“Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration” by Larry Sparks

Larry Sparks
Lonesome and Then Some…A Classic 50th Celebration
Rebel Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Larry Sparks is an undisputed bluegrass icon, as much for his prodigious talent—the mournful, masculine voice pitched a little lower than “high lonesome” and his commanding guitar technique—as his niche somewhere between bluegrass music’s first and second generations (as Carter Stanley’s successor alongside Dr. Ralph starting in 1966, he played a key role in that period of transition when followers of the founders started, ever so gently, branching out).

Fifty years a professional, he’s still as good a bluegrass (or country or gospel, for that matter) lead singer there is, and the band he’s got on this disc—David Harvey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (fiddle), Tyler Mullins (banjo), Larry D. Sparks (bass), and Jackie Kincaid (tenor vocals)—does him justice, especially Kincaid’s old-school harmony on the opening cut, Jimmie Skinner’s “Will You Be Satisfied That Way?” and the simmering gospel bluegrass of “We Prayed.”

Sparks offers up some more trad grass with tenor harmonies from fellow legends Ralph Stanley (on Carter’s “Loving You Too Well”), Bobby Osborne (“Letter to My Darlin’), and Curly Seckler (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”), while Seckler and Jesse McReynolds join in on Hank Williams’ gospel shouter “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.”

But Sparks’ vocal virtuosity is in his ability to master both more contemporary bluegrass songs and banjo-less gospel. Here, the latter style is represented by “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” (which never gets old, especially with Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall joining Sparks and solo guitar), and “Savior’s Precious Blood,” also with just bluesy guitar and that majestic voice.

Sparks again shows on the album’s three bluegrass story songs—the nostalgic “In Those Days,” the realistic coal mining ballad “Journey to the Light,” and the Southern gothic “Bitterweeds” how he can turn a good song into a great one.

The crowning touch of this 12-track disc is a 1995 live cut of Sparks joining Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on stage at Bean Blossom for “In the Pines,” which is predictably grand.

About these ads

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

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

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a little bit wilder

It’s a little more free

Discovering on my own

Discovering me

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

Finally in desperation

Giving way to aggravation

Out he stepped into the street

Never knowing what he’d meet

A passing car was unaware

Of tragedy occurring there

And lickity split, berbump, ker-splat

The grup was gone…

The toad was flat

A pancake colored brown and green

The spectacle was quite obscene

Not Jimmy Martin. Maybe Lester Flatt?

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Great Big World” by Tony Trischka

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

By Aaron Keith Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings” (DVD)

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings (DVD)
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Joe Mullins started this five-piece traditional bluegrass outfit several years ago, partly to promote his Classic Country Radio stations, with whose terrestrial broadcast signal I am privileged to reside.

They were rightly recognized as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012, and their stage show, which they’ve taken far and wide, is a big part of why. Mullins is one of the finest bluegrass five-stringers aline today, and the Ramblers’ four studio albums have been first-rate, but this 16-song DVD that clocks in at more than 70 minutes will show you why they were honored by the IBMA and are in demand by bluegrass promoters and festival-goers.

Mullins is just as friendly and engaging on stage as he is as a radio deejay—he learned a lot from his father, the late, legendary broadcaster and fiddler Moon Mullins, and his son Daniel is just as good on the air—and this trait sets him apart from other great pickers who often neglect to hone their skills as stage presenters.

This show, recorded at Centerville (Ohio) High School, features a nice sampling of songs from the Ramblers’ four releases, including personal favorites “Worth It All” (a bouncy gospel number), “Lily” (borrowed from the Boys from Indiana), and “Katy Daley” (a poem turned into a classic bluegrass song by Moon Mullins).

Duane Sparks ably fills the guitarist/vocalist slot vacated by Adam McIntosh, and longtime Ramblers Mike Terry (mandolin, lead, and trio harmony vocals) Evan McGregor (fiddle and some quartet harmony) are as good here as they are in the studio.

