“Family, Friends & Fellowship” by Steve Gulley

Steve Gulley
Family, Friends & Fellowship
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley is at home with a bluegrass, country, or gospel song. A favorite spot in his bluegrass performances is when he steps up to the mic to sing George Jones. Gulley typically sings in the lead register, between baritone and tenor but can hit the tenor part when he needs to. If you had to pin his voice to a genre, it’s more country than bluegrass but bluegrass isn’t totally about that high, lonesome sound. He’s a veteran performer, from his young days in Renfro Valley to time with Doyle Lawson and helping found two very popular groups, Mountain Heart and Grasstowne. Now he’s released his first gospel CD.

Family, Friends & Fellowship has elements of country as well as bluegrass, easily slipping from one to the other. “The Man I Ought To Be” is classic country music. Fiddles, steel guitar, bass—it will stop a country music lover in his or her tracks just to savor that kickoff. The message is a good one, too, talking about the struggles of living a Christian life. One of its great lines is “I never felt so tall as when I fell down on my knees.” His wife, Debbie, sings harmony and she doesn’t take a back seat to anyone with her singing ability. Gulley co-wrote this song and wrote “Scars In His Hands,” a number he recorded with Mountain Heart, one of their best songs. On this cut he’s joined by Kenny and Amanda Smith plus Jason Burleson playing mandolin and Brandon Godman, who plays fiddle on several tracks.

“What Would You Have Me Do” is a story about the dark times of life that Gulley wrote, hoping its message might help someone along life’s way. Some of the CDs multi-track supporting artists are Phil Leadbetter (resophonic guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle), Stewart’s bandmate Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Tim Stafford (guitar). On the country numbers you’ll hear Les Butler paying piano and Terry Crisp on steel with Mark Laws providing percussion on most tracks. These are some of the best musicians in bluegrass and country. Bringing together such a diverse group likely means at least some of them recorded their tracks remotely, but that had no effect on the quality of the end product.

Another family-affair song is “God’s Not Dead,” with Gulley’s parents Linda (lead) and Don (baritone) joining Steve and Vic Graves (bass vocals). Gary Robinson, Jr. and Bryan Turner (both members of Gulley’s new band, New Pinnacle), Stuart Wyrick and Scott Powers contribute, too. Graves also sings lead on an 1893 hymn that’s one of my favorites, “I Must Tell Jesus.” Gulley turns to his old boss and friend Doyle Lawson to help on “Pray For Me” and a nice arrangement of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” Lawson sings baritone while Don Gulley sings lead. Don Gulley is a veteran radio announcer and performer and is clearly in his element on this CD.

Carl Story co-wrote “Light At The River” and one of my favorite singers, Ricky Wasson, shares the lead duties on this good old song. A great partnership lasted a few good years when Paul Williams played in Jimmy Martin’s band. One product of their relationship was “Stormy Waters.” Harking back to their days together in Renfro Valley, Gulley sings this one with Dale Ann Bradley. He reaches into southern Gospel to give us a G. T. Speer song, “I Never Shall Forget the Day,” along with Joe Mullins, a singer who ranks high in my list of favorites. Debbie Gulley sings harmony then takes her turn on lead with a touching number that leads to some soul searching, “Could You Walk a Mile.” This is a number we should all listen to carefully. Another song from southern gospel that will touch your soul comes from Ronald Hinson, “That I Could Still Go Free,” featuring Debbie Gulley and Mark Wheeler on harmony. What a great song this one is.

The CD closes with a song that probably all of us know, “Jesus Loves Me,” featuring grandson Mack on the intro and Alan Bibey on mandolin.

This is Gulley’s first gospel CD. After you hear it you’ll be hoping it’s not his last.

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“The View” by the Roys

The Roys
The View
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Roys continue to bring out good CDs. We’ve looked at them before with Gypsy Runaway Train and New Day Dawning. This CD bears their signature, not just on the performance side but on the composing of the songs. At least one of the two is in the credits of every song.

