“Turn on a Dime” by Lonesome River Band

Lonesome River Band
Turn on a Dime
Mountain Home Music Company
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, LRB would have to be the hardest working band in the bluegrass business.  I can’t recall the number of times I’ve seen that green tour bus, sitting at festivals I’ve attended across the country.  With a tons of awards packed beside his Huber Banjos, bandleader Sammy Shelor continues to crank out albums and miles on the road. Turn on a Dime has this five-piece—with Brandon Rickman (guitar, lead and harmony vocals), Randy Jones (mandolin, lead and harmony vocals), Mike Hartgrove (fiddle), and Barry Reed (bass, harmony vocals) joining Shelor—bringing their signature smooth, steady rolling sound to the work of a wide variety of contemporary bluegrass songwriters.

The first single on the album “Her Love Won’t Turn on a Dime” sets the tone with a love song to that rarity in country music—a woman who is not hard on the wallet of the singer. Others unmistakably in the Shelor/LRB wheelhouse include “Gone and Set Me Free” (featuring sweet twin fiddling from Hartgrove), the bouncy “If the Moon Never Sees the Light of Day,” and the foot-tapping “Teardrop Express”

The brooding “Lila Mae” and “Don’t Shed No Tears,” an eerie tale of dying and going home to rest that relies on a creative lick twined by banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, bring a welcome shade of darkness to the LRB sound; “Holding to the Right Hand” also widens their sound, with Rickman grabbing the heartstrings on this ballad of confession and devotion.

These boys reach back for some traditonal and classic country sounds as well on “Bonnie Brown” (whose sound recalls Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrooks”), the barroom bounce of “A Whole Lot of Nothin’,” and a stately version of Merle Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love.”

A cleverly arranged “Cumberland Gap” ends the 13-track, 45-minute album with clear evidence of why Sammy Shelor was the 2011 Steve Martin Excellence in Banjo Award winner.

Though LRB’s current approach lacks a bit of the drive I’ve come to expect over 15 years of following them, both old fans and newcomers will enjoy where this fine band is now.

“Songs from My Mother’s Hand” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Songs from My Mother’s Hand
Wrinkled Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

For those born after 1960, Mac Wiseman is little more than a name occasionally encountered when reading the history of popular country music.

Wiseman hasn’t recorded for a major label since 1973, and hasn’t made a country Top 40 chart appearance since a novelty song (“Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride”) in 1969. Even prior to that, he didn’t have the chart presence of many of his contemporaries. Why then does Mac Wiseman remain significant as we move into 2015?

In 1993, Wiseman was inducted as part of the third class of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame (then called the Hall of Honor) alongside Jim & Jesse McReynolds—ahead of luminaries including the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and the Country Gentlemen. “The Voice with a Heart,” certainly one of bluegrass and country music’s most emotive and sentimental singers, Wiseman joined first the Foggy Mountain Boys and then Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

Wiseman’s signature song, “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” has been recorded by scores, but it was Wiseman who made it a Top 5 number in 1959. He participated in the folk revival of the 1960s, and has released more albums than can reasonably be counted, including a spectacular set with Del McCoury and Doc Watson in 1998.

On the business side, Wiseman co-founded the Country Music Association, worked in A&R for Dot Records, and has remained a fiercely independent artist within the confines of the country and bluegrass worlds over the past several decades. Nearing his 90th birthday, the Virginia native has most recently been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and is said to have the longest running recording career in history.

Songs From My Mother’s Hand is a truly remarkable album. Not only are the performances enjoyable and heartfelt, but the album’s foundation stretches back some 80-plus years. Within the Wiseman family home, Mac’s mother Ruth would transcribe songs heard on the family’s Victrola radio, collecting them in a series of composition booklets that helped the youngster learn the popular songs of the day. Preserved through his long career, Wiseman hauled the notebooks to Nashville (apparently in a green plastic bag) and used these old transcriptions as the basis for the songs recorded for this album: truly then, these are songs from his mother’s hand.

