“Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
Rounder Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Steep Canyon Rangers play good music. “Knob Creek” is as pretty a bluegrass tune as I’ve ever heard. Their album Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and 2012′s Rare Bird Alert was nominated for the same award. In 2011 the Rangers and Steve Martin won Entertainers of the year at IBMA. Pretty heady stuff.

I saw the Rangers in Georgia a few years ago. I liked the show. I like Steve Martin. I haven’t heard much of them together because I don’t often listen to radio. My go-to-work car doesn’t have satellite radio and my wife likes the ’60′s channel in her car. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started the CD and that’s why you’re reading these reviews, trying to decide if a CD is worth your money.

This package includes a DVD (the show was taped live) and the DVD tells a better story than the CD. The DVD has two additional tracks and includes the stage banter, audience shots, and gives you better context than the CD. From the start it’s clear that this is the Steve Martin show. He’s the front man, he tells the jokes and plays or trades lead on the banjo. When you visit SCR’s website it becomes clear this is a collaboration but they are in a supporting role with Martin (50 shows a year) while keeping their identity as they perform separate from him. Other clues about what to expect are subtle: the website listing shows SCR last after Martin and Edie Brickell and SCR’s members aren’t named in the package.

The SCR aren’t just window dressing, though. The first number is “Katie Mae,” a hot one that whets your bluegrass appetite. Despite not being familiar with it I figured it was adapted from Flatt & Scruggs or someone like them, but the only other number with that name I can find is a Grateful Dead piece adapted from the blues and they aren’t even cousins. It turns out it was composed by Brickell. Other than the music on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (by SCR members) the songs all list Martin or Brickell as composer or co-composer and SCR isn’t involved. “Katie Mae” on the DVD shows Martin playing lead banjo, trading off in spots with Graham Sharp. Martin’s a good banjo player and enjoys carrying the bluegrass message in his TV appearances.

One of Martin’s funny lines is at 11:00 on the DVD: “I know what you’re thinking: There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” It’s hard to tell from shots of the audience how many of them follow bluegrass—I suspect a substantial number were there for the Steve Martin show—but they liked that line while veteran bluegrassers really understand the punch line. “Jubilation Day” is one of his comedy song routines (a breaking up story from a “whew, it’s over perspective”) and the bass player takes an impressive break on the number. “The Crow” is a good instrumental bluegrass number and is the title track of Martin’s 2009 album that won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards.

Edie Brickell is associated with the New Bohemians and the Gaddabouts, and is now closely allied with Martin and his bluegrass shows. She comes in at 26:40 (DVD) to sing “Get Along Stray Dog.” This is more old-timey than anything else. The music takes a turn at this point to some sort of fusion between old-time, folk, and Irish jig with her singing somewhere in Dylan’s camp, breathy with a rising and falling inflection. There’s an electric guitar and drums and a keyboard have been added. The audience liked it. Bill Monroe fans probably not so much. It’s unclear if she has a genre in mind. I suspect she’s following her own muse: infused with acoustic music but still very influenced by rock/pop. If you listen to “Love Like We Do” (New Bohemians) you’ll find a lot of similarities with her work on this CD.

“Stand and Deliver” is the SCR (Martin and Brickell are off stage) plus some percussion doing bluegrass on the progressive side. They follow that with “Hunger,” a blues number with an electric guitar. Not bluegrass but I liked the song and the arrangement.

There’s far too much material to cover it all, especially on the DVD. Some other highlights are “Pretty Little One,” close to a bluegrass story song but it also has an old-time sound. The verses tend to have a repetitious melody and go on and on with both murder and comedy woven into the lyrics. Martin sings lead with Brickell joining in now and then. Next “Auden’s Train” kicks off, credited to Martin and Nicky Sanders. That may confuse you because it’s the “Orange Blossom Special” with lyrics borrowed from W H Auden’s Calypso.

Woody Platt (guitar) sings lead on “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a Martin number that makes good bluegrass. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” isn’t politically correct, but it’s funny. Maybe we worry too much about being politically correct.

