“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.

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“Somewhere Far Away” by Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys

Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys
Somewhere Far Away
Five Of Diamonds Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The early 2000s were an exciting time in bluegrass music’s still-brief history.

In some ways a changing of the guard was underway, as the next generation of players and singers were emerging while first and second generation legends were feeling—in various ways—the hands of time.

In other places, the music was stretching as jazz, pop, mainstream, classical, and other influences were not only colouring the contemporary bluegrass sound, but in some cases were being wholeheartedly incorporated into the music.

While all this was occurring, there were—as there has always been—others who were taking the music back to its roots, defining bluegrass by building upon its very stable foundation.

Bands as diverse as the Infamous Stringdusters and the Grasshoppers hit the ground running. Pine Mountain Railroad and Nickel Creek could be heard alongside the Wilders and the Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show.

Youngsters straight out of college—and others still in high school—formed bands who performed largely original songs while ably demonstrating their mastery of the deep catalogue established by the Monroes, Osbornes, Stanleys, McReynoldses, and the west coast pioneers like Vern & Ray, bands like the Steep Canyon Rangers, King Wilkie, Barefoot Bluegrass, and more.

Super groups like Rock County, the Grascals, BlueRidge, and Wildfire reinvigorated sidemen and veterans of the business. We were riding the O Brother bubble. Stringbands were everywhere, jam bands started to be welcomed into our world, and thanks to the increasing capabilities of the Internet, regional bands could connect with the wider bluegrass audience as never before.

Some of the groups are still going today, while more flamed out after a couple albums, and others faded away almost as quickly as they appeared: why didn’t the Circuit Riders ever achieve the level of prominence their debut album promised?

Of all the bluegrass bands that made a splash after the turn of the century, few held the potential of Open Road. Before their self-titled, Sally Van Meter-produced debut appeared, their name was beginning to be passed around by those who had caught a performance of the Colorado-based group. When that independent album—the one with BLUEGRASS prominently above the band’s name, and with the bold pronouncement/disclaimer “featuring 5-string banjo”—hit the player, converts were instantly made.

Their music had drive and fire. They were fronted by two young guys who seemed to have been born to play the bluegrass music, mandolinist Caleb Roberts and guitar picker and lead singer Bradford Lee Folk. Not only did they look the part—from their publicity photos, both could have been in the Clinch Mountain Boys around the time Skaggs and Whitley left—they recreated the classic sound of bluegrass wonderfully, as the cliché goes ‘making old songs sound new, making new songs sound old.’

Open Road toured relentlessly, signed on with Rounder Records and released two additional albums to great acclaim, Cold Wind and …in the life. They acknowledged their influences, some like Del Williams, Buzz Matheson & Mac Martin, and Vern & Ray, under-heralded within much of the broader bluegrass world. Their concert appearances were exciting and fresh, their albums ideal.

Around the time their third Rounder album appeared, the band broke up. The band had experienced personnel changes over time—fiddlers seemed to come and go with each new release—but shortly after Lucky Drive was released in 2005, Open Road was “flaming out from the pressures and temptations of being thrown into the touring musician life too young,” according to Folk’s current one-sheet.

I seem to recall hearing that Roberts was going to attempt to keep working the bluegrass road, but the last I heard he was in Colorado working for a living, but still picking. Folk sought stability, bought a Colorado honkytonk, booking bands in and working the other side of the music business table. From what I understand, he eventually relocated to Nashville, started gigging, and this past spring released his first recording in almost ten years, Somewhere Far Away.

The first thing one may notice when listening to the brief, eight-song collection is that things seem to be a bit mellower, less frenetic. There is no shortage of energy on this set of modern-Americana infused bluegrass. It is just that Folk isn’t in any great hurry to get to wherever it is he is taking us. The approach is perhaps a bit more mature, with a greater emphasis placed on mood and atmosphere.

