“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.

“Memories and Moments” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Memories and Moments
Full Skies Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

On this, their second studio album, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien go together like soup beans and taters, or peanut butter and jelly. Memories and Moments conveys the love these two have for the songwriting process and the fun they have with the spontaneity of switching vocals, songs, and instruments.

Darrell Scott, born in eastern Kentucky, has won countless accolades for his songwriting, both on material recorded by more famous artists and that included on his solo releases. With an approach to Appalachian culture that is passionate and intentional, Scott has become one of my favorite songwriters in modern music.

Tim O’Brien became a bluegrass household name as a member of Hot Rize (formed in 1978), and his name is included on dozens and dozens of liner notes since, as a songwriter, guest vocalists, or session player.

Thirteen years after their release of the stunning Real Time (2000) and a year after the live disc We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This (2012)*, these Americana mavens turn in another classic—a 14-song album of superb songwriting, electrifying live-in-studio performance, and well-chosen covers of George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine, who appears as a guest vocalist singing one of his hits “Paradise.”

The album starts with a song written by O’Brien “Time to Talk to Joseph” about traveling in the hollers dark and deep. The clawhammer banjo adds a nice touch to harmonies from Scott. My favorite track is “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” it’s a song about how mining techniques have changed over time, while the miners’ struggle has not. Scott and O’Brien trade harmonies and lead throughout the song, which shows a different perspective on a song written by the two. The title track “Memories and Moments,” a song written by Scott, mourns the swiftness of life and being left with just memories.

“Just One More,” a song written by George Jones, has a reverence far classic country music, which Scott and O’Brien don’t veer far from. I like when artists create their own versions of songs by other artists but sometimes it’s really nice to “tip the hat” at the songwriter and create a memorial of their song. This is the case with the Hank Williams song “Alone and Forsaken,” where Scott and O’Brien create an eerie sound that one could mistake for the ghost of Hank himself.

Memories and Moments is a gem of an album.

*Editor’s Note: We normally try to review albums as close to the release date as possible, but this one was released about 18 months ago. We didn’t find out about this disc until months after its release, then it was assigned to a writer who had it for a while before backing out.

 

“The Best Kept Secret” by Chris Cuddy

Cris Cuddy
The Best Kept Secret
self-released

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If there’s one thing everyone should agree upon, Cris Cuddy’s CD isn’t boring. It’s indie music, a mixture of blues, rockabilly, and a little Mexican and calypso and other styles you may not describe. He switches tempos and styles and keeps it all interesting from start to finish. Cuddy, who hails from Canada, composed or co-composed (with Tom McCreight) all the songs, sings lead and plays harmonica and acoustic guitar. His voice tends to be on the soft side and the overall feel is laid-back and easy, a bit of Jimmy Buffet aura. The lyrics can be quirky: “I was hangin’ around a drive-through daiquiri bar, had my eye on a guy I think was thinkin’ about stealin’ my car” and “I was runnin’ the Elvis chapel in the all night church.” “Drive-Thru Daiquiri Bar” is a story about someone who is lost in his passage through life, told with a bit of a calypso beat. It’s not sad so much as reflective and it’s easy to picture a crowd kicked back with a drink at hand, nodding and saying to each other, “that’s the way it is, man.”

“IBMA Blues,” strangely named because nothing about this CD is reminiscent of the IBMA other than a couple of the musicians, is a story about love lost due to his passion for his music. A couple of familiar names are on this one. Jim Hurst (guitar) and Emory Lester (mandolin and fiddle) appear on several tracks and play in their usual brilliant styles. “She Reminded Me of You” is a lost love song with a Mexicali sound, complete with an accordion and quavering steel guitar. Unless your musical tastes are stuck in one genre it’s hard to not like this track. Next he channels Marty Robbins with “The Big Chill.” He doesn’t sound a bit like Robbins but this is a song Robbins would have sung if he was still around, a song about a gunfighter in the old west. Going with rockabilly, he offers “The Best Kept Secret,” a story about a secret love affair, except for the neighbor who ends up with the girl the other guy has been keeping hidden.

If you like blues, listen to “The Luck of the Draw.” Roly Platt plays some great harmonica and Keith Glass tears it up on guitar. This is track I could listen to all day long. Another bluesy number, with brushes on the drums and a good bass line, is “Amy,” a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse.

The musicians are all top drawer and the arrangements are good. This isn’t a CD that grabs you, it’s not a slap in the face to get your attention. The music sneaks up on you and you find yourself immersed in it, stopping whatever you were doing to listen. This one goes into my short stack that I play over and over.

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“Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” by Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
Dualtone Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music and the Texas songwriter tradition are about as different from one another as any other pair of styles in country music, but Robert Earl Keen is not the first master of the latter to put his hand to the former. Though Happy Prisoner doesn’t approach the brilliance of The Mountain—Steve Earle’s 1999 classic with the Del McCoury Band for which he wrote original songs—Keen’s ramble through a 14-song set* of bluegrass standards is a fun listen, unlike similar projects from some Nashville stars looking to crow about how country they are.

