“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.

 

 

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“Side by Side” by Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II
Side By Side
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), “Side By Side” is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy.

The selection of songs—four of which feature Ralph in strong lead voice—are almost exclusively older and well-known: the album kicks off with “Wild Bill Jones,” goes “Walking With You In My Dreams,” asks “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” and concludes with “I’ve Still Got 99.”

The musicianship is classic sounding—fresh and relaxed with a professional sheen that doesn’t get in the way of the emotions of the music. Clinch Mountain Boys alumni John Rigsby (fiddle and mandolin), Randall Hibbitts (bass), and Steve Sparkman (banjo) are the core band, with Two doing double duty on lead and rhythm guitar. Dr. Ralph lays out clawhammer-style on a solitary track, the aptly titled “Battle Ax.”

Doubting the senior Stanley’s vocal capabilities? Don’t. Instead, give “Don’t Weep for Me” a listen, or appreciate his excellent tenor contributions to any number of these songs including “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” “Nobody Answered Me,” or “Carolina Mountain Home.”

Two has become a fine singer in his own right, one of my favorites. If you haven’t heard him before, also consider his album of a couple years back Born To Be A Drifter. “White & Pink Flowers” is a sentimental weeper, while “Dirty Black Coal” is more my style. Start to finish, Side By Side is a superior album of bluegrass.

Perusing these song titles, it is readily apparent what Two and co-producer Rigsby had in mind—a celebration of the Stanley mountain music legacy. And they have pulled such off in a significant way. “Side By Side” is cause for celebration. We all know Ralph Stanley had planned on retiring this year, but with his continuing good health delaying that decision one of the last true ‘first generation’ bluegrass singers continues to make appearances. And his latest album is as good as anything—and certainly superior to some—he has recorded in the past 20 years.

I would suggest that Side By Side is among the strongest bluegrass albums that has been released in 2014.

“Headwaters” by Jason Tyler Burton

Jason Tyler Burton
Headwaters
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Some wonderful albums could come from ‘anywhere’, and their universal appeal is one of the things that make them powerful. It matters not whether the songwriter was in Austin or Dublin, on the Spanish Steps or in Florence’s Accademia as his songs germinated, the lyrics and music reach across time and locales to capture emotions and sentiments that transcend something as obvious as setting.

Other albums are so assured in their sense of place they could only be from ‘that place.’ In every word, in each note, the sense of place is so strong that their connection to ‘that place’ is palpable.

Some of my favourite albums have that strength of place. Woodland Telegraph’s Sings Revival Hymns is one of those albums, a creation that is so tied to its genesis in the Canadian Rockies that it seemingly couldn’t have been produced elsewhere. To me, every album from John Wort Hannam and Maria Dunn  share a similar feeling: these are Alberta albums, even if their subject matter, inspiration, and very sound cross provinces, countries, and oceans. If you ask me, Jay Clark’s album’s couldn’t come from anywhere but east Tennessee, and more recently, Josephy Lemay has created music that shares a similar connection to place.

All of which brings me to Jason Tyler Burton’s new album, a disc that overflows with the atmosphere, openness, and clarity of the Utah and Wyoming wilderness that this Kentuckian now calls home. Living in a van and exploring this western land, Burton has created a remarkable album that connects listeners to a place they may never have before experienced.

I come to Burton’s new album Headwaters with no familiarity with his music. With a little research, I came across some live performances including a challenging little number entitled “Caleb Meyer’s Ghost,” in which Burton creates the back story for Gillian Welch’s (still) greatest song; in Burton’s interpretation, Nellie Kane’s assailant had his own troubles in life, but Burton doesn’t let him off the hook and holds him accountable for his actions. There is a little interview with Burton about this well crafted song posted at Murder Ballad Monday. The song is from Burton’s first release, The Mend.

While appealing and creative, this wouldn’t interest me nearly as much if Headwaters didn’t turn out to be such a captivating album. Firmly within the parameters of the ‘singer-songwriter’ oeuvre, Burton has crafted a dozen songs across this intense album. Each of these finds the artist searching and exploring—for truths, for comfort, for meaning…for ‘the headwaters’ that feed our spirits.
As communicated through his songs, Burton’s nomadic existence reminds us that the greatest journeys are within, examinations of our soul, our beliefs. Headwaters encourages this exploration through lyrically rich compositions framed with complementary and crisp instrumentation.

In the encouraging “Fly” he sings of someone “made for much bigger things,” even if that means leaving the singer behind. Searching for where “my headwaters run” in the title track, he vows to “keep moving along” with Katy Taylor harmonizing along, reminding us that life’s journey is (thankfully) seldom solitary.

Augmented by both Jessika Soli Bartlett’s cello and Lynsey Shelar’s violin and especially Steve Lemmon’s percussion, piano, and drums, the songs are complete without misplaced polish and shine, atmospheric without falling into twee faux-intensity.