The album’s lead track, like all but two of the songs a Folk original, is likely the one most reminiscent of the familiar Open Road approach. “Foolish Game of Love” features Matt Flinner’s mando at the fore, providing that audible connection to the music Folk previously made with Roberts. Folk pushes the music, his voice dipping into a purposeful near-mumble at some points, while at other moments in the song he is clear in his articulation. This expressive, mournful drawl works in counterpoint to the artful and lonesome clarity of his tenor, loading the song with restrained emotion.

Folk remains a great singer, but now is even more expressive in his communication than he was when he was younger. The fire has been tempered, but it continues to burn.

In some ways, and not only in its brevity, Somewhere Far Away recalls Jimmy Martin’s ‘good and country’ bluegrass albums. This recording is every bit as spirited as Martin’s finest recordings, but like them there is also a bit of an edge to the songs, a touch of bitterness and regret. “Trains Don’t Lie” is rich in atmosphere while conveying a narrative that is complete and compelling. “Denver” is a song that (I think) contrasts the longing for an open road with the comfort and familiarity of home.

Undoubtedly a bluegrass recording, Folk incorporates a very strong band to solidify his sound. Robert Trapp, the only member of Folk’s current Bluegrass Playboys appearing on the album, is a very strong 5-string player; his break and fills on “Never Looking Back”—a John Stewart-meets-Sam Bush epic in miniature—are impressive without detracting from the musicians working with him. With Flinner, Matt Combs (I’m guessing fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass, I’m hoping it is safe to suggest—the album doesn’t contain specific credits) round out the core group.

As an aside, “Never Looking Back,” by Jim Kelly, previously appeared (with a very different arrangement) on David Davis & the Warrior River Boys outstanding 2009 album, Two Dimes & A Nickel; Folk learned the song while he was playing with Davis—I’m guessing around the time that album was released—something I didn’t know he had done.

While there are only eight songs on the album, there is no shortage of memorable songs. A standout is the closing track, “Soil and Clay;” written by Folk, this earthy ballad is as dark as it is honest, much like a Fred Eaglesmith song. The album’s other non-original comes from Folk’s friend Nick Woods; “The Wood Swan” is another good one, and really showcases the various musicians’ abilities.

Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys may not receive the unbridled heralding that greeted Open Road. Somewhere Far Away is a bluegrass album, without doubt. But it is a different sort of bluegrass than that produced by Open Road. There are more shades to this music, more exploration of the gravel bits on the road’s shoulder rather than heading straight down the white lines in the middle of the highway.

“Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings” (DVD)

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings (DVD)
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Joe Mullins started this five-piece traditional bluegrass outfit several years ago, partly to promote his Classic Country Radio stations, with whose terrestrial broadcast signal I am privileged to reside.

They were rightly recognized as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012, and their stage show, which they’ve taken far and wide, is a big part of why. Mullins is one of the finest bluegrass five-stringers aline today, and the Ramblers’ four studio albums have been first-rate, but this 16-song DVD that clocks in at more than 70 minutes will show you why they were honored by the IBMA and are in demand by bluegrass promoters and festival-goers.

Mullins is just as friendly and engaging on stage as he is as a radio deejay—he learned a lot from his father, the late, legendary broadcaster and fiddler Moon Mullins, and his son Daniel is just as good on the air—and this trait sets him apart from other great pickers who often neglect to hone their skills as stage presenters.

This show, recorded at Centerville (Ohio) High School, features a nice sampling of songs from the Ramblers’ four releases, including personal favorites “Worth It All” (a bouncy gospel number), “Lily” (borrowed from the Boys from Indiana), and “Katy Daley” (a poem turned into a classic bluegrass song by Moon Mullins).

Duane Sparks ably fills the guitarist/vocalist slot vacated by Adam McIntosh, and longtime Ramblers Mike Terry (mandolin, lead, and trio harmony vocals) Evan McGregor (fiddle and some quartet harmony) are as good here as they are in the studio.

The Centerville Alternative Strings, orchestra students from the host high school, join in with conductor Doug Eyink to close the show in grand style with the David Harvey instrumental “Cruisin’ Timber” and the Bill Anderson-penned “Some Kind of War.” Eyink’s arrangements are uncomplicated but powerful, and played with heart and artistry—just like the music played Mullins’ fine band.

