“Hylo Brown & the Timberliners” by Hylo Brown & the Timberliners

Hylo Brown & the Timberliners
Hylo Brown & the Timberliners
Rural Rhythm Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Frank Brown—dubbed Hylo by a deejay at WPFB in Middletown, Ohio who kept forgetting the first name of the singer with a wide vocal range—died in Mechanicsburg, Ohio a little more than a decade ago. It’s a short drive from there to Dayton where thousands of Brown’s fellow Kentuckians came looking for work after the war. They’d gather at the beer joints to hear songs of the place they’d left behind, giving the new musical form enough economic backing to flourish.

Brown joined the most commercially succesful bluegrass band of the music’s first generation—Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys—for the first time in 1957, and recorded his first album with his own band, the Timberliners, on Capitol the next year. From what I can tell, it looks like he rejoined Lester & Earl and continued to cut records as a solo artist or with the Timberliners when he had the time.

This disc is a reissue of a 1967 release for Rural Rhythm, the first of seven albums he cut for the label that’s putting out lots of great bluegrass these days.

Backed by Jack Casey (guitar), Ross Branham (banjo), John Maultbray (fiddle), and Danny Milhon (Dobro), Brown strolls through twenty songs—all of which bluegrass and country audiences would have considered standards back then—in just forty-three minutes. (A few of these are familiar instrumentals. Also, there’s a bass and a mandolin in the mix, but no credits in the notes.)

Though the band’s sound and style is similar to Flatt & Scruggs, the purpose here was clearly to let Brown charm the listener with that friendly, inviting voice, which remains full and rich whether its down close to the baritone lead or up in tenor territory. There are a handful of instrumentals here, but they’re even shorter than the vocal tracks.

“Little Bunch of Roses” and “Sweet Fern” are two fine examples of what Brown could do, as is his take on the Hank Williams tearjerker “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” As a bargain disc, this one’s a good pickup if you want to discover a great voice from the bluegrass past.

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“Dancin’ Annie” by Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie    
Dancin’ Annie
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

So many albums from notable bluegrass pickers these days feature the headliner with an assortment of other similarly famous pickers, and the results are usually satisfying—but that they are satisfying in the same way gets old after a while.

It’s refreshing to see banjo legend Bill Emerson (Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron) sticking to the tried and true approach of leading an actual band and trusting them to do great work in the studio.

Sweet Dixie is filled out by Teri Chism (bass), Wayne Lanham (mandolin), and Chris Stifel (guitar), all of whom play and sing with the effortless precision that we have long enjoyed from Emerson’s banjo. They split the vocal leads just about evenly, and their harmony singing and instrumental breaks are done in service of the song. Like I said: an actual band.

Stifel penned and sings a smooth lead on the bouncy title track, while the rest of this 12-track 39-minute CD features songs from other writers. The three on which Chism sings lead are particularly nice fits for her voice and this band: the hard-driving—both lyrically and sonically—”Two Hands on the Wheel,” Liz Meyer’s “The Only Wind that Blows,” and a simple, sweet version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

The three gospel numbers manage to be fresh and meaningful, rather than trite or preachy, and the two instrumentals—Emerson’s own “State Line Ride” and Lanham’s “Whistle Stop”—make this one a fun listen in the car.

The two best tracks here are “Days When You Were Mine” and “This Heart You Have Broken,” which isn’t surprising when you see that they’re both previously unrecorded songs from the songwriting team of Pete Goble and the late Leroy Drumm.

This approach to album-making has its roots in the 1970s, but Emerson and Sweet Dixie prove it still works.

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“Gathering” by Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey
Gathering
Omni Artists Productions

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Stephens submitted this review in July 2013, but I must have hit the wrong button after I edited it, which caused it not to post publicly. I’m very sorry for this error, especially over such a fine project. —AKH

Aaron Ramsey is an excellent mandolin player. He debuted in a family band with his father, Michael, but by his early twenties he was (and is) playing with Mountain Heart, taking the spot vacated by Adam Steffey. Making the transition from being a band member to leading a project isn’t always easy, but Ramsey has made the leap to Gathering in fine style.

