“Brotherhood” by the Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers
Brotherhood
Rounder Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The Gibson Brothers enter 2015 as one of the biggest bands in bluegrass. Brotherhood is their twelfth album, and serves as another new start for the group.

They have truly had a great ride, establishing an approach to bluegrass that is populist while crafting a sound that is recognizably their own. They have developed through the bluegrass system, always touring to hone their craft and recording for various labels— Hay Holler, Sugar Hill, and Compass—to increasing acclaim. Each of their past seven discs have hit #1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited survey and they have been awarded numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards including Album of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year (twice,) Song of the Year (twice,) Songwriter of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year (twice.)

They are, indeed, bona fide.

Now with Rounder Records, the Gibson Brothers embark on their third decade as recording artists with an album of covers drawn from the deep well of brotherhood found within vocal groups of the country, bluegrass, and early rock ‘n’ roll. It is a natural concept—after all, the Gibson Brothers are constantly compared to the likes of the Louvins, Stanleys, and Everlys, songs from all of whom are included herein—but also one that opens the duo to criticism: Brotherhood could be viewed as an easy way to bridge the gap at the sales table until the next album of new material is ready for consumption.

There is nothing beyond the effortlessness of their presentation that would suggest that this disc was simply ‘thrown together’ to ensure they band has something new to promote.

In Juli Thanki’s well-composed notes, it is revealed that Eric Gibson, the elder brother, resisted Leigh’s vision of an album of covers from artists that were hugely influential on the pair while growing up and learning bluegrass in northern New York State. Almost all of the material will be very familiar to the Gibson’s core audience, but their approach to these maudlin parlor tunes (Eric’s characterization, apparently) is so heartfelt and passionate that even the most jaded listener will be impressed by their vocal arrangements and the instrumental juice these recordings possess.

The Louvin Brothers’ “Seven Year Blues” is definitely a highlight, with Eric’s tenor cutting through with Del McCoury precision. Del’s sons Rob and Ronnie join the Gibsons on “What a Wonderful Saviour Is He,” a song borrowed from the Four Brothers’ Quartet, likely the least widely-known act the Gibson’s recognize on the album.

The Osbornes and Monroes are well-represented by “Each Season Changes You” and “I Have Found the Way;” these song, as well as tracks that the Yorks, Bolicks, and McReynoldses brought to charts and hearts, are firmly established in the Gibsons’ musical DNA.

The most recent song within the set is a hard slice of ’80s country culled from Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, “It’ll Be Her;” stripped of dated production and brightened by Leigh’s smooth lead vocals and Eric’s harmony, the song remains essentially a country number, further strengthened by pedal steel from Russ Pahl. Essential Everly Brothers’ songs “Bye Bye Love” and “Crying in the Rain” bookend the fifteen-track collection, with the closing number given an absolutely devastating performance as pedal steel highlights the song’s ache.

One of bluegrass music’s favorite mandolin players makes his recording debut with the Gibson Brothers on Brotherhood; Jesse Brock (Lynn Morris Band, Flamekeeper, Redline) is an excellent addition to the group, and his mandolin playing complements the Gibsons’ approach to bluegrass. Long-time members of the Gibson Brothers Clayton Campbell and Mike Barber, on fiddle and bass, respectfully, remain.

Co-produced by the brothers and Barber, Brotherhood further solidifies the Gibson Brothers as foundational exponents of contemporary bluegrass. It continues their well-established string of exceptional bluegrass albums, bringing both tradition and freshness to the current bluegrass landscape.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” by Ralph Stanley & Friends

Ralph Stanley & Friends
Man of Constant Sorrow
Cracker Barrel
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’m not sure how many Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers albums have been named Man of Constant Sorrow, but I own three. Similarly, I don’t know how many projects have been created in the past two-plus decades that pair Stanley with a host of other singers, but I had three—Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1992), Clinch Mountain Country (1998), and Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (2001)—before the latest such set arrived.

I’m not complaining, mind. As long as Dr. Ralph is willing and able, and as long as those who admire his talents come to pay tribute, I will be listening. This new 40-minute set from Cracker Barrel has a great deal to offer.

Co-produced by Americana legends Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale (who, don’t forget, recorded I Feel Like Singing Today (1999) and Lost in the Lonesome Pines (2002) with Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys), Man of Constant Sorrow is a consistent, wonderful album from (almost) start to finish.

The Clinch Mountain Boys accompany Stanley on the vast majority of these familiar numbers, most of which were recorded in the intimacy of Miller’s living room. The guest vocalists and musicians are among the most recognized within the Americana, country, and bluegrass fields and include Josh Turner, Dierks Bentley, Ricky Skaggs, and Lee Ann Womack.

