“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.

“Tried and True” by Annie Lou

Annie Lou
Tried and True
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Annie Lou’s Grandma’s Rules for Drinking was absolutely magical, a delightful blend of ‘big-tent’ music that brought together bluegrass and old-time string band music into a lighthearted and thoroughly impressive package.

On her third outing as Annie Lou, Anne Louise Genest has changed things up a little. The favorable acoustic elements remain, but bluegrass fervor is less apparent. With Andrew Collins again producing, Tried and True possesses more gloss than its predecessor and feels less spontaneous.

What remains consistent is the brightness brought to songs such as “Envy Won’t Leave Me Be” (which kicks off with, “I wish I could drink like you/to the bottom of the bottle all the way through…”), “Haunted,” and “In the Country.” Annie Lou’s openness, writing of longing and comfort like few others manage, builds bridges between her experiences (real and imagined) and those of the listener. She isn’t navel gazing; she is identifying commonalities through lyric and strumming.

Chris Coole (banjo), Max Heineman (bass and vocals), and Chris Quinn (a bit more banjo) from Toronto’s Foggy Hogtown Boys are among those who join their compatriot Collins (mandolin and guitar) in augmenting this production. Especially interesting is the depth bowed bass contributions of Joe Phillips bring to a couple of tracks including the lead-off title track.

One would be remiss to neglect a mention of the albums’ significant cover, Hazel Dickens’ monumental “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song.” It is on this track that Burke Carroll’s pedal steel efforts are really appreciated, lending additional wistfulness. While Annie Lou has been favorably compared to Dickens, listening to Tried and True Alice Gerrard’s enduring ability to remain contemporary and relevant while exploring ancient sounds comes foremost to mind.

Over the course of three albums, Vancouver Island’s Annie Lou has carved out a wee niche in the acoustiblue world that binds folk, bluegrass, and old-time. By continuing to redefine the music she explores in imaginative ways, Annie Lou reveals herself to be a musician, singer, and writer of considerable means.

“The Way I’m Livin'” by Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lee Ann Womack had an extended reign as one of the most prominent country music entertainers of the late ’90s through to the late-aughts. But country music record companies are fickle these days, so Womack returned this autumn with her first album of new material in six years on Sugar Hill.

The Way I’m Livin’ is pure country with all the duality such entails. The difference this time out is that the songs come from a selection of the finest Americana writers of recent decades.

Some songs are sad and sentimental (“Send It On Down,” from Chris Knight and David Leone), while others find her dancing with the devil (the album’s wonderful—but largely ignored by country radio—lead single from Adam Wright, “The Way I’m Livin’.”) Julie Miller’s “Listen To The Wind” provides depth, and allows Womack to cut loose vocally while playing off the band, notably electric guitarist Duke Levine. Also among those contributing songs are Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, Brennan Leigh, and Bruce Robison, with two.

Folks like Mac McAnally (guitar, piano), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Hank Singer (fiddle, mandolin) and Glenn Worf (bass) create a throwback country sound that is clearly appealing.

Throughout this expansive album, Womack is in exceptional voice. Too mature to confuse histrionics for passion, to these ears Womack has never sounded better, more comfortable, or assured. “Nightwind” is a showcase for Womack’s singing, with gentle backing allowing her to carry the emotional weight of the song. “Same Kind of Different” sounds familiar, in a light and positive way, from first listen. Roger Miller’s performance of “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore” just missed the Top 10 in 1971; here, Womack flips the perspective and in doing so softens the off-putting tale of a sad man obsessed with a dancer.

“Out On The Weekend” is yet another chance for Womack to shine as she enlivens and freshens Neil Young’s classic song. Instrumentally, the performance is fuller than Young’s, and Womack’s voice is so much warmer; swapping the gender of the teller allows Womack to inhabit the song, delivering intensified vulnerability.

Within an industry where Nashville is reality, there should be room for an artist of Lee Ann Womack’s quality and intensity on the charts and radio. It appears, however, that Womack is going to have to continue creating her own path well outside the commercial country mainstream, much like folks such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris did before her.

