“The Earls of Leicester” by the Earls of Leicester and “Three Bells” by Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes

The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes
Three Bells

Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life when I got and started listening to these two albums, which were released simultaneously by Rounder. He writes about the unlikelihood that a few teenagers in London would make it their life’s mission—at least foe a few years—to become a Chicago-style blues band, and that such a thing was only possible because of the invention of recorded music. Though he first picked up a guitar only about 25 years after the death of Robert Johnson and while the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter were still alive and productive, there’s simply no way he would have ever heard their music were it not for vinyl records and radio waves. Before their invention, musical styles grew slowly. Music was tied to a particular place and people, and to activities like Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning worship—a juxtaposition that influenced bluegrass music as much as it did the blues.

Music also passed from hand to hand, from master to apprentice. Musical mutations into new styles only occurred when a genius came along to synthesize and create from what already existed—the example most obvious to readers of this site is of course bluegrass music, which happened when the cross-eyed boy from Kentucky played dances with his fiddling uncle and a black guitar player at the same time and place musical evangelists were teaching the shape-note choir singing style. Without proximity to those three elements, Bill Monroe would not have created what Alan Lomax called “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British—American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

You wouldn’t quite call Josh Graves a genius on Monroe’s level, but he certainly was a virtuoso, much like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who hired Graves so his Dobro sound could further distinguish the Foggy Mountain Boys from other early exponents of Monroe’s art. (For the full story, read Bluegrass Bluesman.) Graves’ innovations led to a new vein of gifted musicians deciding to play bluegrass, including Mike Auldridge, who bought his first Dobro from Graves himself.

It’s to pay homage to Graves and the sound he helped create, of course, that prompted Jerry Douglas, the undisputed Dobro master, to form the Earls of Leicester. Walk down Broadway in Nashville, and you’ll bump into enough pickers who could play an impromptu Lester & Earl set, but the five that Douglas has enlisted do it as good as it could possibly be done: Union Station’s Barry Bales plays upright bass, Johnny Warren fiddles as good as his father Paul did with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Shawn Camp (lead vocals, guitar), and Charlie Cushman (banjo) play the parts, respectively, of Curly Seckler, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The effect they achieve on this 14-track album is uncanny—they don’t sound exactly like the source material, but they capture the key element of the Flatt & Scruggs sound—its effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication. It’s great to hear Camp, an accomplished country-rock singer songwriter, sing bluegrass, coming closer to Lester’s vocal style than one could imagine anyone else doing, and O’Brien and Cushman have Curly’s chop and Earl’s roll down pat. Warren’s fills and breaks are as exciting as his daddy’s were, and Douglas’ vicariously reminds us just how important the grafting of Graves on to the bluegrass family tree was for what we hear and appreciate today. Adding the Dobro’s six strings as the music’s sixth instrument gave it so much more depth without sacrificing a bit of its integrity.

After Graves and before Douglas, there was Mike Auldridge. As a founding member of the Seldom Scene, Auldridge helped that band firmly establish the “progressive” approach to bluegrass—mixing in both the songs and the sensibilities of the country-rock and singer-songwriter styles of the 1970s. You can do a lot with a traditional five-piece bluegrass unit, but you absolutely cannot put across a song like “Sweet Baby James,” much less make it far superior to the original, without that small taste of Auldridge’s Dobro.

In the months before Auldridge died in 2012, he recorded Three Bells with Douglas and Rob Ickes—no backing band, just the three of them—with Auldridge’s instrument in the middle of the stereo mix, Douglas left, and Ickes right. I don’t think an approach like this could work, in a simply technical sense, nearly as well with any other instrument—especially not among the other five bluegrass tools. And it’s hard to imagine three other players could use this approach to create a sound so skilfully woven, as if all 18 strings were played by only one musician.

