“‘Tween Earth and Sky” by Becky Buller

Becky Buller
‘Tween Earth and Sky
Dark Shadow Recording
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

2015 has proven to be a breakout year for Becky Buller.

After a few years out of the spotlight—changing life circumstances will do that to an artist—Buller emerged leading her own outfit alongside her most unified recording project to date. When the annual International Bluegrass Music Association nominations were announced, Buller’s name was mentioned seven times. Alongside a nod for Bluegrass Broadcaster of the Year, Buller found herself up for Songwriter, Fiddle Player, Female Vocalist, and Emerging Artist of the Year. Capping these recognitions were two nominations for her historical performance of “Southern Flavor,” included here, as both Song and Recorded Event of the Year.

Pretty heady stuff for an artist taking her first steps out of the ‘sideman’ shadows as a bandleader.

‘Tween Earth and Sky was released late in 2014, so we’re more than a little tardy with this review. But given the accolades possibly coming Buller’s direction, and that it’s still getting lots of spins on bluegrass radio, it’s better late than never.

Buller has long been a fiddler of considerable repute within the bluegrass community, any she’s widely known from her years with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, from her brief tenure with Darin & Brooke Aldridge, and as a mainstay within the Daughters of Bluegrass amalgam. As a songwriter, she has contributed to more than a dozen projects. ‘Tween Earth and Sky is her third album when one includes the Here’s a Little Song collection recorded with Smith.

Without question, ‘Tween Earth and Sky is a very strong set. It is well-recorded and modern sounding, but there are certainly no shortage of ancient tones to be heard; “American Corner” contains more than a slice of old-world influence. Providing linkage to the essentials of bluegrass is the album’s feature track, a reworking of what might have been Bill Monroe’s last great tune, “Southern Flavor.” With lyrics added (with Monroe’s encouragement) by DeWayne Mize and Guy Stevenson, and brought to life with an all-Blue Grass Boys lineup including Roland White, Blake Williams, Buddy Spicher, and Peter Rowan, this one is a winner both on paper and in performance.

The original “Nothin’ To You” also had chart success, as did the less-pleasing “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers.” With a soaring lead vocal, “Nothin’ To You” may become a modern bluegrass classic; the terrific band, made up of folks named Bales, Block, Brock, Ickes, and a pair of Smiths (Kenny and Amanda), makes this one gallop with no little bit of a Union Station flavor. “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers” is a harmless song that is really quite enjoyable, until one realizes the composition lacks true dramatic tension: everything is told, nothing is shown. A minor quibble, perhaps.

Stronger—much stronger—are the Civil War love song “Amos & Sarah” and the sinister “Didn’t Die.” Both draw the listener in, and “Didn’t Die” especially gets one to contemplating; Darrell Scott adds some vocal darkness to this Buller song.

‘Tween Earth and Sky is that rare recording that benefits from having a wide range of musical friends and compatriots bringing their talents together to create an album that is quite disparate in its elements. Its appeal is at least in part due to how few of the songs sound as if that were cut within a singular vision. And, because of this unique quality—a dozen songs recorded with (mostly) different folks in different combinations—the listener is given so much to explore.

The necessary consistency comes from Buller’s voice and fiddle. She sings like a dream, with more than a little similarity to Dale Ann Bradley—there is power within her very pleasing vocals. The intensity that she brings to inspirational numbers such as “I Prayed For You” and “I Serve A God (Who Can Raise The Dead)” is truly impressive.

One may be remiss to overlook the contributions of some of these musicians. Tim O’Brien’s mandolin trills about a pair of songs, including the wistful “For A Lifetime,” which he sings with Buller. Producer Stephen Mougin appears on several tracks, singing and adding a bit of guitar. In addition to those previously mentioned—most of whom appear more than once—Sam Bush, the Aldridges, Mike Bub, Bryan Sutton, and Dale Ann Bradley are also featured.