There was obvious vision for this recording, and Burton and co-producer Dave Tate—who also contributes electric guitar, percussion, piano, and bass—have brought it to life. While individual credits for the songs are not indicated, Ryan Tilby rates mention if only for his obvious steel contributions to a few songs; he also is credited with various bass, guitar, and banjo parts, but so are others including Burton and Tate so it isn’t possible to identify who is playing what where.

Burton explores the inspirational certainly, but he is also realistic, as when he sings “I’ve got silver linings for every one of my dark clouds but yours.” The message seems to be: Sometimes, just  you can’t find a way. In “The Wanderer,” Burton seems to be sharing his own tale, and here the strings truly convey the spirit of the song—wistful hope blurring with stark realism.

The restless intensity of the protagonist of “Thicker Than Water” is tangible; what he is going to do with it, what is going to come of it, is less obvious. This is certainly my favourite song on the album, a performance that—like the Welch/Rawlings song that previously inspired Burton—provides motivation to this writer to explore the dark shadows of the woods.

Not to give the impression that the album is overly brooding—although Headwaters does have a bit of a minor key feel if not in actuality—”Evergreen” may be the album’s most lively number, coming close to being a mountain stomper. “Being ten thousand feet above this town” as he is in “Tightrope Walker” brings additional lightness to the album.

Headwaters has a strong, evident sense of place, but like all great albums of this nature it bridges the distance to allow listeners to become immersed in situations and experiences far from their comfort zone.

And, as an aside, if you haven’t listened to Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues in a couple of years, do that today; damn, that album is great!

“Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third.
It can also be exhausting.

Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children. Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by her own dulcimer, by Doc Watson’s guitar and banjo, or by folks like Eric Weissberg (who nicely accompanies Judy Collins here on “One I Love”) and Marshall Brickman, Ritchie takes listeners to places that—within the most popular contemporary Americana performers—only the likes of Iris Dement does today.

As did Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed through their original songs, Dement and (as I learned living with this collection) dozens of unheralded mountain and hill singers, Ritchie transports the listener to a long ago place that only tangentially bears relevance to contemporary times.

Or, it would appear upon first listen.

Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.

What is sometimes (frequently, perhaps) neglected when considering Jean Ritchie is that standing alongside the “ballads from her Appalachian family tradition,” to borrow a phrase, have been dozens of amazing, timeless creations—among them “The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Thousand Mile Blues,” and “Black Waters”—that are original compositions inspired by the realities of Ritchie’s experiences.

Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie is a two-disc, 37-track labour of love from producers Mick Lane, Charlie Pilzer, and Dan Schatz augmented by performers who not only have been influenced by and admire Ritchie, but many who have more than passing connection to the Kentuckian who was awarded a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2002.

The set contains a blend of traditional and contemporary ‘folk’ approaches to the material, with a decided emphasis on presenting performers who may not be widely known within the broadly defined folk and Americana fields. Providing further balance, the producers have elected to feature many of Ritchie’s lesser known compositions alongside the many traditional songs for which she is well regarded.

Some who have contributed to this collection are familiar and contribute the expected exceptional performances. Robin and Linda Williams with John Jennings (“The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”) Peggy Seeger (“Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn,”) and John McCutcheon (“The Bluebird Song”) are among the most well-known of the performers.

Select songs have a contemporary presentation. The always formidable and impressive Janis Ian, supported here by Andrea Zonn, Alison Brown, and Todd Phillips, serves up a memorable version of “Mornings Come, Maria’s Gone.” An all-star lineup of John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Bryn Davies, Suzy Bogguss, and Kathy Mattea perform “Black Waters” capturing the emotional, physical, and geographical impact that brutally evasive and injurious coal mining practices have had on the southern United States.

Other performances are more reminiscent of the stark sounds and performances Ritchie grew up immersed within, such as Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen’s “Lord Bateman,” the Starry Mountain Singers “I’ve Got a Mother,” and Archie Fisher’s “Jackaro.”

While a handful of the performers have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so.

Sam Amidom (“The Cuckoo,”) fiddler Matt Brown (“Golden Ring Around the Susan Girl,”) and Rachael Davis (“One More Mile,”) and others including LePrelle, bridge the generations between themselves, Ritchie (who is now 92) and the original inspiration for these songs.

Tying things together, Kathy Mattea performs “Jubilee” with Ritchie’s sons Jon and Peter Pickow, who also appear with Kenny Kosek on “Last Old Trains A-Leavin’.” Suzie Glaze, who once appeared as Ritchie in a stage production, performs a telling version of “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” The Ritchie Nieces contribute “Twilight A-Stealing,” a song Ritchie writes that her family always sang together at the close of their evening porch sing-a-longs.

