“Sorrow Bound” by Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater
Sorrow Bound
Kingswood Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Toronto, Ontario—hotbed of Appalachian music.

Alongside the recent release of the Slocan Ramblers’ Coffee Creek, one might well have growing evidence that Canada’s most cosmopolitan city has more than a few inhabitants who know their way around the music of the holler.

Originally released a year ago, Sorrow Bound receives wider distribution this summer and deservedly so. Low and mournful are the sounds Kaia Kater, a traditional musician in her early 20s, appears to favour. Playing in the traditional clawhammer style—Art Menius has identified her as “the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century”—Kater has spent a great deal of time in West Virginia studying the traditions of Appalachian balladry and dance.

Much like Anna & Elizabeth have done, Kater plays with traditional music to gently knit together connections between ancient tones and modern times. Whereas that duo does so largely through their interpretation of traditional songs, Kater takes a more modernist approach, one equally necessary to allow the music to thrive and flourish. “Southern Girl ,” one of several originals contained on this stunning debut, has its foundation in the remnants of another time, but its passionate hopes are well observed in the changes our society is currently undergoing.

The title track is a revelation. Featuring what sounds like bowed bass, this atmospheric song explores dark challenges of previous times and personal yearning through poetic snatches of language, leaving the story open to interpretation; Kater’s frailing banjo flourishes provide percussive punctuation. Another Kater song, “Oh Darlin’,” in lyric, essence, and structure, could easily be a couple of centuries old.

Kater, who knows her way around the old songs like someone raised in the tradition, is nothing if not unconventional. A song borrowed from Anna & Elizabeth, “Sun to Sun,” flows into a French-language old-timey ballad. “Moonshiner,” familiar enough through interpretations from folks as varied as Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Buell Kazee, and the Sweetback Sisters—whose lead Kater follows—and like those sizable talents, Kater makes the song all her own. “Come and Rest” provides a coda of comfort and belief, while “West Virginia Boys” is less volatile than other renditions of the “cornbread, molasses, and sassafras tea” tune.

This album is an ideal balance of then and now, the past and present, of originality and influence.

Kaia Kater, who has performed throughout the eastern United States and Canada, is one of the many youthful performers by whose sure hands the traditions so many of us appreciate and love are being tended.

“Old Pal” by Jamie Harper

Jamie Harper
Old Pal
Mountain Fever Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Jamie Harper is a fine, young fiddler out on the road with Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. He’s spent time—recording, touring, and filling in—with several good bands, including Michelle Nixon’s Drive, Carrie Hassler’s Hard Rain, Marty Raybon, and Blue Moon Rising. When you listen to his CD, there’s no tip-toeing about whether it’s bluegrass or not. There’s no piano, no drums or steel guitar. This is music that would have made Bill Monroe proud and, speaking of Mr. Monroe, he composed the title song, “Goodbye Old Pal.” Harper sings lead about his old paint horse. Friends and wives may desert you but you can trust your horse and dog. Junior Sisk sings the lead on another Monroe number, “Remember the Cross,” bluegrass gospel at its best.

You expect some good instrumentals on an instrumentalist’s solo project and Harper doesn’t disappoint us, although he didn’t dig very deep for a couple of them. “Cotton Eyed Joe” and “Old Joe Clark” have each been done a million times by the last count. Rambler’s Choice bandmate Jason Davis plays a hard driving banjo and Kevin McKinnon keeps pace on mandolin while Josh Swift gets some hot licks on the Dobro. Harper’s fiddling is excellent as is the guitar of Keith McKinnon. Another bandmate, Kameron Keller holds it all together on the bass. “Booth Shot Lincoln” isn’t as well known but has an interesting chord progression. It was originally a broadside ballad, probably written not long after the assassination. It does have lyrics with versions by Cisco Houston (late 1940’s) and Bascom Lunsford in a 1941 Library of Congress recording. It makes a good instrumental.

Dustin Pyrtle sings lead on a T. Michael Coleman song, “Her Memories [sic] Bound To Ride.” This is just good bluegrass. Another upbeat number is Ronnie Bowman’s “Enough On My Mind,” a song about hard times added to by his love leaving. Marty Raybon gives us a good version of the Newgrass Revival’s “This Heart of Mine,” a song that should be heard more often. Junior Sisk comes back with his version of Larry Sparks’ “Goodbye Little Darlin’.”

