“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.

“Ionia” by Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys

Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys
Ionia
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Named for the Michigan city in which it was recorded, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys’ second album—to go along with a couple of EPs—is one of the unexpected musical delights of this spring.

Americana at its core, their sound is not easily categorized beyond that wide-ranging identifier. They use acoustic bluegrass instruments, but no one who understands the term would refer to them as a bluegrass band; their music is too breezy and playful, lacking the drive most associate with ‘grass. One can hear folk roots throughout the album, especially on “The River Jordan” and “Old Song,” and it certainly isn’t country. There is even a bit of jazz flavor in places (“Hot Hands”) and it swings a bit when encountering Thelma and Louise-type circumstances in Todd Grebe’s (Bearfoot, Cold Country) “Criminal Style.”

Americana it is, then.

Ionia possesses a warm, groovy sparseness that allows the group to project a clear and bright set of music that reminds one of Edie Brickell fronting a really strong acoustic band. It is gorgeous.

While Lindsay Lou sings the majority of the leads, and does so quite brilliantly, this is much more than a singer-centered endeavor. Joshua Rilko (all manner of stringed instruments, but primarily mandolin) and bassist (some of it bowed, and more including Peruvian cajón) PJ George sing most of the harmony on these songs, providing each with vocal depth that nicely balances Lindsay Lou’s leads. Mark Lavengood plays Dobro on the majority of the songs, while also singing “Sometimes,” an earthy number from an outside source, Ben Fidler; less tasteful are his circa 1981 basketball shorts.

While other bands may achieve a rich, close sound in professional studio environments, LL&F chose to record in the home of friends, playing and singing in a tight circle. While obviously rehearsed and professional, the resulting music feels spontaneous and genuine. Built around Lindsay Lou’s voice, equally important to the LL&F sound are Rilko’s mandolin and Lavengood’s steel.

“Everything Changed” is one of the group’s stronger songs: it builds to a controlled instrumental crescendo that is dynamic. “House Together” is another vibe-rich song of interest. Every bit as engaging are the album’s final tracks, “Ionia” and “Smooth and Groovy.” The title track is a moody instrumental while the closing song is a vocal showcase for Lindsay Lou. Recently relocated to Nashville, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys appear to have taken the ‘next step’ in their career.

Recommended if you like Crooked Still, the Show Ponies, and/or the Infamous Stringdusters.

“Devil in the Seat” by the Foghorn Stringband

The Foghorn Stringband
Devil in the Seat
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

More than a decade ago, several youthful, old-time stringband-influenced outfits started to garner considerable attention on the fringes of what was shortly to become known as Americana. The Crooked Jades were one of the first and best that I encountered, while others including Old Crow Medicine Show and the Foghorn Stringband followed in their wake.

OCMS and Foghorn Stringband both released independent projects, signed with Vancouver’s Nettwerk Records, and unrelentingly worked the road in support of well-received, major-label debut albums.

One of those albums contained “Wagon Wheel.” The other didn’t.

While OCMS have become a commercial force with their rock ‘n’ roll meets folk and old-time blend of infectious party music, the Portland-based Foghorn Stringband have performed with great success to much lesser acclaim. They have continued to record music, releasing five or six albums (depending on which volumes are counted as band projects) that have more consistently held to the foundational elements of old-time stringband music.

Devil in the Seat, recorded in the atmospheric, traditional backwoods environs of Kauai, is another outstanding testament of what can happen when like-minded individuals are given opportunity to coalesce into a formidable performing unit. Their publicity sheet makes the adroit claim that Foghorn Stringband are less revivalists than they are curators, and such can be heard throughout this fabulous new release.

The group has always been known for balancing vibrant, lively music with down-tempo, bluesy takes, and there is no shortage of this dichotomy within the 16 songs and tunes included herein. The album kicks off with “Stillhouse,” learned from Virginia’s Matokie Slaughter and heads toward more familiar ground with “Mining Camp Blues” (performed as a show-stopping duet between Reeb Willms and Nadine Landry) and “Columbus Stockade Blues.”