“The Road That Brings You Home” by Jim and Lynna Woolsey

Jim and Lynna Woolsey
The Road That Brings You Home
Broken Record Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Woolseys represent an unknown but significant number of people who have a load of musical talent but ply their skills in relative obscurity. His publicity piece says he’s shared the stage with acts like Andy Williams and Marty Robbins. Robbins, one of the great country singers, died in 1982. This doesn’t sound like a career on the rise and that would be a shame. This CD has two primary themes: being on the road and the heartbreak of Nashville.

I gave my heart and they [Nashville] gave me no warning

‘Cause they ripped it out and threw it at my feet

Now it’s been ten years ago, maybe longer

But who’s counting when no one cares but me?

They say that good, hard work will make you stronger

Well, I’m about as strong as I wanna be

“Back To Tennessee”

He carries on the theme of a tough life in the city, wishing he was home (“If I only knew then what I know now, I’d be back home behind a plow”) with a haunting melody in “Letter From the City.” One of the virtues of home was being able to spend time on the river, remembered in “River Road.”

Nashville has proven a tough row to hoe, but he embraces an early life on the move. His daddy had “the world’s worst case of wanderlust” (“Wheel In His Hand”) and “was a rolling stone” (“Gypsies In a Wagon”). Despite a life on the move, he describes a close-knit and caring family. Both are moderate speed story songs that look back to Woolsey’s early life. His father’s love for the road wasn’t limited to trucks. “The Ride” tells about his father’s Whizzer motorbike.

The writing is consistently good, never trite. The music isn’t Jimmy Martin bluegrass or modern country but comes closer to the countrygrass genre than any other; it would play well at a bluegrass festival. The melodies vary and the arrangements are inventive. Woolsey plays guitar with guests Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar, producer and engineer), Clay Hess (mandolin), Tim Crouch (fiddle), Mark Fain (bass) and Mike Sumner (banjo). With that lineup and Woolsey’s deft touch with a pen you’re bound to have good music.

“Rude Jenne” is a country number about a good man who gets into trouble and meets John Dillinger. This was his great-grandfather and these are stories told when Woolsey was a small boy. Woolsey grew up in southern Indiana in the general area that now holds Lake Patoka. This area is also home to bluegrass great Ron Stewart. He started playing with the Patoka Valley Boys when he was fifteen and he and Lynna married after she started performing with the same band. (Go to folkstreams.net for an excellent video about this group.)

Changing pace, “She’s Gonna Fly” showcases Lynna Woolsey’s vocals, a story about her own brush with breast cancer. She also contributes a swinging country number, “I’m The Best You’ll Ever Do,” a warning to her man that he needs to be good to her because he’ll never find better. The title song describes how life may take us many places, but there’s only one road that brings you home. And he adds a good, driving gospel number with “Will You Be Ready.”

This is good writing and good music. If you’re far from their southern Indiana home you may never get to see them in person, but you owe it to yourself to hear this CD.

“Too” by Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome
Too
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It’s long been rumored that some big–name country stars can’t sing on key, so they use auto–tuners in the studio and on the road. Bluegrass producers might use it in the studio (although I doubt it’s widespread) but I asked Tom Feller, who provides sound to venues like Bean Blossom (and is half of Feller & Hill) about having it in his equipment. He’s not aware of any bluegrass group using them on their live shows.

I’ve heard Flatt Lonesome’s live show. What you get on their CDs is what you’d hear jamming with them around the campfire. Their pitch is excellent and their harmony is as good as you’ll hear anywhere. This is their second CD and they continue to make excellent bluegrass music. “Slowly Getting You Out of the Way” is a hard–driving Randall Hylton song that features some good breaks. “I’m Ready Now” is another pure bluegrass number on the gospel side. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill sings the lead with siblings Buddy and Charli Robertson adding their signature harmony vocals.