The Centerville Alternative Strings, orchestra students from the host high school, join in with conductor Doug Eyink to close the show in grand style with the David Harvey instrumental “Cruisin’ Timber” and the Bill Anderson-penned “Some Kind of War.” Eyink’s arrangements are uncomplicated but powerful, and played with heart and artistry—just like the music played Mullins’ fine band.

“Through It All” by the Harper Family

The Harper Family
Through It All
Pisgah Ridge Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Harper Family brings songs of belief to bluegrass with excellent harmony singing and good musicianship.

A family band playing in the Midwest (their touring schedule shows Iowa and Missouri), the group includes Hannah Harper, 14 years old and their fiddle player; Dillon (mandolin and vocals) and wife Makeena Harper (vocals); Dalton Harper (guitar and vocals); mother Katrina (upright bass and vocals), and father Gaylon Harper (banjo and guitar).

“Through It All,” an Andraé Crouch song dating back four decades, features Hannah Harper singing lead. She has a beautiful voice, mature beyond her years. The family, with Tim Surrett playing resonator guitar, provides good musical support. For some excellent banjo work there’s a David Staton number, “In His Will There Is A Way.” Gaylon Harper drives the song with his banjo while Dillon Harper sings lead.

There are five major elements that make a CD fair, good, or excellent: the singers, the pickers, the arrangements, song selection and the technical side. The technical side includes recording, mixing and mastering. The Harper family are very good musicians and very good singers. The arrangements have diversity and show some thought was put into them. The technical side is good. What about the song selection?

The family has at least two good composers. Dalton Harper wrote “Child of the King” and mother Katrina Harper penned (and sings lead on) “Don’t You Want To Meet Him.” The latter is based on the biblical story (Mark 2:3-5) of the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends so he could be healed by Jesus. This is an excellent song.

“A Portion Of His Love” is a fast-paced number from Sonya and Ben Isaacs featuring an interesting vocal arrangement on the choruses. “In A Moment Just Like This” from Chris White Music (Chris White, Ray Scarbrough) is a song about the basics of Christian faith: when times are bad, the news isn’t good, where do you turn? Do you turn to God or turn your back on Him? “Spirit Wind” is a different take on this Casting Crowns number based on Ezekiel 37:1-14. I like the mandolin kickoff but the Harper version is brighter than the Crowns version, not quite as haunting. But if you like haunting (and I do), “The Judgement” has a touch of that. Surrett is playing resonator guitar and David Johnson is a one-man string section, playing violin, viola and cello on this number from the Kingsmen.

You have many choices of good groups and good CDs in the bluegrass gospel field. Sometimes the regional bands are overlooked because they lack name recognition. Don’t make that mistake with the Harper Family. If you like good Christian music that isn’t apologetic in its beliefs, you need to hear this CD.

“In the Shadows” by New Outlook

New Outlook
In The Shadows
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass and gospel music have always gone hand–in–hand, from Bill Monroe’s The Gospel Spirit, with such great songs as “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” to current masters such as Paul Williams. New Outlook, a midwestern regional band based in Ohio, joins the gospel field with an impressive CD.

Early pioneers in country music, with many of their songs now standards in bluegrass, the Bailes Brothers penned and recorded songs in the ’40s and ’50s. One of the numbers, composed in 1942 and based on a message Walter Bailes heard in 1937, recorded innumerable times, is “Dust On The Bible.”

There are several other oft-recorded songs on this CD, so you may wonder why you should listen to yet another version. New Outlook’s take on “Dust On The Bible” is a Charmin™ version, softer and gentler than many bluegrass versions I’ve heard. Husband–and–wife team Brad and Lori Lambert are the vocalists along with Caleb Daughtery. They feature great harmony singing and offer a good alternative to the country stylings of Hank Williams and Kitty Wells or the southern gospel style of the Chuckwagon Gang. Is it worthwhile listening to yet another version of “Dust” and these other songs? In this case, definitely.