Keen eschews the familiar lineup of first-call bluegrass studio players in favor of his own band—plus banjo guru Danny Barnes—who “played to bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us.” Barnes’ presence is most felt on the low groove “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” whose arrangement bears a welcome resemblance to the Groovegrass Boyz’ “Macarena,” and his idiosyncratic picking is a good fit for Keen and his band.

The result is a spirited freshness that makes up for the lack of technical brilliance. Keen’s easy drawl finds some new feeling in well-worn songs like “East Virginia Blues,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and “This World is Not My Home.” And grassy numbers like “The Old Home Place,” “Walls of Time,” and, with harmony from Peter Rowan, “99 Years for One Dark Day” would please even old-school pickers. (However, Keen probably should have picked a modern song other than “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which simply can’t get any better than the McCoury cover or Richard Thompson’s own version.)

Guest vocals from fellow Texans Lyle Lovett (“T for Texas”) and Natalie Maines (a gorgeous “Wayfaring Stranger”) are good enough to make one wish Keen invited more of his peers to help him put some Lone Star shine on the high lonesome sound.

*There’s a deluxe version with a few extra tracks, which weren’t included in our review copy.

“Ionia” by Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys

Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys
Ionia
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Named for the Michigan city in which it was recorded, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys’ second album—to go along with a couple of EPs—is one of the unexpected musical delights of this spring.

Americana at its core, their sound is not easily categorized beyond that wide-ranging identifier. They use acoustic bluegrass instruments, but no one who understands the term would refer to them as a bluegrass band; their music is too breezy and playful, lacking the drive most associate with ‘grass. One can hear folk roots throughout the album, especially on “The River Jordan” and “Old Song,” and it certainly isn’t country. There is even a bit of jazz flavor in places (“Hot Hands”) and it swings a bit when encountering Thelma and Louise-type circumstances in Todd Grebe’s (Bearfoot, Cold Country) “Criminal Style.”

Americana it is, then.

Ionia possesses a warm, groovy sparseness that allows the group to project a clear and bright set of music that reminds one of Edie Brickell fronting a really strong acoustic band. It is gorgeous.

While Lindsay Lou sings the majority of the leads, and does so quite brilliantly, this is much more than a singer-centered endeavor. Joshua Rilko (all manner of stringed instruments, but primarily mandolin) and bassist (some of it bowed, and more including Peruvian cajón) PJ George sing most of the harmony on these songs, providing each with vocal depth that nicely balances Lindsay Lou’s leads. Mark Lavengood plays Dobro on the majority of the songs, while also singing “Sometimes,” an earthy number from an outside source, Ben Fidler; less tasteful are his circa 1981 basketball shorts.

While other bands may achieve a rich, close sound in professional studio environments, LL&F chose to record in the home of friends, playing and singing in a tight circle. While obviously rehearsed and professional, the resulting music feels spontaneous and genuine. Built around Lindsay Lou’s voice, equally important to the LL&F sound are Rilko’s mandolin and Lavengood’s steel.

“Everything Changed” is one of the group’s stronger songs: it builds to a controlled instrumental crescendo that is dynamic. “House Together” is another vibe-rich song of interest. Every bit as engaging are the album’s final tracks, “Ionia” and “Smooth and Groovy.” The title track is a moody instrumental while the closing song is a vocal showcase for Lindsay Lou. Recently relocated to Nashville, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys appear to have taken the ‘next step’ in their career.

Recommended if you like Crooked Still, the Show Ponies, and/or the Infamous Stringdusters.

“Wood, Wire & Words” by Norman Blake

Norman Blake
Wood, Wire & Words
Plectrafone Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Norman Blake has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing at key points when American acoustic country and folk music has connected to mainstream culture—his guitar work has been part of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969), The Johnny Cash Show on ABC (1969-1971), John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain (1971), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand (2007), and the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Cold Mountain (2003), Walk the Line (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

But unlike Woody Allen’s protean protagonist, Blake was significant to all of those projects because his nature doesn’t change—he’s the deep root to the past that gets stronger with time, a trait that has made him (probably) more widely heard—but not as well-known—as fellow guitar giants Doc Watson and Tony Rice, whose work prods tradition forward with force and ingenuity.

Blake’s specialty, as the news release accompanying this 12-track, 54-minute album notes, is “turn of the century ragtime guitar picking,” a style of music that formed when music made by the middle class in their parlors and ex-slaves in their fields trysted in brothels and saloons before giving birth to the blues and jazz.

An unaccompanied Blake takes us back to that era as we hear his fingers glide over the steel strings of his 1928 Martin 00-45 guitar* to produce the clear, bell-like tones of “Savannah Rag,” the gently bumping bass line of “Blake’s Rag,” the warm and shady “Chattanooga Rag,” and the stately precision of “Cloverdale Plantation March.”