Becky Buller has certainly made a statement with ‘Tween Earth and Sky. She’s long been ready to assume a more prominent place within the bluegrass industry, and this recording seals the deal.


Notable release: Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent
Alive! In Concert
Pillar Stone Records

This is the seventh album from the self-proclaimed “rockstars of bluegrass,” and the first live one. A companion to the DVD of their public television special and offered exclusively at Cracker Barrel, the CD version is meant to convey a sense of the group’s exuberant stage show that one doesn’t get from their studio recordings. But with the spectacle missing from the audio-only version, the sound (which includes orchestra, and choir on four of the 15 cuts) doesn’t show this great band at its best.

“Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project” by Jayme Stone

Jayme Stone
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
Borealis Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone continues his run of intriguingly diverse projects with this 19-track disc celebrating the centenary of seminal folk song collector Alan Lomax.

Stone has done a fine job picking tunes from Lomax’s stockpile, but an even better job picking talent to present those tunes in several different styles, including:

  • Brittany Haas and Bruce Molsky with two entrancing fiddle duets, “Julie and Joe” and “Old Christmas.”
  • Stone and Haas with “Hog Went Through the Fence, Yoke and All,” which, in spite of it’s rustic title is an inventive and nuanced fiddle & banjo conversation.
  • “Before This Time Another Year,” “Sheep, Sheep Don’tcha Know the Road,” and “Prayer Wheel,” all gospel septets in the Sea Island style, with Tim O’Brien’s inimitable voice the most recognizable element.
  • O’Brien on two duets: with Moira Smiley on the quaint romantic folk of “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y” and with Margaret Glaspy on the sad cowboy song “Goodbye Old Paint.”
  • Eli West setting Lead Belly’s a profane farm work holler “Whoa, Back, Buck” in a sumptuous guitar and fiddle (Haas) arrangement.

There’s also a prison song, a calypso murder ballad, and a nearly six hundred-year-old English ballad that was captured by a ballad hunter from a Virginia sawmill cook and is here sung by a septet with no accompaniment save body percussion set to a 9/8 folk rhythm originating somewhere in the Balkans. (To fully enjoy this album, I strongly recommend buying the CD, attractively packaged with detailed liner notes of these recordings, and the ones they’re referring to.)

Among all these great musicians and singers, Stone’s best choice is clearly Margaret Glaspy, whose voice recalls Abigail Washburn and Frazey Ford, among others. The tracks on which she sings lead—including “Lazy John,” “I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,” “Maids When You’re Young,” and “Lambs on the Green Hills”—are impeccably arranged and played by Stone and company, but Glaspy turns them into the best acoustic tracks I’ve heard from anyone this year. Her singing is strong and magical while conveying the illusion of brokenness—not unlike some work from Neil Young, or Bjork; she turns well used standards like “What is the Soul of a Man?” and “Shenandoah” (both of which happen to be particular favorites of mine) into the stuff of transcendent meditations on the permanence of great music. We should all look forward to hearing more from this truly great singer.

“Don’t Forget Me Little Darling” by Antique Persuasion

Antique Persuasion
Don’t Forget Me Little Darling
Voxhall Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

You simply cant count the country and bluegrass musicians who list the Carter Family as an influence in their music. Just as Bill Monroe became known as the father of bluegrass, despite a number of notable stars who contributed to that birth, the Carter Family have a place in history as the parents of country music. They were not the only people making music like that back then but they have stood the test of time as one of the foremost groups at the birth of this music we love.

A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin and his sister–in–law, Maybelle, captured the imagination of the common folk at a time when life was hard for them. The Carter Family first recorded in Bristol, Tennessee in what we now view as primitive conditions. They were interested in making a few dollars, never dreaming what they would start that day. “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” is the left bookend of the Carter Family’s recording history and this CD. This song has been recorded countless times in bluegrass, country and western (cowboy) settings. The Carter Family versions of all these numbers have a different feel than this recording, in part because of the instrumentation—usually only a guitar, partly because of advances in recording technology and partly because of technique. The Carters’ singing was straightforward, unadorned, even a bit strident. Some, perhaps many of the fans of bluegrass and classic country today wouldn’t listen long to a Carter Family recording.