According to album co-producer Peter Cooper, Wiseman recorded the vocals for this new collection in a single session. Wiseman’s voice remains rich and mellow, although there is no shortage of hints that he isn’t as vocally flexible as he may once have been. No matter such limitations when the execution of these timeless songs is so obviously masterful; Wiseman knows these now classic folk songs by heart, having sung them both as a child and throughout his life. Not every lyric matches the most frequently documented rendition, but such quibbles are inconsequential.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of Nashville instrumental and vocal A-listers, co-producers Thomm Jutz and Cooper have ensured that Wiseman’s singing be the focal point of the recording. Justin Moses (fiddle and vocals), Seirra Hull (mandolin and vocals), Mark Fain (bass), and Jimmy Capps (guitar, reso), along with folks like Alisa Jones Wall (Grandpa Jones’ daughter, hammered dulcimer), Jelly Roll Johnson (harmonica), Cooper (vocals), and Jutz (guitar and vocals) create an instrumental and vocal canvas that is brightened and highlighted by Wiseman’s warm timbre. The effect is that one has been invited into Wiseman’s home to listen to the man, perhaps seated at his mother’s kitchen table, sing these songs within a jam conducted amongst great friends.

The disc package is also top-notch. Created by Latocki Team Creative and Backstage Design, and with excellent  liner notes by Cooper and photos from Wiseman’s family collection, it is a beautifully composed offering, worthy of attention when awards for such are considered.

Each song offers something special, with the less frequently encountered songs notable. “Old Rattler,” a timeless song about an old coon dog, is infused with energy from the harmony chorus; Wiseman’s voice reveals his personable chuckle during the final verse. The album’s saddest song, “Answer to Weeping Willow,” is as grim as the more familiar “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow,” while the pure pitiful “Eastbound Train” pulls in as a tight second.

These songs, including “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and “Little Redwood Casket” have great meaning to Wiseman, and he communicates their importance in every vocal nuance. That songs composed and performed eighty, a hundred, and several hundreds of years ago remain engrained within our musical vocabulary is a testament to the density of their message, the value of their stories.

That they sound fresh and relevant today is a measure of Mac Wiseman’s talents as a great musical communicator.

“Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two” by Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups

Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups
Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“Bluegrass” is indefinable because it’s a notion in your mind. Some will insist it must be something Bill Monroe would have played. Others prefer the Old Crow Medicine Show or newgrass pioneers like Sam Bush (who does a fine job on traditional numbers, too). Some will say it must have a banjo to be bluegrass, or it needs that “high, lonesome” sound. It can’t have drums, some say, while others scoff amplified instruments. Most of us take a middle-of-the-road approach and simply say, “I know it when I hear it,” which, of course, does nothing to quell the arguments.

In general, though, the core music is comprised of some combination of banjo, flattop guitar (preferably a Martin), mandolin, fiddle (violins are for highbrow music), resophonic guitar and upright bass. A common compromise is the bass because of its bulk. Bands substitute an acoustic flattop bass, a “stick” bass or a “Fender” bass. Mr. Monroe once had an accordion, though that’s as rare as hen’s teeth. Variations of core instruments may include a viola (in the case of Nancy Blake, a cello) or a mandola (IIIrd Tyme Out’s Wayne Benson) and sometimes a snare drum, steel guitar or piano.

It’s the music more than the songs that make it bluegrass. As we look at the songs included in these two CDs, songs that are cross-genre will be noted but I believe few will argue their inclusion in bluegrass. Harmony singing, sometimes two part, sometimes three part and, more rarely, four part, is very important and the harmony on these tracks is beautiful.

Bill Monroe is heralded as the father of bluegrass and Jimmy Martin declared himself to be king of bluegrass, but there is a sizable list of people who were there in the early years and helped shape the music. Arthur “Red” Smiley appeared on the scene at the age of twenty-one. In 1949 he joined Don Reno, fresh from a stint as a Blue Grass Boy, in the Tennessee Buddies of Tommy Magness then Reno & Smiley went on their own in 1951. They were a popular pairing and you can still see parts of their TV shows on Ronnie Reno’s show on RFD-TV (featuring a very young Ronnie Reno on mandolin and Mac Magaha – later Porter Wagoner’s fiddle player). Reno & Smiley made great music but disagreement over their touring schedule lead to a split in late 1964.

Smiley and his band, the Blue Grass Cut-Ups, made three recordings for Rural Rhythm before his TV show was cancelled in 1968. Smiley briefly retired, then joined Reno and Bill Harrell in 1970. Red Smiley died January, 2, 1972 at the age of 47.