The 11-song, 45-minute track list is free of cliché—only “Panhandle Rag,” a composition of Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys) is from the bluegrass/country instrumental canon, which makes sense. Such tunes are written with the idea that each instrument in the band can have a turn showing what it can do before passing off to the next man.

Instead, this ensemble refashions old parlor, jazz, and easy listening songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Sunrise Serenade,” and “The Three Bells” into brocaded tone poems free from the schmaltzy sheen present in their most popular versions. Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” is similarly refined into a stately hymn.

But of course, Auldridge, Douglas, and Ickes are all gifted composers as well, and their own songs are the best on this album: Auldridge’s bright and bouncy “For Buddy,” Douglas’ propulsive “North,” and Ickes’ perfectly titled “Dobro Heaven.”

Each man also contributes a solo performance—Auldridge a gorgeous medley of “‘Till There Was You/Moon River,” Ickes his own reflective “The Message,” and Douglas the truly sublime “The Perils of Private Mulvaney”—to remind us both the emotional richness a single Dobro can convey, and of why this trio making this record just in time is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Fiddle Tune X” by Billy Strings & Don Julin

Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X
No label
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Michigan acoustic duo Billy (Apostol) Strings and Don Julin have released their second recording, a live album entitled Fiddle Tune X. It is an animated, forceful collection of mostly very familiar songs, none of which appeared on their debut album of last year.

I have heard it argued—and may have taken this position myself—that a duo cannot play bluegrass as it is impossible to include the necessary elements of the genre with only two instrumentalists. Strings (guitar) and Julin (mandolin) may not feature fiddle or bass, but everything about their stance suggests deep interest in and respect for bluegrass. They are certainly a bluegrass duo.

While the sound may not be bluegrass in its purest form, the essence of the music is certainly concentrated within the duo’s sparse framework. They draw on the fiddle-tune foundation of bluegrass (“Salt Creek”/”Old Joe Clark”), the influence hillbilly and country sounds had on its founders (“Beaumont Rag,” “Walk On Boy,” and “Miss the Mississippi and You,”), and the standards that are at the core of the music (“Poor Ellen Smith,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”)

While such a repertoire may appear tired or pedestrian, such is not the case. Strings and Julin bring an abundance of energy to their performance, feeding off each other and their audience to elevate these frequently encountered songs. While most of the songs have been around next to forever, the pair—working around a single mic—have found a way to make the overly recognizable extremely appealing.

Without overstating things, Doc Watson—whose spirit doesn’t seem to be too far removed from these boys’ hearts—comes to mind; you comfortably anticipated how a Doc Watson performance would unfold, but that didn’t stop you from leaning forward to listen. Same here, although the familiarity factor is obviously less apparent.

Strings sings the lead throughout with Julin coming in with complementary tenor. The bulk of the songs were recorded at various venues including small halls, bars, and homes. These songs have the most vigour, with the audiences’ enthusiasm for the duo readily apparent. They play to the crowd rather shamelessly and good-naturedly, extending both “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie” to six minute-plus jams, guitar and mandolin exchanging the leads while also coming together in impressive displays of companionable accompaniment. The opening pairing of “Beaumont Rag” and “Walk On Boy” showcase Strings considerable flatpicking skills.

A large handful of songs were recorded without second guessing or overdubs in a snowbound farmhouse early this year, and it is on these cuts that the duo are at their strongest. Absent the whooping and hollering of the more exuberant members of their fan club, one can more readily appreciate their talents.

Julin’s title tune is a driving bluegrass instrumental that threatens to go by a bit too quickly were it not for Strings’ judicious tempo adjustment on his break. “Dos Banjos,” Strings’ composition, has a real mountain sound with timeless lyrics that could be lifted from a Hobart Smith side. Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” is perhaps the album’s most pensive tune, and showcases the duo at the highest level. Strings’ playing, while considerable throughout the 17-track recording, is especially appealing here with Julin serving up delicate notes that are terribly impressive. The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son” is another highlight.

