughtman’s Rambles/Devil’s Dream/Marche Venerie” medley.

“The Minotaur” closes the album with stutters and hums and an unworldly aura made more affecting by the knowledge it’s coming not from Satan but from one of us.

 

 

“Side by Side” by Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II
Side By Side
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), “Side By Side” is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy.

The selection of songs—four of which feature Ralph in strong lead voice—are almost exclusively older and well-known: the album kicks off with “Wild Bill Jones,” goes “Walking With You In My Dreams,” asks “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” and concludes with “I’ve Still Got 99.”

The musicianship is classic sounding—fresh and relaxed with a professional sheen that doesn’t get in the way of the emotions of the music. Clinch Mountain Boys alumni John Rigsby (fiddle and mandolin), Randall Hibbitts (bass), and Steve Sparkman (banjo) are the core band, with Two doing double duty on lead and rhythm guitar. Dr. Ralph lays out clawhammer-style on a solitary track, the aptly titled “Battle Ax.”

Doubting the senior Stanley’s vocal capabilities? Don’t. Instead, give “Don’t Weep for Me” a listen, or appreciate his excellent tenor contributions to any number of these songs including “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” “Nobody Answered Me,” or “Carolina Mountain Home.”

Two has become a fine singer in his own right, one of my favorites. If you haven’t heard him before, also consider his album of a couple years back Born To Be A Drifter. “White & Pink Flowers” is a sentimental weeper, while “Dirty Black Coal” is more my style. Start to finish, Side By Side is a superior album of bluegrass.

Perusing these song titles, it is readily apparent what Two and co-producer Rigsby had in mind—a celebration of the Stanley mountain music legacy. And they have pulled such off in a significant way. “Side By Side” is cause for celebration. We all know Ralph Stanley had planned on retiring this year, but with his continuing good health delaying that decision one of the last true ‘first generation’ bluegrass singers continues to make appearances. And his latest album is as good as anything—and certainly superior to some—he has recorded in the past 20 years.

I would suggest that Side By Side is among the strongest bluegrass albums that has been released in 2014.

“Dream Big” by the Darrell Webb Band

The Darrell Webb Band
Dream Big
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When Darrell Webb takes the stage he owns it. He stalks back and forth, puts a leg up on the front rail as he sings and plays, moves to a musician taking a break to share with him or just watch. He’s energetic and intense. He doesn’t just play, he performs. I reviewed Bloodlines four years ago and started by saying, “As soon as “I’m Bringing Home Good News” kicks off you know you’re in for a ride and it’s on a bluegrass train. Darrell Webb took a good Merle Haggard song and gave it a triple shot of Red Bull.” Fifteen hundred days later, hundreds of shows later, he hasn’t worn off his edge.

Dating back hundreds of years, coins have been placed on the eyes of the deceased so they can pay Charon, the ferryman, to row them across the River Styx – even though most of us aim for the River Jordan. “Ferry Man,” co-written by fiddler Jim VanCleve, is pure bluegrass, all about a life of hard times and hard living that’s come to a sad end:

Mother died when I was young

Father drank to kill the pain

The way my father left this world

I sadly did the same

Webb plays mandolin and sings the lead, joined by VanCleve, Tim Stafford (guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo), Shawn Lane (tenor) and Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar) and Jason Moore (bass). Just a sampling of the great musicians on this CD, a who’s who of the groups Webb has been a member of through the years, the instrumental work is excellent.

Staying with pain and despair, “Bad Old Yesterdays” is all about love so good then love gone bad, she was “unfaithful with the one I trusted most.” Bandmate Jake Joines plays Dobro and former LRB bandmate Sammy Shelor plays banjo with Aaron Ramsey playing mandolin. Things go from bad to worse when he’s about to swing on the “Devil’s Rope.” Bandmates Jared Hensley (guitar) and Jeremy Arrowood ( NS Bass) join him while while Webb plays both mandolin and banjo.

“Flying South to Dixie” has been around a long time and recorded by a slew of artists. It may qualify as the song with the most composers based on a Google search. Cindy Walker (who is credited here), Hank Snow, Hank Locklin and Robert Weber all pop up as composers. This may have arisen from the old custom of registering variations in your own name. Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldredge join Webb on vocals on this on this swinging old country song.

Another nod to the past is a Dr. Ralph Stanley favorite, “Pretty Polly.” Webb’s interpretation and banjo playing are top-notch. Moving to a more modern sound, “So Far” is a love song that Ronnie Bowman helps to sing and Phil Leadbetter contributes resophonic guitar. “Folks Like Us” will resonate with most anyone listening to it, describing the chasm between the working man and the rich man, asking if there’s “a way to get ahead that doesn’t make us bleed.” After all the news of greed and grift among people and companies that make more in an hour than most of us do in a year—or a lifetime—a lot of people will hear this story. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent add vocals.

