“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.

“Run for Your Life” by the Show Ponies

The Show Ponies
Run For Your Life
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Run For Your Life is the first EP from Los Angeles acoustiblue band the Show Ponies. Having recorded a pair of well-received albums, the quintet called upon the enthusiasm of their fan base to release this five song mini-album.

Somehow I missed the Show Ponies when they were first brought to my attention last year, but fortunately didn’t make the same mistake twice. ‘Explosively vibrant’ were the words that popped into my wee head when I first listened to Run For Your Life, and nothing else has yet replaced them so I’m going to stick to that jarring phrase.

Punctuated by a G-run straight outta the Jimmy Martin Book O’ Licks, “Honey, Dog, and Home” celebrates road warriors:

Pull me out to another show,
done fourteen days now in a row,
and people getting’ picky with what I wear-
girl, straighten your skirt and fix your hair!

Despite the lyrical sentiments, it quickly becomes obvious that the band—lead singers Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney, guitarist and producer Jason Harris, lively fiddler Philip Glenn, and drummer Kevin Brown—revels in the vagabond life they’ve chosen. (If in doubt, check their YouTube clips.) Current IBMA banjo player of the year Noam Pikelny hired on for this track and the playful “Stupid,” a swinging tune of significant import…well, maybe not. Still, Pikelny’s contributions are easy to appreciate and further raise the profile of this outfit, which was the likely intent.

Tough to pick the strongest songs from this bunch, but I’ll forge ahead. “Get Me While I’m Young” and “Run For Your Life” offer perspectives on life, love, and all they entail. Both feature forceful instrumentation and creative wordsmithery (“…don’t come when you want, just come when you’re told…,” from the former, for example.)

This too-brief set closes with the more pensive “Some Lonesome Tune,” an appealing song of faith and discovery.
Creating original acoustic music with strong bluegrass and old-time overtones, the Show Ponies are my new favorite band. Find a copy of Run For Your Life to hear why; I’m betting you’ll be just as chuffed.

“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.