Lee and Elaine Roy, siblings for those who don’t know, do all the singing with Lee playing the mandolin family (mandolin, mandola and mandocello) while Elaine plays the guitar. Joining them are Daniel Patrick (banjo, Dobro), Erik Alvar/ (bass) and Clint White (fiddle). Two-part harmony is their thing but they could think about experimenting with another voice now and then for variety.

Two numbers touch on a hard time in our lives. “Sometimes” talks about a woman who is experiencing dementia associated with her age. It’s a pleasant song and touches the highs (if you can call them that) and lows of this condition and generally offers a positive outlook. The Roys are very big on positive outlook. I can’t say it’s one of my favorites because it’s too much like a conversation for my taste. “Heaven Needed Her More,” on the other hand, has a country flavor, a great fiddle intro and caught my attention from the first bars. “Black Gold” is another good ‘un, one of the favorite topics of bluegrass: coal miners.

“Mended Wings” is another very pretty number, talking about making the trip to heaven with wings mended by grace. They pick things up with “No More Tears Left To Cry,” a song about triumph over misery, and “No More Lonely,” a song about finding love and freedom from misery. “Those Boots” is a different type of song, reflecting on people who have made their way in life by talking about their boots. It starts with ranchers then soldiers and ends with performers who have “kicked out a few footlights” and tonight stand in that magic circle on the Opry stage. Their songs are marked by melodies that vary from a three chord formula and have interesting arrangements. They pay tribute to Bill Monroe with “Mandolin Man,” featuring Doyle Lawson, not a bad mandolin picker himself, as a guest.

The pickers get a chance to shine on “Northern Skies,” a good instrumental number. The title song, co-written by the Roys and Bill Anderson, is a great number of memories about growing up. It features a fairly rare (in bluegrass) arco (bowed) bass. They pass along good advice with “Live The Life You Love.” If we could all do that we’d be a lot happier bunch of folks.

It’s doubtful you’ll ever hear them singing “Knoxville Girl” but you don’t have to do murder songs to do good bluegrass. This is good bluegrass.

“Hearts Like Ours” by Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White

Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White
Hearts Like Ours
Skaggs Family Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ricky Skaggs has been a major impact on bluegrass and country music for decades. His honors include 11 IBMA awards, 8 ACM awards, 8 CMA awards and 14 Grammys. He’s had 12 #1 hit singles. He started in bluegrass as a young man (at 17, with Keith Whitley, they joined Raplh Stanley’s band), moved to country, and now works in both worlds. Along the way, thirty-three years ago, he married Sharon White. She and sister Cheryl and dad, Buck, are widely loved bluegrass and country musicians and Buck is well known both for his faith and his honky-tonk piano. They made their movie debut in O Brother, Where Art Thou. They haven’t been forgotten in the awards categories, either, winning Dove, CMA and Grammy awards. Together, Skaggs and White won the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award (1987) with “Love Can’t Get Better Than This” (track 2 on this CD) but they’ve never recorded an album together before this.

Hearts Like Ours opens with a number from another well-known music couple, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart, “I Run To You.” Songs just don’t get prettier than this. They also penned “Hearts Like Ours,” another praise of love. This is country music with electric instruments and percussion. It’s all tastefully done, with the percussion adding to the mix instead of demanding a front seat. A track that everyone should recognize is by Townes Van Zandt, 1972’s “If I Needed You.”

If you didn’t pick up on the CD title, this is all about the love shared by two people married for a long time. They’ve spent many years traveling separate roads because of their musical careers. Along the way, their love has stayed true and they’ve borne and reared some talented kids. With all you have to face while touring, a bad combination of boredom and temptation, that’s saying something. It can go to your head, standing on a stage with hundreds, thousands of people applauding you and telling you how great you are, but they’ve survived it all and still have their marriage and careers. Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play more than eighty dates a year, certainly not an Ernest Tubb schedule, but that’s still a lot of time away from home. The Whites are still out there, too.