Bluegrass fans attend a performance or buy a CD expecting the music to be the show. Some of the best bluegrass bands out there don’t try too hard at showmanship. When you buy this package expect the Steve Martin show with music added. You’ll enjoy the DVD if you’re a Steve Martin fan because he puts on a good show. If you’re considering the CD expecting more “Knob Creek” bluegrass, you’ll be a little disappointed.

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“A Skaggs Family Christmas – Volume Two” by Ricky Skaggs & Family

Ricky Skaggs & Family
A Skaggs Family Christmas – Volume Two
Skaggs Family Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ricky Skaggs needs no introduction to the bluegrass or country music worlds. People familiar with bluegrass will recognize The Whites as a part of the family (Ricky and Sharon White have been married thirty years).

This is a bonus package, both a CD and DVD are included. The CD is a ten song set of Christmas favorites like “Joy To The World” and “Christmas Time’s A-Coming.” A special treat, though, is hearing some family members who are not so familar to us.

Molly Skaggs has been appearing in some shows with her dad since she was a child, but she’s hardly a household name to fans. She is featured in a sparse arrangement of “What Songs Were Sung” (just her on piano and vocals and Tom Roady on percussion). This is a beautiful number that should be included in any grand collection of Christmas songs. Luke Skaggs, who, like Molly, is involved with Morning Star Ministries, offers an instrumental he wrote, “Flight to Egypt,” and sings and plays guitar (along with Molly and Rachel Leftwich [daughter of Cheryl White, married to Andy Leftwich]) on “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” “Flight Into Egypt” is comprised of multiple movements, going from a quiet introduction to much more dramatic movements as it follows this biblical story of Joseph and Mary taking baby Jesus into Egypt. It’s obvious that Luke is an accomplished guitarist and Andy Leftwich is superb on the fiddle.

Molly and Rachel take turns singing lead and harmony as they perform “Emmanuel.” Their lead and harmony singing is well done and beautiful and the minimalist accompaniment (Luke playing guitar) underscores the vocals and lyrics.

From lush arrangements like “Silent Night,” featuring Ricky, Sharon and Cheryl White, and the Nashville Strings to acappela numbers like “The First Noel,” this CD offers a variety of great Christmas music.

But you can hear all of these (though not necessarily the same musicians) and sixteen more on the DVD plus see the show.

The DVD kicks off with the family doing “Christmas Time’s A-Coming.” Kentucky Thunder is backing Ricky, The Whites are on stage as well as Luke and Molly Skaggs and Rachel Leftwich. People come and go but it’s constant entertainment with Ricky keeping up the patter between songs. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” with Buck White on mandolin and singing bass (the band is off stage) is a catchy, upbeat number and then The Whites do a Western swing Christmas number, “Hangin’ Around the Mistletoe” – and Chery is playing upright bass (you usually see her playing electric bass). Rejoined by Cody Kilby and Andy Leftwich, The Whites swing through “Winter Wonderland.” This is a fun show.

The second set includes the Nashville Strings. It kicks off with “Little Drummer Boy,” sung by Molly as she plays the dulcimer (with Ricky on the mandobass). Molly, Luke and Rachel do a beautiful job with “What Child Is This” followed by Cheryl, Rachel and Molly singing “Mary Did You Know?”

There are no flat spots here. This is top-notch entertainment from beginning to end, and you don’t have to be a bluegrass fan to enjoy it. Treat yourself and, as Rachel sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show” by Johnny Cash and friends

Johnny Cash
The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show
Sony Columbia Legacy
5 stars (out of 5)

I was in journalism grad school when Johnny Cash died, the same week that John Ritter died of a heart attack. In a seminar on entertainment writing taught by the entertainment editor at the Chicago Tribune, we debated which death was bigger news, which deserved higher placement on the page. Of course I said Cash, obviously. No matter how well Ritter pretended to be gay to fool Mr. Furley. (Although his performance as a gay character in Sling Blade was a nice contribution to a great movie.)

Exhibit A in my argument, which I thought would sway my baby boomer teacher, was The Johnny Cash TV Show, which was tremendously popular on CBS from 1969 to 1971. As Tom Brokaw and everyone else born between 1946 and 1964 never tire of telling us, it was a divisive time in America. And Cash’s presence in so many living rooms was a significant reason that gap didn’t grow even wider.

