“Cut to the Chase” by Kathy Kallick

Kathy Kallick
Cut to the Chase
Live Oak Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Kathy Kallick is a versatile recording artist. Folk, bluegrass, Americana, pioneering trailblazer…labels have never meant too much to Kallick, have never limited her creativity.

“She was a nice Jewish girl living near Chicago,” is not the way most bluegrass biographies could begin, but those are the words Murphy Hicks Henry elected to use when beginning her chapter on Kallick within Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass. A California resident for forty years, she and like minded compatriots founded the Good Ol’ Persons in 1974 and Kallick has been at the center of the dynamic West Coast bluegrass movement. The Good Ol’ Persons produced five albums including the essential live retrospective Good n’ Live.

She has recorded songs of her musical roots (My Mother’s Voice),  albums for children (including the inspired Use a Napkin, Not Your Mom), an album of duets with Laurie Lewis (Together), and straight ahead bluegrass (Call Me A Taxi). Since the late ’90s, the Kathy Kallick Band has produced several albums of jaw-dropping, unfettered bluegrass starting with Walkin’ In My Shoes through to and including 2012′s Time. In my opinion, their Warmer Kind of Blue is all kinds of marvelous. (See Kallick’s discography from her website here.)

Alternately and frequently simultaneously, she has crafted albums bridging the unsettled ground between folk and country, releasing tremendously well-executed albums including Reason & Rhyme and My Mother’s Voice.

Having written a collection of new songs that will come to stand with her finest, with Cut to the Chase (which I mistakenly read as ‘Cut to the Case’ for about three weeks) Kallick provides ample demonstration that she continues to hone her art. I argue that my reading error was an honest one, as Kallick’s assertive, clean lead guitar playing is as central to the album as her remarkable voice and erudite lyrics.

The album’s lead track insightfully crafts a roadmap for Cut to the Chase, as the protagonist comes to the realization that “Tryin’ So Hard to Get to You” is a long journey toward heartache and frustration. While there may be benefits to giving oneself over to the power of another, it’s best to determine one’s own course, to “keep your feet on the ground,” to borrow from another song. The catchy “Same Ol’ Song” has a similar theme, but different mood. The influence of Hazel Dickens on these songs and “When”  may only be apparent from my perspective.

Whether inhabiting others in “Persephone’s Dream” and “Franco’s Spain” (with beautiful mandolin lighting the way) and exploring the psyche and worlds of her creations, or describing the life shaped by a boy’s fascination with a train’s whistle—”Not As Lonesome As Me”—Kallick brings forth honesty and experience to fashion tactile personalities.

“Ellie,” a song that dates back to the Good Ol’ Persons, is given new life closing this set. Apparently long unavailable (the original version is on I Can’t Stand to Ramble, which I don’t own), hearing the song for the first time I fully understand why Murphy Henry highlights the song as “the timeless classic” from the GOP’s second album.

Determined to be a good girl in her mother’s eyes, Annie makes some choices that might be disappointing. “As the baby grows, she learned to tell a lie, that’s easier to do to keep Mama satisfied” is just one of the foundational thoughts captured in the beautifully written song, with fiddle—presumably from Kallick band member Annie Staninec—tempering the ‘true life’ harshness of the lyrics with the acceptance of mournful reflection.

While Kallick wrote the majority of these songs by herself, three are co-written with Clive Gregson, long ago of new wave band Any Trouble and collaborations with Christine Collister, and himself a notable folk presence for the past few decades. “Get the hell away from me,” the affirming refrain within the album’s forceful title track, certainly cuts to the chase, while their “The Time Traveler’s Wife” requires listeners to immerse themselves in the song’s rich lyrical path.