Recording with Stanley for the first time is Del McCoury; a highlight of the set, the two take on Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” As he is always, McCoury is in fine voice taking the lead, and by re-establishing much of the lyrical integrity missing on the version Stanley recorded in 1971, the song is given a mighty performance heightened by Stanley’s tenor.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform in a close vocal trio with Stanley accompanied by bassist Paul Kowert. A song often treated as a throwaway, on “Pig In A Pen” Welch especially appears to bring her ‘give-a-damn’ on this track; listening to her performance, which seems to inspire Stanley, one could easily be convinced that it is a song of major lyrical importance.

Ronnie McCoury and his mandolin make a few appearances including when Miller and Lauderdale assist Stanley on “I’m The Man, Thomas,” another frequently recorded Stanley favorite. Nathan Stanley sings “Rank Stranger” with the Clinch Mountain Boys, while his grandfather takes care of “Man of Constant Sorrow” with his very capable band.

Robert Plant continues to endear himself to the roots community with stunning vocal contributions on “Two Coats,” a song Stanley has recorded a couple times previously. Plant reaches the core of the song, and the arrangement is sparse and no little bit haunting.

The only glitch heard on the album most likely comes down to personal taste. The piece that surely resonates most closely with Stanley is his personal recitation over “Hills of Home,” and—like most similar pieces—it is just a little too precious and contrived for repeated listening.

Man of Constant Sorrow is just the latest in a series of albums, including last year’s disc of duets with Ralph Stanley II and A Mother’s Prayer, that provide no shortage of evidence that Ralph Stanley remains a vital entity in his 87th year.

“Better Than Blue” by the Trinity River Band

The Trinity River Band
Better Than Blue
Orange Blossom Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and that’s apt for this CD, whose cover art doesn’t let on that this is a family band—parents Mike and Lisa Harris with children Sarah, Joshua, and Brianna—and one loaded with talent. Make no mistake, though—there’s good bluegrass inside.

The title song was co-written by Larry Cordle and is a good love-gone-bad bluegrass number. Sarah Harris has an excellent voice and plays a mean mandolin. She also sings lead on “Faithless Heart,” co-written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Mountain Heart. The harmony singing sounds great, as you might expect from a family band.

Brianna Harris is the fiddle player and sings lead on “Daddy’s Hands,” a Top 10 country hit composed and recorded by Holly Dunn. She is a good singer, just not quite as strong as her sister, Sarah. There is a murder song, of course. “Steel and Blood” was written and performed by Mike Harris and it’s a good ‘un. Lizzy is a victim with a gunslinger in her past. He comes looking and tries to take her back but she solves that with a knife. That sounds like justifiable homicide to me but the jury sends her to a grave. Not everyone likes a death-and-violence song but they are a constant thread in bluegrass and I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t live on around the campfires.

The band has a deft touch with love songs like “I’ll Love You Just the Same.” Joshua Harris has some haunting Dobro lines and their arrangement has Lisa Harris laying out and then back in with the bass. I really enjoy songs with thoughtful arrangements and they’re doing a good job of it. Joshua shows his skill with the banjo as the band rips through “Mystery Train.” This number has been around a long time and many people will best remember Elvis Presley’s version.

They include another country hit with Mark Wills‘ “Jacob’s Ladder,” the lead sung by Joshua Harris. It’s obvious talent runs deep in this family with their singing and picking – and song writing. Sarah Harris composed “My Heart Will Find Its Way To You” and “Pure Poison,” a song with more drive than a Mack truck. Mike Harris also contributes a hot instrumental, “Barefoot Breakdown,” which shows off his guitar skills as well as stretching the playing muscles of the rest of the group. These are all front-row musicians.

Also included is a traditional Irish number, “Willie and Mary,” that shows they can step outside the bluegrass/country mold.

This Florida-based band has only been touring since 2011 but they are going to be a force in this music. This is a great CD that will find it’s way into my player over and over.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.

“Forty Years Old” by the Crowe Brothers

Crowe Brothers
Forty Years Old
Mountain Fever Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Forty years and still going strong—that’s the written message from the Crowe Brothers and their new CD is ample support for that. An interesting side note is how they see their music. When I hear their name I think “bluegrass,” but their web page shows they are bluegrass and traditional country artists with Americana and acoustic roots thrown in. A lot of bluegrass acts (like J.D. Crowe) include(d) classic country in their acts. Look at the composers and you’ll see Haggard and Tom T and Dixie Hall (although the latter write pure bluegrass, too, including “I’ve Got the Moon On My Side” on this CD). Acoustic roots and Americana are (in my opinion) catch-all categories and old-time is in that mix. “Angeline Baker” could fit into that category as well as a large portion of Doc Watson’s work. It’s a good mix and gives them wiggle room in case purists want to argue about what’s bluegrass and what isn’t.

