“Tried and True” by the Spinney Brothers

The Spinney Brothers
Tried and True
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you like excellent traditional bluegrass you’re going to love the new Spinney Brothers CD.

There are a number of songs that talk about the travails of a traveling music man and the Spinneys take another stab at it with a Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm number, “Thank God For the Highways.” Goble and Drumm have written a number of memorable songs, including “Big Spike Hammer” and “Tennessee 1949.” It’s an existence just one breakdown away from misery and you feel the weariness this life brings. Drumm and Goble were tapped for another number, “How Much I’m Missing You.” This is a pretty, sad-and-lonely number in waltz time. This number shows off the Spinneys’ excellent harmony singing. They’re good on their instruments, too, with Allan on guitar and Rick playing banjo. They travel with a small band, including Terry Poirer playing bass and Gary Dalrymple mandolin. They’re joined here by Ron Stewart playing fiddle (who also owns the engineer and mastering credits as well as mixing, along with the brothers) and Rob Ickes on Dobro. Everything about this CD is topnotch.

“Choices,” made famous by George Jones, has been around for a long time and the Spinneys do a good job on it, with Allan singing lead and Rick joining him on the chorus. This is a song that’s a story of mistakes and regret and you have to put that emotion in it. A change of pace is Rick Spinney’s “Proud To Be Your Dad.” Life can be tough in combined families and this song underlines that there’s more to fatherhood than bloodlines. Allan Spinney contributes (with Paula Breedlove) “She Doesn’t Grieve Anymore,” a touching number about the love shared by two people. After sixty years the man passes on and the woman grieves but, after twenty years alone, her grief is finally gone because her mind has forgotten most everything but what she sees in front of her. What a good, touching story this makes.

Perhaps the most unusual song is a story that more than one preacher has probably dreamed about at least once. “The Mirror” tells how an obituary is placed that the local church’s entire congregation had died and the funeral is Sunday. Attendance Sunday is better even than Easter and when the service is read and they file past the open casket, they find it empty except for the mirror. Ouch. “My Music Comes From Bill” (from veteran songwriter Bill Castle) pays tribute to Bill Monroe.

Heartaches and heartbreak are on tap with “Regena,” an excellent, uptempo found-her-and-lost-her number. “Sweet Hazel Moore” tells the story again, with Sweet Hazel leaving town with a bible and suitcase to break the singer’s heart. “Gonna Catch a Train (Leavin’ You Behind)” tells the blazing fast story of the man leaving town and leaving the woman behind.

Rounding out the CD is a song from Edgar Loudermilk, “Freightyard Down the Street,” a great young love story, and a gospel number, “I Wanna Walk With Jesus.”

I can think of a long list of traditional artists from the early days of bluegrass, and a long list today who keeps that music alive. The Spinney Brothers break their own trail in the bluegrass landscape but it’s smack in the middle of the traditional side of the mountain. Excellent work.

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“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.

“The Next Move” by Phil Leadbetter

Phil Leadbetter
The Next Move
Pinecastle Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been around music most of my life and had the privilege to perform with some very talented people. I deeply appreciate the art of making music and the skill of musicians like the ones on this album.

Phil Leadbetter appreciates them, too, and he’s one of the best on the instrument that Josh Graves help make famous: the resophonic guitar. Struggling with severe illness, facing death, “Uncle Phil” made a list of great musicians he wanted to make a recording with, if he could do it just one more time. He had to wait until his cancer was in remission to do it, and now he’s fighting it in a second round, but he got it done. I saw him on stage (during his first round) for a salute to J. D. Crowe at Bean Blossom and he was obviously struggling, but he still made the reso ring beautifully.

Resophonic guitar or Dobro? The terms are often used interchangeably but they really shouldn’t be. The resophonic (or resonator) guitar has some type of resonator built into the top. The list of possibilities is too long to discuss here, but it’s usually a metal plate full of holes. Generally played in bluegrass flat with a bar and fingerpicks like a pedal steel guitar (Tut Taylor was an exception, using a straight pick), it may be found in a blues setting played like a regular guitar or with a bottleneck slide.

Dobro is a trade name originally associated with the Dopyera brothers, John Dopyera was the original developer of the resonator guitar. Despite efforts to control “Dobro” as a trademark, it has entered mainstream usage as synonymous with resophonic guitar.

Playing bass is either Mike Bub or Tim Dishman while Steve Thomas is everywhere playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar, one or more on almost every track. Shawn Camp wrote and sings lead on “Pull The Trigger.” He and Thomas play guitar and Camp’s Earls of Leicester buddy, Charlie Cushman plays banjo. Steve Gulley and Don Rigsby, two great voices in bluegrass, sing harmony while Alan Bibey plays mandolin and Tim Crouch plays fiddle. Camp is also featured on an introspective “Jesus, My Old Dog and Me.” Harking back to Flatt & Scruggs, “Just Joshin'” was written by Josh Graves and Jake Tullock. Cory Walker (banjo), Kenny Smith (guitar) and Sierra Hull (mandolin) join Bub and Crouch to support Leadbetter, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas on this salute to the reso guitar. Leadbetter joins with son Matt on Dobro along with Thomas, Crouch and Bub plus Jarrod Walker (mandolin) to do a Leadbetter tune, “Leadbelly.”