It has worked out pretty well for them; no reason it shouldn’t for the multiple Country Music Association Award-winning Womack.

 

“Fiddle Tune X” by Billy Strings & Don Julin

Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X
No label
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Michigan acoustic duo Billy (Apostol) Strings and Don Julin have released their second recording, a live album entitled Fiddle Tune X. It is an animated, forceful collection of mostly very familiar songs, none of which appeared on their debut album of last year.

I have heard it argued—and may have taken this position myself—that a duo cannot play bluegrass as it is impossible to include the necessary elements of the genre with only two instrumentalists. Strings (guitar) and Julin (mandolin) may not feature fiddle or bass, but everything about their stance suggests deep interest in and respect for bluegrass. They are certainly a bluegrass duo.

While the sound may not be bluegrass in its purest form, the essence of the music is certainly concentrated within the duo’s sparse framework. They draw on the fiddle-tune foundation of bluegrass (“Salt Creek”/”Old Joe Clark”), the influence hillbilly and country sounds had on its founders (“Beaumont Rag,” “Walk On Boy,” and “Miss the Mississippi and You,”), and the standards that are at the core of the music (“Poor Ellen Smith,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”)

While such a repertoire may appear tired or pedestrian, such is not the case. Strings and Julin bring an abundance of energy to their performance, feeding off each other and their audience to elevate these frequently encountered songs. While most of the songs have been around next to forever, the pair—working around a single mic—have found a way to make the overly recognizable extremely appealing.

Without overstating things, Doc Watson—whose spirit doesn’t seem to be too far removed from these boys’ hearts—comes to mind; you comfortably anticipated how a Doc Watson performance would unfold, but that didn’t stop you from leaning forward to listen. Same here, although the familiarity factor is obviously less apparent.

Strings sings the lead throughout with Julin coming in with complementary tenor. The bulk of the songs were recorded at various venues including small halls, bars, and homes. These songs have the most vigour, with the audiences’ enthusiasm for the duo readily apparent. They play to the crowd rather shamelessly and good-naturedly, extending both “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie” to six minute-plus jams, guitar and mandolin exchanging the leads while also coming together in impressive displays of companionable accompaniment. The opening pairing of “Beaumont Rag” and “Walk On Boy” showcase Strings considerable flatpicking skills.

A large handful of songs were recorded without second guessing or overdubs in a snowbound farmhouse early this year, and it is on these cuts that the duo are at their strongest. Absent the whooping and hollering of the more exuberant members of their fan club, one can more readily appreciate their talents.

Julin’s title tune is a driving bluegrass instrumental that threatens to go by a bit too quickly were it not for Strings’ judicious tempo adjustment on his break. “Dos Banjos,” Strings’ composition, has a real mountain sound with timeless lyrics that could be lifted from a Hobart Smith side. Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” is perhaps the album’s most pensive tune, and showcases the duo at the highest level. Strings’ playing, while considerable throughout the 17-track recording, is especially appealing here with Julin serving up delicate notes that are terribly impressive. The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son” is another highlight.

The closing rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded on Third Man Records Voice-o-Graph is the only jarring bit on an otherwise terrific collection; given this and Neil Young’s indulgent A Letter Home, let’s hope the fascination with this low-fi method is a quickly passing fancy.

Billy Strings and Don Julin have captured some of their favorite live performances within this collection. Augmented with their isolated farmhouse recordings, the duo have crafted a very pleasing set of acoustic music. I anticipate frequently returning to Fiddle Tune X. Especially recommended for those who appreciate Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien.

“Follow the Music” by Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard
Follow the Music
Tompkins Square Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Follow the Music is a worthy follow-up to Bittersweet, the album that again brought Alice Gerrard to the attention of the old-time/folk music community. Whereas she had released only three solo albums over the course of twenty years, Follow the Music comes just a year after that exceptional release.