Kallick’s hand-picked core band is a gathering of trusted colleagues. In addition to Staninec, members of the Kathy Kallick Band— Greg Booth (resonator guitar), Tom Bekeny (mandolin), and Cary Black (bass)—serve as the instrumental foundation for the album, while Good Ol’ Persons John Reischman (mandolin) and Sally Van Meter (Weissenborn lap slide), Bill Evans (banjo), and others also appear. The album is cohesive, with a consistency in sound that unifies the assembled story songs.

Cut To the Chase is several steps away from the music of the Kathy Kallick Band, and allows Kallick to continue to develop her own style of acoustic Americana. It is a beautifully constructed album of personal and poetic music that should appeal to all who have appreciated Kallick’s music and insights.

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“One Evening in May” by Laurie Lewis

Laurie Lewis
One Evening in May
Spruce and Maple Music
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Laurie Lewis’ brave and challenging One Evening in May will likely confound some listeners as much as it impress others. This album is unconventional, surprising, and no little bit excellent.

Lewis’ new live album is both brave and challenging for good reason. She leads a trio that includes long-time collaborator Tom Rozum and electric guitarist Nina Gerber and has elected to capture songs recorded live on a single evening at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage.

Not only that, but she has chosen to build the bulk of the album around newly written songs. Therefore, few of these songs will have been heard by any but the most ardent of Lewis’ listeners. I’ve been intently listening to Lewis for more than a dozen years, and nothing sounded familiar to me. Well, almost nothing; more on that later. No “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” No “Tall Pines.” No “The Wood Thrush’s Song.”

This album then is a whole new listening experience, one that captures Lewis and her cohorts in a very comfortable setting, and I imagine this will be what confounds some who experience this album expecting the tried and true. As most who have listened to Lewis for longer than a festival weekend will attest, it is this very unconventional approach to music that has helped Laurie Lewis remain at the fore of string-band influenced, modern folk.

While there is little to connect the music contained within One Evening in May with bluegrass, neither is there a great deal beyond instrumentation removing it from that world. The themes Lewis explores are definitely ‘grass-friendly, and it is to her credit that she effortlessly breaks the confines of genre. More Blossoms than Skippin’ and Flyin’, those attracted to Lewis’ warm personality and charming music will find One Evening in May very attractive. Select songs also feature harmony from the T Sisters, and a pair have fiddling by Tristan Clarridge, providing a more fully enveloped context.

While the songs are unfamiliar, they don’t remain that way for long. “Arson of the Heart” and “Garden Grow” are jumpy little numbers that allows the trio to rock out, joined on the latter by the exuberant Tietjen Sisters. After this bit of frivolity, Lewis settles into one of the album’s most significant songs.

“Sailing Boat” could have come from Guy Clark or Mary Chapin Carpenter, and now that I think about it, so too could have “Garden Grow.” Like many of Lewis’ compositions, “Sailing Boat” uses finely hewn lyrical phrases to create vivid images and a contemplative mood that remain fixed in the psyche long after the chords fade. The metaphor is indeed a boat bound for the reef, but the human relationship is unambiguous.

“Barstow” is quite wonderful, a short story in song deserving of a literary label. Her personal compendium of “Kisses” balances the density of the songs that surround it, while simultaneously revealing a depth of consideration that may escape notice within clever wordplay. “En Voz Baja” and “The Crooked Miles,” a song of joyful reflection, would not be out of place on Emmylou Harris albums of the 70s.

I quite appreciate the spritely banjo tones that Lewis brings to the rousing album closer, “With Me Wherever I Go.”

Mandolinist Tom Rozum is afforded considerable space within this recording, providing his impeccable rhythm and tone throughout. He takes the vocal lead on “Down to Tampa” and “One Sweet Hello,” but it is the colorful fills and supportive notes he provides on songs such as “Barstow” and “Kisses” that are his most true contributions. Nina Gerber is allowed to showcase her playing on the instrumental “Winthrop Waltz,” and like Rozum she is a gifted collaborator whose talents are essential within this trio. She cuts loose on “I Missing You Tonight,” laying out classic-sounding guitar lines.