He can sing as good as he plays the mandolin. The only familiar song that he sings lead on is “John Henry Blues,” an old Osborne Brothers song. He tears into it along with a distinguished group of accompanists, including bandmates Jason Moore on bass and James Van Cleve on fiddle, Patton Wages (banjo, Volume Five) and the great Tony Rice on guitar. There are two other familiar songs on the CD, “One Tear,” another Osborne Brothers song with Mountain Heart leader Barry Abernathy guesting as lead vocalist, and Bob Dylan’s “Fare Thee Well,” featuring Ricky Wasson (American Drive, New South) singing lead and including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jeff Partin (resophonic guitar, Volume Five), Rice and Brian (banjo) and Maggie (bass) Stephens.

Ramsey sings lead on the other cuts, several of them written by his father, Michael. Religious themes figure heavily in some of Michael Ramsey’s songs, including “The Healer” and “Seek Out the Lost” (featuring Ron Block [banjo], Randy Kohrs [resophonic guitar] and Tim Stafford [guitar]). But father can write and son can sell a good love-gone-wrong song like “Dark Days and Desperation.” “No Ones Found Her Yet” (Aaron Ramsey and Josh Miller) is a great mystery song, a woman disappeared and the man that loves her going crazy with loss while her killer runs loose. “The Streets of Abilene” strikes off in a different direction, telling the story of Marshal Tom Smith. The song, claiming Smith never used a gun, is slightly at odds with the Wikipedia version and fails to mention how he eventually lost his head, but it still makes a good story.

This CD underscores Ramsey’s strengths in songwriting, singing and on the mandolin, but it’s also a display of his versatility. On various numbers he plays sweep guitar, bouzouki (a mandolin cousin), upright bass, guitar, banjo and resophonic guitar in addition to mandolin. Listen to “The Souls of Pioneers” and you’ll discover he’s no slouch on any instrument he picks up.

This is a great CD by an impressive young musician. He needs to be in front of the mic and in the studio often.

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“Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver” by Special Consensus & Friends

Special Consensus & Friends
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

John Denver—like Olivia Newton John—is a divisive figure when discussing 1970s country music. Unlike his Australian counterpart, Denver was a slightly more natural fit for the genre, although that didn’t stop folks from ridiculing his blend of folk, country, and MOR pop. Within his timeless The Phoenix Concerts set, John Stewart even sets up a song by glibly quipping, “Sunshine on my shoulders… makes me sweaty.”

Despite three country number one singles, some twenty-plus appearances within the country single and album charts, and Entertainer, Male Singer, and Album of the Year awards from various industry organizations, Denver was always a county music outlier, ironically too pop for even Charlie Rich.

Those granny glasses and Muppet appearances likely didn’t help.

Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver is a very comfortable album, and there should be no negative connotations associated with that designation as one is not intended. Many of the selected tracks are instantly familiar, and their arrangements and presentations are uniformly appealing.

There is considerable diversity within the set, with Rhonda Vincent’s restrained lead vocals on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” complementing the sedate, emotive instrumental textures laid out by the Special Consensus. “Wild Montana Skies” features Claire Lynch and Rob Ickes, and sounds quite wonderful, with a bluegrass push kicking it up a notch. Lynch’s contributions are significant—she sounds great alongside Rick Faris—and the guitar playing of Dustin Benson is just this side of incredible.

In compiling this album, bandleader Greg Cahill and producer Alison Brown make several key decisions.

Presenting the ubiquitous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as an instrumental is just one of them, but a significant one. Of the Denver songs chosen, it is the one best suited to stand independent of lyrics, generating a different feel here than it would have with its (arguably) overly familiar refrains.

Supplementing the recording with several guests drawn from the Compass family of artists is another important choice. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate vocalist to sing lead on “Rocky Mountain High” than Peter Rowan, and the bluegrass sage absolutely nails his performance; the album’s closing track also features a chorus of singers including Lynch, Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley.

Speaking of Bradley, the Kentucky songbird duets with Faris on the endearing “Back Home Again.” Singing lead on the final verses, Bradley amplifies the emotional density of the song, transforming egocentrism into self-awareness. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is faithfully performed by John Cowan, but with the benefit of his unconventional bluesy approach to all things ‘grass.
Another excellent decision was going deeper into the Denver oeuvre than greatest hits albums would suggest. “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (featuring Jim Lauderdale), “Matthew,” and “Eagles and Horses” are each given memorable treatments, and considering these are most likely not songs the majority of listeners will recognize speaks to the strength of Special Consensus’ performances.