These two separately released Red Smiley CDs (how could you buy just one?) have a slew of titles most fans will recognize. “Summertime Is Past and Gone,” a Monroe number, features excellent bluegrass harmony. “Roll On Buddy” has been recorded by countless bands through the years. Billy Edwards has a hot hand on the banjo on the recordings. Tater Tate is playing fiddle and tears into a short (1:09) “Big Sandy.” and a hot “Black Eyed Susan.” “Wreck of the Old No. 9″ isn’t as widely played as “Wreck of the Old 97″ but is still recognized by older fans. “Take This Hammer” is associated by many with the folk music movement but was made popular long before that by Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter. “900 Miles” is another old song that is often associated with it’s Folk renditions. “Darling Corey” was made popular by the Monroe Brothers but it’s origin dates well before then and no one knows for sure where it came from.

Volume One’s gospel numbers are still popular today. “Working On A Building” and “Somebody Touched Me” are heard most often but “Something Got Hold of Me” is still heard in bluegrass circles. “Tupelo County Jail” may be most familiar to many as a Webb Pierce or Mel Tillis recording. (Coincidentally, there is an insight into the music business connected to this song. The video linked above includes an introduction to the song by Webb Pierce. He attributes the song to Mel Tillis. On another site you’ll see the song attributed to Tillis and Pierce and the image of the 45 r.p.m. record clearly shows both names. It’s likely Pierce followed a fairly common practice of recording the song only if he got partial writer’s credit.)

Other musicians on these recordings include John Palmer playing bass and Gene Burris/Burrows playing mandolin (which you hear little of) and guitar. Smiley plays guitar, also.

“In The Pines” has crossed genres several times and is heard on a regular basis at bluegrass shows today. “Silver Bells,” a number I’ve heard on guitar, is played here with a banjo-fiddle lead. The last time I heard “Little Birdie” was a couple of years ago on Dr. Ralph Stanley’s show. “Oh! Monah” has an interesting pedigree as a pop song being played in bluegrass. Listening to the intro to Ted Weem’s version, you have to wonder how this could ever translate to bluegrass. The lyrics give a clue but still it’s evidence of the importance of the music making the bluegrass.

“Shady Grove” has been around about forever. Smiley’s version is played at breakneck speed and my preference is Doc Watson’s version. This is one of those songs that has countless versions floating around. “Fallen Leaf,” on the other hand, was a new one for me. A 1952 recording from the John Quincy World Folklore Collection is another example of a genre-jumping number rearranged for bluegrass.

Take a break, let your ears rest, then drop in Volume Two.

The Cut-Ups included several gospel numbers that you’ll hear over and over at bluegrass shows. “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “Take Me In the Lifeboat,” “I’ll Be No Stranger There,” (and you’ll hear some mandolin on this one) and “A Beautiful Life” are all familiar songs. Some may remember “The Pale Horse and His Rider,” a song co-written by Walter Bailes and recorded by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Williams also recorded “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” a popular song a few decades ago. Listen to the melody and you’ll be reminded of another popular song. “The Man of Galilee” is less known, at least today. “Living the Right Life Now” was recorded around 1961 by Molly O’Day with more of an old-time sound.

Another popular theme in bluegrass is death, sometimes with violence. The death of a child is recorded with “Budded On Earth To Bloom In Heaven.” For all you eclectic music collectors, this is the version recorded by Martha Carson, not Freaky Chakra’s version. Jimmie Davis co-wrote a song Bill Monroe recorded and is remembered by fans, “Plant Some Flowers By My Grave.” This is another example of very good lead singing by Smiley along with good harmony from Tate and Burris/Burrows. These CDs have value for the fan who has been around some years, good singing and good picking, but should not be disregarded by newer fans of bluegrass. Smiley wasn’t breaking new ground with these recordings but they were a part of marking the trail for traditional bluegrass.

It’s a rare festival that doesn’t feature at least one rendition of “Katy Hill.” “Banks of the Ohio,” a popular murder ballad has been recorded by such diverse talents as Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Olivia Newton-John and a host of others, while Willie kills Molly in “Little Glass of Wine.” None of them have anything on Smiley’s version. “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail,” “It’s Raining Here This Morning” and “Prisoner’s Dream” all touch on another familar theme, jail time.