“Sweet Georgia Brown” isn’t contained by genre lines and Leadbetter and crew give a rousing performance here, lots of swing and jazz, but hey, with Béla Fleck on banjo and Buck White playing piano (along with Hull, Thomas, Bub and Smith) what else would you expect? Another number in the jazz and blues vein is “Georgia On My Mind.” It’s been done by legions of performers but many associate it with Ray Charles. You need to hear Con Hunley’s rendition. Steve Thomas doubles on mandolin and fiddle and Mike Bub plays a great bass line with Jim Hurst doing the guitar work. Too bad they couldn’t make this one thirty minutes long.

Going country, Ken Mellons co-wrote and sings “I’m a Modern Day Interstate Gypsy” with musicians named already and Gulley and Mark Newton adding harmony. Gulley co-wrote “I’ve Never Seen a Love That Wasn’t Blind” and sings it along with Dale Ann Bradley, Leadbetter’s current bandleader. Steve Wariner plays guitar and also co-wrote and performs another number, “Hole In The Earth,” a song about escaping the fate of a coal miner’s life—almost. He leaves but he comes back and now spends his life digging for coal in this hole in the earth.

Rounding out the first eleven tracks are John Cowan and Sam Bush, along with Jake Stargel playing guitar, tearing it up with “I’m a Ramblin’ Rolling Stone” while Marty Raybon and Joe Diffie, with Paul Brewster singing harmony, soften the tone with “Baptism.” “Down with the old man, up with the new,” that says it all about baptism and Raybon’s soulful voice is impossible to beat on a song like this but Diffie is right there with him.

From his posts on the bluegrass listserv and Facebook, it’s clear that Phil Leadbetter is a man of faith. He closes with a soulful, peacefully slow solo rendition of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” Friends and fans alike will remember this cut forever.

This is bluegrass at its best from some of the best in the business joining a contemporary master in his labor of love and life.

 

“Standing Tall and Tough” by Crowe, Lawson & Williams and “Open Carefully, Message Inside” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Crowe, Lawson & Williams
Standing Tall and Tough
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Open Carefully, Message Inside
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

An 18-year-old Doyle Lawson joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys as the groups banjo player in 1963, not long after JD Crowe made himself a bluegrass legend in that same post. If at that time I would have told you that Lawson would end up (arguably) having a greater influence on the direction of bluegrass music than either the King or the Claw, you wouldn’t have bought it. But here we are 50 years later with two fine albums that help make that argument.

By Lawson’s count in the liner notes, Open Carefully is the 36th Quicksilver album in 35 years—an impressive achievement of excellence (for the most part, see here) and longevity even before you consider the lengthy roster of master musicians in that stretch whom Lawson has trained up and sent forth.

Eli Johnston (bass guitar) and Dustin Pyrtle (guitar) are up to the difficult task of sharing lead, duet, and trio vocal duties with Lawson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their names were one day added to the list of storied Quicksilver vets. (However, I’m not familiar yet with either one, and just from the liner notes, I can’t be sure who’s who from track to track).

Jason Barie (fiddle), Joe Dean (banjo), and Josh Swift (Dobro, guitar, and, yes, percussion) create a hard instrumental bluegrass edge on “Climbing Upward,” “Will You Go?,” and the delightfully McCouryesque “It’s Done” and country-gospel backing on “He Made the Tree,” “O Far Country,” and the album-opening “Coming Soon,” which might be the track you’d pick from this project to demonstrate how Lawson can blend together bluegrass and Southern gospel, old and new.

But what I love most about DLQ are the quartet recordings—whether a cappella or with solo guitar— that owe as much to the likes of black groups like the Golden Gate Quartet as to white groups like the gospel quartets of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. There are four great examples of that here: “Get on Board” (an old spiritual to which Lawson added a new final verse), “Lead Me to that Fountain” (with a perfectly understated bass vocal from Swift), “He’s In Control,” and the stunning nostalgia of “I Sailed Back.” Classic Quicksilver.

Standing Tall and Tough has Lawson back with Crowe and their fellow Martin alumnus Paul Williams for a second trio CD, and it’s as good as 2010’s Old Friends Get Together, with the more famous contributors content with creating a well-blended band sound that allows Williams’ grand voice to steal the show.