“It Takes Three” speaks to their faith in God, something they keep in the forefront of their careers. As White sings, “It takes You and him and me.” That’s a message we hear in church and take to heart. Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet contribute “Hold On Tight (Let It Go),” an interesting message about conflict in marriage and always resolving it in favor of love. “Home Is Wherever You Are” is a story about traveling far and wide, which they have, but none of it matters unless you’re together. It’s a good sign for marriage if that’s true rather than preferring to be apart (and I know couples like that, don’t you?).

“I hope they find my King James Bible, worn around the edges and open to the book of John.” So starts “When I’m Good and Gone,” and it continues “I hope they find more good than bad when I’m good and gone.” We don’t like to think about it but life is transient, we’re just visitors here until we go to our final destination. (The common themes for that are Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, or oblivion. White and Skaggs never hide their choice.) Good song. Another one for my have-to-learn list. “Reasons To Hang On” lists a bunch of reasons for slogging on through life even when times are bad. Good reasons, maybe not so obvious when the times are bad, but good reasons.

This CD underlines love, underlines faith between a man and woman and to God. If your thing is “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” or “Redneck Woman” or whatever the similar flavor is this week, this may not be for you. But, it will strike a chord with a lot of people. If you’re a fan of love, you’ll enjoy this CD.

“The Old Country Church” by Mike Scott & Friends

Mike Scott & Friends
The Old Country Church
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Really, who needs to hear “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for the thousandth time? That may be your first reaction to track list on this CD, but don’t pass judgment too quickly.

Bluegrass fans love to hear the old songs, whether repeated by the artists who made them famous or by others with their own take. One way to do a project like this is to surround yourself with Grade-A musicians, men (in this case) who know and love the songs as much as you do, get in the studio and let the music flow. Mike Scott is an excellent banjo player, sideman to Ronnie Reno for several years. Mix in Adam Steffey playing mandolin, Bryan Sutton and Tim Stafford on guitar, Rob Ickes on resophonic guitar, Ben Isaacs as timekeeper on the bass plus Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and you expect nothing less than excellence.

You can listen to the comforting strains of “Pass Me Not,” “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” and “Precious Memories,” close your eyes and be transported back to the days you were growing up and hearing these in church and gatherings of friends and family. It’s difficult to hear “I Saw The Light,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” without wanting to sing along, whether you’re certain of the lyrics or not. “The Old Country Church” has been a bluegrass favorite since there’s been bluegrass, and “I’ll Fly Away” joined that rank almost as soon as Albert Brumley penned it. And how many times have we sung “Victory In Jesus” in church?

They’re all there in this excellent instrumental CD by Mike Scott & Friends, along with “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “Where the Roses Never Fade.” There are no surprises here, just the comfort of hearing beautiful renditions of old friends. The next time life’s not going your way, take a step back, drop this CD in the player, and refresh your soul.

“Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning” by Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning

Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning
Rachel Burge & Blue Dawning
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

What’s bluegrass without songs of death? Murder songs are woven into the culture and are evidence of how bluegrass remains tied to its roots—and most of us believe that’s a good thing. Maggie and Molly, “Sisters of the Mountain,” are twins living alone on the mountain all their lives and who fall in love with Joshua Taylor, a Blue Ridge mountain man. They catch Joshua in the arms of another woman and he disappears forever. I know places where that still might happen.

Rachel Burge nails the song and she and the band do it with drive. You won’t be confusing this with indie country, Americana, or any other genre. The arrangement grabs your attention, with Burge and Michele Birkby-Vance (fiddle) joined at the hip on their vocals.