The closing rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded on Third Man Records Voice-o-Graph is the only jarring bit on an otherwise terrific collection; given this and Neil Young’s indulgent A Letter Home, let’s hope the fascination with this low-fi method is a quickly passing fancy.

Billy Strings and Don Julin have captured some of their favorite live performances within this collection. Augmented with their isolated farmhouse recordings, the duo have crafted a very pleasing set of acoustic music. I anticipate frequently returning to Fiddle Tune X. Especially recommended for those who appreciate Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien.

“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
Masterworks
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.

“Follow the Music” by Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard
Follow the Music
Tompkins Square Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Follow the Music is a worthy follow-up to Bittersweet, the album that again brought Alice Gerrard to the attention of the old-time/folk music community. Whereas she had released only three solo albums over the course of twenty years, Follow the Music comes just a year after that exceptional release.

An Alice Gerrard album must be centered around three things. First, her impeccable voice must be front and centre. Equally capable of wringing every bit of darkness from a timeless song such as “The Vulture,” or easing the blues out of a double-barrelled country song like Leona Williams’ “You Take Me for Granted,” Gerrard has long been recognized as a vocal master among her peers and devotees.

Second, there has to be the songs, and on Follow the Music Gerrard and album producer M.C. Taylor have delved into her past for a few (including her own “Love Was the Price”) and into the past for others (“Boll Weevil” and “Bear Me Away.”)

Finally, the production has to be balanced—keep the instrumentation sparse, and let the lady take the songs to the places they must go. Simultaneously, as Gerrard has played with the best, anyone wishing to be one of her backing musicians had better be up to the task.

I would suggest each of these targets have been firmly accounted for within the album’s 46 minutes.

“Follow the Music” is a new song, one that Gerrard credits as “sort of my story.” “Since I was a child, I’ve been looking for a home; been everywhere and I’ve been nowhere at all,” is how she begins this warm lament. With refreshing banjo and resophonic guitar brightening the path, the lead guitar work (possibly from Phil Cook) paces Gerrard’s rumination on the power music holds over many of us. Much of what the song expresses comes in the first minute, but the bulk of the song articulates what we know: “If I follow the music to where I want to go, it will take me to safe harbour and guide me home.” That is what music does for those who embrace its influence.

Each track serves as its own little highlight. “Strange Land” brings to the surface the fear of isolation and “Teardrops Falling in the Snow” is a classic, a heart song of the type seldom heard in today’s country music repertoire. Performing “Wedding Dress,” Gerrard sounds decades younger than her 80 years while still conveying the wisdom of one who knows of what she sings. The touching “Goodbyes,” written by Gerrard’s grandson Adam Heller, brings the album to a duly melancholy close.

Whereas other singers who have released music well into their senior years—Charlie Louvin, comes to mind, as do several Grand Ole Opry stars and even Johnny Cash—had to contend with notably diminished vocal skills, Gerrard faces no such loss. She remains strong vocally, more circumspect perhaps in the notes she attempts but with no deterioration in her abilities apparent.

When Alice Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. Listening to Follow the Music is a pleasure, and I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music.

“Mac Wiseman Sings Old Time Country Favorites” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Mac Wiseman Sings Old Time Country Favorites
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

1966. I remember it well because that’s the year I graduated from high school and started college. I was playing in the Starlighters, a local country band that was pretty danged good. Mac Wiseman wasn’t on my horizon. Neither was bluegrass. Most of the people in the band couldn’t stand it, especially the banjo.

But Wiseman, “The Voice With a Heart,” was a well established and popular performer in both the bluegrass and country worlds as well as dipping into folk music. Still active today, albeit with a lighter schedule, you’re most likely to catch him on RFD-TV’s Country Family Reunion, though he recently performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He started out as the bass player for Molly O’Day, joined Flatt & Scruggs then Bill Monroe and later struck out as a solo artist. His voice and the way he styles a song has made him one of my favorite arists. Many others love his work, too. He was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor in 1993 and will become a member of the CMA Hall of Fame within a few days.