Beyond the overall quality of the production—the sound recording and both the understated album packaging and graphics (kudos, Mr. Rozum) are immaculate. What is readily apparent with this recording is that Laurie Lewis continues to peak. Her albums stretch back more than thirty years, and among them are several bona fide classics including The Oak and the Laurel, True Stories, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Skippin’ and Flyin’, and Guest House.  I would suggest that we add One Night in May to that list.

The one familiar note in this work of remarkable originality? A stout take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to kick things off.

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“The Nocturne Diaries” by Eliza Gilkyson

Eliza Gilkyson
The Nocturne Diaries
Red House Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eliza Gilkyson is no overnight success. The Austin-based songwriter and singer has been releasing albums of significance for longer than many of those being afforded headlines and cover stories today have been alive.

Her string of nine albums recorded for Red House Records since 2000, including the trio album Red Horse, serve as a testament to her consistency and the magnitude of her talents as a vocalist, songwriter, and instrumentalist. If this were a competition, these albums would stand alongside and surpass those recorded over a similar period of time by Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, and John Hiatt.

Yeah, she’s that danged good.

With The Nocturne Diaries, success has found Gilkyson overnight. These songs came to her in the dark, the muses disturbing her slumber and coaxing these songs from the writer. Appropriately, several are shadowy and no little bit sinister, providing inspiration and positive focus only when considering their contrasting natures. It is in the small hours that we allow our conscious thoughts to drift to places we generally disavow, and Gilkyson has embraced the magnitude of this energy without allowing herself to be held prisoner within their grasp.

As Gilkyson writes in her notes, “…the challenge today is to remain human when everything around us compels us to shut down. The Nocturne Diaries is a journey through the dark night of the soul that ends at the light of dawn with a sense of gratitude, a renewed commitment to care, and a stubborn little ray of hope.”

Co-producing the album with her son Cisco Ryder, Gilkyson chooses to illuminate her songs by enlivening them with melodies frequently belying their nature. “An American Boy” is possibly the most upbeat sounding song on the album, starting with pictures being posted on a Facebook site. The song goes along with a pleasant, poppy beat, while the teenaged protagonist considers the whispers in his head, staring at the key hanging beside the gun case. There’s a cheery, radio-friendly three-minute song for ya.

Within “The Ark,” Gilkyson considers Noah’s predicament of saving humanity and the earth’s lifeblood while realizing the skies are darkening, and “there is nothing we can do now for the ones who will remain.”

Contrasts abound. “The Red Rose and the Thorn” is, as best I can tell, a devotional to one’s potential murderer…all the while stalking he who will possibly do the deed. The confessional verses—including an interpretation of a familiar childhood prayer—soar, and the song surges into a Hammond B3 (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and electric guitar (via Gilkyson) frenzy. Elsewhere, Gilkyson gets her acoustic on as “Eliza Jane” is a near-bluegrass romp, replete with mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and URB…and drums.

“Fast Freight,” written by Gilkyson’s father Terry and recorded by the Kingston Trio on their debut album in 1958, does more than provide a bridge to those who established the foundation for the modern folk music experience. The song reveals how close we are in those early hours of sleeplessness to the person we know we should never allow ourselves to be. Ray Bonneville’s harmonica and Mike Hardwick’s slide work make those dark possibilities more apparent.

No doubt, Eliza Gilkyson has a beautiful voice. On “All Right Here,” when she sings of the choices she has made, the opportunities she has not pursued, and the resulting blessings she has received, there is crystal-clear precision. At that moment—within each of The Nocturne Diaries‘ 50 minutes—there isn’t a stronger, more suitable voice to carry these songs than Gilkyson’s. Time has been kind, and when I listen to this album alongside 1993′s Through the Looking Glass—as good as that Eliza was—the mature Gilkyson of today is the voice I prefer. There is a gravity present, a soft gruffness that provides each of these twelve songs the substance they demand.