If you like your bluegrass the way Monroe did it, Jamie Harper is going to be a treat for you.

“Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” produced by Carl Jackson

Various artists
Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
Legacy Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Country music is obsessed about the past. The same technological changes that enabled it to be captured on record and broadcast on radio also helped hasten the urbanization of America, and country people used their music to help them make sense of the ways they chose to meet those changes—nostalgia as therapy.

Organized by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the crucible in which a centuries-old Anglo-American folk music tradition that found expression in barn dances, church choirs, fiddle contests at market day, minstrel shows, tent revivals, and families picking on the front porch became a business that would enrich the lives of millions with music and enable gifted musicians to make a living making music rather than in the coal mines, the field, the fox hole, or the whorehouse—it’s amazing what freedom of expression and free markets can accomplish.

Many of the 76 tracks from 19 different acts recorded by Peer were commercially successful, and two superstar careers were launched: those of Jimmie Rodgers—one of the first modern American celebrities and the prototype for songsters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and even, I would argue, Bob Dylan—and the Carter Family, who are perhaps responsible for collecting, preserving, and popularizing more pre-modern American music than anyone else. (See also the story of Lead Belly.)

Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited—a two-disc tribute to those sessions, made under the aegis of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol—should be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about country music—especially those with little previous exposure to Southern music or culture outside of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, or a television episode of Nashville.

Eddie Stubbs, whose resonant tones are familiar to Grand Ole Opry fans and WSM-AM 650 listeners everywhere—guides the listener through 18 contemporary takes on classic Bristol material, with ambient clips of the rough-and-ready original recordings to provide contrast to the modern, clean recordings and arrangements we’re more used to. The script, written by Cindy Lovell, concisely retells the story of the Bristol Sessions with telling biographical detail and historical context that even knowledgeable country fans will find enriching.

As a consummate Nashville professional on both sides of the studio glass, Carl Jackson is a perfect choice to produce this record. His choices arranging this well-known material, and manning the sound board, all pay off, and he even plays and sings on several cuts—including a bluesy duet on “In the Pines” with Brad Paisley and a wild run through “Pretty Polly” as lead singer and banjo picker.

Jackson expertly pairs artist to song throughout, including country music royalty (Dolly Parton on “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Emmylou Harris on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” Marty Stuart on “Black Eyed Susie,” and Vince Gill on “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”), A-listers from other genres (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,”
Sheryl Crow on “The Wandering Boy,” Keb’ Mo’ on “To the Work”), and bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “I’m Redeemed” and Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time on “Train on the Island”).

Ashley Monroe (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), the Shotgun Rubies (“I Am Resolved”), and the Church Sisters (“Where We’ll Never Grow Old”), and Ashley & Shannon (children of Glen) Campbell (“The Wreck of the Old Virginian”) add a touch of youth, as does Corbin Hayslett, who won a contest to be on this record with his thrilling take on “Darling Cora,” the standout track from this project.

And though the Bristol Sessions seem like ancient history, a couple of tracks show just how young country music still is. Eighty-five-year-old Jesse McReynolds—a hall-of-famer in both country and bluegrass music—scrapes out “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind” on the very same fiddle that his grandfather Charles McReynolds used when he recorded the same song with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. And the Chuck Wagon Gang, a Southern Gospel quartet that’s been working continously since 1935—with a revolving roster of members, of course—lead a choir comprised of all the Orthophonic Joy artists on a valedictory “Shall We Gather at the River,” one of their biggest hits, which they recorded in 1949 based on the Bristol recording by the Tennessee Mountaineers (actually a church choir from Bluff City, Tenn. given that soubriquet by Peer).

Though the current state of popular country music is worse than ever, thanks to commercialism, there is more opportunity for today’s listener than ever before to experience the joy of good music—of every variety, especially country—than ever before, also thanks to commercialism. Think of this record as good whiskey cut with water—not quite the pure stuff, but plenty good enough to give you a thirst for the real thing.