They go back for versions of “Will He Wait A Little Longer,” a Stanley Brothers number and Dottie Rambo’s great song, “If That Isn’t Love.” “Beautiful Altar of Prayer” compares very well to Doyle Lawson’s version with Jamie Dailey singing lead, and that’s a tough act to follow. Other songs from the past include the old hymn “Pass Me Not (O Gentle Savior),” a banjo–driven version “Cryin’ Holy Unto The Lord” and “Are You Building On The Rock.”

Additional musicians are Dave Morrison on Dobro, Dewayne Guffey on mandolin, and Dave Johnson on fiddle and Dobro. It was engineered by Dan Ward, something not usually mentioned in a review but Ward turns in a good performance singing bass on “I’ve A Mansion Over In Glory.” It’s too bad they didn’t use him on more tracks.

Included are some original compositions by Brad Lambert, including the title track, “Half Remains Untold,” and “See You In The Morning,” which will bring some tears. It’s the story of a couple in love but the man dies. She’s left remembering him saying, “I’ll see you in the morning or I’ll see you in glory.”

There’s not a throwaway track on this CD. It’s going in my stack of play–these–often.

“In Our Own Words” by Bluegrass Express

Bluegrass Express
In Our Own Words
Plum River Records
3½ 
stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Founded by patriarch, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Underwood and his son (bass, guitar, vocals) Greg Underwood, Bluegrass Express is a (mostly) family band that’s now has added third generation member Jacob Underwood (banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals) and mandolinist Andy Hatfield. They are joined on this CD by Tim Crouch (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin on “I’ll Be Gone”) and Bethany Burie (high baritone on “The Key To Heaven”).

Many have the opinion that some of the best harmony singing you’ll hear comes from family bands, and, and that holds true here. Also, all songs on this disc are Underwood family originals—a laudable effort when so many projects feature well-worn material—and the results vary from very good to not quite so good.

“I’ll Be Gone” is a pretty number about love problems, always a favorite subject for composers. It’s a countrygrass number—one that fits either a bluegrass or a classic country stage–and features Greg Underwood as lead singer. He has a good voice and is pleasant to hear singing. It features the banjo as a background instrument through much of the song and, for my taste, a bit more ingenuity would be welcomed, switching the instruments for some variation. I suppose it’s just a personal thing, but I just don’t much like an electric bass in bluegrass. The type of bass isn’t specified but it sounds to me like an electric flat-top. Decibel for decibel, note for note, I would enjoy an upright a lot more.

Gary Underwood sings lead on “It’s Raining Outside,” a slow, swinging, moody number with twin fiddles and nice breaks by the instrumentalists. This is a great number. He also sings lead on “Sinner Hear Me.” It has some swing to it, an interesting chord progression into some minor chords. You don’t hear many gospel swing numbers but they pull this one off nicely. Burie co-wrote the song she sings harmony on, “The Key To Heaven.” This is a good song but she’s low in the mix, mostly a function of not dialing back the lead on the chorus. That’s too bad for she’s a good singer.

“There’ll Never Be Another You” is a fairly typical love–is–gone song—it’s not easy to come up with a fresh take on one of the oldest themes around. “Down In Tennessee” reflects on how much the singer loves Tennessee even though he has to be on the road. This is a good uptempo number and shows off the talents of the pickers.

Getting back to countrygrass, “New True Love” is a good number with a walking bass line. If you like country music you’ll love it, but it may circle people back to the “too much country in bluegrass” argument. I don’t think bluegrass is in danger of losing its identity, of becoming the new real country music with Jimmy Martin’s style of music lost in the shuffle. “Baby’s Gone For Good” is another heartbreaker with a more interesting arrangement, saving most of the instruments to come in after a few bars. It’s a good song, but you may re-start it a time or two as it has an odd, 2–beat pickup start.

This is a good CD, well worth a listen by anyone who enjoys countrygrass.