Birkby-Vance wrote and sings “Homeplace in the Mountains,” a pure bluegrass number that’s yet another core of bluegrass: away from home and longing to go back. Burge adds “My Cold Heart,” a hard driving love song from a different angle. She’s a woman who rejects love because of her cold heart and she’s the one who’s leaving and wronging someone. Burge combined a college education with bluegrass, obtaining a certificate in bluegrass from Glenville State College. This allowed her to play with Mac Wiseman, Ronnie Reno, and others as part of that program. She’s not only an excellent bluegrass singer, she knows how to play her mandolin as well as anyone you’ll hear out on the circuit. “Please Stay Away” is a pretty love song in waltz time, asking a person she loves to please stay away. Love hurts and she tells us about it in a very pretty way.

Joining Burge and Birkby-Vance are Radford Vance (banjo, guitar, vocals), Lance Gainer (guitar, vocals) and Rick Westerman (bass, vocals). Radford Vance composed “Road Apples,” an excellent instrumental that showcases the excellent musicianship of each member of the band – except the bass player. For some reason they made the choice to keep him so low in the mix you have to work at hearing him. What comes through sounds good, though. Vance also gives us “Barefootin’,” recollections of a youth growing up in the country.

Burge reaches out to other composers, including Bill Carlisle and Tommy Cutrer, who wrote “I’ve Kissed You My Last Time,” a beautiful country ballad released by Kitty Wells back in 1955 and Doyle Lawson in 1995; Ronnie Bowman, co-writer of “I’ve Seen Enough of What’s Behind Me,” a song with a hook about not needing a rear-view mirror because the singer is only looking ahead in life; “April Snow” by Mark Brinkman, another song about broken love; and Rebecca Westerman’s “Living In The Light,” a gospel number that features the group’s excellent harmonies.

This is an excellent CD from a group that should make a lasting impression on bluegrass music.

“Chapter Two” by Carolina Story

Carolina Story
Chapter Two
True Bearing Entertainment
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Carolina Story is the husband and wife team of Ben and Emily Roberts. Chapter Two is the followup to last year’s well received Chapter One, reflecting the continuing maturation of their music. One downside to be noted: it is an “extended play” CD, jargon for only getting six tracks.

Their voices blend well together. The lead song is a story about friendship on the road, though I have to admit I’m still trying to match “It’s Almost Over Now” with the lyrics, uncertain about what is almost over. Friendship? Traveling together? Anyway, it’s a pleasant song for listening. Their music is modern country with some tracks not far removed from classic country. “I Won’t Let You Down” is a story about courtship and has the formula for their music. The session band plays backup, throw in a few licks and a kickoff on each song but avoid sparkle of their own. It’s about the singers and the lyrics. The band members are capable musicians, including Chad Cromwell playing drums (and I still wish someone would let the drummer be creative), Billy Panda playing guitar and Michael Rhodes on bass. They’re joined by steel player Dan Dugmore and Darrell Scott playing guitar, bouzouki and mandolin. It’s too bad they never get a chance to express their talent with an instrumental track or extended breaks, but that’s country music, especially modern country.

Their signature is singing as a duo. They sound great together but I think they could add more diversity to their sound by playing off each other, one singing and one responding or some similar arrangement on more tracks. For some reason, constant duoism wears on my ears. Ben does take the lead on “When I Was Just a Boy” and it works well, telling of the warnings he received from his parents and how he hasn’t always listened. “Crash and Burn” is a rocking song and should have a chance at the hot new country market. “I’m Gonna Love You Forever” is another track with Ben taking the lead and Emily joining in on harmony.

They certainly have their fans, including Manuel, the man behind all the rhinestones you’ve seen on the Opry for so many years. They’re averaging over 130 shows a year for the past five years and that’s a lot of wear on your soul and sneakers. Good music and a bright future – they have a lot going for them.

“The Next Move” by Phil Leadbetter

Phil Leadbetter
The Next Move
Pinecastle Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been around music most of my life and had the privilege to perform with some very talented people. I deeply appreciate the art of making music and the skill of musicians like the ones on this album.