On the show, he sang and spoke against the Vietnam War and for his Christian faith without offending anyone except the network censors. He refused to change the line “I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stone” in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” He sang-spoke the “son of a bitch” line in “A Boy Named Sue” just moments after stomping out two of the sacred Ryman Auditorium’s footlights with a look in his eye just like an all-worked-up Lonesome Rhodes from the Elia Kazan masterpiece “A Face in the Crowd.”

But everyone loved it, the long-hairs who shuffled into the Ryman after hanging out in the Broadway bars all day and the beehive housewives and grandmas who came all the way from Tulsa or Wheeling or Dayton and would pretty near faint if anyone but Johnny talked like that around them.

Cash had a charisma, almost an aura, say many of the people who knew him. Something like what Elvis had, just as wild but more regal. I’ve always wondered if that was true, or just something that people say to make themselves feel more special for having been around a famous person.

I’ve settled that question in my mind after watching The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show, two DVDs of magnificent moments from the CBS vaults. The parade of talent that Cash brought on the show was unbelievable, but it was the guest stars themselves who can’t believe Cash’s arm is around them and they’re about to sing with him.

After Eric Clapton, along with a pre-Duane Allman Derek and the Dominos, plays a pleasant version of Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late,” Cash arrives to shake Clapton’s hand, while the perfect guitarist and devotee of American music for an instant looks like he’s staring right at Robert Johnson’s ghost, afraid, awed and giddy all at once.

Bob Dylan was Cash’s guest on the first show, no longer the spindly speed freak, the electrified jester who became for many Americans one of the personae most typical of the hated and feared counterculture. Bob’s back on acoustic guitar, recovered from the near-fatal motorcycle wreck that may have saved him beating Jim Morrison to the dead, sainted poet gig. He’s gained a little weight, grown a scruffy near-beard and, apparently because he stopped smoking cigarettes, sings in a Dudley Do-Right tenor that had me convinced that I had put a record other than “Nashville Skyline” on my friends parents’ turntable the first time I heard it.

Bob sings “I Threw it All Away,” which no doubt sent many of his fans into fits because the lyrics contained no circus geeks, blind commissioners or mules who prefer to have jewels and binoculars hanging from their heads.

Instead, it’s a simple folk/country song, not too far from “Girl from the North Country,” the tune that Bob did on his first album and that he sings with Cash here, the two voices too big to blend together.

Other acts not usually found in Nashville (though Bob did record Blonde on Blonde there in 1966) were on: Creedence Clearwater Revival scraping away on “Bad Moon Rising,” a startlingly comely Linda Ronstadt and her miniature miniskirt duetting with Cash on “I Will Never Marry,” Joni Mitchell duetting on “Long Black Veil,” a pairing which must hold some sort of record for most disparate voices singing at the same time on network television.

The usual country suspects turn up, all of them looking great and sounding greater: Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Ray Price and a young, chubby Hank Williams Jr.

Bill Monroe and Mother Maybelle Carter send chill up the spine with their dignity and creativity. The Everly Brothers nearly made me cry with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” accompanied by their father, legendary guitarist Ike Everly.

Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis are simply wonderful, but they are still doing what they did 15 years ago, which is why they rank a degree or two lower in the pantheon of Southern white music than the eternal Cash and the mercurial Elvis.

Also incredibly significant for the time, and tremendously satisfying musically, are performances by Stevie Wonder (“Heaven Help Us All”), Ray Charles on a smoldering, revelatory “Ring of Fire,” and Louis Armstrong, duetting with Cash on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” just as he did on the original recording with Jimmie Rodgers.

There’s a dozen or so more artists in the more than three hours of tape, but it’s of course Cash that just amazes. The honesty bout his failings, the courtly manners along with the raw individualism, the love and respect he imparted to everyone, the love and awe toward June. No TV writer or director can manufacture that, no actor can summon that up. Using the sense of a word that most people in television today simply couldn’t comprehend, one can say that The Johnny Cash TV Show was reality television at its very best.

by Aaron Keith Harris