“Live at the Old Feed Store” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Live at the Old Feed Store
GSM Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ recent release is a live album recorded over two days in 2013 at—where else—“The Old Feed Store,” an intimate venue in southern Illinois. For those of you not familiar with the band, Chris Jones is satellite radio host of Bluegrass Junction, award winning songwriter, and a columnist at Bluegrass Today. The Night Drivers are Ned Luberecki (banjo), also a host of Bluegrass Junction, banjo instructor, and songwriter; Jon Weisberger (bass), the 2012 IBMA Songwriter of the Year, columnist, and IBMA chairman; and Mark Stoffel (mandolin), a professor at Southern Illinois University. It’s hard to think of a group that exceeds this one in terms of instrumental prowess, broad knowledge of bluegrass music and its history, and contributions to the music with their work off the stage.

We’ve all been caught in the situation of watching a live show with disappointment due to a lack passion from the band, no rapport with the audience, or basically not sounding anything like the album. As a musician who regularly plays on stage, I always strive to accomplish an entertaining show for the audience; in the studio, I attempt to create a album that represents a live snapshot of a show. For that reason, I enjoy the experience of a live album—the stage patter, the crowd participation to formulate a feeling of being in the audience, and even the mistakes. There certainly aren’t many of the latter on Live at the Old Feed Store.

Mixed in with the strong original material are a few traditional tunes like “Bound to Ride,” the gospel classic “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which brings back childhood memories, and the classic fiddle tune “Forked Deer,” all of which use their well-known melodies as a jumping-off point for nifty individual expression.

Jones’ take on the classic theme of jealousy and relationships, “Like a Hawk,” and “Then I Close My Eyes” are prime examples of his writing talent, the latter including special guest Emily Bankester on an eerie tenor vocal.

The most entertaining song on the album is “Cabin of Death” written by Nedski as his attempt to write the perfect bluegrass tune that incorporates an upbeat feel, depressing lyrics, and powerful banjo licks.

Being a history teacher and civil war enthusiast, another of my favorite songs on the album is “Battle of the Bands,” (cowritten by Weisberger), which blends fine instrumentation with words that convey the reality of the cruelest war in America’s history.

This 15-track, 48-minute disc gives me the feeling of being in the front row at a great show—I’ll definitely be there in person next time Chris Jones & the Night Drivers come to my neck of the woods.

“In Session” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
In Session
Mountain Home Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I realize it may not be a popular opinion, and it may even get me into trouble, but I’ve always wondered how good DLQ would be if the band became a more stable group, with members expected to stay together for several years to grow into a true band—rather than be a bluegrass training ground or (my least favorite bluegrass term this side of ‘progressive’) ‘school of bluegrass.’

I first had this thought about ten years back when Quicksilver included folks like Jamie Dailey, Jesse Stockman, Barry Scott, and Terry Baucom, fully realizing Baucom was an original member of the group—by the time Dailey and Scott, in particular, left the band, DLQ was getting it as good as it can be got.

Instead, Quicksilver boasts an almost constantly revolving lineup of musicians and singers, all of whom bring considerable talent to the band. But, to me, it always seems everything is temporary with the band—it is just a matter of time before someone moves on and the next guy slips into the mix. Kind of like when Greg Brady needed to fit the Johnny Bravo suit.

As much as I feel this way, I usually enjoy DLQ in concert—as long as the antics aren’t too predictable, and they sometimes are—and I appreciate their recordings, although not as much lately. Recent albums have suffered from weak material and generic and faceless lead singing, with Roads Well Traveled being a particularly telling point, in my opinion. Songs like “Dobro Joe,” “How Do You Say Goodbye to Sixty Years,”  and “One Small Miracle” just didn’t cut it, being derivative of songs Lawson had previously performed to greater impact. “Say Hello to Heaven” was a new low, contrived and nauseatingly shallow, flaws that also marred “I’m That Country” and “The King.”

Doyle Lawson still has it, of course. His most recent albums with Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe are certainly proof of that. It seems that he has just become too focused or maybe complacent, musically, on being Doyle Lawson—repeating the same old stuff with which he has found success. I’ve heard him speak about his recent music, including Roads Well Traveled, and he sure seems to like what he is doing.

I just don’t see—and most importantly, hear—the appeal.

Which is a long way of getting to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s new album, In Session.