That disc was an all-gospel affair; this one isn’t. Lawson’s liner notes indicate that the trio wanted to do “a few songs that we hadn’t recorded during our time working with Jimmy Martin.”

There is a nucleus of Martin songs here: the Martin/Williams co-writes “My Walking Shoes,” “Little Angel in Heaven,” and “Pretending I Don’t Care,” as well as Williams’ peerless version of “Fraulein.”

Three Louvin Brothers songs—”Do You Live What You Preach?,” “Don’t Laugh,” and “Insured Beyond the Grave”—also get a masterful treatment, as do Bill Anderson’s “Once a Day” and the Jimmy Wakely/Johnny Bond “Those Gone and Left Me Blues.”

Williams stops the show with his version of “The Hills of Roane County”, his operatic tenor spinning out one of the strangest story songs in bluegrass prompting the chills up the spine just like Roy Orbison could on songs like “Leah” or “It’s Over.” (Has anyone suggested to Williams that he cut a record of Orbison covers?)

Lawson’s touch as producer is quite evident on Open Carefully, much less so on Standing Tall. But that’s what a great producer like Lawson does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LRR’s picks for the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards

The 25th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show is Thursday, Oct. 2 in Raleigh.

Here are Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s picks from the final ballot IBMA voters were presented with. (Aaron is an IBMA voting member.)

One suggested change: If a someone has won a particular vocalist or instrumentalist award more than five times, why not make him ineligible for future awards in order to give others a chance? I don’t think Del McCoury, Adam Steffey, or Michael Cleveland would mind.—AKH

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Donald’s pick:
The Gibson Brothers

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Blue Highway
The Del McCoury Band

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Donald and Larry’s pick:
Balsam Range

Aaron’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Other nominees:
Blue Highway
The Gibson Brothers
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
The Del McCoury Band

Donald’s pick:
Blue Highway

Larry’s pick:
The Boxcars

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

SONG OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
“Grandpa’s Way of Life” – The Spinney Brothers (artist), Mark ‘Brink’ Brinkman (writer)

Larry’s pick:
“You Took All The Ramblin’ Out of Me” – The Boxcars (artist), Jerry Hubbard (writer)

Other nominees:
“Dear Sister” – Claire Lynch (artist), Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb (writers)
“It’s Just a Road” – The Boxcars (artist), William Keith Garrett (writer)
“The Game” – Blue Highway (artist), Shawn Lane and Barry Bales (writers)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Hall of Fame Bluegrass – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artist), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers), Rebel Records

Donald’s pick:
Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band (artist), Del McCoury (producer),  McCoury Music

Larry’s pick:
It’s Just A Road – The Boxcars (artist), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home LS

Other nominees:
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Noam Pikelny (artist) Gabe Witcher (producer), Compass Records
The Game – Blue Highway (artist), Blue Highway (producer), Rounder Records

GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Won’t It Be Wonderful There” – Dailey & Vincent (artist), Brothers of the Highway (album), Mildred Styles Johnson (writer), Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (producers), Rounder Records

Donald’s pick:
“Love Does” – Darin and Brooke Aldridge (artist), Flying (album), Jamie Johnson, Suzanne M. Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (writers), Darin and Brooke Aldridge (producers), Organic Record

Larry’s pick:

“The Day We Learn to Fly” – Volume Five (artist), The Day We Learn To Fly (album), Stacy Richardson and Leroy Drumm (writers), Volume Five (producers), Mountain Fever LS

Other nominees:
“Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” – Donna Ulisse (artist), I Am a Child of God (album), Hazel Marie Houser (writer), Bryan Sutton and Donna Ulisse (producers), Hadley Music Group
“When Sorrows Encompass Me Around” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just A Road (album), Paul Edgar Johnson (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Johnny Don’t Get Drunk” – Adam Steffey (artist), New Primitive (album),  Public Domain, Adam Steffey (producer), Organic

Donald’s pick:
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”- Special Consensus with Buddy Spicher, Michael Cleveland and Alison Brown (artists), Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (album), John Martin Sommers (wrtier), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Larry’s pick:
“Five Miles to Milan” – The Grascals (artist), When I Get My Pay (album), Danny Roberts (writer), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home

Other nominees:
“Graveyard Fields” – Steep Canyon Rangers (artist), Tell The Ones I Love (album), Mike Guggino (writer), Larry Campbell (producer), Rounder Records
“Skillet Head Derailed” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just a Road (album), Ron Stewart (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School)” – Peter Rowan with Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Donald’s pick:
“Martha White, Lester & Earl” – Terry Baucom with Marty Raybon & Buddy Melton (artists), Terry and Cindy Baucom (producers), John Boy and Billy Records

Larry’s pick:
“Wild Mountain Honey” – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artists), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers) Rebel Records

Other nominees:
“American Pickers”- The Grascals with Dierks Bentley (artists), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home
“Wild Montana Skies” – Special Consensus with Claire Lynch & Rob Ickes (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Flatt Lonesome

