“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.

“Run for Your Life” by the Show Ponies

The Show Ponies
Run For Your Life
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Run For Your Life is the first EP from Los Angeles acoustiblue band the Show Ponies. Having recorded a pair of well-received albums, the quintet called upon the enthusiasm of their fan base to release this five song mini-album.

Somehow I missed the Show Ponies when they were first brought to my attention last year, but fortunately didn’t make the same mistake twice. ‘Explosively vibrant’ were the words that popped into my wee head when I first listened to Run For Your Life, and nothing else has yet replaced them so I’m going to stick to that jarring phrase.

Punctuated by a G-run straight outta the Jimmy Martin Book O’ Licks, “Honey, Dog, and Home” celebrates road warriors:

Pull me out to another show,
done fourteen days now in a row,
and people getting’ picky with what I wear-
girl, straighten your skirt and fix your hair!

Despite the lyrical sentiments, it quickly becomes obvious that the band—lead singers Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney, guitarist and producer Jason Harris, lively fiddler Philip Glenn, and drummer Kevin Brown—revels in the vagabond life they’ve chosen. (If in doubt, check their YouTube clips.) Current IBMA banjo player of the year Noam Pikelny hired on for this track and the playful “Stupid,” a swinging tune of significant import…well, maybe not. Still, Pikelny’s contributions are easy to appreciate and further raise the profile of this outfit, which was the likely intent.

Tough to pick the strongest songs from this bunch, but I’ll forge ahead. “Get Me While I’m Young” and “Run For Your Life” offer perspectives on life, love, and all they entail. Both feature forceful instrumentation and creative wordsmithery (“…don’t come when you want, just come when you’re told…,” from the former, for example.)

This too-brief set closes with the more pensive “Some Lonesome Tune,” an appealing song of faith and discovery.
Creating original acoustic music with strong bluegrass and old-time overtones, the Show Ponies are my new favorite band. Find a copy of Run For Your Life to hear why; I’m betting you’ll be just as chuffed.

“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.

“If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice” by Larry Rice

Larry Rice
If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Larry Rice was an understated and brilliant singer, songwriter, and mandolin player who never really achieved the recognition he deserved while living, partly because of the long shadow cast by his brother Tony Rice . Larry’s virtuosity is prominent on If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice. This collection gives listeners incredible insight into his laid back vocal style, distinct mandolin picking, and his choice of material. This album collects work from his albums Hurricanes and Daydreams, Time Machine, Artesia, Notions and Novelties, and Clouds Over Carolina—a body of work spanning 20 years.

In the early 1970s, Rice was an integral part of JD Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys, as well as Crowe’s New South. During his time with Crowe, he was part of two very distinct vocal configurations and he brought different material to the group from the West Coast like “Devil in Disguise”, “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do?”, and “You Can Have Her.”

On this anthology, there are tremendous renditions of straight-ahead bluegrass classics like “Used to Be,” “Take my Ring from your Finger,” and “Four Wheel Drive.” These songs put Larry up front singing lead and playing fiery mandolin licks. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is an extremely intimate cut with Larry and his brother Tony; it is essentially a jam in their living room with just guitar and mandolin. The material presented here is actually quite diverse. “Pretty Polly” is given a modal treatment featuring Larry on a lower lead vocal than traditionally done on this song. The use of a low-tuned clawhammer banjo really emphasizes how different this arrangement is.

“Hurricane Elena” and “Plastic People Town” are incredibly sensitive songs—delivered in ’70s singer-songwriter style—about natural disaster and the shallow nature of huge cities and how lost love feels in such a place.

Stop reading this review. Go purchase this classic album. It showcases Larry Rice at his absolute best as a singer, instrumentalist and performer. Every true fan of incredible acoustic music needs this record.

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

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

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.