The CD cover credits A.P. Carter as the composer of all but one of these songs. Take that with a grain of salt. While his name may appear on official credits, many of the Carter Family songs are adaptations of songs that pre–date them by decades if not centuries. “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” was the subject of a 1970 conversation with Maybelle Carter as reported on grassclippings. “That was a song we had sang all our lives. [Read the center section on the website.] The original version of the song was written by Bradley Kincaid.” Another conversation relates, “Other sources suggest the song’s older, a late–19th–century ‘heart song’ that Kincaid adopted; apparently a sheet music version dates to a year when he was 14 years old, making his authorship unlikely.” None of this affects the contribution of the Carter Family nor the beauty of this new CD, but it’s always good to have a hint of the actual history of the songs.

My wife, a fringe fan of bluegrass (as I’ve reported before) was listening to this CD as we drove and she described it as “soothing.” I know she would never say the same about the original version. Have no doubt, though, Antique Persuasion honors the Carter Family music, just giving it a 2015 interpretation. The last song recorded by the Carters, and the only one here not “written” by A. P. Carter (it was composed—or adapted—by Maybelle Carter), was “ You’re Gonna Be Sorry Cause You Let Me Down.” (CF version) Brandon Rickman sings lead and plays guitar and mandolin. He’s a good one to be singing these traditional songs because he has a voice that speaks bluegrass to me. Not that there isn’t room for other types of singers, such as the high, lonesome sound of Monroe or the balladeer’s voice of David Parmley. But I especially enjoy singers like Rickman. It’s in the tone and inflection, his phrasing. Like bluegrass, you know it when you hear it. You can hear Rickman’s voice often because he’s the lead singer for the Lonesome River Band.

He’s joined by Jenee Fleenor. She’s made other appearances in bluegrass but her primary job is backing Blake Shelton (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, guitar). Brennan Leigh, a great singer from Austin, Texas, rounds out the group, offering vocals and guitar. Mark Fain makes a guest appearance on upright bass. Warning! There’s no banjo present but, to be fair, the Carter Family didn’t use one, either.

Rickman also sings lead on “Lover’s Lane” (familiar from Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cutups) and “Lover’s Return” ( familiar from Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstatdt & Dolly Parton).

“Dark and Stormy Weather” is a departure from the straightforward nature of most of the songs. Sung in minors, it’s dark and moody. Sung by Fleenor, there are no background vocals and only Fleenor’s fiddle and guitar and Fain’s arco bass. It’s moodier than Helen Carter’s version which is also a takeoff of the original. She also sings lead on “When Silver Threads Are Gold,” a lighter–hearted song about love. “Lonesome For You” is done as western swing and is a familiar number to any fan. The original version had this same feel but in a more primitive fashion. Fleenor trades leads with Rickman and you’ll hear great harmony singing, on this and all other songs except “Dark and Stormy Weather” and Fleenor’s other lead number, “I’m Thinking Of My Blue Eyes.” Again it’s just Fleenor and Fain with an arrangement that gets away from the Carter Family (and usual) styling, but is beautifully done, giving a fresh take on this familiar song.

Leigh sings lead on “Broken Hearted Lover” (not to be confused with the Delmore Brothers/IIIrd Tyme Out song of the same name). You’ll note Fleenor’s fiddle providing support on this song, smooth, melodic, and relaxing (to use my wife’s description). She also sings lead on “Don’t Forget Me Little Darling,” “Hello Stranger” (recorded by Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens/Alice Gerrard) and the only gospel number, “On the Sea of Galilee.”

This is an excellent window into the Carter Family’ great body of work. Great singing by the three members of Antique Persuasion, excellent instrumental work, great arrangements. If you like bluegrass, don’t miss this one.