Though they sound like tunes that could have been adapted from the catalog of Scott Joplin, these four compositions are Blake originals, as are all the other songs on the album—something I wasn’t aware of until looking at the liner notes after listening to the whole disc a few times.

The only internal clue that Wood, Wire & Words contains contemporary material at all is “Grady Forester’s Store and Cotton Gin,” Blake’s tribute to his boyhood home of Sulphur Springs—when gas was 19 cents a gallon and stamps were three cents—which begins:

Now the evening sun is sinking down in Georgia
‘Cross the gravel roads, the red clay and the pines
That old whippoorwill
He’s callin’ from the hill
Of some long-forgotten time

“Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace,” “Black Bart,” “The Keeper of the Government Light on the River,” “The Incident at Condra’s Switch,” and “Farewell Francisco Madero” are all splendid folk songs full of detail and drama, and written by Blake from true-life events. Listening to him tell these tales in his laconic singing style is as enjoyable as it would be to hear Bret Harte or Mark Twain read one of their stories aloud in front of a warm fireplace on a cold night.

The only other contributor here is, happily, Nancy Blake, Norman’s wife and duet partner on the Grammy-nominated albums (for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year) Blind Dog (1988), Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To (1992), While Passing Along This Way (1994), and The Hobo’s Last Ride (1996). The duo harmonize on the co-written “There’s a One Way Road to Glory,” a gospel message calling us toward freedom and away from war that is reminiscent of—and, sadly, as likely to go unheeded—as “Down By the Riverside.”

Blake’s brilliance at effortlessly making new music that sounds and feels as if it could be a hundred years old is what makes Wood, Wire & Words as enduring as anything else from the deep well of American music that Blake has been drawing from all along.

*Blake plays this guitar on all tracks, excepting “The New Dawning Day” and “”Farewell Francisco Madero,” on which he plays a 2004 Martin 000-28B Norman Blake Signature Edition guitar.

“Devil in the Seat” by the Foghorn Stringband

The Foghorn Stringband
Devil in the Seat
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

More than a decade ago, several youthful, old-time stringband-influenced outfits started to garner considerable attention on the fringes of what was shortly to become known as Americana. The Crooked Jades were one of the first and best that I encountered, while others including Old Crow Medicine Show and the Foghorn Stringband followed in their wake.

OCMS and Foghorn Stringband both released independent projects, signed with Vancouver’s Nettwerk Records, and unrelentingly worked the road in support of well-received, major-label debut albums.

One of those albums contained “Wagon Wheel.” The other didn’t.

While OCMS have become a commercial force with their rock ‘n’ roll meets folk and old-time blend of infectious party music, the Portland-based Foghorn Stringband have performed with great success to much lesser acclaim. They have continued to record music, releasing five or six albums (depending on which volumes are counted as band projects) that have more consistently held to the foundational elements of old-time stringband music.

Devil in the Seat, recorded in the atmospheric, traditional backwoods environs of Kauai, is another outstanding testament of what can happen when like-minded individuals are given opportunity to coalesce into a formidable performing unit. Their publicity sheet makes the adroit claim that Foghorn Stringband are less revivalists than they are curators, and such can be heard throughout this fabulous new release.

The group has always been known for balancing vibrant, lively music with down-tempo, bluesy takes, and there is no shortage of this dichotomy within the 16 songs and tunes included herein. The album kicks off with “Stillhouse,” learned from Virginia’s Matokie Slaughter and heads toward more familiar ground with “Mining Camp Blues” (performed as a show-stopping duet between Reeb Willms and Nadine Landry) and “Columbus Stockade Blues.”

A pair of tunes from Clyde Davenport are included, “Lost Gal” and “Chicken Reel,” while more contemporary selections include Garry Harrison’s “Jailbreak” and Tim Foss’s “Leland’s Waltz.”

My copy didn’t identify individual singers, but I suspect it is group co-founder and fiddler “Sammy” Lind who so excellently murders and buries “Pretty Polly” with the other remaining original member mandolinist Caleb Klauder handling most of the other male leads. The two have a natural style of instrumental interaction, with Klauder’s style being remarkable for the way he just lays back and drops in his notes. The banjo playing (never enough) is handled by Lind.

Hank Snow’s honky-tonk hit “90 Miles an Hour” is sped up just a tad and again demonstrates the group’s flexibility, as does their patient and true interpretation of the troubling “Henry Lee.” Foghorn’s male-female balance allows the group to explore the full range of old-time sounds, a significant positive of which they take advantage.

Whether you have been with Foghorn Stringband since before Weiser Sunrise or just caught up to the group with the excellent Outshine the Sun of a couple years ago, Devil in the Seat should give many hours of old-time pleasure.