For all of its heaviness, and The Nocturne Diaries has no little bit of emotional heft to it, one doesn’t come away from the album feeling depressed. Gilkyson has a manner about her that infuses optimism into each song. Rather than feeling defeated, listeners of this album will come out the other side assured that they have found strength within the challenges Gilkyson sketches.
Eliza Gilkyson, more than anything, in each song seems to be saying, ‘Take the risk, face the dark, persevere.’ The Nocturne Diaries are truly about having “wasted not our precious time.”

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“Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver” by Special Consensus & Friends

Special Consensus & Friends
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

John Denver—like Olivia Newton John—is a divisive figure when discussing 1970s country music. Unlike his Australian counterpart, Denver was a slightly more natural fit for the genre, although that didn’t stop folks from ridiculing his blend of folk, country, and MOR pop. Within his timeless The Phoenix Concerts set, John Stewart even sets up a song by glibly quipping, “Sunshine on my shoulders… makes me sweaty.”

Despite three country number one singles, some twenty-plus appearances within the country single and album charts, and Entertainer, Male Singer, and Album of the Year awards from various industry organizations, Denver was always a county music outlier, ironically too pop for even Charlie Rich.

Those granny glasses and Muppet appearances likely didn’t help.

Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver is a very comfortable album, and there should be no negative connotations associated with that designation as one is not intended. Many of the selected tracks are instantly familiar, and their arrangements and presentations are uniformly appealing.

There is considerable diversity within the set, with Rhonda Vincent’s restrained lead vocals on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” complementing the sedate, emotive instrumental textures laid out by the Special Consensus. “Wild Montana Skies” features Claire Lynch and Rob Ickes, and sounds quite wonderful, with a bluegrass push kicking it up a notch. Lynch’s contributions are significant—she sounds great alongside Rick Faris—and the guitar playing of Dustin Benson is just this side of incredible.

In compiling this album, bandleader Greg Cahill and producer Alison Brown make several key decisions.

Presenting the ubiquitous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as an instrumental is just one of them, but a significant one. Of the Denver songs chosen, it is the one best suited to stand independent of lyrics, generating a different feel here than it would have with its (arguably) overly familiar refrains.

Supplementing the recording with several guests drawn from the Compass family of artists is another important choice. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate vocalist to sing lead on “Rocky Mountain High” than Peter Rowan, and the bluegrass sage absolutely nails his performance; the album’s closing track also features a chorus of singers including Lynch, Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley.

Speaking of Bradley, the Kentucky songbird duets with Faris on the endearing “Back Home Again.” Singing lead on the final verses, Bradley amplifies the emotional density of the song, transforming egocentrism into self-awareness. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is faithfully performed by John Cowan, but with the benefit of his unconventional bluesy approach to all things ‘grass.
Another excellent decision was going deeper into the Denver oeuvre than greatest hits albums would suggest. “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (featuring Jim Lauderdale), “Matthew,” and “Eagles and Horses” are each given memorable treatments, and considering these are most likely not songs the majority of listeners will recognize speaks to the strength of Special Consensus’ performances.

The instrumentation of “This Old Guitar,” I believe, is unique. On this track, all four members of Special Consensus play guitar—and only guitar—creating a tribute not only to a great song, but to an essential bluegrass component.

Limiting the album to only ten songs may not have been the best choice. While not stingy at 42 minutes, there was definitely room for more music. Most significantly, it ‘feels’ as if there should be more here—Denver had a deep catalogue, and this seems a sparse representation of his diversity. Leaving us wanting more is always a good idea, but…

Three tracks feature only the members of Special C. The performances of these songs are uniformly excellent, suggesting that the group might have comfortably stretched themselves had they decided to tackle another couple. I am certain the band could have nailed “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” for instance.