“Little Darling Pal of Man,” a Carter Family number, is presented here as an instrumental and, for this pair of CDs, the rare track that should probably have been left off. It features a couple of bass breaks played enthusiastically but with questionable intonation. After the break it seems like the band hasn’t figured out what to do with the banjo jumping in while the rest must be having a cup of coffee for a measure or so. Oh, well, they weren’t perfect. “Prosperity Special,” a 1:02 quickie is a better number that traces back to Bob Wills. Rounding out the CD are “Baby Girl” and the lament “Ain’t Nobondy Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”

Red Smiley was a first-generation pioneer in bluegrass, coming on the scene a handful of years after Bill Monroe. It would be a shame if he disappears from the collective bluegrass psyche as the years march by and older fans are no longer here to jostle our memories. Taken one by one this collection doesn’t offer the very best of his work—the cuts are too abbreviated, there’s too much of a feeling that Uncle Jim O’Neal was looking for songs to memorialize rather than putting together an instrument for Smiley and his band. But Smiley did a good job with what he was given and this is a rare opportunity to buy a collection of his music. If you love traditional bluegrass you should be listening to these CDs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Pull Your Savior In” by the Larry Stephenson Band

Larry Stephenson Band
Pull Your Savior In
Whysper Dream Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There’s comfort in hearing familiar songs. Hearing hymns that you know by heart is—for those who believe—like having welcoming arms wrapped around you.

Larry Stephenson offers up a mix of well-known hymns, others you’ll recognize but don’t get recorded all that often, and a surprise or two. The lead number is an excellent a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony. Stephenson leads off with his familiar tenor/high lead voice, slow and clear as a ringing bell. Joining in on the second stanza is one of the best tenor singers you’ll hear, Jimmy Fortune. Add Dale Perry singing bass and David Parmley on baritone and you have an all-star quartet.*

Other familiar hymns are “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and “How Great Thou Art.” Parmley-Perry-Fortune are only on the first track but you need not be dismayed: Stephenson’s bandmates add some great harmony on the other tracks. Stephenson, of course, is the mandolin player. Kenny Ingram, a veteran bluegrasser (James Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Nashville Grass), sings harmony and plays banjo plus lead guitar on one number. Colby Laney (who has since returned to Volume Five, replaced by Kevin Richardson) sings lead and harmony and plays guitar while Danny Stewart (since replaced by Matt Wright) plays bass and sings bass on “If You Want To Live Forever” (the track with Ingram on the guitar), a good up-tempo number co-written by Randall Hylton. This band makes excellent music, with plenty of drive.

The title number, composed by Stephenson, is an energetic number with some good advice, and features a hot guitar break by Laney. Guest Aubrey Haynie joins the band on fiddle and he’s always a welcome addition. Have you ever had a come-to-Jesus moment? Used to describe an epiphany when you realize an important truth, most of use have had one (but we all know at least one person who wouldn’t know an epiphany if it chewed their leg like a Pekinese), Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley turned it into a meaningful song. The singer has, literally, come to Jesus and hopes he didn’t wait too long. I know people who wear their faith like their skin—it’s been with them forever—but a lot of us needed that come-to-Jesus moment and the good news that it’s never too late.

I heard Roy Acuff sing “The Great Speckled Bird” countless times but, with the respect due Mr. Acuff, Stephenson’s version is one of the prettiest ones you’ll hear. Another good number, this one composed by Albert Brumley, is “The Prettiest Flowers Will Be Blooming.” It’s been recorded by many—the Legendary Marshall Family had a good turn with it—but I never get tired of this one. “Will You Meet Me Over Yonder” is another good traditional song. Other numbers rooted in bluegrass tradition are the Lester Flatt—composed “Thank God I’m On My Way” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Born Again.”

“Morningtime Always” is the promise of Heaven. Co-written by veteran writer Bill Castle, Stephenson and Laney share the lead.

Stephenson is tilling old but fertile soil with this CD. His band is always on the top of their game and he puts his own stamp on these songs. If you like your gospel bluegrass style, this is a good bet.

*The last news I’ve had about Parmley dates back two years when he announced he was “taking some time off from the music business to pursue other interests.” He had enjoyed a long run in the business, including the Bluegrass Cardinals (Stephenson was also a member), and will hopefully come back to bluegrass at some point.

Another Cardinals alumnus is Dale Perry. I’ve seen him as a banjo player, a bass player and a sound technician and he does all of them well. He’s also a good bass singer. Hopefully, he’ll find another niche on the circuit soon.

Jimmy Fortune had a great run with the Statler Brothers (21 years) and has been on his own since they retired in 2002.