The instrumentation of “This Old Guitar,” I believe, is unique. On this track, all four members of Special Consensus play guitar—and only guitar—creating a tribute not only to a great song, but to an essential bluegrass component.

Limiting the album to only ten songs may not have been the best choice. While not stingy at 42 minutes, there was definitely room for more music. Most significantly, it ‘feels’ as if there should be more here—Denver had a deep catalogue, and this seems a sparse representation of his diversity. Leaving us wanting more is always a good idea, but…

Three tracks feature only the members of Special C. The performances of these songs are uniformly excellent, suggesting that the group might have comfortably stretched themselves had they decided to tackle another couple. I am certain the band could have nailed “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” for instance.

The Special Consensus and Alison Brown—who produced the album and is credited with the arrangements—have created a bluegrass album from songs that, in their original form, were far from bluegrass. As Dave Royko points out in his expansive and informative liner notes, “many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.” What I don’t believe Royko mentions is that Denver’s interpretation of these themes was not close to bluegrass, in singing style, mindset, or method of execution.

There is no mistaking Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver as anything but a bluegrass recording. The mandolin and banjo are prominent, the guitar lines clean and varied, the bass drives the pulse of the music. While the Special C doesn’t employ a fiddler, they have friends—Michael Cleveland, Jason Carter, and Buddy Spicher—to further enliven select songs.

The Special Consensus is approaching their fortieth year with Greg Cahill at the helm, and after nearly twenty albums, they somehow continue to become stronger and more appealing. Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver isn’t a typical Special C album, but it certainly sounds like one.

Thank God they remain bluegrass boys!

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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin’” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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“When Shadows Fall” by Ann & Phil Case

Ann & Phil Case
When Shadows Fall: Songs in the Popular Style
Dry Run Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Artisanal is an adjective that’s pretty effective marketing products these days, from cheese to furniture to mobile phone cases. In an era when most of us eat non-food that we buy with a virtual representation of money that is in itself fake and has not been based on something of value for the last century, more and more of us are realizing that Jefferson was right, that free people making and doing what they like in free markets are more likely to become and remain happy than those who submit to the cube farms and factoires, the bureaucrats and banks.

Based not far from me in Germantown, Ohio, Ann & Phil Case are gentle yet expressive singers, and musical artisans of the highest quality. So are their tools, which include here a 1929 Martin 0-21 guitar, a Washburn tenor ukulele (Lyon & Healy, 1931), a Regal Dobro model 27 from the mid-1930s, a Yale 000-size guitar (Larson Brothers, ca. 1920), and a 1924 Conn alto saxophone.

When Shadows Fall is dreamy and eclectic—like a trip up and down the radio dial sometime in pre-television America—moving from hillbilly fiddle tunes culled from rare 78s (“Rocky Mountain Goat,” “Havana River Glide,” “Evening Star Waltz,” and “Frolic of the Frogs”) to cowboy and country songs made popular by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers (“Treasures Untold,” “Any Old Time”), Gene Autry (“Old Missouri Moon,” “My Old Pal of Yesterday”), Patsy Cline (“I’ve Loved and Lost Again”) to a couple of tunes by notable (at the time) ukulele stars ((I’m Crying ‘Cause I Know I’m) Losing You,” “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”).

A couple of inspired song pairings make this 17-track, 47-minute disc really pay off: first, Ann’s a cappella vocal on the black gospel “Steal Away” followed  by the husband-and-wife harmonies on the Louvin Brothers’ “I Steal Away and Pray” and, second, the twin 1930′s dancehall hits “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “We’ll Meet Again,” ornamented by Phil with ukulele, Dobro, alto and tenor saxphones, and string bass.

While some musical artisans are content to master one style, When Shadows Fall make it plain that Ann & Phil Case master whatever they put their hands to.