In 1966 he made a mono LP (Sings Old Time Country Favorites [RRMW-158]) for Uncle Jim O’Neal, owner of Rural Rhythm, the only recording he ever did for them. It was reissued in 1973 (Singing Country Favorites [RRMW-258]) with an electric guitar and bass plus drums overdubbed to make a stereo effect. It was reissued again in 1997 (20 Old Time Country Favorites [RHYCD-258]) and that one is still available. The original recording featured Wiseman on guitar, Rudy Thacker on guitar, and Peggy Peterson playing Dobro. This CD was re-mastered from the original tapes with “Wildwood Flower” as a bonus track. It was recorded with the other tracks but not released. There’s not much information available on Peterson but she does appear in the credits of several records of that era (including works by J. E. Mainer and Jim Eanes) and is mentioned in Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Henry. Thacker was probably the man associated with the Stringbusters in the Cleveland area (the LP was recorded in Ohio, possibly Akron).

Several of these songs have become closely associated with Wiseman through the years. “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” traces back to the Carter Family, though he cuts out the middle two verses on this record. This song is a good example of a curious choice made by singers, more so in the first half of bluegrass history than the second but not unheard of today. A man will sing a song clearly intended for a woman without changing the words.

And when the dance is over and all have gone to rest

I’ll think of him, dear Mother, the one that I love best

He once did love me dearly and ne’er from me would part

He sought not to deceive me, false friends have changed his heart

It’s not as if the words are set in stone. Wiseman’s version varies slightly from the lyrics attributed to the Carter Family, but there seems to be a reluctance to change from first person to third person. This can be disconcerting when you first hear it.

Many of the songs on the album feel abrupt, shortened. The Vince Gill/Asleep At The Wheel version of “Corrina, Corrina” runs three minutes. The CD’s version is 1:36. This is a familiar song dating back to 1928 and recorded in several genre by a long list of artists. My guess is the choice was made to make most songs short so more songs could be included. An LP could hold twenty to twenty-two minutes of playing time on each side and each song has some delay until the next one. Math tells the story. It’s an understandable decision but still a trade-off.

Another “Wiseman” song is “I Saw Your Face In The Moon.” It dates back to 1937 and Governor Jimmie Davis. “Midnight Special” bears Wiseman’s melodic touch but many may associate it with CCR or Johnny Rivers. It probably dates (in print) to Howard Odum in 1905 and has been recorded by artists as varied as Lead Belly, The Kingston Trio and ABBA. Wiseman may have the gentlest touch of all.

On the gospel side are a very short “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” and “Just Over In Gloryland.” “The Black Sheep” has a message of forgiveness that isn’t gospel but is still an uplifting message of right in the end. Other familiar numbers are “Wreck of the Old ’97,” “The Georgia Mail” and “More Pretty Girls Than One.” “Rovin’ Gambler'” runs only 1:51 but there are so many variations of this song (as with most of these) that it’s not necessarily shortened and, in this case, you feel like he finished the song instead of just cutting it off. Listen to “Little Mohee” and you’ll hear where “On Top of Old Smokey” borrowed its melody.

“Mary of the Wild Moor” has a long and interesting history and many artists have recorded it, including Sara Evans in 2001 who heard it on a Dolly Parton recording. “Little Blossom” is a beautiful but grim number, the story of a little girl killed accidentally by her drunken father. Then there are the simple songs that don’t say much of anything but were still popular at one time. “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat” was recorded by artists like Split Lip Rayfield, Grandpa Jones and the Coon Creek Girls while “Turkey In The Straw” dates back longer than anyone can remember. “Sourwood Mountain” is another song with unknown beginnings, part lament, part nonsense. Parts of it were used by the Grateful Dead in Sugar Magnolia.

This is a welcome half-century look back at a recording by one of the greats of bluegrass and country music. It’s a reminder of the history of the music and might influence some listeners to look back for one of their next cuts when they record.