An Alice Gerrard album must be centered around three things. First, her impeccable voice must be front and centre. Equally capable of wringing every bit of darkness from a timeless song such as “The Vulture,” or easing the blues out of a double-barrelled country song like Leona Williams’ “You Take Me for Granted,” Gerrard has long been recognized as a vocal master among her peers and devotees.

Second, there has to be the songs, and on Follow the Music Gerrard and album producer M.C. Taylor have delved into her past for a few (including her own “Love Was the Price”) and into the past for others (“Boll Weevil” and “Bear Me Away.”)

Finally, the production has to be balanced—keep the instrumentation sparse, and let the lady take the songs to the places they must go. Simultaneously, as Gerrard has played with the best, anyone wishing to be one of her backing musicians had better be up to the task.

I would suggest each of these targets have been firmly accounted for within the album’s 46 minutes.

“Follow the Music” is a new song, one that Gerrard credits as “sort of my story.” “Since I was a child, I’ve been looking for a home; been everywhere and I’ve been nowhere at all,” is how she begins this warm lament. With refreshing banjo and resophonic guitar brightening the path, the lead guitar work (possibly from Phil Cook) paces Gerrard’s rumination on the power music holds over many of us. Much of what the song expresses comes in the first minute, but the bulk of the song articulates what we know: “If I follow the music to where I want to go, it will take me to safe harbour and guide me home.” That is what music does for those who embrace its influence.

Each track serves as its own little highlight. “Strange Land” brings to the surface the fear of isolation and “Teardrops Falling in the Snow” is a classic, a heart song of the type seldom heard in today’s country music repertoire. Performing “Wedding Dress,” Gerrard sounds decades younger than her 80 years while still conveying the wisdom of one who knows of what she sings. The touching “Goodbyes,” written by Gerrard’s grandson Adam Heller, brings the album to a duly melancholy close.

Whereas other singers who have released music well into their senior years—Charlie Louvin, comes to mind, as do several Grand Ole Opry stars and even Johnny Cash—had to contend with notably diminished vocal skills, Gerrard faces no such loss. She remains strong vocally, more circumspect perhaps in the notes she attempts but with no deterioration in her abilities apparent.

When Alice Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. Listening to Follow the Music is a pleasure, and I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music.

“I Can’t Wait” by Fayssoux

Fayssoux
I Can’t Wait
Red Beet Records
4½ Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Rather than complain about the lack of ‘country’ within current country music offerings, how about we do some work and go looking for music that will satisfy our desires?

One might certainly start with the likes of Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Kasey Musgraves, and Holly Williams. Lee Ann Womack’s latest would be another fine place to visit. Craig Moreau and Doug Seegers recently released albums that would decidedly fall within most folks’ definition of country, and don’t forget Chuck Mead, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell: call ‘em Americana if you like, but that’s country, too.

Which brings us to Fayssoux McLean, someone that many have heard but many more will not recognize. Back in the last century, Fayssoux Starling received vocal credit on early Emmylou Harris albums, ones that should be on most of our shelves: Pieces of the Sky, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and Blue Kentucky Girl. While she counts Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the aforementioned Crowell as admirers, Fayssoux (her albums are credited to her first name only) has released only a single album previously (2008’s Early,) one of the first to earn the Red Beet imprint.

I Can’t Wait is a pretty exquisite country music album. Again, call it Americana if it makes you feel better, but with its emphasis on instrumental support, vocal clarity, songs of quality, and clean production, this reminds me of the finest country music I’ve heard. I am well aware most country music isn’t acoustic (as this album is), and I’m also well aware that not all country music sounds like this, and thank goodness for that because we don’t need twenty identical albums released every month.