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“Poor Old Shine” by Poor Old Shine

Poor Old Shine
Poor Old Shine
Signature Sounds
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Some music defies genre pigeonholing. Poor Old Shine’s press release says they are a roots band with a grassroots ethos. That effectively doesn’t say diddly. They mention the country swing of an old-time string band to describe what they aren’t, and that’s apt. Bluegrass is mentioned somewhere and they are not that, either. As soon as I heard their music I was transported back a few decades the the Grateful Dead’s heyday. POS is reincarnating the music the Dead made.

They are fun listening. I’m not sure what their target demographic is, but I like this music (and I’m a big fan of 50′s on 5, etc. on SiriusXM). Some of it is campy—”Ghosts Next Door” has a theme I really don’t get and they added a weird background sound that is supposed to emanate from a ghostly presence—but it’s easy to listen to. This is music that has words that aren’t all that important to most of us. No doubt some close followers will know every word and hum along, their eyes lighting up like cigarette lighters in a dark stadium. Most of us, if we try to sing along, will totally mess it up, like the line “there’s a bathroom on the right” that really isn’t in “Bad Moon Rising.” But you don’t have to understand them to enjoy them.

“Empty Rocking Chair” starts off with just the singer, a drum and a guitar, who tells us, “I left your mouth so full of questions in an empty rocking chair.” The message is understandable, oddly put but understandable. The background music remains minimal, including a melodic banjo interlude, emphasizing the vocalist who tells his story in sometimes puzzling terms. I’m sure the lyrics make perfect sense to the composer (listed simply as the band, without individual credits). “Footsteps In My Ear” has a fantastic classic rock sound, but that’s their signature.

If your first reaction when I mentioned the Dead was “right on!” or if you just like fun music, this one’s for you.

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“Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” by Noam Pikelny

Noam Pikelny
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

There couldn’t possibly be a better idea for an album than this, and the perfect man to execute that idea is Pikelny, the most interesting banjo player of this decade.

An endless—and pointless—debate in bluegrass music circles is always running. Are we too limited by tradition? Is this newest whatever that claims to be bluegrass enititled to that title? While I tended to side with the traditionalists when I still took part in such discussions, I still believe a) there are only two labels that really matter when we’re talking about music—good and bad—and b) the music speaks for itself.

NPPKBPBM, as I’m calling this instant classic, is a perfect example of how good musicians can and should transcend the “What Is Bluegrass, Anyway?” question. Giving the banjo treatment to the most famous bluegrass fiddle album ever is just the macguffin—as Hitchcock called it—allowing Pikelny—whose playing recalls the bracing effect that Bill Keith’s innovative style had on Monroe’s music—to mix old with new and make something compelling.

Stuart Duncan’s fiddling maintains the strong flavor Baker brought to these miniature symphonies, and the trio of Mike Bub (bass), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), and Bryan Sutton (guitar) could not have been more well-chosen to inhabit the Monroe sound without leaning on cliche.

If I had to make a chronological list of 20 albums to represent the four score and ten years of recorded bluegrass music from 1946 to today, this would be the final entry.

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“Roll Me, Tumble Me” by the Deadly Gentlemen

The Deadly Gentlemen
Roll Me, Tumble Me
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Like it or not, bluegrass music is evolving.

It has been written many times in many ways, but much of the music currently associated with the term ‘bluegrass’ is no small bit removed from that created by the founders of the music.

The Deadly Gentlemen, a quintet based in Massachusetts, are among the recent bands whose music is close enough to warrant mention within conversations about bluegrass, but is so different as to further blur the vision of those who look at music through myopic lenses.

Deadly Gents songwriting principal Greg Liszt—Virginia native, molecular biologist, Americana practitioner with the likes of Crooked Still as well as Bruce Springsteen’s banjoist of choice for The Seeger Sessions—may serve as the musical core of the group, but the entirety of their acoustic foundation is firmly entrenched.

Liszt’s four-finger style of playing is unusual, but one doesn’t notice an obvious difference when listening. What is curious is their approach to vocals. Rather than utilizing lead with two or three part harmony, a choral group approach more familiar to other contemporary music is the Deadly Gentlemen’s preference.