“When I’m Free” by Hot Rize

Hot Rize
When I’m Free
Ten In Hand Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Hot Rize is a deservedly iconic band, beloved for their take on bluegrass music, their rambling discourses during a show, and for their alternate egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. I saw them last year and it was 50 percent talk, 50 percent music. But, a CD is all music and they waited almost twenty-five years to do another studio album. It’s done well, in the top ten on the chart and three songs in the top 20 at one time. (The August 7 chart (Bluegrass Today) shows only “Clary Mae” still there, making a rapid fall from #2 to #19 in two weeks. The Roots Music Report, on the other hand, shows the CD at #6, down from #1 last week.)

“Clary Mae” is a good bluegrass number, rolling along supported by Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick’s renowned banjo playing. Wernick founded the group in the 1970s with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and the late Charles Sawtelle. They have a lot of life left for a group that stopped touring in 1990, making only a few appearances until reformong as a band after all these years, Sawtelle’s spot being filled by Bryan Sutton. It does seem that they are back on the road again, making something of a comeback which has complicated things for O’Brien. He was a part of the Earls of Leicester and is having to mostly step away from that group to commit more time to Hot Rize. I suppose there are worse dilemmas.

“Doggone” is on the rockabilly side with good harmony singing, a rocking medium tempo song. “Blue is Fallin'” is a song about some hard times and features a nice guitar break by Sutton. “Western Skies” is all about wanting to get back to western skies and features Wernick’s banjo in the driver’s seat. Like the individual members of the group, whose careers have prospered through the years but not always in the bluegrass genre, these songs are on the fringe around the core bluegrass sound of Monroe, but are greatly enjoyed by bluegrass fans.

They show their gospel side with “I Am The Road,” a song with the drive of a bulldozer—neither hot nor fast, it’s  a relentless force telling a message of faith. It isn’t told in the usual words of God and faith, but the message is there.

I am the road, I am the way

Many walk down and many will stray

Straight and narrow, far and wide

You won’t be lonesome while side by side

The track that’s named like a gospel number, “Glory in The Meeting House,” is actually an instrumental, Irish-sounding jig, light-hearted with an old-time feel. “Sky Rider” is another instrumental, featuring syncopated banjo by Wernick. Sutton is always there supporting the band with his excellent guitar playing—especially on several breaks in “You Were On My Mind This Morning.” He made his first big splash in bluegrass as a member of Kentucky Thunder and went on to become famous as a session player and touring with artists like Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Following Charles Sawtelle’s death in 1999, the band re-grouped in 2002 and invited Sutton into the fold.

“A Cowboy’s Life” is not very grassy except for the banjo, but a great story song and a nice change of pace. Another on-the-bluegrass-fringe cit is “I Never Met a One Like You,” on which one of the group’s career-spanning signature traits— Nick Forster’s clean, understated bass guitar—can be appreciated.

“Never Just a Song” by Shannon and Heather Slaughter

Shannon and Heather Slaughter
Never Just a Song
Elite Circle Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Shannon and Heather Slaughter continue to make good music. I was impressed with One More Road and they keep the bar high again. One change appears to be appearing without a full-time band. The County Clare website is defunct and no mention of the band is made on their website or CD cover. They have made good use of some well known names in bluegrass to back them, including Ron Stewart (fiddle on all tracks but one) and Tim Crouch (triple fiddles on “Whiskey Colored Dreams”), Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitar), Trevor Watson and Justin Jenkins sharing banjo duties, and former County Clare bandmate Ron Inscore adding mandolin.