The musicianship of the group is excellent, too. Buddy Robertson plays guitar; sister Charli Robertson plays fiddle while sister Kelsi Harrigill adds mandolin. Her husband, Paul Harrigill, plays banjo and guitar and the band is rounded out with Dominic Illingworth on bass and Michael Stockton on resophonic guitar.

“Dangerous Dan” is a Tim Stafford/Barry Ricks number with a twist. It’s the story of a hard times moonshiner who ends up as a God-fearing preacher. It seems there’s hope for all of us. Another good Hylton song is “So Far,” yet another story of broken love.

Then there’s the countrygrass. It’s been part of bluegrass almost forever: how many Louvin Brothers songs have appeared on bluegrass recordings? Crowds I have seen at live shows seem to like it; they certainly applaud it. Some people don’t. A banjo–playing friend called me this morning complaining about a bluegrass–marketed CD that sounded too much like country. If you don’t object to countrygrass, there’s some very good numbers on this CD.

“Letters Have No Arms” is a 1949 Ernest Tubb song that’s a great love song. (Bluegrassers may recognize a couple of other Tubb recordings: Wabash Cannonball and “one of his old favorites,” Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin.) “I Thought You Were Someone I Knew” is a waltz beat love song with an unusual fiddle interlude (some people might mistake the intro as flutes). “It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again” makes good bluegrass to my ears, but I can also imagine standing on the stage in a club singing it to a country crowd. Most times the country/bluegrass division is just the delivery and the instruments. “I Can’t Be Bothered” is very country, which is hardly surprising since it was recorded by Miranda Lambert. Of the two, I like Flatt Lonesome’s harmony better.

I expect the “too much country” argument will continue longer than it takes the pines to grow tall. If you aren’t concerned by it and like really good music, you need to run out and get this CD.

“Five” by Balsam Range

Balsam Range
Five
Mountain Home Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The last release from Balsam Range was Papertown in 2012. As good as they are, that’s too long to wait. They are receiving the recognition such a good band deserves and, while it’s not the cover the the Rolling Stone, they did make the cover of the July issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.

Some of their music isn’t Flatt & Scruggs-style traditional bluegrass, but more countrygrass. This is music done in a bluegrass environment (the usual four to six acoustic instruments, three-part harmonies) but could be done on a retro-country stage (you know, country before it became countryhiphoprappop). Though some who love their traditional bluegrass as the only “true” bluegrass complain, the audiences I’ve seen love this music as well as they do Jimmy Martin songs. It seems to me to be a reasonable expansion of genre rather than a threat to it. Dan Seal’s hit “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” from more than two decades ago cerainly fits the countrygrass mold. Buddy Melton’s (fiddle) lead is good stuff, doing the song as much justice as Seals did. I keep playing this track over and over.

“Don’t Watch These Tears” could be a country song. Caleb Smith (guitar) handles the lead work on this fast-paced, troubled love number. “Too High a Price To Pay” features yet another lead singer, Darren Nicholson (mandolin), and is another love-is-gone song.

Balsam Range’s members are all accomplished musicians. Melton played with Doc Watson and has solo projects on the market. Surrett is a man of many musical accomplishments and has performed some beautiful gospel music. Pruett is a graduate of the Jimmy Martin school of music.

Banjoist Marc Pruett is the only band member who doesn’t sing. Bassist and resonator guitarist Tim Surrett takes the lead on “Songs I’ve Sung,” a change of pace from love. This is a song that looks ahead to the end of the road, wondering more what will happen to the songs he’s sung than what will happen to whatever he owns. It’s something many of us have wondered as we grow older: will we be remembered when we’re gone or just fade from the memories of our friends? They dip further back into the past with the late Micky Newbury’s 1971 classic, “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be,” using a piano and steel guitar for more of a country sound.