The Special Consensus and Alison Brown—who produced the album and is credited with the arrangements—have created a bluegrass album from songs that, in their original form, were far from bluegrass. As Dave Royko points out in his expansive and informative liner notes, “many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.” What I don’t believe Royko mentions is that Denver’s interpretation of these themes was not close to bluegrass, in singing style, mindset, or method of execution.

There is no mistaking Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver as anything but a bluegrass recording. The mandolin and banjo are prominent, the guitar lines clean and varied, the bass drives the pulse of the music. While the Special C doesn’t employ a fiddler, they have friends—Michael Cleveland, Jason Carter, and Buddy Spicher—to further enliven select songs.

The Special Consensus is approaching their fortieth year with Greg Cahill at the helm, and after nearly twenty albums, they somehow continue to become stronger and more appealing. Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver isn’t a typical Special C album, but it certainly sounds like one.

Thank God they remain bluegrass boys!

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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin’” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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“Hangtown Dancehall
” by Eric Brace & Karl Straub


Eric Brace & Karl Straub

Hangtown Dancehall

Red Beet Records

5 Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eric Brace and Karl Straub have created a most ambitious album based upon and extending “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a song from the California Gold Rush era. Written by John A. Stone, the folk song’s many, and varied, verses sketch the turbulent relationship between two east-Missouri lovers, Isaac and Betsy, longing for adventure and riches beyond Pike County.

Recorded by various singers—Johnny Cash told part of their story on Sings the Ballads of the True West nearly fifty years ago, Pete Seeger had done the same a few years prior, and both Suzy Bogguss and BR549 have recorded renditions in the past decade—the story take the couple from Missouri across prairies and deserts, through tribulations and loss, and encounters with Brigham Young, marauders, and cholera, until they reach Hangtown—Placerville—and the epicenter of the California Gold Rush. In the original song, which is based around an old English melody, things don’t work out so well for Besty and Ike, and jealousy ends their relationship soon after their arrival.

Eric Brace—writer, musician, song creator, singer, and Placerville native—sensed that there was more to Bestsy and Ike’s story, and set himself the task of revealing it. After all, they had come some two thousand miles: seems a shame that the story should end with her calling him a lummox as Ike storms away, declaring them divorced. Brace prised a novel’s worth of narrative out of what brought Ike and Betsy to California—turns out, they accidentally kill Betsy’s pa before departing Missouri—and what the star-crossed lovers meet after the dissolution of their relationship: hard work, a gold strike, murder and theft, mistaken identity, self-discovery, and finally reconciliation and acceptance.

Karl Straub, a Washington, DC bandleader and guitarist, collaborated with Brace to extend and solidify the components of the 22-track concept album. He wrote several of the songs, shared writing on a few others, and assumed the pivotal persona of the doomed Walter Brown.

With Brace ably assuming the role of Ike Wilkins, it was up to friends to populate the balance of the cast, and Brace did a fine job of finding just the right voices for these roles. Kelly Willis becomes Betsy Maloney, inhabiting the troubled protagonist, and delivering the type of singing we’ve come to expect over the past twenty-five (!) years.

Meanwhile, Tim O’Brien propels the story as dancehall bandleader Jeremiah Jenkins, providing lively interludes advancing the tale and summarizing events. Darrell Scott drops by to give substance the James Marshall, the man who discovered the nugget that set off the Gold Rush. Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding), Jason Ringenberg, and Andrea Zonn take on smaller, but not lesser, vocal roles. Frequent Brace collaborator Peter Cooper provides select vocal support.

The late-Dobro© legend Mike Auldridge, Buddy Spicher, Pat McInerney, Casey Driessen (whose playing on “Pike County Rose” is stunning), Fats Kaplan, and Brace’s Last Train Home pals Kevin Cordt and Jen Gunderman are among the many who provide instrumental accompaniment, as does O’Brien, whose banjo punctuates “Hanging Tree” most mournfully.

