“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.

“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.

“Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn” by Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

One of the great joys in life is seeing two people from different spheres of your life connect. I was happy and surprised when I heard that Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married. I only knew them from their music, but I had them  categorized in very different bins in my mental record collection—he known for radically extending the banjo’s possibilities with complex compositions and fast, intricate picking, and she for simple, beautiful playing and signing that draws deeply from the past of American and various world roots music traditions.

After a year of touring and the birth of their first child, they created this “front porch banjo and vocal album” at home—just the two of them with a variety of banjos playing supporting roles to Fleck’s Gibson Mastertone Style 75 and Washburn’s Ome Jubilee.

Washburn’s shimmering voice refreshes traditional tunes like the slow and driving “Railroad,” the dolorous “Pretty Polly,” the keening existential plea of “And Am I Born to Die,” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?,” which is nearly as gorgeous as Washington Phillips’ famous version.

Mixing old and new, Washburn combines a verse from Texas acoustic bluesman Little Hat Jones with new verses of her own on “Bye Bye Blues,” whose New Orleans feel is underscored by a bass line plucked out on a Gold Tone cello banjo.

Fleck’s dextrous picking works especially well as a complement to Washburn’s vocals, and her picking blends seamlessly with his, whether on vocal tracks or on instrumental duets like their low and rolling original “Banjo Banjo,” the Flecktones’ classic “New South Africa,” and “For Children: No. 3 Quasi Adagio, No. 10 Allegro Molto—Children’s Dance,” a pastoral Hungarian folk melody from Fleck’s namesake Béla Bartók.

The pair also offer new songs that work well alongside their innovate arrangements of traditional material: Fleck’s sharp tale of impending disaster “What’cha Gonna Do,” Washburn’s gentle, cascading “Ride to You,” the swampy “Little Birdie” (not the traditional song, but a new co-write), and “Shotgun Blues,” a menacing, role-reversing (almost) murder ballad where Washburn might as well be channeling Amy Elliott-Dunne, the protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Let’s all hope that their personal and musical collaboration continues for a lifetime with the same brilliance as this first record.

“If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice” by Larry Rice

Larry Rice
If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Larry Rice was an understated and brilliant singer, songwriter, and mandolin player who never really achieved the recognition he deserved while living, partly because of the long shadow cast by his brother Tony Rice . Larry’s virtuosity is prominent on If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice. This collection gives listeners incredible insight into his laid back vocal style, distinct mandolin picking, and his choice of material. This album collects work from his albums Hurricanes and Daydreams, Time Machine, Artesia, Notions and Novelties, and Clouds Over Carolina—a body of work spanning 20 years.

In the early 1970s, Rice was an integral part of JD Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys, as well as Crowe’s New South. During his time with Crowe, he was part of two very distinct vocal configurations and he brought different material to the group from the West Coast like “Devil in Disguise”, “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do?”, and “You Can Have Her.”

On this anthology, there are tremendous renditions of straight-ahead bluegrass classics like “Used to Be,” “Take my Ring from your Finger,” and “Four Wheel Drive.” These songs put Larry up front singing lead and playing fiery mandolin licks. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is an extremely intimate cut with Larry and his brother Tony; it is essentially a jam in their living room with just guitar and mandolin. The material presented here is actually quite diverse. “Pretty Polly” is given a modal treatment featuring Larry on a lower lead vocal than traditionally done on this song. The use of a low-tuned clawhammer banjo really emphasizes how different this arrangement is.

“Hurricane Elena” and “Plastic People Town” are incredibly sensitive songs—delivered in ’70s singer-songwriter style—about natural disaster and the shallow nature of huge cities and how lost love feels in such a place.

Stop reading this review. Go purchase this classic album. It showcases Larry Rice at his absolute best as a singer, instrumentalist and performer. Every true fan of incredible acoustic music needs this record.

“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.

“The Legendary J. E. Mainer” by J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cut-Ups


J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cutups

The Legendary J. E. Mainer
Rural Rhythm Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Mainer was 70 years old by the time he made this album, released in 1968. He had been on the national music scene for more than four decades and was a well-known personality, playing “gospel, bluegrass, comedy, love ballads, wild mountain fiddle breakdowns and traditional folk and country blues.” Mainer and Smiley were both North Carolina natives. Mainer died June 12, 1972, just six months before Smiley passed.

The pairing of Mainer and Smiley was likely one of convenience and marketing aptitude. Though some gave Mainer’s music a bluegrass label, what you’ll hear is more old-time or roots music. It’s not likely to be of interest to people only interested in the music of bluegrass, but those who want to know the history of the music will be drawn to it. Bluegrass wasn’t invented from some vacuum by Bill Monroe; it was a refinement of music that was played for more than a hundred years in the mountains and frontier settlements. Looking down the list of cuts you won’t find many that are played on the bluegrass stages today. “Arkansas Traveler” is familiar as a fiddle tune, but Mainer does it as a comedy routine, as it was done in vaudeville. It was also the Arkansas state song (with lyrics written by a committee) at one time. “Shady Grove” has been recorded over 100 times by such diverse artists as Patty Loveless, Hot Rize, Taj Mahal and, of course, Doc Watson. Mainer’s version is a good listen, featuring a juice harp —something you don’t hear on a recording every day. Mainer does “Home Sweet Home” with a harmonica and many of us will remember “Shortnin’ Bread,” though you may not know it was composed by James Whitcomb Riley.

This CD, while a studio recording, is more like the recording of a live show. Songs may start with a dialogue between Mainer and someone in the band, like Gene Burris on “Shortnin’ Bread.” The cuts aren’t arrangements, there’s no intricate interweaving of parts. The music starts, showcases Mainer, and it ends. The quality of the music is generally good, though some of the fiddle playing (probably Mainer rather than Tater Tate) gives an understanding of “sawing” on the strings. The enjoyment of music is in the ear of the beholder (consider the very basic sound of the Tennessee Two) and people enjoyed the comedy as much as the music. Other groups employed these simple, vaudevillian comedy routines (Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers’ “Model T” routine) though you don’t see them much today.

Several of the numbers are borrowed from other performers who, in turn, adapted them from old songs. “Devilish Mary” was a favorite of the Skillet Lickers and “Papa’s Billy Goat” is associated with Fiddlin’ John Carson. One reason why this CD is important is you’re not going to find many modern recordings of these links to the past, songs like “I Had An Old Grey Mare,” “Old Blind Horse” or “Eleven Cents Cotton.”

If you’re interested in old-time music, in music history, or searching for hidden gems to arrange to your liking, this CD should be in your collection.