A pair of tunes from Clyde Davenport are included, “Lost Gal” and “Chicken Reel,” while more contemporary selections include Garry Harrison’s “Jailbreak” and Tim Foss’s “Leland’s Waltz.”

My copy didn’t identify individual singers, but I suspect it is group co-founder and fiddler “Sammy” Lind who so excellently murders and buries “Pretty Polly” with the other remaining original member mandolinist Caleb Klauder handling most of the other male leads. The two have a natural style of instrumental interaction, with Klauder’s style being remarkable for the way he just lays back and drops in his notes. The banjo playing (never enough) is handled by Lind.

Hank Snow’s honky-tonk hit “90 Miles an Hour” is sped up just a tad and again demonstrates the group’s flexibility, as does their patient and true interpretation of the troubling “Henry Lee.” Foghorn’s male-female balance allows the group to explore the full range of old-time sounds, a significant positive of which they take advantage.

Whether you have been with Foghorn Stringband since before Weiser Sunrise or just caught up to the group with the excellent Outshine the Sun of a couple years ago, Devil in the Seat should give many hours of old-time pleasure.

“The Goldmine” by Kelsey Waldon

Kelsey Waldon
The Goldmine
Self-released
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Remember the first time you heard Sturgill Simpson? Zoe Muth? Kasey Chambers? Recall that flush of excitement on hearing Katy Moffatt thirty years ago? Linda McRae or Neko Case, back when she recorded The Virginian?

Miss it?

Get ready, ’cause Kelsey Waldon is going to leap though your ear buds, turn around and smack you upside the cranium while doing a two-step shuffle on your shoulder.

When not slinging drinks in a Nashville institution of higher yearning, this western Kentucky native—Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ballard County, to be exact—found time to write and record eleven songs of two-lane highways, neon signs, troubled love, betrayal, and confusion that are among the most special encountered in these early months of 2015.

Released last summer, this unassuming album got misplaced in the shuffle that is my work environment, and I am darned sorry for that oversight. A lot has been written over the past couple decades about the marginalized role neo-traditionalists have in the modern county music landscape, but thank goodness there are still those like Waldon fighting the good fight. Building on a pair of EPs, The Goldmine is her first full-length release.

With less a twang in her voice than a natural inclination toward honesty in phrasing (Merle Haggard comes to mind… a “mama tried” even gets dropped midset), Waldon bridges the gaps between Mandy Barnett retro-fusion, Patty Loveless country bombast, and Brandy Clark sheen. Within her songs is the singularity of vision that sometimes gets lost when interpreting songs written by committee.

Without blurring lines, Waldon has created a pure country album of the type Dallas Wayne and Kelly Willis once made: modern music created within a rich, insulated atmosphere that push chart-watching constraints aside. Some of the credit certainly needs to go to producer and bassist Michael Rinne; enlisting folks like Brett Resnick (pedal steel,) Jeremy Fetzer (guitars,) and Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), he has craft a vibrant instrumental backdrop that never becomes too lush, although it comes close on “Quicksand.”

“Town Clown” explores back alley unfaithfulness the way Loretta Lynn might have in her more vulnerable moments; singing of town folk in the know who “just laugh and turn the other way,” Waldon faces down her trifling beau in the only way she can—she writes a song capturing the agony of being the last to discover his infidelity. “I don’t know who I am, and I can’t even say I give a damn,” are the opening lyrics to “Pride,” a song where her guitar smells like cigarettes and everyone feels like a stranger in their hometown.

Waldon realizes strength isn’t to be found by burning the bar, house, and town down around you, it has to grow within, be nurtured by the experience that challenging times provide. “Time and misery they want the best of me, but I’m feeling fine ’bout as far as you can see,” she sings in “Big Black Limousine.”

“High in heels, high on pills,” door-knocking evangelists, and slow motion suicide come together in “High in Heels,” the song that comes closest to serving as Waldon’s thesis statement, and it has to be heard to be fully grasped: life happens, and sometimes all you can do is hold your shit together the best you can while worrying about the groceries, bills, and family.

