“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.

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“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.