What’s a bluegrass album without a murder song? “Moon Over Memphis” is yet another song about love and murder, faster paced than many songs like this (“The Crime I Didn’t Do”, “Knoxville Girl“). They throw in a song that must have been written for me: “Monday Blues.” Monday mornings get here too soon. On the traditional side, Milan Miller co-wrote “I Spend My Days Below The Ground,” a story about the hard life in a mining town: in the mines young to help your family survive, your dreams dying in the dark until you go too young, a victim of an accident or disease. There’s a good reason there are so many mining songs in bluegrass. And then there’s the Civil War. “From a Georgia Battlefield” has an old-timey sound to it, telling again the story of that horrible war.

The bluegrass genre has been around six decades. The fan base has expanded to include people who enjoy the countrygrass sound and that doesn’t seem to be threatening a loss of the traditional side. Balsam Range is an excellent example of a 21st century bluegrass band and Five is an excellent bluegrass CD.

“In the Shadows” by New Outlook

New Outlook
In The Shadows
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass and gospel music have always gone hand–in–hand, from Bill Monroe’s The Gospel Spirit, with such great songs as “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” to current masters such as Paul Williams. New Outlook, a midwestern regional band based in Ohio, joins the gospel field with an impressive CD.

Early pioneers in country music, with many of their songs now standards in bluegrass, the Bailes Brothers penned and recorded songs in the ’40s and ’50s. One of the numbers, composed in 1942 and based on a message Walter Bailes heard in 1937, recorded innumerable times, is “Dust On The Bible.”

There are several other oft-recorded songs on this CD, so you may wonder why you should listen to yet another version. New Outlook’s take on “Dust On The Bible” is a Charmin™ version, softer and gentler than many bluegrass versions I’ve heard. Husband–and–wife team Brad and Lori Lambert are the vocalists along with Caleb Daughtery. They feature great harmony singing and offer a good alternative to the country stylings of Hank Williams and Kitty Wells or the southern gospel style of the Chuckwagon Gang. Is it worthwhile listening to yet another version of “Dust” and these other songs? In this case, definitely.

They go back for versions of “Will He Wait A Little Longer,” a Stanley Brothers number and Dottie Rambo’s great song, “If That Isn’t Love.” “Beautiful Altar of Prayer” compares very well to Doyle Lawson’s version with Jamie Dailey singing lead, and that’s a tough act to follow. Other songs from the past include the old hymn “Pass Me Not (O Gentle Savior),” a banjo–driven version “Cryin’ Holy Unto The Lord” and “Are You Building On The Rock.”

Additional musicians are Dave Morrison on Dobro, Dewayne Guffey on mandolin, and Dave Johnson on fiddle and Dobro. It was engineered by Dan Ward, something not usually mentioned in a review but Ward turns in a good performance singing bass on “I’ve A Mansion Over In Glory.” It’s too bad they didn’t use him on more tracks.

Included are some original compositions by Brad Lambert, including the title track, “Half Remains Untold,” and “See You In The Morning,” which will bring some tears. It’s the story of a couple in love but the man dies. She’s left remembering him saying, “I’ll see you in the morning or I’ll see you in glory.”

There’s not a throwaway track on this CD. It’s going in my stack of play–these–often.

“In Our Own Words” by Bluegrass Express

Bluegrass Express
In Our Own Words
Plum River Records
3½ 
stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Founded by patriarch, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Underwood and his son (bass, guitar, vocals) Greg Underwood, Bluegrass Express is a (mostly) family band that’s now has added third generation member Jacob Underwood (banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals) and mandolinist Andy Hatfield. They are joined on this CD by Tim Crouch (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin on “I’ll Be Gone”) and Bethany Burie (high baritone on “The Key To Heaven”).

Many have the opinion that some of the best harmony singing you’ll hear comes from family bands, and, and that holds true here. Also, all songs on this disc are Underwood family originals—a laudable effort when so many projects feature well-worn material—and the results vary from very good to not quite so good.

“I’ll Be Gone” is a pretty number about love problems, always a favorite subject for composers. It’s a countrygrass number—one that fits either a bluegrass or a classic country stage–and features Greg Underwood as lead singer. He has a good voice and is pleasant to hear singing. It features the banjo as a background instrument through much of the song and, for my taste, a bit more ingenuity would be welcomed, switching the instruments for some variation. I suppose it’s just a personal thing, but I just don’t much like an electric bass in bluegrass. The type of bass isn’t specified but it sounds to me like an electric flat-top. Decibel for decibel, note for note, I would enjoy an upright a lot more.

