“The Earls of Leicester” by the Earls of Leicester and “Three Bells” by Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes

The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes
Three Bells

Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life when I got and started listening to these two albums, which were released simultaneously by Rounder. He writes about the unlikelihood that a few teenagers in London would make it their life’s mission—at least foe a few years—to become a Chicago-style blues band, and that such a thing was only possible because of the invention of recorded music. Though he first picked up a guitar only about 25 years after the death of Robert Johnson and while the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter were still alive and productive, there’s simply no way he would have ever heard their music were it not for vinyl records and radio waves. Before their invention, musical styles grew slowly. Music was tied to a particular place and people, and to activities like Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning worship—a juxtaposition that influenced bluegrass music as much as it did the blues.

Music also passed from hand to hand, from master to apprentice. Musical mutations into new styles only occurred when a genius came along to synthesize and create from what already existed—the example most obvious to readers of this site is of course bluegrass music, which happened when the cross-eyed boy from Kentucky played dances with his fiddling uncle and a black guitar player at the same time and place musical evangelists were teaching the shape-note choir singing style. Without proximity to those three elements, Bill Monroe would not have created what Alan Lomax called “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British—American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

You wouldn’t quite call Josh Graves a genius on Monroe’s level, but he certainly was a virtuoso, much like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who hired Graves so his Dobro sound could further distinguish the Foggy Mountain Boys from other early exponents of Monroe’s art. (For the full story, read Bluegrass Bluesman.) Graves’ innovations led to a new vein of gifted musicians deciding to play bluegrass, including Mike Auldridge, who bought his first Dobro from Graves himself.

It’s to pay homage to Graves and the sound he helped create, of course, that prompted Jerry Douglas, the undisputed Dobro master, to form the Earls of Leicester. Walk down Broadway in Nashville, and you’ll bump into enough pickers who could play an impromptu Lester & Earl set, but the five that Douglas has enlisted do it as good as it could possibly be done: Union Station’s Barry Bales plays upright bass, Johnny Warren fiddles as good as his father Paul did with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Shawn Camp (lead vocals, guitar), and Charlie Cushman (banjo) play the parts, respectively, of Curly Seckler, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The effect they achieve on this 14-track album is uncanny—they don’t sound exactly like the source material, but they capture the key element of the Flatt & Scruggs sound—its effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication. It’s great to hear Camp, an accomplished country-rock singer songwriter, sing bluegrass, coming closer to Lester’s vocal style than one could imagine anyone else doing, and O’Brien and Cushman have Curly’s chop and Earl’s roll down pat. Warren’s fills and breaks are as exciting as his daddy’s were, and Douglas’ vicariously reminds us just how important the grafting of Graves on to the bluegrass family tree was for what we hear and appreciate today. Adding the Dobro’s six strings as the music’s sixth instrument gave it so much more depth without sacrificing a bit of its integrity.

After Graves and before Douglas, there was Mike Auldridge. As a founding member of the Seldom Scene, Auldridge helped that band firmly establish the “progressive” approach to bluegrass—mixing in both the songs and the sensibilities of the country-rock and singer-songwriter styles of the 1970s. You can do a lot with a traditional five-piece bluegrass unit, but you absolutely cannot put across a song like “Sweet Baby James,” much less make it far superior to the original, without that small taste of Auldridge’s Dobro.

In the months before Auldridge died in 2012, he recorded Three Bells with Douglas and Rob Ickes—no backing band, just the three of them—with Auldridge’s instrument in the middle of the stereo mix, Douglas left, and Ickes right. I don’t think an approach like this could work, in a simply technical sense, nearly as well with any other instrument—especially not among the other five bluegrass tools. And it’s hard to imagine three other players could use this approach to create a sound so skilfully woven, as if all 18 strings were played by only one musician.

The 11-song, 45-minute track list is free of cliché—only “Panhandle Rag,” a composition of Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys) is from the bluegrass/country instrumental canon, which makes sense. Such tunes are written with the idea that each instrument in the band can have a turn showing what it can do before passing off to the next man.

Instead, this ensemble refashions old parlor, jazz, and easy listening songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Sunrise Serenade,” and “The Three Bells” into brocaded tone poems free from the schmaltzy sheen present in their most popular versions. Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” is similarly refined into a stately hymn.

But of course, Auldridge, Douglas, and Ickes are all gifted composers as well, and their own songs are the best on this album: Auldridge’s bright and bouncy “For Buddy,” Douglas’ propulsive “North,” and Ickes’ perfectly titled “Dobro Heaven.”