The album closes with the introspective and hopeful “Getting There,” where Waldon sings, “You can’t change a memory in time,” while lamenting that “I’m never arriving, always getting there.”

The Goldmine would suggest that she is has actually done exactly that—Kelsey Waldon has arrived.

“In Session” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
In Session
Mountain Home Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I realize it may not be a popular opinion, and it may even get me into trouble, but I’ve always wondered how good DLQ would be if the band became a more stable group, with members expected to stay together for several years to grow into a true band—rather than be a bluegrass training ground or (my least favorite bluegrass term this side of ‘progressive’) ‘school of bluegrass.’

I first had this thought about ten years back when Quicksilver included folks like Jamie Dailey, Jesse Stockman, Barry Scott, and Terry Baucom, fully realizing Baucom was an original member of the group—by the time Dailey and Scott, in particular, left the band, DLQ was getting it as good as it can be got.

Instead, Quicksilver boasts an almost constantly revolving lineup of musicians and singers, all of whom bring considerable talent to the band. But, to me, it always seems everything is temporary with the band—it is just a matter of time before someone moves on and the next guy slips into the mix. Kind of like when Greg Brady needed to fit the Johnny Bravo suit.

As much as I feel this way, I usually enjoy DLQ in concert—as long as the antics aren’t too predictable, and they sometimes are—and I appreciate their recordings, although not as much lately. Recent albums have suffered from weak material and generic and faceless lead singing, with Roads Well Traveled being a particularly telling point, in my opinion. Songs like “Dobro Joe,” “How Do You Say Goodbye to Sixty Years,”  and “One Small Miracle” just didn’t cut it, being derivative of songs Lawson had previously performed to greater impact. “Say Hello to Heaven” was a new low, contrived and nauseatingly shallow, flaws that also marred “I’m That Country” and “The King.”

Doyle Lawson still has it, of course. His most recent albums with Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe are certainly proof of that. It seems that he has just become too focused or maybe complacent, musically, on being Doyle Lawson—repeating the same old stuff with which he has found success. I’ve heard him speak about his recent music, including Roads Well Traveled, and he sure seems to like what he is doing.

I just don’t see—and most importantly, hear—the appeal.

Which is a long way of getting to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s new album, In Session.

It’s pretty good, certainly a mile and half better than Roads Well Traveled. For me, it doesn’t rise to the level of the albums I consider to be DLQ classics: Once and For Always, The Hard Game of Love and You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper. It sounds and feels more impassioned than any Quicksilver secular release since Lonely Street.

The band is solid, of course. Within the current edition of DLQ, Josh Swift (reso, percussion, and vocals) has been around the longest—well, other than Doyle Lawson, natch.  Joe Dean (banjo and guitar) has made a few albums with DLQ, while lead vocalist and guitar player Dustin Pyrtle has been around for a couple of years. Eli Johnston (bass, guitar, vocals) and Stephen Burwell (fiddle on a single song, “Wilma Walker”) are more recent recruits. Most of the fiddling is very ably handled by Jason Barie, now with Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.

The traditional Quicksilver drive is all over this album, with Johnston propelling things from the back end. Songs like “Reasons Why” and “Roll Big River” really benefit from his pulsing bass notes. “Captain” is (I believe) a strong new song from Johnston and Cody Shuler, a bit sad but not obvious.

The instrumental “Evening Prayer Blues” is a great tune, one that has been around for a long time. Lawson’s playing on it is simply impressive while the guitar contributions add a real nice texture to the tune. A cover of the Moe Bandy song “Americana” is a tad over-wrought, but not inexcusably so. The old country song (The Browns, Jimmy C. Newman) “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” is brought into bluegrass perhaps for the first time and it is a good fit. The courting song “Wilma Walker” will likely be popular.

For this listener, this new album is a welcome return to the form and quality that I had come to expect from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. That I felt the band had gone off track for a while is now beside the point: DLQ is back and (forgive me) In Session!

 

“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.