“The Old Country Church” by Mike Scott & Friends

Mike Scott & Friends
The Old Country Church
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Really, who needs to hear “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for the thousandth time? That may be your first reaction to track list on this CD, but don’t pass judgment too quickly.

Bluegrass fans love to hear the old songs, whether repeated by the artists who made them famous or by others with their own take. One way to do a project like this is to surround yourself with Grade-A musicians, men (in this case) who know and love the songs as much as you do, get in the studio and let the music flow. Mike Scott is an excellent banjo player, sideman to Ronnie Reno for several years. Mix in Adam Steffey playing mandolin, Bryan Sutton and Tim Stafford on guitar, Rob Ickes on resophonic guitar, Ben Isaacs as timekeeper on the bass plus Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and you expect nothing less than excellence.

You can listen to the comforting strains of “Pass Me Not,” “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” and “Precious Memories,” close your eyes and be transported back to the days you were growing up and hearing these in church and gatherings of friends and family. It’s difficult to hear “I Saw The Light,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” without wanting to sing along, whether you’re certain of the lyrics or not. “The Old Country Church” has been a bluegrass favorite since there’s been bluegrass, and “I’ll Fly Away” joined that rank almost as soon as Albert Brumley penned it. And how many times have we sung “Victory In Jesus” in church?

They’re all there in this excellent instrumental CD by Mike Scott & Friends, along with “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “Where the Roses Never Fade.” There are no surprises here, just the comfort of hearing beautiful renditions of old friends. The next time life’s not going your way, take a step back, drop this CD in the player, and refresh your soul.

“Fiddle” by Smoke Dawson

Smoke Dawson
Fiddle
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The violin—or rather, for our purposes, the fiddle—has carried the implication that it is the devil’s instrument long before the Charlie Daniels pop-country operetta “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” From the legends surrounding Paganini on back to an ancient Greek music critic by the name of Aristotle, the fiddle has evoked suspicion and curiosity.

Some attribute this to apprehension at the debauchery that comes with drink and dance—the skilled fiddler for centuries before turntables and synthesizers performed the function now manned by the likes of Avicii and Skrillex, with wine or moonshine lubricating the proceedings as molly and mushrooms now do for many.

But I suspect that the fiddle is regarded as fiendish because of the visceral reaction only it can provoke. Neither the piano nor the guitar—and certainly no horn—can approach the infinite range of microtones and timbres possible with strings grabbing and scratching and pulling over a fretless fingerboard. Our ears can hear so much from a fiddle, and its sounds are often familiar and frightening in the same moment.

I was playing a digital copy of this reissue of this record—Smoke Dawson’s privately pressed “Fiddle” LP from 1971, with fascinating liner notes by Josh Rosenthal—the other day, and someone in the next room later remarked on the Celtic music they had heard.

It’s more the American folk or Appalachian style of fiddling that Dawson does here, but he’s definitely calling up the ancient tones and voices that poets like Bill Monroe and Van Morrison are always going on about.

“John Brown’s Dream,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—indeed most of the 17 tracks here—have melodies recognizable to even casual listeners to bluegrass and American folk and country music—sometimes those melodies are known by other names, which underscores the magpie nature of the fiddlers that have passed them along—renaming, stealing, reworking, and reinvigorating at every pass. Dawson’s “Pretty Polly” is every bit as bracing as Ralph Stanley’s version, right down to the plucked-string kickoff that mimics the sound of Stanley’s banjo. If you listened to each version side by side for the first time with no context, you couldn’t say which was older or even when they were recorded.

Dawson also played the bagpipes, which make a striking appearance here on the third leg of the “Connaughtman’s Rambles/Devil’s Dream/Marche Venerie” medley.

“The Minotaur” closes the album with stutters and hums and an unworldly aura made more affecting by the knowledge it’s coming not from Satan but from one of us.