Gary Underwood sings lead on “It’s Raining Outside,” a slow, swinging, moody number with twin fiddles and nice breaks by the instrumentalists. This is a great number. He also sings lead on “Sinner Hear Me.” It has some swing to it, an interesting chord progression into some minor chords. You don’t hear many gospel swing numbers but they pull this one off nicely. Burie co-wrote the song she sings harmony on, “The Key To Heaven.” This is a good song but she’s low in the mix, mostly a function of not dialing back the lead on the chorus. That’s too bad for she’s a good singer.

“There’ll Never Be Another You” is a fairly typical love–is–gone song—it’s not easy to come up with a fresh take on one of the oldest themes around. “Down In Tennessee” reflects on how much the singer loves Tennessee even though he has to be on the road. This is a good uptempo number and shows off the talents of the pickers.

Getting back to countrygrass, “New True Love” is a good number with a walking bass line. If you like country music you’ll love it, but it may circle people back to the “too much country in bluegrass” argument. I don’t think bluegrass is in danger of losing its identity, of becoming the new real country music with Jimmy Martin’s style of music lost in the shuffle. “Baby’s Gone For Good” is another heartbreaker with a more interesting arrangement, saving most of the instruments to come in after a few bars. It’s a good song, but you may re-start it a time or two as it has an odd, 2–beat pickup start.

This is a good CD, well worth a listen by anyone who enjoys countrygrass.

“Here Come Feller & Hill Again” by Feller & Hill

Feller & Hill
Here Come Feller & Hill Again
Blue Circle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass is both narrow and broad. It’s narrow because stepping outside the accepted six instruments causes queasiness in a lot of people. Steel guitar? Uh…maybe. Just don’t bring it on stage. Piano? Okay if it’s Buck White but keep the volume low. Drums? Whew, boy, bluegrass is going rock ‘n’ roll. The reaction to including country songs is usually less acidic, and you hear southern gospel, blues, old timey and rock songs.

On this new CD Tom Feller and Chris Hill push the bluegrass envelope a bit with a steel guitar (Hill, who also plays banjo, guitar and adds vocals) and drums (Feller, who adds guitar, mandolin, bass, Dobro on “The Government Blues” and vocals), but they aren’t straying too far from the bluegrass formula.

“Hey Baby” isn’t Bill Monroe traditional but it is from the pen of Aubrey Holt (Boys From Indiana, Feller’s uncle). Holt also wrote “Here Comes Polly,” a good bluegrass number that features Cody Jones singing bass. Keeping it in the family, Feller’s mother, Judy, contributes “Stone Woman Blues.” This is a good number in the classic country vein and features the great Michael Cleveland (another southern Indiana boy) on fiddles. Cleveland plays fiddle on most tracks with Glenn Gibson playing Dobro.

This underlines an important feature of their music—it’s aimed at the bluegrass market (a more viable market than classic country) and is well accepted by the bluegrass crowd (the Bean Blossom watchers were very enthusiastic), but it tends to be more classic country than bluegrass. This is acoustic country music, so it fits in a bluegrass environment, though no doubt those with purist leanings would complain. I had a chance to talk with Chris Hill and he tells me that their selection of classic country music is intentional, an aim for a niche market that isn’t being explored in depth by other bluegrass artists. Instead of bluegrass with an occasional country song, they are doing classic country in a bluegrass/acoustic format and their next CD, on the final production laps, will be a country CD with no pretensions of bluegrass music.

Tom T and Dixie Hall have written many good songs for bluegrass and they add two here. “The Government Blues” is a fine number that would have fit Jimmy Rodgers well, relating the many woes of taxes and no money. “Tired of Losing You,” with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals (co-written with Billy Smith), is a great country love song. This is the only number that you’ll hear Chris Hill’s steel work but it blends well and is not at all over the top. Another famous name from country music is Faron Young, who composed “Forget The Past.” Feller & Hill underscore the resemblance they bear to Buck Owens and Don Rich but on this number Hill has styling closer to Faron Young’s.