It’s pretty good, certainly a mile and half better than Roads Well Traveled. For me, it doesn’t rise to the level of the albums I consider to be DLQ classics: Once and For Always, The Hard Game of Love and You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper. It sounds and feels more impassioned than any Quicksilver secular release since Lonely Street.

The band is solid, of course. Within the current edition of DLQ, Josh Swift (reso, percussion, and vocals) has been around the longest—well, other than Doyle Lawson, natch.  Joe Dean (banjo and guitar) has made a few albums with DLQ, while lead vocalist and guitar player Dustin Pyrtle has been around for a couple of years. Eli Johnston (bass, guitar, vocals) and Stephen Burwell (fiddle on a single song, “Wilma Walker”) are more recent recruits. Most of the fiddling is very ably handled by Jason Barie, now with Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.

The traditional Quicksilver drive is all over this album, with Johnston propelling things from the back end. Songs like “Reasons Why” and “Roll Big River” really benefit from his pulsing bass notes. “Captain” is (I believe) a strong new song from Johnston and Cody Shuler, a bit sad but not obvious.

The instrumental “Evening Prayer Blues” is a great tune, one that has been around for a long time. Lawson’s playing on it is simply impressive while the guitar contributions add a real nice texture to the tune. A cover of the Moe Bandy song “Americana” is a tad over-wrought, but not inexcusably so. The old country song (The Browns, Jimmy C. Newman) “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” is brought into bluegrass perhaps for the first time and it is a good fit. The courting song “Wilma Walker” will likely be popular.

For this listener, this new album is a welcome return to the form and quality that I had come to expect from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. That I felt the band had gone off track for a while is now beside the point: DLQ is back and (forgive me) In Session!

 

“Better than I Deserve” by the Farm Hands

The Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet
Better than I Deserve
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet (not to be confused with the Farmhands Band) are four seasoned veterans who have now been together four years. Daryl Mosley plays bass and sings. He spent ten years with New Tradition, a bluegrass gospel quartet, then ten years with the Osborne Brothers. His composition “He Saw It All” was a #1 hit for the Booth Brothers. Part of his Osborne Brothers tenure included his present bandmate Tim Graves. Graves has been SPBGMA’s Dobro Player of the Year eight times. He also spent time with Wilma Lee Cooper and James Monroe. He has played in several iterations of the band Cherokee with his friend and Farm Hands bandmate Bennie Boling.

Boling is a multi-instrumentalist who plays banjo for the Farm hands. He’s also an accomplished songwriter with songs recorded by Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys. Rounding out the group is guitarist Keith Tew, who has played in Rhonda Vincent’s band and toured with Vassar Clements. His compositions have been recorded by the Lonesome River Band and Lou Reid. This is a lot of talent packed into one band.

Included in this CD are two Boling songs. “Farm Country” is an interesting instrumental with Boling, Graves and guest Jason Roller (fiddle) trading licks. “He’s Got An Answer for Everything” (co-written with Jim McBride) is a gospel number that says what Christians believe. Other gospel numbers are the well known “Over in the Gloryland” and “Streets of Gold,” a beautiful song about the heavenly home of the faithful. Mosley contributes “The Way I Was Raised,” a song about manners and a lifestyle that kids don’t learn as often these days. The band’s harmonies are very good and the musicians know how to support the song without overwhelming the singer.

Mosley also wrote “Better than I Deserve” is an unusual a cappella number that starts out as an solo then adds a variety of percussive sound effects and a background quartet of Mike Reid, Bruce Dees, Lisa Silver, and Nick DeStefano. Reid is a talented singer/songwriter who also had a career in pro football. His CD from several years back is still one of my favorites; twenty-one of his compositions have gone to #1 on the country and pop charts. Dees has had a long career as a session player and enjoyed a long relationship with Ronnie Milsap, including singing backup on one of my favorites, “Lost In The Fifties Tonight.” DeStefano has worked with a number of stars including Kathy Mattea and Lisa Silver has enjoyed a long Nashville career. That’s an impressive backup quartet. The song isn’t mainstream bluegrass but it’s good listening.

Tew adds one song, “Mama Prayed and Daddy Plowed,” a song about a hard but good life in the country, and they pick up three good country numbers: Jerry Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times,” Merle Haggard’s “The Way It Was in ’51” and a Randy Travis hit, “From Your Knees,” a song about a man who has reached the end of the line in love, a bed he made all on his own.