Webb and VanCleve composed “Mashtag,” an instrumental that starts off slow and reflective before kicking it up a notch. Another number that probably speaks more to older fans, those of us with enough years that we can look a long way back to the time when life seemed it would go on forever, is “More Life.” Co-written by Mike Reid, a great songwriter whose singing career didn’t last long enough, with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals, it’s the story of a man nearing the end of life. Thinking of what he will do “as soon as gets his back up to speed,” the nurse comes in “with something for the pain” and asks if there’s anything more he needs.

More life, more time

More faith and the presence of mind

To breathe deeper, love stronger

Stay in the moment one moment longer

Less anger, less worry, more life

Oh, my.

Darrell Webb will go down in the books as one of the great stars of bluegrass and this CD is just one piece of the proof.

 

 

“Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Larry Sparks is an undisputed bluegrass icon, as much for his prodigious talent—the mournful, masculine voice pitched a little lower than “high lonesome” and his commanding guitar technique—as his niche somewhere between bluegrass music’s first and second generations (as Carter Stanley’s successor alongside Dr. Ralph starting in 1966, he played a key role in that period of transition when followers of the founders started, ever so gently, branching out).

Fifty years a professional, he’s still as good a bluegrass (or country or gospel, for that matter) lead singer there is, and the band he’s got on this disc—David Harvey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (fiddle), Tyler Mullins (banjo), Larry D. Sparks (bass), and Jackie Kincaid (tenor vocals)—does him justice, especially Kincaid’s old-school harmony on the opening cut, Jimmie Skinner’s “Will You Be Satisfied That Way?” and the simmering gospel bluegrass of “We Prayed.”

Sparks offers up some more trad grass with tenor harmonies from fellow legends Ralph Stanley (on Carter’s “Loving You Too Well”), Bobby Osborne (“Letter to My Darlin’), and Curly Seckler (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”), while Seckler and Jesse McReynolds join in on Hank Williams’ gospel shouter “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.”

But Sparks’ vocal virtuosity is in his ability to master both more contemporary bluegrass songs and banjo-less gospel. Here, the latter style is represented by “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” (which never gets old, especially with Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall joining Sparks and solo guitar), and “Savior’s Precious Blood,” also with just bluesy guitar and that majestic voice.

Sparks again shows on the album’s three bluegrass story songs—the nostalgic “In Those Days,” the realistic coal mining ballad “Journey to the Light,” and the Southern gothic “Bitterweeds” how he can turn a good song into a great one.

The crowning touch of this 12-track disc is a 1995 live cut of Sparks joining Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on stage at Bean Blossom for “In the Pines,” which is predictably grand.

“Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third.
It can also be exhausting.

Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children. Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by her own dulcimer, by Doc Watson’s guitar and banjo, or by folks like Eric Weissberg (who nicely accompanies Judy Collins here on “One I Love”) and Marshall Brickman, Ritchie takes listeners to places that—within the most popular contemporary Americana performers—only the likes of Iris Dement does today.

As did Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed through their original songs, Dement and (as I learned living with this collection) dozens of unheralded mountain and hill singers, Ritchie transports the listener to a long ago place that only tangentially bears relevance to contemporary times.

Or, it would appear upon first listen.

Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.

What is sometimes (frequently, perhaps) neglected when considering Jean Ritchie is that standing alongside the “ballads from her Appalachian family tradition,” to borrow a phrase, have been dozens of amazing, timeless creations—among them “The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Thousand Mile Blues,” and “Black Waters”—that are original compositions inspired by the realities of Ritchie’s experiences.

Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie is a two-disc, 37-track labour of love from producers Mick Lane, Charlie Pilzer, and Dan Schatz augmented by performers who not only have been influenced by and admire Ritchie, but many who have more than passing connection to the Kentuckian who was awarded a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2002.

The set contains a blend of traditional and contemporary ‘folk’ approaches to the material, with a decided emphasis on presenting performers who may not be widely known within the broadly defined folk and Americana fields. Providing further balance, the producers have elected to feature many of Ritchie’s lesser known compositions alongside the many traditional songs for which she is well regarded.

Some who have contributed to this collection are familiar and contribute the expected exceptional performances. Robin and Linda Williams with John Jennings (“The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”) Peggy Seeger (“Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn,”) and John McCutcheon (“The Bluebird Song”) are among the most well-known of the performers.

Select songs have a contemporary presentation. The always formidable and impressive Janis Ian, supported here by Andrea Zonn, Alison Brown, and Todd Phillips, serves up a memorable version of “Mornings Come, Maria’s Gone.” An all-star lineup of John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Bryn Davies, Suzy Bogguss, and Kathy Mattea perform “Black Waters” capturing the emotional, physical, and geographical impact that brutally evasive and injurious coal mining practices have had on the southern United States.

Other performances are more reminiscent of the stark sounds and performances Ritchie grew up immersed within, such as Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen’s “Lord Bateman,” the Starry Mountain Singers “I’ve Got a Mother,” and Archie Fisher’s “Jackaro.”

While a handful of the performers have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so.