Each man also contributes a solo performance—Auldridge a gorgeous medley of “‘Till There Was You/Moon River,” Ickes his own reflective “The Message,” and Douglas the truly sublime “The Perils of Private Mulvaney”—to remind us both the emotional richness a single Dobro can convey, and of why this trio making this record just in time is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Family, Friends & Fellowship” by Steve Gulley

Steve Gulley
Family, Friends & Fellowship
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley is at home with a bluegrass, country, or gospel song. A favorite spot in his bluegrass performances is when he steps up to the mic to sing George Jones. Gulley typically sings in the lead register, between baritone and tenor but can hit the tenor part when he needs to. If you had to pin his voice to a genre, it’s more country than bluegrass but bluegrass isn’t totally about that high, lonesome sound. He’s a veteran performer, from his young days in Renfro Valley to time with Doyle Lawson and helping found two very popular groups, Mountain Heart and Grasstowne. Now he’s released his first gospel CD.

Family, Friends & Fellowship has elements of country as well as bluegrass, easily slipping from one to the other. “The Man I Ought To Be” is classic country music. Fiddles, steel guitar, bass—it will stop a country music lover in his or her tracks just to savor that kickoff. The message is a good one, too, talking about the struggles of living a Christian life. One of its great lines is “I never felt so tall as when I fell down on my knees.” His wife, Debbie, sings harmony and she doesn’t take a back seat to anyone with her singing ability. Gulley co-wrote this song and wrote “Scars In His Hands,” a number he recorded with Mountain Heart, one of their best songs. On this cut he’s joined by Kenny and Amanda Smith plus Jason Burleson playing mandolin and Brandon Godman, who plays fiddle on several tracks.

“What Would You Have Me Do” is a story about the dark times of life that Gulley wrote, hoping its message might help someone along life’s way. Some of the CDs multi-track supporting artists are Phil Leadbetter (resophonic guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle), Stewart’s bandmate Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Tim Stafford (guitar). On the country numbers you’ll hear Les Butler paying piano and Terry Crisp on steel with Mark Laws providing percussion on most tracks. These are some of the best musicians in bluegrass and country. Bringing together such a diverse group likely means at least some of them recorded their tracks remotely, but that had no effect on the quality of the end product.

Another family-affair song is “God’s Not Dead,” with Gulley’s parents Linda (lead) and Don (baritone) joining Steve and Vic Graves (bass vocals). Gary Robinson, Jr. and Bryan Turner (both members of Gulley’s new band, New Pinnacle), Stuart Wyrick and Scott Powers contribute, too. Graves also sings lead on an 1893 hymn that’s one of my favorites, “I Must Tell Jesus.” Gulley turns to his old boss and friend Doyle Lawson to help on “Pray For Me” and a nice arrangement of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” Lawson sings baritone while Don Gulley sings lead. Don Gulley is a veteran radio announcer and performer and is clearly in his element on this CD.

Carl Story co-wrote “Light At The River” and one of my favorite singers, Ricky Wasson, shares the lead duties on this good old song. A great partnership lasted a few good years when Paul Williams played in Jimmy Martin’s band. One product of their relationship was “Stormy Waters.” Harking back to their days together in Renfro Valley, Gulley sings this one with Dale Ann Bradley. He reaches into southern Gospel to give us a G. T. Speer song, “I Never Shall Forget the Day,” along with Joe Mullins, a singer who ranks high in my list of favorites. Debbie Gulley sings harmony then takes her turn on lead with a touching number that leads to some soul searching, “Could You Walk a Mile.” This is a number we should all listen to carefully. Another song from southern gospel that will touch your soul comes from Ronald Hinson, “That I Could Still Go Free,” featuring Debbie Gulley and Mark Wheeler on harmony. What a great song this one is.

The CD closes with a song that probably all of us know, “Jesus Loves Me,” featuring grandson Mack on the intro and Alan Bibey on mandolin.

This is Gulley’s first gospel CD. After you hear it you’ll be hoping it’s not his last.

“The View” by the Roys

The Roys
The View
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Roys continue to bring out good CDs. We’ve looked at them before with Gypsy Runaway Train and New Day Dawning. This CD bears their signature, not just on the performance side but on the composing of the songs. At least one of the two is in the credits of every song.

Lee and Elaine Roy, siblings for those who don’t know, do all the singing with Lee playing the mandolin family (mandolin, mandola and mandocello) while Elaine plays the guitar. Joining them are Daniel Patrick (banjo, Dobro), Erik Alvar/ (bass) and Clint White (fiddle). Two-part harmony is their thing but they could think about experimenting with another voice now and then for variety.