Donald’s pick:
Town Mountain

Other nominees:
Detour
The Spinney Brothers
Volume Five

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Del McCoury

Larry’s pick:

Buddy Melton

Other nominees:

Tim O’Brien
Frank Solivan
Dan Tyminski

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Claire Lynch

Donald’s pick:
Dale Ann Bradley

Larry’s pick:
Rhonda Vincent

Other nominees:
Alison Krauss
Amanda Smith

INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMERS OF THE YEAR

BANJO

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Noam Pikelny

Larry’s pick:
Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jens Kruger
Mike Munford
Sammy Shelor

BASS

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Mike Bub

Donald’s pick:
Barry Bales

Other nominees:
Missy Raines
Mark Schatz
Darrin Vincent

FIDDLE

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Michael Cleveland

Larry’s pick:

Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jason Carter
Stuart Duncan
Bobby Hicks

DOBRO

Aaron’s pick:

Rob Ickes

Donald and Larry’s pick:

Phil Leadbetter

Other nominees:

Jerry Douglas
Andy Hall
Randy Kohrs

GUITAR

Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s pick:
James Alan Shelton

Other nominees:
Tony Rice
Kenny Smith
Tim Stafford
Bryan Sutton

MANDOLIN

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Adam Steffey

Donald’s pick:
Frank Solivan

Other nominees:
Sam Bush
Sierra Hull
Chris Thile

“Blue Smoke” by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke
Sony Masterworks

2 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Dolly Parton has been making country music for well over fifty years, some of it wonderfully timeless.

In this category, I would place a range of her releases, including early albums such as Just Because I’m A Woman, Coat of Many Colors, and My Tennessee Mountain Home, almost all of those RCA singles from 1968-1979, the reinvigorated burst of early 90s energy on White Limozeen, Eagle When She Flies, and Slow Dancing With The Moon, to more recent recordings including Hungry Again and the Sugar Hill ‘bluegrass’ trilogy that started with The Grass Is Blue in 1999.

But some of the Parton catalog is unquestionably rather disposable—over-produced, throwaway albums; multiple slick duets and soundtrack songs no one needs to remember; silly concepts (2005’s Those Were The Days, for instance); and the plain ill-conceived: 1984’s The Great Pretender and covers of “Walking On Sunshine” and “Peace Train” that will never make sense to me.

One sometimes wonders what Dolly is thinking, but we are impressed by both her longevity and the balls she brings to much of her music. Unfortunately, Blue Smoke has more in common with the questionable aspects of Parton’s recording history.

Blue Smoke has a couple things going for it. Parton re-imagines “Banks of the Ohio” a little, taking on the role of the murderer’s confessor; joined by Bryan Sutton (guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and especially Carl Jackson (vocals), a fresh interpretation of the oft-recorded classic is achieved. Overwrought it may be, “Unlikely Angel” is the kind of sentimental song that has served Parton well over the years, and features Sonya Isaacs and Rebecca Isaacs Bowman vocally. “If I Had Wings” is similarly overly emotive, but remains listenable.

The pulsing title track starts off promising, but goes off the rails when Parton and album producer Kent Wells insert a little too much into the proceedings: this snapping, southern sing-a-long could have been great, but ‘clickety clack’ and ‘choo-choo, woo-woo’ are a bit much, as is the mid-song testimonial. It becomes a bit of a—forgive me—train wreck. Three of the male Grascals appear here either instrumentally or vocally, as does the deep-voiced Christian Davis.

The majority of the album is tinged in desperation. “Lover Du Jour” comes off as pathetic, “Miss You-Miss Me” is cringe inducing, and “Try” is just plain heavy handed. A song that could have been good, “Home” is beaten down by relentless drums, guitar effects, and confused production choices. Duets with Kenny Rogers (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Willie Nelson (“From Here to the Moon and Back”) are better than expected, but both were previously released elsewhere.

A cover of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” is supposed to be part of her, in Dolly’s words, “never-ending desire to try to uplift mankind.” Unfortunately, there is nothing inspirational about the song, and Parton’s revamping of the lyrics and inserting the occasional ‘Lord’ to the proceedings does nothing to bridge a fairly significant gulf between the self-indulgent, hair-metal original and Parton’s attempt at country gospel. At least she didn’t try to reinvent “Every Rose Has A Thorn” as a crucifixion observance.

I love Dolly Parton’s music. I love the spunky firebrand image she has created, the assertiveness with which she conducts herself, and I appreciate her commitment to her home community. “The Bargain Store,” “Joshua,” and “The Seeker” are three of the greatest songs ever written, regardless of genre.

So it pains me to write a review of Blue Smoke that is largely negative. But, that’s how it goes. If you unleash a stinker, someone has to call you on it.

And, she has.