This is another very good CD from the Farm Hands, full of good songs and great picking.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” by Ralph Stanley & Friends

Ralph Stanley & Friends
Man of Constant Sorrow
Cracker Barrel
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’m not sure how many Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers albums have been named Man of Constant Sorrow, but I own three. Similarly, I don’t know how many projects have been created in the past two-plus decades that pair Stanley with a host of other singers, but I had three—Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1992), Clinch Mountain Country (1998), and Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (2001)—before the latest such set arrived.

I’m not complaining, mind. As long as Dr. Ralph is willing and able, and as long as those who admire his talents come to pay tribute, I will be listening. This new 40-minute set from Cracker Barrel has a great deal to offer.

Co-produced by Americana legends Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale (who, don’t forget, recorded I Feel Like Singing Today (1999) and Lost in the Lonesome Pines (2002) with Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys), Man of Constant Sorrow is a consistent, wonderful album from (almost) start to finish.

The Clinch Mountain Boys accompany Stanley on the vast majority of these familiar numbers, most of which were recorded in the intimacy of Miller’s living room. The guest vocalists and musicians are among the most recognized within the Americana, country, and bluegrass fields and include Josh Turner, Dierks Bentley, Ricky Skaggs, and Lee Ann Womack.

Recording with Stanley for the first time is Del McCoury; a highlight of the set, the two take on Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” As he is always, McCoury is in fine voice taking the lead, and by re-establishing much of the lyrical integrity missing on the version Stanley recorded in 1971, the song is given a mighty performance heightened by Stanley’s tenor.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform in a close vocal trio with Stanley accompanied by bassist Paul Kowert. A song often treated as a throwaway, on “Pig In A Pen” Welch especially appears to bring her ‘give-a-damn’ on this track; listening to her performance, which seems to inspire Stanley, one could easily be convinced that it is a song of major lyrical importance.

Ronnie McCoury and his mandolin make a few appearances including when Miller and Lauderdale assist Stanley on “I’m The Man, Thomas,” another frequently recorded Stanley favorite. Nathan Stanley sings “Rank Stranger” with the Clinch Mountain Boys, while his grandfather takes care of “Man of Constant Sorrow” with his very capable band.

Robert Plant continues to endear himself to the roots community with stunning vocal contributions on “Two Coats,” a song Stanley has recorded a couple times previously. Plant reaches the core of the song, and the arrangement is sparse and no little bit haunting.

The only glitch heard on the album most likely comes down to personal taste. The piece that surely resonates most closely with Stanley is his personal recitation over “Hills of Home,” and—like most similar pieces—it is just a little too precious and contrived for repeated listening.

Man of Constant Sorrow is just the latest in a series of albums, including last year’s disc of duets with Ralph Stanley II and A Mother’s Prayer, that provide no shortage of evidence that Ralph Stanley remains a vital entity in his 87th year.

“Forty Years Old” by the Crowe Brothers

Crowe Brothers
Forty Years Old
Mountain Fever Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Forty years and still going strong—that’s the written message from the Crowe Brothers and their new CD is ample support for that. An interesting side note is how they see their music. When I hear their name I think “bluegrass,” but their web page shows they are bluegrass and traditional country artists with Americana and acoustic roots thrown in. A lot of bluegrass acts (like J.D. Crowe) include(d) classic country in their acts. Look at the composers and you’ll see Haggard and Tom T and Dixie Hall (although the latter write pure bluegrass, too, including “I’ve Got the Moon On My Side” on this CD). Acoustic roots and Americana are (in my opinion) catch-all categories and old-time is in that mix. “Angeline Baker” could fit into that category as well as a large portion of Doc Watson’s work. It’s a good mix and gives them wiggle room in case purists want to argue about what’s bluegrass and what isn’t.

The vocals are primarily Josh and Wayne Crowe, and their lead vocals and brother harmonies are strong and clear, firmly in the tradition of so many other similar duos in country and bluegrass history. How well you like (or don’t) singing or picking is a personal choice. I’ve heard people shouting “yeah” for an act that I wouldn’t cross the road to see (but didn’t manage to get out of my chair to escape). Some acts I like are panned by some of my friends. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a large chunk of middle-of-the-road bluegrass fans not enjoying their work, so it seems odd they only have a dozen recording projects over those forty years until you look at their history. They started playing music with their dad (Junior Crowe) then, in 1975, teamed with veteran Maggie Valley performer Raymond Fairchild. Wayne left the road in 1990 while Josh continued to perform, then Wayne rejoined Josh in 2005.