Ritchie herself appears twice. A delightful 1985 rendition of “Who Killed Cock Robin” (with contemporary Oscar Brand) is light and companionable. A final ’round’ of “The Peace Round” from 1992, augmented with the voices of many who appear throughout this wide-ranging tribute, closes the album on more pensive notes.

For those so inclined, Schneyer’s “Black Diamond Mines” isn’t the only song that includes a taste of bluegrass, but it is the one that most strongly embraces the sound. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer’s “My Dear Companion” flirts along the edges.

Like Ritchie, Dale Ann Bradley is from Berea, Kentucky, and the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year can’t help but have some ‘grass in her approach. Here, Bradley teams with Alison Brown and the Bankester vocalists for a take on “Go Dig My Grave,” and this take should find favour with those who appreciate Bradley’s approach to traditional material. (I have another paragraph or three about this fragment of “The Butcher’s Boy” available, but I had best leave that treatise to scholars.)

One can be forgiven for believing that Jean Ritchie only sang traditional folk music. ‘Folk’ is now a near meaningless catch-all, but descriptive musical terms once meant something. Ritchie herself once quite ardently distinguished her traditional mountain, folk, and old-time music from modern sounds that emanated from southern cities. In her liner notes to the 1962 album Precious Memories, Ritchie wrote:

But, my friends will say, is this folk music? Perhaps not, by the strictest scholarly definition. Some have known authors, some have not changed essentially from their original forms; I would call them valuable and interesting period pieces, the natural outgrowth of the older folk music of the region… But these songs are more than that; they are brimming over with the simple basic emotions that touch us all.

Ritchie was writing about her set containing “new hillbilly” and “city” songs like “The Great Speckled Bird,” “The Wreck on the Highway,” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” songs that would—through their very pervasiveness, and no matter who originated them—become standards of country and folk repertoires, as ‘folk’ as any song that had traveled from Europe.

Strange then that some fifty years later she might have just as accurately been writing about this uniformly outstanding tribute.

“Chapter One – Roots” and “Chapter Two – Boots” by the Willis Clan

The Willis Clan
The Willis Clan: Chapter One – Roots
The Willis Clan: Chapter Two – Boots
self-released

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Most fans of bluegrass and country music are familiar with transition stories: Harold Jenkins (rock ‘n’ roll) to Conway Twitty; Marty Raybon, bluegrass to country (Shenandoah) back to bluegrass; the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys, from southern gospel to country. You don’t often hear of a transition from traditional Irish music to bluegrass, but Irish music is viewed as one of the foundations of bluegrass and many familiar bluegrass songs have Irish roots, such as “Raglan Road,” “Colleen Malone” and “Katy Daley.”

The Willis Clan offers two CDs. Roots is Irish music with a combination of vocals and instruments that may not be familiar to many. You’ll hear a bass, a violin and a banjo, but there’s also an accordion, whistles, pipes and a bodhran. Your first thought may be that you know nothing about this music, have never heard it, but as you listen the songs have a ring of familiarity. You may have never heard “Ship of the Line” or “Jack B”—all the tracks were composed by the Clan—but you’ve heard this style of music on TV and in the cinema. It’s closely related to Celtic music and, without splitting hairs over origins, you’ll hear similar strains in Lord of the Rings. It will be familiar if you’ve ever been to a Celtic Woman concert (I highly recommend the experience) or listened to Enya.

The Clan ably performs the music. They are very good singers and musicians. These are the twelve children (whose names all begin with “J”) of Toby and Brenda Willis. Rather than attempt telling their stories here, visit their web page and read about each of the children. (Also visit a page telling of a tragedy that befell the family. Given the time frame, these must be the siblings of Toby Willis.)

And now they have added bluegrass to their repertoire. Again, all tracks are originals by the family (lyrics on their website) and most of the family is involved in the CD. Father Toby played the synths. Musicians include the six older children (Jessica, Jeremiah, Jennifer, Jeanette, Jackson and Jedi) while the next four (Jazz, and Julie, Jamie and Joy Anna on “Butterfly”) contribute vocals. Only their mother and Jaeger and Jada sit this one out. Guest musicians include John and David Meyer (banjo: “City Down Below”, piano: “Plowin’ Song”) and Chris Wright (percussion).

You can hear some of the Irish in their bluegrass. Every band wants its own identity but the Cherryholmes are the comparison many people will make. They remind me of the Cherryholmes, especially the last two years of their existence. The Willis’ brand of bluegrass has a very modern sound and some modern lyrics. “The Fields Have Turned Brown” was a look at life away from home. The Clan sings about “Since I Left Home:”

It’s a little bit wilder

It’s a little more free

Discovering on my own

Discovering me

Love is a favorite topic of many genre, and one take on it is “Nervous Breakdown,” a reaction when someone the singer may love approaches. “Ode To A Toad” is weird from a bluegrass perspective, but a cute song. It’s recitation about a “squat and slimy – big and fat” toad who “in mud he wallowed – bugs he swallowed” until he tackled something too big.