“El Dorado Two-Step” decidedly jumps, as befits a tune about an exuberant boomtown dance. Crossing cultures and borders, on “From Pearl River to Gold Mountain” Zonn absolutely nails the experience of an escaped slave laborer. Scott breezes through “King Midas,” seemingly effortlessly communicating the despair of a man who came toward financial independence only to have it exceed his grasp.

The tension builds over the course of the album, reaching its satisfying crescendo as Betsy and Ike reunite to bring a murderer to justice. Deviating from the song cycle, Brace and Straub elect to have Brace narrate the climactic events in prose, allowing the couple to rediscover and renew their love afresh—and free of blood—in “So Many Miles.” This is the album’s only shortcoming as one wonders at the song that might have told of the scoundrel’s comeuppance.

Like Emmylou Harris’s  The Ballad of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall holds together as a concept album of country-folk balladry. Creating a flawless narrative in song—supplemented by Brace’s narrative connecting and elaborating the events—was most obviously no easy task, and Brace and Straub are to be commended for their faultless execution. As did those of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall’s songs stand together to create a formidable and dramatic listening experience, but individual songs lose none of their intensity when heard in isolation.

Hangtown Dancehall is absolutely brilliant, deep and listenable, creative and grounded. In creating an abstract, speculative historical and musical journey that becomes substantive, Eric Brace and Karl Straub have taken their art to the highest of levels. The accompanying booklet and packaging—featuring woodcuts from Julie Sola—is nothing short of outstanding, and its libretto provides the context necessary to fully appreciate the measures and efforts Brace and Straub have taken to create a project that is destined to far exceed most traditionally-based Americana projects we are likely to experience this year.

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“Annie Ford Band” by the Annie Ford Band

Annie Ford Band
Annie Ford Band
www.AnnieFordBand.com
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Based in Seattle, the Annie Ford Band skilfully performs the two unabashed sides of country music, forlorn and lonely. Beautiful stuff.

Sans guile, and reminiscent of Neko Case’s The Virginian, Annie Ford Band is a surprisingly delightful little album; while these ears had not heard the group’s music prior to receiving this debut recording, its eleven cuts immediately convey pleasurable familiarity. Weary shuffles fleshed out with despondent recollections, forgotten promises, and lamentable decisions are the foundation of the songs written by Ford and drummer Matt Manges.
Olie Elshleman’s pedal steel most plainly provides the album with atmospheric color, but so does Ford’s keen vocal approach, where strength and detachment mask vulnerability. Vocally, she favorably reminds one of Zoe Muth and Audrey Auld, powerful talents in their own right.

Ford’s country music spectrum is broad, containing elements evident of her small-town Virginia roots, along with a feel for the blues and an awareness of populist charisma honed by years of busking. As an outstanding album must, Annie Ford Band has multiple sounds, outlooks, and emotional textures. “Frankie” swings, “My Brother” sways, and “Two Sides”—with a bit of banjo brightening the gloom just a smidgen—seethes.

Two Ford compositions—”Calloused Hands” and “Dirty Hearts and Broken Dishes”—easily stand with any of the finest songs heard recently, rambling memories captured in the dust and clutter of broken rooms and abandoned lives. Sung by Ford, Manges’ “Lovesick” is more upbeat, its rhythm providing contrast to the surrounding songs. Rich bass notes (presumably from Ivan Molton) and “Wicked Games”-ish guitar flourishes (Tim Sargent, perhaps; I’m working without credit notes) lend distinction to “Buick 1996.”

The album closes with “Gotta Kill A Rooster,” a wee bit that avoids novelty only by the slimmest of axe edges, and one wonders if Ford and her cohorts are familiar with the Knitters. They pull it off, in no small part because of Ford’s mid-European influenced fiddle interlude capping the album.

There will be scores of captivating Americana albums released in 2014: Annie Ford Band is the first.

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“Roll Me, Tumble Me” by the Deadly Gentlemen

The Deadly Gentlemen
Roll Me, Tumble Me
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Like it or not, bluegrass music is evolving.

