“Christmas in the Smokies” by various artists

Various artists
Christmas in the Smokies
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

It’s the time of the year that jolly old St. Nick is checking his list and parents are hanging their stockings with care. Pinecastle Records is in on the festivities with the 15-track, 45-minute Christmas in the Smokies.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Christmas albums but just like Brylcream, a little dab will do ya.  Now before you start mailing me lumps of coal for this statement, Mr. Grinch, I really like this album and I found myself tapping my toes and enjoying the fabulous picking and singing from Pinecastle artists past and present, including crooners like Charlie Waller (with a grand “White Christmas”), Larry Stephenson (on the lullaby “Away in a Manger”), and Josh Williams (“My Christmas Dream”).

Other clever renditions of classic songs that everyone will recognize include a lush arrangement of “The Christmas Song” and a jazzy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from Newton and Thomas, and grassy takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” from Wild and Blue and Special Consensus, respectively. Celebrated pickers Phil Leadbetter (“Jingle Bells”), Ross Nickerson (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the trio of Scott Vestal, Wayne Benson, and Jeff Autry (“Frosty the Snowman”) chip in crisp instrumentals.

Two of the less familiar songs are welcome additions to anyone’s bluegrass Christmas playlist: “It’s a Time for Joy” from Matt Wallace and Jesse Gregory and the title track from Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road.

If you are a bluegrass fan and in the Christmas spirit, this would be a nice album to play while the children are opening presents by the fireplace in any home, not just in the Smokies.

 

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“On a Winter’s Night” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds

John Reischman and the Jaybirds
On a Winter’s Night
Corvus
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

John Reischman is an excellent mandolinist (who also makes occasional use of mandola and octave mandolin) and the Jaybirds are all accomplished musicians. They have put together an appealing extended-play CD for Christmas.

Their music is sometimes described as roots bluegrass and the emphasis should be on the roots part. Most would call it old-time music with an occasional venture into bluegrass and even folk music. A number on this CD that would fit into most any bluegrass show is “Shine Like a Star In The Morning.” It can be found on American Folk Songs for Christmas, a 1957 release by the Seeger Sisters on Smithsonian Folkways. This is a compilation made by Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed by her daughters, Peggy, Barbara and Penny. The quartet version here is very well done.

Two other tracks from the Seeger’s LP that found their way here are “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Oh, Watch the Stars.” The latter is beautifully presented by bassist Trisha Gagnon with Greg Spatz’s fiddle adding a Civil War-era feel to it. Gagnon also performs “Joseph and Mary,” telling the Bible story of Joseph and Mary when Mary reveals she is pregnant (with the baby Jesus) and Joseph unhappily responds. This is #54 on the list of Child Ballads. Gagnon also performs an old black spiritual, “I Heard From Heaven Today.”

Jim Nunnally (guitar) sings lead on a song you may identify with Doc Watson, “A-Roving On A Winter’s Night,” a folk song with Appalachian roots. Nick Hornbuckle adds some exquisite banjo work on this number. “Christmas Eve” is a sparse instrumental played by the banjo and (although not identified by track, I believe) the octave mandolin, while the banjo and fiddle are the leads, with a good guitar break, in an old fiddle tune “Breaking Up Christmas.” The quartet adds a bouncing traditional spiritual, “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby?

Reischman and the Jaybirds have put together eight fine tracks that center around, but are not limited to, Christmas. If you like some old-time in your bluegrass and appreciate good picking and harmony, you need to hear this one this holiday season.

“1” by Hog-eyed Man

Hog-eyed Man
1
Yodel-Ay-Hee Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Rick Saenz

I admire listeners who can navigate the subtleties of old-time music—the tunings, the geographical distinctions, the techniques—but I am not one of them. And so at first I was hesitant about reviewing this CD, a collection of 15 lesser-known old-time tunes (I only recognized three titles) with sources and tunings duly noted. But the unusual instrumentation (fiddle plus lap dulcimer/mandolin) intrigued me, the resulting sound drew me in, and the sensibilities of the players closed the deal.

Jason Cade is my kind of old-time fiddler, with a powerful rough tone, double stops everywhere, a love for the lower register, and a strong rhythmic pulse whether the tune is sprightly (“Far in the Mountain”) or more leisurely, as in his excellent solo take on “Highlander’s Farewell.” Cade embraces a broad view of his instrument, having fiddled for bluegrass/hip-hop group Gangstagrass and country music group the Weal and Woe. Rather than approaching the tunes here as museum pieces, he wrestles them to the ground and insists they yield their secrets. Sometimes they do.

Rob McMaken accompanies not on banjo but the less expected mandolin and (especially) lap dulcimer—well played, but the overall results are uneven. Often the fiddle overwhelms, and when the dulcimer takes a lead, energy drops quite a bit. The sound is richest when interplay is limited and the dulcimer/mandolin takes a support role—providing a lush droning bed for Cade to play atop, either doubling the melody for extra power or supplying parts of the melody so that Cade is free to go exploring.

The CD saves the best for last, so begin with the final cut, the driving “Hog-eyed Man.” The fiddle is the star here, but the mandolin is put to best possible use, sometimes doubling the fiddle work, sometimes adding a bed of chimes, sometimes dropping out altogether—making for One Big Instrument you’ve never heard before but will want to hear again. Then move on to the penultimate tune, “Winder Slide,” a stately march reminiscent of “Bonaparte’s Retreat”—the pace is slow enough that the dulcimer reinforces the rhythm, and the resulting rich blend is a sound that likely inspired this project in the first place.

“Holiday!” by the Claire Lynch Band

The Claire Lynch Band
Holiday!
Thrill Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to avoid holiday music, but Claire Lynch has finally got me in the Christmas spirit with this gorgeous album.

Writers, including myself, have emptied out the thesaurus trying to describe Lynch’s singing, which brings both a fresh sound and a sweet nostalgia to songs—“Home for the Holidays,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “White Christmas,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and “All Through the Night”—that we’ve all heard so many times.

It helps to have a band that includes the incomparable Mark Schatz on bass, along with Bryan McDowell (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) and Matthew Wingate (mandolin and guitar, including some fine archtop playing). The trio, appropriately, jazz up “We Three Kings,” the album’s lone instrumental cut, and their take on “Jingle Bells”—featuring Schatz on clawhammer banjo—is the first version of that chestnut I’ve enjoyed hearing in years.

New or less-familiar (to me, at least) songs include the cool and crisp Lynch/McDowell vocal duet “Snow Day” and the warm Nativity ballad “Heaven’s Light” (with Jim Hurst guesting on guitar).

Schatz also sings lead on “In the Window,” a Hanukkah song whose splendid performance and intricate arrangement underscore the talent of Lynch, her band, and Todd Phillips, who recorded, mixed, and mastered this fine album.

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.