The vocals are primarily Josh and Wayne Crowe, and their lead vocals and brother harmonies are strong and clear, firmly in the tradition of so many other similar duos in country and bluegrass history. How well you like (or don’t) singing or picking is a personal choice. I’ve heard people shouting “yeah” for an act that I wouldn’t cross the road to see (but didn’t manage to get out of my chair to escape). Some acts I like are panned by some of my friends. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a large chunk of middle-of-the-road bluegrass fans not enjoying their work, so it seems odd they only have a dozen recording projects over those forty years until you look at their history. They started playing music with their dad (Junior Crowe) then, in 1975, teamed with veteran Maggie Valley performer Raymond Fairchild. Wayne left the road in 1990 while Josh continued to perform, then Wayne rejoined Josh in 2005.

Gospel music is an important part of their act. Two of their CDs (“Jesus is Coming” and “The Gospel Way”) are gospel CDs and two tracks on this CD are gospel. Wayne Crowe penned “Where Will You Be,” the only track featuring Brian Blaylock singing baritone. Blaylock plays mandolin, lead guitar and a Weissenborn lap steel. They also include “Someday My Ship Will Sail,” a song that’s been around for some time.

Several of the tracks have country music connections. “Angel Mother” is much like many “mother” songs heard in bluegrass (Jim and Jesse recorded it) and old-time music, but this was written by Cindy Walker, best known as a country music composer. Songs that every classic country fan will recognize include an old Buck Owens hit, “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got a Heartache,” Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway” (often associated with Hank Williams) and Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow (You Dream On).” Steve Sutton plays banjo on the CD and this last track is one he plays Dojo on.

“Two Feet On The Floor” is a hard-driving song with the message to just get up and get going with whatever you want to accomplish. “Don’t Let Our Love Die” (not to be confused with the 1951 Everly Brothers’ song by the same name) sounds like it could have been a Louvin Brothers’ duet while “Livin’ In a Mobile Home” is cute take on the Winnebago crowd. The “Green Fields of Erin” is a lilting Irish song featuring David Johnson on strings while Travis Wetzel plays fiddle on several tracks, including the title song (“You Turned Forty Years Old”). This one is especially touching for me because my son turned forty this year. I have no idea where the years went.

This is good music. I’m looking forward to the next time I see them on stage.

Ready for a mystery? This CD credits “Excuse Me …” to James Henry Boxley III and Ricky M. L. Waters while the lyrics at one site add Eric T. Sadler to that list. The song as played by Cake on“B-Sides and Rarities” is clearly the same song as the one recorded by Buck Owens and composed by Owens and Harlan Howard. The liner notes even refer to it as a Buck Owens’ hit. A response from the record company tells me their researcher found three sets of writers claiming rights to the song. This sounds like a mystery that won’t ever be solved.

“Turn on a Dime” by Lonesome River Band

Lonesome River Band
Turn on a Dime
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, LRB would have to be the hardest working band in the bluegrass business.  I can’t recall the number of times I’ve seen that green tour bus, sitting at festivals I’ve attended across the country.  With a tons of awards packed beside his Huber Banjos, bandleader Sammy Shelor continues to crank out albums and miles on the road. Turn on a Dime has this five-piece—with Brandon Rickman (guitar, lead and harmony vocals), Randy Jones (mandolin, lead and harmony vocals), Mike Hartgrove (fiddle), and Barry Reed (bass, harmony vocals) joining Shelor—bringing their signature smooth, steady rolling sound to the work of a wide variety of contemporary bluegrass songwriters.

The first single on the album “Her Love Won’t Turn on a Dime” sets the tone with a love song to that rarity in country music—a woman who is not hard on the wallet of the singer. Others unmistakably in the Shelor/LRB wheelhouse include “Gone and Set Me Free” (featuring sweet twin fiddling from Hartgrove), the bouncy “If the Moon Never Sees the Light of Day,” and the foot-tapping “Teardrop Express”

The brooding “Lila Mae” and “Don’t Shed No Tears,” an eerie tale of dying and going home to rest that relies on a creative lick twined by banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, bring a welcome shade of darkness to the LRB sound; “Holding to the Right Hand” also widens their sound, with Rickman grabbing the heartstrings on this ballad of confession and devotion.

These boys reach back for some traditonal and classic country sounds as well on “Bonnie Brown” (whose sound recalls Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrooks”), the barroom bounce of “A Whole Lot of Nothin’,” and a stately version of Merle Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love.”

A cleverly arranged “Cumberland Gap” ends the 13-track, 45-minute album with clear evidence of why Sammy Shelor was the 2011 Steve Martin Excellence in Banjo Award winner.

Though LRB’s current approach lacks a bit of the drive I’ve come to expect over 15 years of following them, both old fans and newcomers will enjoy where this fine band is now.

“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.