Gospel music is an important part of their act. Two of their CDs (“Jesus is Coming” and “The Gospel Way”) are gospel CDs and two tracks on this CD are gospel. Wayne Crowe penned “Where Will You Be,” the only track featuring Brian Blaylock singing baritone. Blaylock plays mandolin, lead guitar and a Weissenborn lap steel. They also include “Someday My Ship Will Sail,” a song that’s been around for some time.

Several of the tracks have country music connections. “Angel Mother” is much like many “mother” songs heard in bluegrass (Jim and Jesse recorded it) and old-time music, but this was written by Cindy Walker, best known as a country music composer. Songs that every classic country fan will recognize include an old Buck Owens hit, “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got a Heartache,” Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway” (often associated with Hank Williams) and Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow (You Dream On).” Steve Sutton plays banjo on the CD and this last track is one he plays Dojo on.

“Two Feet On The Floor” is a hard-driving song with the message to just get up and get going with whatever you want to accomplish. “Don’t Let Our Love Die” (not to be confused with the 1951 Everly Brothers’ song by the same name) sounds like it could have been a Louvin Brothers’ duet while “Livin’ In a Mobile Home” is cute take on the Winnebago crowd. The “Green Fields of Erin” is a lilting Irish song featuring David Johnson on strings while Travis Wetzel plays fiddle on several tracks, including the title song (“You Turned Forty Years Old”). This one is especially touching for me because my son turned forty this year. I have no idea where the years went.

This is good music. I’m looking forward to the next time I see them on stage.

Ready for a mystery? This CD credits “Excuse Me …” to James Henry Boxley III and Ricky M. L. Waters while the lyrics at one site add Eric T. Sadler to that list. The song as played by Cake on“B-Sides and Rarities” is clearly the same song as the one recorded by Buck Owens and composed by Owens and Harlan Howard. The liner notes even refer to it as a Buck Owens’ hit. A response from the record company tells me their researcher found three sets of writers claiming rights to the song. This sounds like a mystery that won’t ever be solved.

“Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn” by Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

One of the great joys in life is seeing two people from different spheres of your life connect. I was happy and surprised when I heard that Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married. I only knew them from their music, but I had them  categorized in very different bins in my mental record collection—he known for radically extending the banjo’s possibilities with complex compositions and fast, intricate picking, and she for simple, beautiful playing and signing that draws deeply from the past of American and various world roots music traditions.

After a year of touring and the birth of their first child, they created this “front porch banjo and vocal album” at home—just the two of them with a variety of banjos playing supporting roles to Fleck’s Gibson Mastertone Style 75 and Washburn’s Ome Jubilee.

Washburn’s shimmering voice refreshes traditional tunes like the slow and driving “Railroad,” the dolorous “Pretty Polly,” the keening existential plea of “And Am I Born to Die,” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?,” which is nearly as gorgeous as Washington Phillips’ famous version.

Mixing old and new, Washburn combines a verse from Texas acoustic bluesman Little Hat Jones with new verses of her own on “Bye Bye Blues,” whose New Orleans feel is underscored by a bass line plucked out on a Gold Tone cello banjo.

Fleck’s dextrous picking works especially well as a complement to Washburn’s vocals, and her picking blends seamlessly with his, whether on vocal tracks or on instrumental duets like their low and rolling original “Banjo Banjo,” the Flecktones’ classic “New South Africa,” and “For Children: No. 3 Quasi Adagio, No. 10 Allegro Molto—Children’s Dance,” a pastoral Hungarian folk melody from Fleck’s namesake Béla Bartók.

The pair also offer new songs that work well alongside their innovate arrangements of traditional material: Fleck’s sharp tale of impending disaster “What’cha Gonna Do,” Washburn’s gentle, cascading “Ride to You,” the swampy “Little Birdie” (not the traditional song, but a new co-write), and “Shotgun Blues,” a menacing, role-reversing (almost) murder ballad where Washburn might as well be channeling Amy Elliott-Dunne, the protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Let’s all hope that their personal and musical collaboration continues for a lifetime with the same brilliance as this first record.

“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.