“Waterloo, Tennessee” by Uncle Earl

Uncle Earl
Waterloo, Tennessee
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Uncle Earl’s musical styles range from thoughtful simple tunes, (“My Little Carpenter”), to spiritual calls with open Asian harmonies, (“My Epitaph”), to powerful shape note a cappella singing (“Buonaparte”), each presented with equal skill and apparent enjoyment.

The g’Earls are Kristen Andreassen on guitar, fiddle, feet, and banjo ukulele, Rayna Gellert on fiddle, KC Groves on mandolin, guitar, and mandola, and Abigail Washburn on banjo.  All contribute to the vocals.  Each musician brings her own styles and experiences to the recording, both in song choice and execution.  A changing array of lead vocalists with diverse vocal styles keeps the sound fresh and aurally engaging.  As a whole, the harmonies are deep, rich, and lovely.

Abigail Washburn’s soulful voice is highlighted in the lovely song, “The Last Goodbye,” while “Drinker Born” highlights Rayna Gellert’s thoughtful fiddling and vocals.  “Wish I Had My Time Again,” a song inspired by a man who served eleven years in prison before being proved innocent, reflects the raucous energy of musicians who sound as if they are having a blast playing together.

The transition from the exhilarating a cappella shape note harmonies of “Buonaparte” to the festive, instrumentally driven “Bony on the Isle of St. Helena” give two very different takes on a similar subject, each a considerable blessing to listen to.  This is simply a great album, worth listening to over and over.

by Katy Leonard

“Satisfied” by John Sebastian & David Grisman

John Sebastian & David Grisman
Acoustic Disc
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Satisfied is a perfect soundtrack for the lazy days of summer – or for imagining what “lazy days” might be like while gazing longingly out of the window of your urban office.

The album as a whole brings to mind a rowboat on the water, parasols, white gloves, hot, sticky weather, and cool lemonade. Recorded simply, with limited editing, Satisfied hosts an honest, easy ambiance. Sebastian takes over the lead vocals, guitar, baritone guitar, whistle, and harmonica, while Grisman provides harmony vocals, mandolin, mandolas, and banjo mandolin.

The song “Passing Fantasy,” is a nice aural tour of summer in the city, while the bluesy “John Henry,” a great rendition of this classic tune, spotlights John Sebastian’s prowess on the harmonica.

This slow, dreamy session is a reunion of two greats who began playing together in Greenwich Square in the 1960’s as folk revivalists, but then moved on to separate, successful careers. In the forty years between, Sebastian and Grisman have honed unique styles, which pair up nicely in this recorded collaboration.

The album closes with the “Jug Band Waltz,” dedicated “to all of our jug band friends in radio land,” presumably paying homage to Sebastian and Grisman’s early gig together in The Even Dozen Jug Band. Rounding out the leisurely album as a “hidden” track, Sebastian reminds listeners of his Lovin’ Spoonful days by whistling “What a Day for a Daydream,” just the right ending for this wistful collection of tunes.

by Katy Leonard

“Made in the Shade” by the Red Stick Ramblers

Red Stick Ramblers
Made in the Shade
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

The Red Stick Ramblers’ Made in the Shade provides a diverse mix of
musical styles and experiences, all inspired by the rich and tasty
musical gumbo of Louisiana. Predominantly filled with Cajun dance
tunes, this album offers something for fans of almost any genre.
The unrushed leisurely pace of the songs lends itself to a nice,
relaxed wash of sound. Perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon, a
Saturday night dance, or (in my case) a Monday morning in the office
stuffing envelopes, Made in the Shade includes a timeless array of
musical samplings.

Ramblers Linzay Young on fiddle, Chas Justus on guitar, Kevin Wimmer
on fiddle, Glenn Fields on drums, and Eric Frey on bass are joined by
guests Blake Miller on accordion, Chris Stafford on electric guitar,
Wilson Savoy on piano, and Dirk Powell on acoustic guitar and piano.
Linzay, Chas, Kevin, and Eric all share the vocals.