Lead singer Stash Wuslouch has an affable vocal quality, with fiddler Mike Barnett most frequently joining in on co-leads. The group has a distinctive sound, one that is woody, hollow, and oh so refreshing. The entire group takes responsibility for arranging Liszt’s songs, and one can (perhaps mistakenly) attribute the liveliness of the recording to the members’ playing off each other. Dominick Leslie’s mandolin playing is impressive throughout, and while bass player Sam Grisman recently left the group, his presence on the recording is significant.

Outside their instruments of choice, the Deadly Gentlemen have as much in common with the Beatles, Dan Fogelberg, and Mumford & Sons as they do the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Dailey & Vincent. Their songs are simultaneously dreamy and earthy with a vibe that both trippy and grounded.

Sometimes they are frantic in their approach (“A Faded Star”), while at other times they are subtle and emotive (“Bored of the Raging” and “Beautiful’s Her Body.”) While there are breaks and fills, the instrumental parameters of this group are not as hard and fast as one may associate with standard bluegrass, albeit that there are extreme variation in approach within even the most ‘traditional’ of the music.

Their songs are wordy, sometimes dense and frequently poetic. The Deadly Gents don’t sing of mountain homes, mothers and grandmothers, and ploughs in the field, but they do consider “what might have been” (“I Fall Back”), the passing of time (“It’ll End Too Soon” and “Now Is Not The Time”), and failing relationships (“All The Broken Pieces.”) The subject manner therefore, if not its execution, is complementary to the traditions of acoustic roots music.

This writer’s favorite song is the slightly twisted “Working,” although the atmospheric sound of the title track is what was first noticed. “Working” pretty much sums up the ironic, occasionally pithy, philosophy of the album: it isn’t perfect, but it’s only music.

    Work’s not bad and work’s not hard,
I don’t kill chickens or break rocks in a yard.
Work’s not bad and it’s not that tough,
I’m not breaking my neck or my back or my balls in the rough.

Is this bluegrass? I don’t think so—for me it falls into that appealing world I call acoustiblue. If it is bluegrass, it is out on the farthest branches of the Rowan tree.

Does it matter? When Roll Me, Tumble Me completed its initial play through, I smiled and the first thought that came to mind was, “That was good.”

And, it is.

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“Walking Song” by Ron Block

Ron Block
Walking Song
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

As longtime banjo player and guitarist for Alison Krauss’ Union Station, Ron Block’s clean and woody tones are familiar to most fans of bluegrass and acoustic music. His singing voice—heard on lead vocal occasionally on an AKUS album or live show—is more suited to the folky Americana sounds prevalent on his two previous releases for Rounder—Faraway Land (2001) and DoorWay (2007).

Walking Song is even more folky, even though the A-list of bluegrass pickers one would expect are in attendance: fellow AKUS members Barry Bales (bass), Dan Tyminski (vocals and mandolin), and Jerry Douglas (Dobro) are here, along with mandolin aces Sam, Bush, Mike Compton and Sierra Hull and everyone’s first-call Nashville fiddler, Stuart Duncan. Evelyn and Suzanne Cox are also along for harmonies on a couple of tracks.

Kate Rusby’s gorgeous voice adds sweet, rich harmony to Block’s on “Walking Song,” “Summer’s Lullaby,” and “Chase Me to the Ocean,” all of which, along with “Colors,” are highly mannered pastoral songs with a James Taylor flavor.

“The Fields of Aidlewinn,” featuring an Irish bodhran and accordion along with soaring harmonies from Tyminski, and “Ivy,” a solo guitar and voice workout that would make Tony Rice proud, are more engaging, as are the two gospel songs “Jordan, Carry Me” and “Rest, My Soul.” Another sacred song,”What Woundrous Love is This?” is given a grand instrumental treatment by Block (banjo, guitar, and National Duolian) and Jeff Taylor (accordion and pipe organ).

The combo of Block, Bales, Duncan, and Hull do cut loose on bluegrass versions of “Devil in the Strawstack” and “Shortnin’ Bread,” while Alison herself sings harmony on “Nickel Tree Line,” a driving number that should make it into future AKUS live setlists.

Block wrote all but three of the fourteen tracks on this disc, which could have benefitted from more variety in the form of a couple of well-chosen covers and perhaps a couple of lead vocal turns from one of the fine singers who offer only harmony vocals here.

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