Phil Leadbetter appreciates them, too, and he’s one of the best on the instrument that Josh Graves help make famous: the resophonic guitar. Struggling with severe illness, facing death, “Uncle Phil” made a list of great musicians he wanted to make a recording with, if he could do it just one more time. He had to wait until his cancer was in remission to do it, and now he’s fighting it in a second round, but he got it done. I saw him on stage (during his first round) for a salute to J. D. Crowe at Bean Blossom and he was obviously struggling, but he still made the reso ring beautifully.

Resophonic guitar or Dobro? The terms are often used interchangeably but they really shouldn’t be. The resophonic (or resonator) guitar has some type of resonator built into the top. The list of possibilities is too long to discuss here, but it’s usually a metal plate full of holes. Generally played in bluegrass flat with a bar and fingerpicks like a pedal steel guitar (Tut Taylor was an exception, using a straight pick), it may be found in a blues setting played like a regular guitar or with a bottleneck slide.

Dobro is a trade name originally associated with the Dopyera brothers, John Dopyera was the original developer of the resonator guitar. Despite efforts to control “Dobro” as a trademark, it has entered mainstream usage as synonymous with resophonic guitar.

Playing bass is either Mike Bub or Tim Dishman while Steve Thomas is everywhere playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar, one or more on almost every track. Shawn Camp wrote and sings lead on “Pull The Trigger.” He and Thomas play guitar and Camp’s Earls of Leicester buddy, Charlie Cushman plays banjo. Steve Gulley and Don Rigsby, two great voices in bluegrass, sing harmony while Alan Bibey plays mandolin and Tim Crouch plays fiddle. Camp is also featured on an introspective “Jesus, My Old Dog and Me.” Harking back to Flatt & Scruggs, “Just Joshin'” was written by Josh Graves and Jake Tullock. Cory Walker (banjo), Kenny Smith (guitar) and Sierra Hull (mandolin) join Bub and Crouch to support Leadbetter, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas on this salute to the reso guitar. Leadbetter joins with son Matt on Dobro along with Thomas, Crouch and Bub plus Jarrod Walker (mandolin) to do a Leadbetter tune, “Leadbelly.”

“Sweet Georgia Brown” isn’t contained by genre lines and Leadbetter and crew give a rousing performance here, lots of swing and jazz, but hey, with Béla Fleck on banjo and Buck White playing piano (along with Hull, Thomas, Bub and Smith) what else would you expect? Another number in the jazz and blues vein is “Georgia On My Mind.” It’s been done by legions of performers but many associate it with Ray Charles. You need to hear Con Hunley’s rendition. Steve Thomas doubles on mandolin and fiddle and Mike Bub plays a great bass line with Jim Hurst doing the guitar work. Too bad they couldn’t make this one thirty minutes long.

Going country, Ken Mellons co-wrote and sings “I’m a Modern Day Interstate Gypsy” with musicians named already and Gulley and Mark Newton adding harmony. Gulley co-wrote “I’ve Never Seen a Love That Wasn’t Blind” and sings it along with Dale Ann Bradley, Leadbetter’s current bandleader. Steve Wariner plays guitar and also co-wrote and performs another number, “Hole In The Earth,” a song about escaping the fate of a coal miner’s life—almost. He leaves but he comes back and now spends his life digging for coal in this hole in the earth.

Rounding out the first eleven tracks are John Cowan and Sam Bush, along with Jake Stargel playing guitar, tearing it up with “I’m a Ramblin’ Rolling Stone” while Marty Raybon and Joe Diffie, with Paul Brewster singing harmony, soften the tone with “Baptism.” “Down with the old man, up with the new,” that says it all about baptism and Raybon’s soulful voice is impossible to beat on a song like this but Diffie is right there with him.

From his posts on the bluegrass listserv and Facebook, it’s clear that Phil Leadbetter is a man of faith. He closes with a soulful, peacefully slow solo rendition of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” Friends and fans alike will remember this cut forever.

This is bluegrass at its best from some of the best in the business joining a contemporary master in his labor of love and life.