Sam Amidom (“The Cuckoo,”) fiddler Matt Brown (“Golden Ring Around the Susan Girl,”) and Rachael Davis (“One More Mile,”) and others including LePrelle, bridge the generations between themselves, Ritchie (who is now 92) and the original inspiration for these songs.

Tying things together, Kathy Mattea performs “Jubilee” with Ritchie’s sons Jon and Peter Pickow, who also appear with Kenny Kosek on “Last Old Trains A-Leavin’.” Suzie Glaze, who once appeared as Ritchie in a stage production, performs a telling version of “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” The Ritchie Nieces contribute “Twilight A-Stealing,” a song Ritchie writes that her family always sang together at the close of their evening porch sing-a-longs.

Ritchie herself appears twice. A delightful 1985 rendition of “Who Killed Cock Robin” (with contemporary Oscar Brand) is light and companionable. A final ’round’ of “The Peace Round” from 1992, augmented with the voices of many who appear throughout this wide-ranging tribute, closes the album on more pensive notes.

For those so inclined, Schneyer’s “Black Diamond Mines” isn’t the only song that includes a taste of bluegrass, but it is the one that most strongly embraces the sound. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer’s “My Dear Companion” flirts along the edges.

Like Ritchie, Dale Ann Bradley is from Berea, Kentucky, and the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year can’t help but have some ‘grass in her approach. Here, Bradley teams with Alison Brown and the Bankester vocalists for a take on “Go Dig My Grave,” and this take should find favour with those who appreciate Bradley’s approach to traditional material. (I have another paragraph or three about this fragment of “The Butcher’s Boy” available, but I had best leave that treatise to scholars.)

One can be forgiven for believing that Jean Ritchie only sang traditional folk music. ‘Folk’ is now a near meaningless catch-all, but descriptive musical terms once meant something. Ritchie herself once quite ardently distinguished her traditional mountain, folk, and old-time music from modern sounds that emanated from southern cities. In her liner notes to the 1962 album Precious Memories, Ritchie wrote:

But, my friends will say, is this folk music? Perhaps not, by the strictest scholarly definition. Some have known authors, some have not changed essentially from their original forms; I would call them valuable and interesting period pieces, the natural outgrowth of the older folk music of the region… But these songs are more than that; they are brimming over with the simple basic emotions that touch us all.

Ritchie was writing about her set containing “new hillbilly” and “city” songs like “The Great Speckled Bird,” “The Wreck on the Highway,” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” songs that would—through their very pervasiveness, and no matter who originated them—become standards of country and folk repertoires, as ‘folk’ as any song that had traveled from Europe.

Strange then that some fifty years later she might have just as accurately been writing about this uniformly outstanding tribute.

“Great Big World” by Tony Trischka

Tony Trischka
Great Big World
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you’re not sure of Tony Trischka’s banjo cred, take it from Bela Fleck:

Tony was the right guy at the right time to take advantage of all the new lessons that were being taught right and left by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Miles Davis and so many more…and apply them to banjo music. This enabled him to propel the fine art of banjo playing three giant steps forward.

That’s from Fleck’s liner notes to Great Big World, aptly titled when one considers that the diverse and beautiful sounds Trischka makes on this 13-track disc are possible only in the musical world that he did so much to create.

A core unit of guitarist/vocalist Michael Daves, mando picker Mike Compton, fiddler Mike Barnett, and bassist Skip Ward join Trischka for trad-grass arrangements of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” and—with Chris Eldridge on guitar and lead vocals—”Say Goodbye.” Daves and Aoife O’Donovan trade vocals on the latter part of “Belated Wedding Hoedown/Angelina Baker,” with the Trischka-penned instrumental first half setting up Stephen Foster’s familiar melody perfectly.

Trischka’s instrumental compositions have always been both intricate and tuneful, and that’s what he delivers with “The Danny Thomas,” “Promontory Point” (with Steve Martin on banjo), the solo front parlor picking of “Swag Bag Rag,” and the seven-minute “Single String Medley,” which features a unique tune for each of the banjo’s five strings.

“Great Big World/Purple Trees of Colorado” is another seven-minute frolic, with Noam Pikelny picking second banjo and longtime Trischka pal Andy Statman pitching in with both mandolin and clarinet.

Trischka is also a gifted lyricist whose melodies work just as well sung as played, and it doesn’t hurt to have voices like harpist Maeve Gilchrist (who also adds her harp to “Ocracoke Lullaby,” which indeed does sound like a gentle night on the coast of its eponymous island), the ethereal Abigail Washburn (“Lost,” arranged with violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet), and Catherine Russell, who’s backed by Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on pedal steel and latter-day Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbidge for the ecumenical gospel rave-up “Joy.”

All that’s enough to make this one of the finest records released this year—and to serve as proof that Trischka can do well whatever he sets his hand to—but the coup de maître is “Wild Bill Hickok,” a miniature Western with laconic vocals from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and narration by John Goodman.