“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.

“Me Oh My” by the Honeycutters

The Honeycutters
Me Oh My
Organic Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I had a baby but the good Lord took her, she was an angel but her wings were crooked.” I love writing songs and sometimes I hear a lyric that I sorely wish I had written. One of our sons has handicaps (I know, that’s not the politically correct term) and, for me, the lyric nails it: an angel with crooked wings. That’s the opening line of the title song and it does not go downhill from there.

The Honeycutters label their music as country roots (watch lead singer Amanda Anne Platt discuss her music). That’s different than classic country (Jim Ed Brown, George Jones) but it’s a close cousin. Two of country’s enduring stars, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, have composed some songs that you’re not likely to hear on a Bill Anderson or Ray Price recording. I can imagine Haggard and Nelson in an intimate setting (a resort bar at Lake Monroe, Indiana, where Nelson likes to stay when he’s in town) with something less than a thousand fans somewhere in the dark at the tables, jamming and drinking a beer or two. Some of those songs could come from this CD. Another surprise with this CD is all the tracks were composed by Platt. It isn’t unusual to see a CD with songs composed by the band or one person in the band, but not many are consistently this good from track to track.

“Lucky” is a quiet song of pathos, a love affair going down hill: “I’ve got the mind of a junkie, you’ve got the heart of a child.” That’s not a recipe for success but falling in love is rarely affected by the probability of success. There would be far fewer divorces if we were all that logical. “Jukebox” is on a different plane, as country as anything you would have heard on the radio back in the day. Rick Cooper’s bass supports the band and Josh Milligan’s percussion is enjoyable, not the thunk, thunk you hear too often on “country” records. Matt Smith adds to the mix with some very good steel guitar. “Not That Simple” includes some fine mandolin from Tal Taylor while Phil Cook appears with piano and organ. You’ll find yourself hoping Platt’s life isn’t as complicated and sad as all her songs. This song tells about a man and woman who love each other but have commitments to others. There are too many good lines in this song to list without just writing the lyrics.

Whether it’s a quiet song like “Little Bird,” an ode to wanting to break away from the life you’re living (“Hearts of Men”) or a critique (“Well, look at you, you’re like a pony with a broken leg, You’re always scared ’cause you can’t run away” from “All You Ever”) Platt consistently hits the mark musically and lyrically.

I suppose, if you live a Pollyanna life, if it’s all sunshine and roses, then this CD might puzzle you, you won’t get what she’s telling. On the other hand, if your life’s ups and downs look like the pulse line on a heart monitor, if you’ve ever felt the blues sucking at your soul, cursed and laughed at love, there are fourteen messages on this CD that you’re going to really enjoy. Me? I’m going to look for their first two CDs.

TheHoneyCuttersMeOhMyBigCov

 

 

“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.

“That Was Then” by Springfield Exit

Springfield Exit
That Was Then
Patuxent Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Springfield Exit has ties to a highly respected band from the past, the Johnson Mountain Boys. They played excellent bluegrass that stayed close to the model established by Bill Monroe, Don Reno and Red Smiley and a host of others. JMB members now with Springfield Exit include David McLaughlin playing mandolin, Tom Adams on banjo and Marshall Wilborn (bass). Wilborn (husband of Lynn Morris) has been named IBMA bass player of the year and has played with Michael Cleveland and Longview. He wrote the title number, a swinging beat with a walking bass line that’s sung by the group’s lead singer, Linda Lay. “Some Old Day” has been recorded by a long list of artists including Flatt & Scruggs and J.D. Crowe.

Adams is an excellent banjo player who once had to quit touring because of a medical problem, focal dystonia. This caused erratic movement of his index finger. If you compare his playing in 1992 to today you can hear that he has the licks we enjoyed when the JMB hit the stage. Watching the video you can see he’s using his index finger to pick.

Linda Lay has a good voice and spent many nights in the Carter Fold learning about this music and played with Appalachian Trail before forming Springfield Exit with husband David (guitar, vocals). For a look back at Wilborn and McLaughlin, here’s a performance from 1988 that included Dudley Connell and Eddie Stubbs. Experience and talent make for a great band.