“Sundown” by Steve Harris

Steve Harris
Sundown
Orange Blossom Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Harris is the lead singer for Circa Blue, a band he formed in 2010. This is a solo project, tapping into the talents of musicians like Marshall Wilborn (bass), Emory Lester (mandolin), and Gaven Largent (Dobro). The musicianship is, as expected with pickers like this, good, if not spectacular, and the the singing is all good, both lead and harmonies.

Harris dedicates the CD to the memory of his father and picked the songs because of personal sentiment, which might help explain why his recordings of these well-known songs feature simple and straightforward bluegrass arrangements, with a piano on some cuts. The songs are all gospel (except, perhaps, “Falling Leaves”), a mixture of familiar hymns and southern gospel: Grandpa Jones’ “Falling Leaves,” “Little White Church,” “Where Could I Go,” “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “In the Garden” and “Softly and Tenderly.”

The title cut, a Mosie Lister composition, is a beautiful song that first appeared in 1961 in a Chuckwagon Gang album (Sings the Songs of Mosie Lister). “Someday My Ship Will Sail” (lead vocal by Mary Paula Wilson) has been done by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash. If you love gospel music you’ll certainly enjoy “Come Morning.” Written by Dee Gaskin and made famous by the Nelons back in the ’80s, it’s a great song.

 

“Cody Shuler” by Cody Shuler

Cody Shuler
Cody Shuler
Rural Rhythm Records
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Cody Shuler is a well-known name on today’s bluegrass circuit. He’s been the leader of Pine Mountain Railroad since 2006 and is a good mandolin player, songwriter, and singer. This is his first solo album. (Editor’s note: The Pine Mountain Railroad URL now re-directs to Cody Shuler’s site, which, on July 11, did not load any content—make of that what you will.)

For this 12-track project, Shuler employs a list of excellent bluegrass musicians including Tim Crouch (fiddles) and Rob Ickes (Dobro). Ron Stewart, Terry Baucom, Brent Lamons and Scott Vestal trade banjo duties while Eli Johnston plays guitar and Matt Flake plays bass. (Shuler also has Scott Linton playing percussion on several tracks, and I remain puzzled as to why so many CDs also include some sort of percussion. It isn’t intrusive here, and I’m not such a purist that I’m offended by the idea, but I just don’t hear the value added.)

Shuler composed all the songs and they are mostly good. “Bryson Station” is a hot instrumental while “Three Rivers Rambler” has more of a swing beat that could be a good dance tune. He’s got two new good gospel numbers as well: “The Day Love Was Nailed To a Tree,” a description of Jesus’ last days, and “Sea of Galilee,” which retells the story of Jesus and the storm.

Shuler’s singing voice seems to be reaching for his note in a few places on this project, while reaching the bottom of his range in others. He’s also doubling himself on harmony on all but one track. Another harmony singer or two would have made a big difference—like on “The One That I Love Is Gone,” which benefits from harmony singer Jerry Cole.

“My Home Is On This Ole Boxcar” is a great number and “The Beautiful Hills” is a good loved-her-and-killed-her song.

On the down side for me, “Goodbye, My Love, Goodbye” seems merely like an exercise in rhyming.

Goodbye, my love, goodbye

I’m asking please don’t cry

Wipe the teardrops from your eye

So long until next time

I’m coming back someday

When I cannot say

Another place, another time

Goodbye, my love, goodbye

That doesn’t do anything for me. “Love Me, Too” has some good lines but some awkward ones, too.

Whether it’s with a revived Pine Mountain Railroad, or in another setting with regular collaborators of his caliber, expect Shuler’s next project to more accurately reflect his talents.

“Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle” by Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Rural Rhythm Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley has been around the block a time or two. A veteran of Renfro Valley, he hit the national scene with Doyle Lawson, was a founding member of both Mountain Heart and Grasstowne, and spent some time with Dale Ann Bradley. He is a great tenor and lead singer and could have been a country music star back when they still played country music on the radio. It’s always a crowd-pleaser when he does a number like “The Grand Tour” and I’m looking forward to seeing him at Bean Blossom on June 18.