Fayssoux has a vocal approach that is assured, but measured; she isn’t out-belting the karaoke Patsy Clines and Miranda Lamberts. She sings with just enough passion and spirit to allow the song room to breathe. She sings, “You may rise, you may fall, that’s the way it rolls…it’s hell on the poor boy,” within RB Morris’ dark song (“Hell On A Poor Boy”), and you wonder how others have left this song unrecorded. Given a female voice, another layer of desperation is revealed within “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” likely the most recorded song on the album, and there is no reason “When the Thought of You Catches Up With Me” shouldn’t be on every country playlist this autumn…well, beyond the obvious quality it represents.

Fayssoux contributes five originals to the set, each of which can unabashedly stand with the songs from Lauderdale, Kieran Kane (and Sean Locke and Claudia Scott), and Mose Allison not already referenced. The swinging “Ragged Old Heart” recalls a long-gone time (and has some beautiful fiddling from Justin Moses to boot,) while her co-write with album co-producer Peter Cooper, “Golightly Creek,” captures an entirely different mood within its reflections and remembrances.

A pair of songs Fayssoux co-wrote with Cooper and the album’s other co-producer Thomm Jutz are the shining jewels within an album of gems. “Running Out of Lies” (“I’m running into trouble ’cause I’m running out of lies”) is worthy of Harlan Howard, and the Civil War-themed “The Last Night of the War” softly conceals its intensity within its bouncy bluegrass-infused trappings.

With core instrumentation provided by Fayssoux (acoustic guitar), Jutz (more acoustic guitar), Brandon Turner (even more acoustic guitar), as well as Sierra Hull (mandolin, natch), Moses, and Mark Fain (bass), the album benefits from acute vision. Cooper and Donna Ulisse provide vocal harmony, as do Jutz and Turner, again lending to the cohesive qualities of the album’s production. The addition of the splendid “I Made A Friend of a Flower Today,” recycled from the Red Beet Tom T. Hall set of a couple years back, does nothing to upset this balance.
Do you like gentle country music? Appreciate superior lead and harmony vocals within country music? Crave the clean lines of acoustic music and the clarity fine songwriting affords a listener? I Can’t Wait, out last month, should provide the satisfaction such descriptions suggest.

“White Wave Chapel” by I Draw Slow

I Draw Slow
White Wave Chapel
Pinecastle Records
4 Stars (Out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Dublin, Ireland five-piece I Draw Slow presents an attractive and compelling blend of modern acoustic bluegrass infused with a significant dose of Celtic-energy and old-world pride.

Recall again the roots of our bluegrass music, and now imagine even stronger—perhaps less diluted—influence and ties to the traditions and songs the founders of the music had. Now, triangulate the Duhks, the Lonesome Sisters, and Bearfoot with that foundation and you may start to get an impression of the slant this group brings to their modern interpretation of bluegrass.

Siblings Dave and Louise Holden are the songwriters of the band, providing the group with an astonishing range of material. Their lyrics are a bit more poetic and open to interpretation than one generally encounters within bluegrass, but there is no mistaking their commitment to originality within the genre.

Most songs are energetic and uplifting, although the lyrics of few are bright. For example, I’ve no clue to the inspiration of “Grand Hotel,” but it doesn’t appear to have been a positive experience; still, as with much contemporary, young, and innovative bluegrass, the desired emphasis is placed on mood and feel and in these areas I Draw Slow excel.

More straightforward are “Valentine,” an exploration of character, and “Whiskey Mirrors,” a case of star-crossed lovers, perhaps. Louise Holden has a charming voice, one I can well imagine listening to for hours within the confines of a pub or coffeehouse. Most songs appear to have been built around Adrian Hart’s fiddle, which is not to suggest that the 5-string of Colin Derham is hidden. Neither should Dave Holden’s guitar be discounted, and his playing is most appealing within the album closing “Old Wars.”

Each of these 13 songs offers something different, but it certainly isn’t terribly close to what most would consider traditional bluegrass.

But, it isn’t that far removed either!

(editor’s note: If you’re a fan of The Wire or Game of Thrones, check out I Draw Slow’s video for “Valentine,” featuring Aidan Gillen (aka Tommy Carcetti and Petyr Baelish))