It has been written many times in many ways, but much of the music currently associated with the term ‘bluegrass’ is no small bit removed from that created by the founders of the music.

The Deadly Gentlemen, a quintet based in Massachusetts, are among the recent bands whose music is close enough to warrant mention within conversations about bluegrass, but is so different as to further blur the vision of those who look at music through myopic lenses.

Deadly Gents songwriting principal Greg Liszt—Virginia native, molecular biologist, Americana practitioner with the likes of Crooked Still as well as Bruce Springsteen’s banjoist of choice for The Seeger Sessions—may serve as the musical core of the group, but the entirety of their acoustic foundation is firmly entrenched.

Liszt’s four-finger style of playing is unusual, but one doesn’t notice an obvious difference when listening. What is curious is their approach to vocals. Rather than utilizing lead with two or three part harmony, a choral group approach more familiar to other contemporary music is the Deadly Gentlemen’s preference.

Lead singer Stash Wuslouch has an affable vocal quality, with fiddler Mike Barnett most frequently joining in on co-leads. The group has a distinctive sound, one that is woody, hollow, and oh so refreshing. The entire group takes responsibility for arranging Liszt’s songs, and one can (perhaps mistakenly) attribute the liveliness of the recording to the members’ playing off each other. Dominick Leslie’s mandolin playing is impressive throughout, and while bass player Sam Grisman recently left the group, his presence on the recording is significant.

Outside their instruments of choice, the Deadly Gentlemen have as much in common with the Beatles, Dan Fogelberg, and Mumford & Sons as they do the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Dailey & Vincent. Their songs are simultaneously dreamy and earthy with a vibe that both trippy and grounded.

Sometimes they are frantic in their approach (“A Faded Star”), while at other times they are subtle and emotive (“Bored of the Raging” and “Beautiful’s Her Body.”) While there are breaks and fills, the instrumental parameters of this group are not as hard and fast as one may associate with standard bluegrass, albeit that there are extreme variation in approach within even the most ‘traditional’ of the music.

Their songs are wordy, sometimes dense and frequently poetic. The Deadly Gents don’t sing of mountain homes, mothers and grandmothers, and ploughs in the field, but they do consider “what might have been” (“I Fall Back”), the passing of time (“It’ll End Too Soon” and “Now Is Not The Time”), and failing relationships (“All The Broken Pieces.”) The subject manner therefore, if not its execution, is complementary to the traditions of acoustic roots music.

This writer’s favorite song is the slightly twisted “Working,” although the atmospheric sound of the title track is what was first noticed. “Working” pretty much sums up the ironic, occasionally pithy, philosophy of the album: it isn’t perfect, but it’s only music.

    Work’s not bad and work’s not hard,
I don’t kill chickens or break rocks in a yard.
Work’s not bad and it’s not that tough,
I’m not breaking my neck or my back or my balls in the rough.

Is this bluegrass? I don’t think so—for me it falls into that appealing world I call acoustiblue. If it is bluegrass, it is out on the farthest branches of the Rowan tree.

Does it matter? When Roll Me, Tumble Me completed its initial play through, I smiled and the first thought that came to mind was, “That was good.”

And, it is.

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“Tell The Ones I Love” by the Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers
Tell The Ones I Love
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Of the bluegrass bands that have emerged during the past decade, the Steep Canyon Rangers are the group, in this writer’s opinion,  that have most acutely established a positive career trajectory balancing a palatable regard for the roots of bluegrass music while taking it to new and eminently listenable places.

Since 2002, each of their album has been a demonstration of their evolving vision of bluegrass, one that challenges perceptions of the music while ensuring it retains all the elements that make the music so emotionally and aurally satisfying. The quintet adds to the music certainly, but nothing they do—whether it be brushed percussion, more propulsive drumming (as on “Stand and Deliver”), or bringing in gutsy gospel touches—detracts from allowing the music to stand as bluegrass.