Other traditional numbers include Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured,” “Elkhorn Ridge” which features some good clawhammer, “George Cunningham,” a really good song about Cunningham, who falls into trouble and kills a man, and is then hanged for his deed—or was he? Eight-five years later his coffin is dug up and—you need to hear the song for the rest. “Bad Reputation” (not the Joan Jett song) is another great number as is Buzz Busby’s “Lonesome Wind” (1958).

They also visit other genres and turn out some good music: “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (Eagles), “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (Bob Dylan), “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” (Don Williams), and “Don’t We All Have The Right,” one of Roger Miller’s great songs, with Frank Solivan II singing harmony. There is no overarching consensus on what makes music bluegrass music, but it seems that while content can be important, the way you play it, the sound you produce, is the key. Springfield Exit takes these diverse songs and makes them bluegrass.

“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.

“The Legacy Continues” by Nathan Stanley

Nathan Stanley
The Legacy Continues
Nathan Stanley Entertainment

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Nathan Stanley will soon be twenty-three years old and already has twenty-one years of experience on the road. He’s done a good job in the transition from playing spoons by the side of his papaw, Dr. Ralph Stanley, to being a full-fledged entertainer on his own. He still travels and appears with Dr. Stanley, but his tour schedule shows a handful of dates on his own with the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph Stanley, in his sixty-ninth year on the road playing bluegrass, still maintains a very busy touring schedule even if his on-stage performances have been scaled back in favor of his grandson and son, Ralph Stanley II. Since Ralph II has carved his own niche in the bluegrass world, many may conclude that the future of the Clinch Mountain Boys, possibly the longest-running band in bluegrass, rests with Nathan Stanley.

This CD saw a limited distribution in 2013 but has now been repackaged with two additional tracks. “(The) Rank Stranger” has been done countless times and is a Stanley Brothers original. Carter Stanley sung from a deep well of emotion and Nathan Stanley does a fine job of recreating that emotion while Dr. Ralph recreates his part in the song. “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” is another Stanley original. Here Brad Paisley joins Nathan Stanley in a slightly different version that is a beautiful rendition of this old song.

“Are You Missing Me” goes back to the Louvin Brothers and has also been recorded (1952) by Jim & Jesse and the Bluegrass Cardinals. Stanley stays true to the Jim & Jesse version, not dressing it up with a modern interpretation. “Love of the Mountains” is a Larry Sparks’ signature song. Sparks joined the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1964 and became Ralph Stanley’s singing partner when Carter Stanley died at the end of 1966. Nathan Stanley does ample justice to this great song that was penned by Allen Mills.

There’s little doubt that the Stanley legacy is in good hands with young Nathan Stanley (not to sell Ralph Stanley II short in any way). He speaks to his love of the music and his grandfather in “Papaw I Love You,” a song he wrote in honor of Ralph Stanley. He serves as front man for the Clinch Mountain Boys. Joining him on this CD are Dewey Brown (fiddle, baritone), Randall Hibbitts (upright bass, harmony) and Mitchell Van Dyke (banjo). Former CMB member Junior Blankenship plays guitar and sings baritone and Tony Dingus plays Dobro. Don Rigsby joins the group playing mandolin and singing harmony. This is an excellent lineup of musicians and singers.

The list of familiar bluegrass songs is long, including “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine” and “For All the Love I Had Is Gone.” “Casualty of War” comes from a 2007 Larry Sparks’ CD, The Last Suit You Wear. “Calling My Children Home” has been recorded by Ralph Stanley and was the title of a 1977 album by the Country Gentlemen. “Let Me Rest At The End Of My Journey” is another familiar number, recorded by many artists through the years.

Nathan Stanley has put together an excellent tribute to his grandfather and to classic bluegrass. If anyone doubts his ability as an artist they need to hear this CD. If you like bluegrass the way it was done by Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Johnson Mountain Boys and, of course, the Stanley Brothers, you’ll enjoy every track on this CD.