Finally in desperation

Giving way to aggravation

Out he stepped into the street

Never knowing what he’d meet

A passing car was unaware

Of tragedy occurring there

And lickity split, berbump, ker-splat

The grup was gone…

The toad was flat

A pancake colored brown and green

The spectacle was quite obscene

Not Jimmy Martin. Maybe Lester Flatt?

They include a good gospel number, “City Down Below,” about God’s destruction of Sodom with just a hint of a segue to the present. My favorite is “Sadie,” a tragedy about a woman who mysteriously died. If they were making a classic bluegrass CD and filled it with a dozen more like this one they would be on target—allowing for the inevitable differences of opinion about anything musical.

Unless your music collection is nothing but Mr. Monroe and Dr. Stanley, there’s a lot to enjoy in these CDs: impressive picking and singing and a load of talent concentrated in this family that makes Tennessee their home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Great Big World” by Tony Trischka

Tony Trischka
Great Big World
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you’re not sure of Tony Trischka’s banjo cred, take it from Bela Fleck:

Tony was the right guy at the right time to take advantage of all the new lessons that were being taught right and left by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Miles Davis and so many more…and apply them to banjo music. This enabled him to propel the fine art of banjo playing three giant steps forward.

That’s from Fleck’s liner notes to Great Big World, aptly titled when one considers that the diverse and beautiful sounds Trischka makes on this 13-track disc are possible only in the musical world that he did so much to create.

A core unit of guitarist/vocalist Michael Daves, mando picker Mike Compton, fiddler Mike Barnett, and bassist Skip Ward join Trischka for trad-grass arrangements of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” and—with Chris Eldridge on guitar and lead vocals—”Say Goodbye.” Daves and Aoife O’Donovan trade vocals on the latter part of “Belated Wedding Hoedown/Angelina Baker,” with the Trischka-penned instrumental first half setting up Stephen Foster’s familiar melody perfectly.

Trischka’s instrumental compositions have always been both intricate and tuneful, and that’s what he delivers with “The Danny Thomas,” “Promontory Point” (with Steve Martin on banjo), the solo front parlor picking of “Swag Bag Rag,” and the seven-minute “Single String Medley,” which features a unique tune for each of the banjo’s five strings.

“Great Big World/Purple Trees of Colorado” is another seven-minute frolic, with Noam Pikelny picking second banjo and longtime Trischka pal Andy Statman pitching in with both mandolin and clarinet.

Trischka is also a gifted lyricist whose melodies work just as well sung as played, and it doesn’t hurt to have voices like harpist Maeve Gilchrist (who also adds her harp to “Ocracoke Lullaby,” which indeed does sound like a gentle night on the coast of its eponymous island), the ethereal Abigail Washburn (“Lost,” arranged with violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet), and Catherine Russell, who’s backed by Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on pedal steel and latter-day Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbidge for the ecumenical gospel rave-up “Joy.”

All that’s enough to make this one of the finest records released this year—and to serve as proof that Trischka can do well whatever he sets his hand to—but the coup de maître is “Wild Bill Hickok,” a miniature Western with laconic vocals from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and narration by John Goodman.

“A Dotted Line” by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been a decade and a half since Nickel Creek released their self-titled third album, the one that introduced them to music fans outside the bluegrass festival circuit that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother Sean Watkins had been popular on since they were kids.

Now in their thirties, each is rightly considered among the very best musicians on their instruments—especially Thile, who is nothing less than the Babe Ruth of the mandolin. But their sum here on A Dotted Line is considerably less substantive than their parts.

Twee is the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this one several times. Rather than trusting their talent to just play, the trio can’t get out of their own way when it comes to writing, choosing and arranging material.

Even on what could have been a simple and beautiful instrumental track like “Elephant in the Corn,” they have to throw in a couple of bits that are—to copy and paste from my dictionary app—”affectedly quaint.”

I suppose Thile thinks he’s being Byronic on “Rest of My Life,” “Love of Mine,” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” but he’s really still just doing John Mayer’s tired act. What’s worse is that Sean tries the same thing on “Christmas Eve.” You’d think a couple of grown men would know how to talk to women more effectively, but I guess when you’re in a band, you can let that part of your game slide.

Sara comes through with lead vocals on the disc’s only two listenable tracks, the self-penned perfect pop of “Destination” and a gorgeous take on Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” Her voice is as sweet as it was on “The Hand Song,” but she’s got the maturity that her bandmates don’t.

The most important track here is the cover of “Hayloft,” by Canadian indie rockers Mother Mother. It took great skill to play and produce a track so awful, which makes it so disappointing that these three seem so intent on proving their hipster bona fides when they should just relax and play (see the Infamous Stringdusters).