Clifton Chenier’s “Hot Tamale Baby” is given a raucous Rambler
interpretation, involving the crowd in a call and response chant,
creating a live feel for the listener at home (or in the car, or at
work…). The last song on the album, “The Smeckled Suite,” is an
interesting and ambitious instrumental work which travels the musical
influences of the world from South Asian drones to Latin flamenco to
American Swing. The Ramblers’ presentation of Bob Wills tune “Don’t
Cry Baby” brings forth a vision of cheek-to-cheek dancing, deliberate
and syrupy in its delivery. Even a cowboy song – entitled,
appropriately enough, “The Cowboy Song” – finds its way into the mix.

In this fun mix of up tempo and low key tunes, be sure to check out
the hurricane-inspired “Katrina,” “Laisse Les Cajuns Danser,” and
“Tes Parents Ne Veulent Plus Me Voir.”

by Katy Leonard

“Tell Someone” by the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band

Kenny and Amanda Smith Band
Tell Someone
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Former Lonesome River Band guitarist Kenny Smith began recording this project directly following the death of his father in a farming accident, and and knowing that makes this Gospel album, which is dedicated to his memory, poignant, relevant and touching. Even with, or perhaps because of, the somber inspiration, Tell Someone is a fun jaunt through familiar and new gospel songs, uplifting rather than sorrowful.

The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band is made up of Smith on vocals and guitar and wife Amanda on vocals, with Jason Robertson on mandolin, Jason Davis on banjo, and Zachary McLamb on bass. Vocalist Wayne Winkle and fiddler Daniel Carwile each guest on about half of the album’s 13 tracks.

Frequently called upon guest artist Rhonda Vincent adds her vocals the the mix on the upbeat opening number “Shoutin’ Time,” one of my favorites on the disc. Other standouts include the festive standard “Stepping on the Clouds”and the lovely, dreamlike “Angels Calling at My Door.” New compositions for this album “Mary Had a Little Boy,” “Till I Get Home,” and “I Know Why.”

Kenny, Amanda and the rest of the musicians poured a great deal of passion and heart into this offering; you can hear the energy and emotion put into every note. The sounds are delicate, harmony-filled, and peaceful, with Amanda’s smooth, angelic voice perfectly complimenting the instrumentals like a mountain stream on a quiet, windless day. This is a beautiful, endearing album, a fitting tribute to a father who served as such an influence on a son’s musical dreams.

by Katy Leonard

“Bluegrass Melodies” by Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-press

Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-press
Bluegrass Melodies
Rounder Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

Bobby Osborne and pals have created a fun, great-sounding album with his newest offering Bluegrass Melodies.  While Glen Duncan guests on fiddle, the rest of the musicians on the album are the current lineup of the Rocky Top X-Press: Bobby Osborne Jr. on guitar, Dana Cupp on banjo, Daryl Mosely on bass, Matt Despain on dobro/resophonic guitar, and Bobby Osborne himself on mandolin, with all members contributing on vocals.

Most of the songs on the album showcase Osborne’s clear, strong voice, and all of the tunes are made fresh and filled with energy by the ensemble.  There’s a nice mix of love songs, gospel tunes and semi-modern interpretations, such as John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” complete with joyful instrumental breaks.

Bobby does a nice job with Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High Upon That Mountain,” bringing in Rhonda Vincent on vocals and providing a more high and lonesome interpretation, somewhat more raw than the original.  The harmonies throughout are really nice – stacked thick and juicy.  My favorite tune on this album is the opener, “What Kind of Fool.”  It’s sad and pitiful, but moving.

Bobby has such a pleasant voice, comforting and just forlorn enough.  “I Would Like to See You” is another of my favorite selections, Osborne’s voice simply does great justice to love themes.  The whole album sounds perfectly polished and well-rehearsed, yet it staunchly avoids staleness or staticity.

by Katy Leonard 

Levon Helm’s Ramble On The Road! at the Ryman

Levon Helm’s Ramble On The Road!
The Levon Helm Band and Ollabelle
with special guests Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, John Hiatt, Fred Carter Jr., Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs and Lee Roy Parnell.
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN July 18, 2007

I was raised on a diet of classics – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Little Feat. Mom loved the Beatles, but didn’t like the Stones (she had no Sympathy for the Devil), though we owned both groups’ entire early record collections. I was taught to revere these musical figures in the same way that many children honored George Washington, Winston Churchill, or Ben Franklin. They were the architects of music as I knew it.