Two numbers touch on a hard time in our lives. “Sometimes” talks about a woman who is experiencing dementia associated with her age. It’s a pleasant song and touches the highs (if you can call them that) and lows of this condition and generally offers a positive outlook. The Roys are very big on positive outlook. I can’t say it’s one of my favorites because it’s too much like a conversation for my taste. “Heaven Needed Her More,” on the other hand, has a country flavor, a great fiddle intro and caught my attention from the first bars. “Black Gold” is another good ‘un, one of the favorite topics of bluegrass: coal miners.

“Mended Wings” is another very pretty number, talking about making the trip to heaven with wings mended by grace. They pick things up with “No More Tears Left To Cry,” a song about triumph over misery, and “No More Lonely,” a song about finding love and freedom from misery. “Those Boots” is a different type of song, reflecting on people who have made their way in life by talking about their boots. It starts with ranchers then soldiers and ends with performers who have “kicked out a few footlights” and tonight stand in that magic circle on the Opry stage. Their songs are marked by melodies that vary from a three chord formula and have interesting arrangements. They pay tribute to Bill Monroe with “Mandolin Man,” featuring Doyle Lawson, not a bad mandolin picker himself, as a guest.

The pickers get a chance to shine on “Northern Skies,” a good instrumental number. The title song, co-written by the Roys and Bill Anderson, is a great number of memories about growing up. It features a fairly rare (in bluegrass) arco (bowed) bass. They pass along good advice with “Live The Life You Love.” If we could all do that we’d be a lot happier bunch of folks.

It’s doubtful you’ll ever hear them singing “Knoxville Girl” but you don’t have to do murder songs to do good bluegrass. This is good bluegrass.

“Hearts Like Ours” by Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White

Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White
Hearts Like Ours
Skaggs Family Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ricky Skaggs has been a major impact on bluegrass and country music for decades. His honors include 11 IBMA awards, 8 ACM awards, 8 CMA awards and 14 Grammys. He’s had 12 #1 hit singles. He started in bluegrass as a young man (at 17, with Keith Whitley, they joined Raplh Stanley’s band), moved to country, and now works in both worlds. Along the way, thirty-three years ago, he married Sharon White. She and sister Cheryl and dad, Buck, are widely loved bluegrass and country musicians and Buck is well known both for his faith and his honky-tonk piano. They made their movie debut in O Brother, Where Art Thou. They haven’t been forgotten in the awards categories, either, winning Dove, CMA and Grammy awards. Together, Skaggs and White won the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award (1987) with “Love Can’t Get Better Than This” (track 2 on this CD) but they’ve never recorded an album together before this.

Hearts Like Ours opens with a number from another well-known music couple, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart, “I Run To You.” Songs just don’t get prettier than this. They also penned “Hearts Like Ours,” another praise of love. This is country music with electric instruments and percussion. It’s all tastefully done, with the percussion adding to the mix instead of demanding a front seat. A track that everyone should recognize is by Townes Van Zandt, 1972′s “If I Needed You.”

If you didn’t pick up on the CD title, this is all about the love shared by two people married for a long time. They’ve spent many years traveling separate roads because of their musical careers. Along the way, their love has stayed true and they’ve borne and reared some talented kids. With all you have to face while touring, a bad combination of boredom and temptation, that’s saying something. It can go to your head, standing on a stage with hundreds, thousands of people applauding you and telling you how great you are, but they’ve survived it all and still have their marriage and careers. Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play more than eighty dates a year, certainly not an Ernest Tubb schedule, but that’s still a lot of time away from home. The Whites are still out there, too.

“It Takes Three” speaks to their faith in God, something they keep in the forefront of their careers. As White sings, “It takes You and him and me.” That’s a message we hear in church and take to heart. Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet contribute “Hold On Tight (Let It Go),” an interesting message about conflict in marriage and always resolving it in favor of love. “Home Is Wherever You Are” is a story about traveling far and wide, which they have, but none of it matters unless you’re together. It’s a good sign for marriage if that’s true rather than preferring to be apart (and I know couples like that, don’t you?).

“I hope they find my King James Bible, worn around the edges and open to the book of John.” So starts “When I’m Good and Gone,” and it continues “I hope they find more good than bad when I’m good and gone.” We don’t like to think about it but life is transient, we’re just visitors here until we go to our final destination. (The common themes for that are Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, or oblivion. White and Skaggs never hide their choice.) Good song. Another one for my have-to-learn list. “Reasons To Hang On” lists a bunch of reasons for slogging on through life even when times are bad. Good reasons, maybe not so obvious when the times are bad, but good reasons.

This CD underlines love, underlines faith between a man and woman and to God. If your thing is “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” or “Redneck Woman” or whatever the similar flavor is this week, this may not be for you. But, it will strike a chord with a lot of people. If you’re a fan of love, you’ll enjoy this CD.

“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.

“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.