“Moonshiner,” a fast-moving song about the life of a moonshiner, is a good bluegrass number but might have been best performed by Shannon rather than Heather Slaughter. It’s not that she lacks anything in the singing category, but, in this case, I think his voice fits this song’s imagery better. The title number was composed by Tim Stafford and Pam Tillis as a tribute to the late Harley Allen, describing his genius and his foibles. They switch to traditional country with “Whiskey Colored Dreams,” a number co-written by Heather that has Doug Jernigan on steel guitar and Tracey Burcham on bass plus Crouch playing fiddles. The song features good harmony singing and should have been a Top Ten song forty years ago; it makes that grade here.

Their former bass player, Cliff Bailey, penned “Go Sin No More.” This is top-class bluegrass gospel and features great fiddling by Ron Stewart. Shannon co-wrote the lightning fast “Ridin’ the Lighnin’, Ropin’ the Storm” with Dale Felts, a sequel to a 2006 number they wrote (“Whoop and Ride”) that was recorded by the Lonesome River Band. This is one of those songs that gets a crowd into the show. The songs range from a tribute to our country (“That’s What’s Good In America”) to a tribute to the men who work Appalachia’s mines (“Company Town”) with a touch of heartstrings thrown in (“The Best Thing We Ever Did,” a tribute to their daughter, Rae Carroll Slaughter). Shannon S. teamed with veteran songwriter Bill Castle to write the traditional sounds of “There Ain’t No Need To Be Lonely” and then turns to Hank Williams, Jr. for “Feelin’ Better.”

The Slaughters are both capable lead singers and their supporting artists add good harmony singing and excellent picking. Good arrangements of good songs—this is good bluegrass.

“Country Livin'” by Big Country Bluegrass

Big Country Bluegrass
Country Livin’
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

When it comes to truth-in-labeling, it doesn’t get more on-the-nose than Country Livin’ from Big Country Bluegrass. This is the 18th release from the Independence, Virgina-based band founded by the husband-and-wife team of Tommy Sells (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar) in the late 1980s. And not only is it one of the group’s best, it’s one of the very best bluegrass albums of the last couple of years.

The six-member lineup—joining the Sellses are Eddie Gill (guitar), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo), Tim Laughlin (fiddle) and Tony King (bass)—picks in a solid, propulsive style pure enough that it sounds like none of them have paid any mind to any record released since Carter Stanley died.

“The Bluefield West Virginia Blues,” with Lunsford’s hound dogging, five-string, Laughlin’s fluid fiddle, and Gill’s paint-stripping vocals, takes less than a minute to let us know what we’re in for in the rest of this 13-track, 41-minute album—throwback lyrics, cutting harmonies (usually provided by Tammy Sells (tenor) and Laughlin (baritone)), and crisply expert instrumental breaks.

Tammy Sells changes things up—with no dip in quality—by singing lead on “The Cotton Mill Song” and “Hold Me Closer, Jesus,” a driving gospel song that does not eschew the banjo.

“Easy Memories” is one of the best new bluegrass songs I’ve heard in a while, distilling the music’s main theme of connection to a more primitive, and probably less-comfortable, past by recalling it in song—

Hard times brings [sic] easy memories

Workin’ in the cotton fields

Restin’ beneath the trees

I can still hear Mama singing “Bringing in the Sheaves”

Hard times brings easy memories

But “Easy Memories” is not new after all. Recorded by Dave Leatherman, it’s the best example of this band’s uncanny knack for picking great songs—often from lesser-known artists—that fit together perfectly.

You may be acquainted with the original cuts of great songs like “Country Livin’,” “Blue River,” “The Boy From the Country,” and “Just an Old Friend,” but I wasn’t. Jimmy Martin’s “Snow White Grave” and Bobby Osborne’s “My Lonely Heart” weren’t top of mind either, but BGB makes them all their own, as they do with the aforementioned “The Bluefield West Virginia Blues” and “The Hound Dog from Harlan,” both penned by Tom T. & Dixie Hall.

With Country Livin’, Big Country Bluegrass shows—when you apply its timeless style to songs that haven’t been dulled by overuse—old-school bluegrass can be as fresh and exciting as its creators first made it sound.