“Christmas in the Smokies” by various artists

Various artists
Christmas in the Smokies
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

It’s the time of the year that jolly old St. Nick is checking his list and parents are hanging their stockings with care. Pinecastle Records is in on the festivities with the 15-track, 45-minute Christmas in the Smokies.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Christmas albums but just like Brylcream, a little dab will do ya.  Now before you start mailing me lumps of coal for this statement, Mr. Grinch, I really like this album and I found myself tapping my toes and enjoying the fabulous picking and singing from Pinecastle artists past and present, including crooners like Charlie Waller (with a grand “White Christmas”), Larry Stephenson (on the lullaby “Away in a Manger”), and Josh Williams (“My Christmas Dream”).

Other clever renditions of classic songs that everyone will recognize include a lush arrangement of “The Christmas Song” and a jazzy “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from Newton and Thomas, and grassy takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” from Wild and Blue and Special Consensus, respectively. Celebrated pickers Phil Leadbetter (“Jingle Bells”), Ross Nickerson (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the trio of Scott Vestal, Wayne Benson, and Jeff Autry (“Frosty the Snowman”) chip in crisp instrumentals.

Two of the less familiar songs are welcome additions to anyone’s bluegrass Christmas playlist: “It’s a Time for Joy” from Matt Wallace and Jesse Gregory and the title track from Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road.

If you are a bluegrass fan and in the Christmas spirit, this would be a nice album to play while the children are opening presents by the fireplace in any home, not just in the Smokies.

 

“Trouble Follows Me” by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
Trouble Follows Me
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Growing up on a farm in Eastern Kentucky in the 1980s, my dad had this old 1977 Ford Series 2600 tractor.  This tractor was the workhorse of its era—nothing fancy, just a three-cylinder diesel-powered engine humming along at 38 horsepower. This tractor was steady and true; it seemed to know what you wanted it to do. When first listening to the Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice album Trouble Follows Me, I kept imagining that old blue tractor plugging along through the fields, steady and true. Just like the tractor, Sisk is in his niche here doing what he does best—singing traditional bluegrass music.

Eastwood Studios did a great job of getting the true tones of each instrument, including Sisk’s smooth, rich voice, which blends well with the harmony vocals of Johnathon Dillon (mandolin) and Jason “Sweet Tater” Tomlin (upright bass). This nostalgic blend gives the listener the feel of traditional bluegrass but adds just enough intuitive licks to keep you on your toes. This album also features tunes from some of my favorite songwriters: Bill Castle, Ronnie Bowman, Michael Martin Murphy, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Dallas Frazier—and one track by the legendary Carter Stanley. I love when bands tip their hats to the vintage tones of our grassfathers who shared the same vision for rooted traditional music.

The album starts with the nice hook of Bill Castle’s “Honky Tonked to Death,” fun tale of one being mixed up in the shenanigans of traveling musicians, followed by “Don’t Think About it Too Long,” which recalls the Bluegrass Album Band sound with some nice banjo picking by Jason Davis. After these two mid-tempo songs, Ramblers Choice shifts to a higher gear with “I’d Rather Be Lonesome.” As Billy Hawks’ fiddle saws, I’m tapping my toes with the fast paced three chords and the truth.

Dallas Frazier’s song “All I Have To Offer You is Me” was once popularized by the great country singer Charlie Pride, and Sisk has plenty of room in its slow tempo to work in the strong emotion that he’s known for creating, and he puts chills down my spine when he hits the lyric “and the silence grows louder” in the evocative melody of “Cold Empty Bottle” from songwriters Ronnie Bowman and Bryce Barker.

The bare-bones “Walk Slow,” written by Tom T. and Dixie Hall, has nice lead guitar from Hawks, and has more of a singer-songwriter texture than the rest of this album; another change of pace is Tomlin singing a smooth lead on the Michael Martin Murphy song “What am I Doing Hanging Round

Sisk’s credentials as a Stanley disciple are strongly evident, both with “Our Darling’s Gone,” a lesser-known Carter Stanley composition, and “Jesus Walked Upon the Water” an a cappella gospel song with the type of arrangement Ralph Stanley helped popularize in bluegrass circles.

“Frost on the Bluegrass” offers a fresh take on the central bluegrass theme of longing for home after leaving for work, and is one of my favorite tracks on the album, as is the title track, a hard-driving co-write from Sisk and his father, Harry Sisk Sr.

I might like to hear a more diverse mix of songs, particularity tempo-wise (which can be difficult as traditional bluegrass seems to favor a lot of mid-tempo songs around the 120bpm range), but make no mistake: any fan of traditional bluegrass will appreciate the quality of musicianship, songwriting, and singing that Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice deliver here.

“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.