This new venture is a combination of country and bluegrass. Banjo player Matthew Cruby wrote “Mattie’s Run,” a fast moving instrumental also featuring Gary Robinson, Jr. (mandolin), guest Tim Crouch (fiddle), Bryan Turner (bass), and Gulley (guitar). As expected, they all pick like they were born with instruments in hand. Phil Leadbetter guests on Dobro and Mark Laws adds percussion on some of the tracks. If you like country music, you have to hear this version of Hank Cochran’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.” “It’s a Long, Long Way To the Top of the World” is a well known number done by Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers. The latter is the more soulful version and Gulley adds a big dose of soul with this version, sounding more country than bluegrass. “Every Time You Leave” is a Louvin Brothers song. Gulley’s version, with Amanda Smith, is reminiscent of the Emmylou Harris duet with Don Everly from her Blue Kentucky Girl CD. This is excellent music.

Gulley had a hand in writing several of the bluegrass numbers. “Leaving Crazy Town” is a hard-driving number while “She’s a Taker” is slower but still with good drive and shows off the band’s good harmony singing. Both were written with Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford. “You’re Gone” (written with Adam Haynes) has more of a country feel though played as bluegrass with a banjo/mandolin break. Winning the award for catchy hooks is another Gulley/Stafford song, “That Ground’s Too Hard To Plow” with the song’s title as advice about a heartbreaking woman.

“Not Fade Away” makes a good bluegrass number even though it was written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty and is a well-traveled rock number, performed by the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, to name just two more groups. It’s not always the song that makes the music bluegrass. Gulley also wrote the CD’s gospel number, “You Can’t Take Jesus Away.”

Gulley’s talent and style coupled with top quality musicians makes this a CD lovers of bluegrass and country will want to hear.

“Highways & Heartaches” by Hammertowne

Hammertowne
Highways & Heartaches
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Out of the gate you get hard driving, traditional bluegrass that grabs you and holds your attention. You won’t be trying to guess the genre when you hear Hammertowne.

“Broken Heart Mended” was written by banjoist Brent Pack and is an excellent song. Pack got his start with Ernie Thacker and lists Ron Stewart as one of his influences. Stewart, known throughout bluegrass as an excellent banjo player and fiddler knows his way around a guitar and mandolin even though he professes otherwise. On this CD he sits in on fiddle. Pack plays a hard driving banjo and is joined by Dave Carroll and Scott Tackett (both: guitar, vocals), Chaston Carroll (mandolin, vocals) and Bryan Russell (bass, vocals). Dave Carroll’s songs have been recorded by the Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out plus other nationally known bands. The picking and singing are excellent. The division of labor between the two guitar pickers seems to be Tackett playing rhythm when he sings and Carroll playing lead.

“Call Out His Name” is an uptempo gospel number with a melody that’s a bit on the repetitive side. “Hansel’s Barn Dance” is a good, medium-speed instrumental that shows off the band’s abilities on their instruments. I’ve heard Dr. Ralph sing “Pretty Polly” a bunch of times, but Hammertowne offers up “Polly’s Revenge,” penned by Dave Carroll to tell the rest of the story. Masked men break her killer out of jail and he thinks his future has just gotten brighter. Unfortunately, his rescuers are Polly’s father and brothers and they—well, you need to hear the song. “Heartaches and Pain” is a good bluegrass number about broken love. This is a good example of the band’s good harmony singing and arrangements. They are banjo-centric. Some bands leave empty banjo space now and then and that tends to emphasize the banjo when it is being played. Their choice isn’t uncommon in bluegrass and that’s to have the banjo firing all the time.

There’s a disconnect with Tack 6. The CD cover lists it as “Sad Song Melody” (Chaston Carroll) while the media player shows “You’re Not Here With Me.” Whatever it’s called, it’s a good song. The bassman isn’t doing anything spectacular, but spectacular isn’t the purpose of the bass. He’s up front in the mix providing a solid foundation and I think that’s great. “Nothing Left But Time To Do” (Dave Carroll) is all about regrets and prison and has a good line about sleeping all night with one eye open.

Hammertowne provides eleven good tracks on this CD, no throwaways, no compromises with the type of bluegrass I believe Monroe-Stanley-Marti-style bluegrass fans will enjoy. This is good music.