Maintaining a stable lineup enhances familiarity, and their cohesion is apparent. Everything is tight, the arrangements impressive. Trills of mandolin and banjo fill quiet spots, while at other times they provide drive, fiddle sweeps in and out, and the bass pulses. Woody Platt’s guitar leads are notable and well-placed, while his rhythm parts sound true. In particular, Nicky Sanders comes to the fore throughout the album, with lively, playful, and evocative fiddling.

Platt has two distinctive voices, one slightly languid and bluesy (as on the outstanding “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken,” a song co-written by bassist Charles R. Humphrey III and Jonathan Byrd), the other more frequently utilized, smooth country soul, as on the gentle epic “Camellia” and “Tell The Ones I Love,” which also features a mystical mandolin preface from Mike Guggino. In a deeper register, banjoist Graham Sharp takes the lead vocals on “Stand and Deliver.” The instrumental “Graveyard Fields” showcases the band’s collective chops, something every track seems to be best designed to do.

Mid-album, “Boomtown” and “Mendocino County Line” take the group further into the rootsy Americana field than some will be comfortable with, but these are simply amazing performances.

Advancing bluegrass while maintaining its focus, the Steep Canyon Rangers retain a natural approach to acoustic music. Recorded largely off the floor, with producers Larry Campbell and Justin Guip at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, Tell The Ones I Love is a stunning collection of modern bluegrass, and arguably their best to date.

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“Hall of Fame Bluegrass” by Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk

Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk
Hall of Fame Bluegrass!
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Son!

The common exclamation is bound to repeatedly come to mind while listening to this destined-to-be-classic outing honoring (select) pioneers of this music called bluegrass.

Junior Sisk is the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year according to the professionals within the International Bluegrass Music Association, but he could have justifiably received the award at any point during the past decade. Joe Mullins is a bluegrass industry all his own: radio station owner, vocalist, bandleader, banjo player. As they both record for Rebel, it makes perfect sense that they should come together to record a baker’s dozen certified bluegrass classics, paying tribute to their industry’s forebears who have made their way into the IBMA’s Hall of Fame.

This set would have IBMA 2014 Recorded Event of the Year written all over it if entire album projects were still eligible for the recognition. As it stands, with thirteen superior cuts of bluegrass splitting potential votes, such is not assured but certainly this 38-minute collection is worthy of such.

Each and every track on this album has something about it that could make a listener declare with no shortage of fervor, “That’s the best thing I’ve heard this week!”

“Wild Mountain Honey,” made famous by the Osborne Brothers & Red Allen and the album’s lead track, has rightfully received a great deal of attention from radio programmers: the song is a sparkling example of up-tempo bluegrass. Jason Carter’s contribution to this song is just the first of several examples of why he has been among the most significant fiddlers of the past two decades.

On Doc Watson’s  (okay, James Jett’s) “Greenville Trestle High” it is the pairing of Sisk and Mullins’ voices, complemented by either Sisk’s or Dudley Connell’s lead guitar—the credits do not distinguish between the two, not that it matters a lick when it comes to listening. Further vocal showcases are provided within “Single Girl, Married Girl” and Don Reno’s “I’m Sorry Happy.”

While paying tribute to Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe by recording the pitiful “I’ll Drink No More Wine,” it is Jesse Brock’s mandolin that emerges alongside the foundation created by Mullins’ 5-string, and Mullins ensures that “No Blind Ones There” is made all the more powerful with the punctuation he provides. Rob Ickes’ Dobro naturally comes to the fore on “No Doubt About It.”

Marshall Wilborn handles the bass in his customarily enviable fashion. I wouldn’t have minded a bit had he contributed some harmony singing.

While Sisk and Mullins—who also co-produced this superior recording—have touched on many of the most prominent members of the IBMA’s Hall of Fame, there remains many to choose from when it comes time to revisit this noble concept within the anticipated Volume 2.

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