Speaking of Owens and Rich, Feller wrote a number in honor of their memory and includes bits of several of their hits in it. “The Ballad of Buck and Don” is tribute to one of the best duets in the history of country music.

They nod to gospel music with a Joyce “Dottie” Rambo song, “When Is He Coming Again.” It’s a story of fighting betwwen families and when will Jesus come again to relieve us of all the darkness of the world. Heather Berry-Mabe adds vocals to this track. They turn to bluegrass tradition with a Don Reno number, “He’s Coming Back To Earth Again,” singing it it the echoing style of Reno & Smiley.

“It’ll Be Too Late” is another good country song while “Never Ending Song of Love” will be familiar to many. Made popular by Delaney & Bonnie, whose members at times included Duane Allman and Gregg Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and Eric Clapton, it was also recorded by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. This is the only track with drums. I asked Hill why they included drums and he told me the track seemed to be missing something and adding the drums tied it all together. But the wildest selection is “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a Richard Rogers number recorded by such diverse groups as The Ventures and The London Festival Orchestra, though you’ll have a hard time hearing Feller & Hill’s version in the orchestral recording. Crazy as the idea may sound, this makes a good instrumental for a bluegrass band.

If you like country mixed with bluegrass you’ll thoroughly enjoy this up-and-coming duo.

“Down on the Farm” by the Stevens Family Bluegrass Band

The Stevens Family Bluegrass Band
Down On The Farm
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Family bands—parents and kids—often must suffer comparison to the Cherryholmes clan since their remarkable success. The Stevens Family Band is the Cherryholmes meets Duck Dynasty. When they’re at home JW (the dad) enjoys coon hunting (a favorite of Jimmy Martin and myself) and running his trapline with Luke, number seven of ten children. Four (Sissy, 1974), seven (Luke), eight? (Ben, 1983), nine (Sam, 1990) and ten (Tommy, 1997) join Dad and Mom (Nancy) to make up the band.

Given that JW Stevens is a minister it’s not surprising that the CD is heavy with spiritual songs. “City of Gold” (Nancy Stevens singing lead) is a good, upbeat gospel number. The vocalists are all good (Sissy and Luke Stevens singing harmony) and it’s a good arrangement. She also sings lead on “How Great Thou Art,” done a cappella, showing their strong harmony singing with children Luke, Sissy and Ben joining in, though Ben struggles a bit with the lower registers of the bass part. Her other lead number is shown here as “Search The Book” by Jerry Golf (actual title, “Please Search the Book Again” by Jerry Goff) and it’s a great gospel number. They include a drop to a minor as a transition from the 1 chord to the 4 chord and it’s a perfect touch. You can hear different arrangements on the web and this is the best I’ve heard.

JW Stevens sings lead on one number with Nancy singing harmony. “Old Fashion Love” is secular, a description (in their own words) of their relationship. This makes a beautiful love song.

The title song was penned by Sissy Stevens and is a picture of the family. Songs like this often fail because the lyrics or melody just can’t make the grade—too cute, too simplistic, too focused on the writer—but this is a vary good number and should have wide appeal to other bands looking for a good song. Brother Luke penned “She’s The One,” a story about being on the road and leaving loved ones behind. It’s a good, hard driving number and is especially interesting because it’s a display of the instrumental abilities of the band. They tend to be laid back on most of their numbers, providing good support but no sparkling breaks. This track leaves no doubts about them as pickers.

“A Living Prayer” (Ron Block) is a powerful gospel number and Sissy, Luke and Ben provide powerful harmony to drive it. The late Randall Hylton wrote “Where Rainbows Touch Down,” an illustration of his songwriting abilities and yet another beautiful harmony number.

This is a CD that may get overlooked in a crowded marketplace but it is definitely worth a listen. You’ll be glad you took the time.