Standing right in the middle of all this glorious historical noise was The Band. Instigators of constant Annie versus Fanny debates and giggles, The Band’s albums were likely the first I actually purchased on my own rather than surreptitiously removing from my mother’s CD collection. (I had already claimed all of her records long ago).

This all serves as a preface to understanding the out-of-body glory that I experienced when Levon Helm (drummer, mandolinist, and singer for The Band and roots music aficionado) took the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Wednesday, July 18th for his “Ramble on the Road,” put on by the Americana Music Association.

Levon, along with his incredibly talented band, followed a rollicking opening performance by Ollabelle, a group that includes his daughter, Amy who is no slouch in the vocals. Levon and his band jumped into “Mail Train,” immediately captivating the audience of young and old. Levon and friends played my favorite Band tune, “Ophelia,” early on, filling the Ryman with electricity. The blues tunes that filled up most of the set were uniquely suited to Levon’s older, life-worn and sometime illness-plagued voice, giving him a genuine, salt-of-the-earth, seen-it-all, quality which was absolutely on target.

Sam Bush came out on stage to play mandolin and sing on “Sitting on Top of the World,” and Little Sammy Davis joined in for “Scratch My Back.” Both Sam and Sammy sat side stage when they weren’t up front performing themselves, visibly enjoying the experience. Buddy Miller played his song “Wide River,” and was joined by Emmylou Harris for “Rough and Rocky” and (oh heavens!) “Evangeline,” with Levon on the mandolin. Helm and the gang followed these up with “Rag Mama Rag,” with Levon eventually moving back over to the drums for “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever,” and “Rock and Roll Shoes.” Lee Roy Parnell (another side-stage viewer) came out to play on “The Weight,” an experience that was only topped by the final song, “I Shall Be Released,” during which the previous guests along with audience members Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs, and John Hiatt joined in.

I wouldn’t have missed this concert for anything, and I feel pretty confident that those on stage were of the same mind. At one point, Levon leaned over to the microphone and said “Thank you for being here with me on this best night of life.” He looked to be having a blast the entire time, never showing signs of wearing out despite the full energy thrown into each song. He had a grin throughout the entire performance like a kid who has just been told he can have whatever he wants at the candy store. I shared the same grin.

by Katy Leonard

“Speed of the Whippoorwill” by Chatham County Line

Chatham County Line
Speed of the Whippoorwill
Yep Roc Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

I am predisposed to like any new offerings from Chatham County Line, as I rank their song “Route 23” among my all-time favorites. Mandolin, fiddle, and viola player John Teer, guitar and banjo player Dave Wilson, bass, pedal steel, and organ player Greg Readling, and banjo and guitar player Chandler Holt put on a fun show, singing and playing all-out hard while attired in traditional suits.

Fortunately for us, they pour this same energy and drive into Speed of the Whippoorwill, a mando-heavy set with an old-timey atmosphere emphasizing narrative solo vocals with harmony support. The album is made up of fourteen original songs, all written by members of the band with the addition of the writing talents of Zeke Hutchins on “Company Blues.”

The title track is a gem: catchy and pleasant, with a hummable refrain. In previous releases CCL has displayed a gift for the narrative, and this album once again meets that standard with “They Were Just Children,” “Confederate Soldier,” and “Waiting Paradise.”

Speed of the Whippoorwill includes more textural variety than the group’s previous releases, something I think the group was going for when they hired a new producer for this album. That sound meshes with the moving, high-energy arrangements and interesting and thought-provoking lyric based stories for a disc that’s truly distinctive.

by Katy Leonard