“Pull Your Savior In” by the Larry Stephenson Band

Larry Stephenson Band
Pull Your Savior In
Whysper Dream Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There’s comfort in hearing familiar songs. Hearing hymns that you know by heart is—for those who believe—like having welcoming arms wrapped around you.

Larry Stephenson offers up a mix of well-known hymns, others you’ll recognize but don’t get recorded all that often, and a surprise or two. The lead number is an excellent a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony. Stephenson leads off with his familiar tenor/high lead voice, slow and clear as a ringing bell. Joining in on the second stanza is one of the best tenor singers you’ll hear, Jimmy Fortune. Add Dale Perry singing bass and David Parmley on baritone and you have an all-star quartet.*

Other familiar hymns are “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and “How Great Thou Art.” Parmley-Perry-Fortune are only on the first track but you need not be dismayed: Stephenson’s bandmates add some great harmony on the other tracks. Stephenson, of course, is the mandolin player. Kenny Ingram, a veteran bluegrasser (James Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Nashville Grass), sings harmony and plays banjo plus lead guitar on one number. Colby Laney (who has since returned to Volume Five, replaced by Kevin Richardson) sings lead and harmony and plays guitar while Danny Stewart (since replaced by Matt Wright) plays bass and sings bass on “If You Want To Live Forever” (the track with Ingram on the guitar), a good up-tempo number co-written by Randall Hylton. This band makes excellent music, with plenty of drive.

The title number, composed by Stephenson, is an energetic number with some good advice, and features a hot guitar break by Laney. Guest Aubrey Haynie joins the band on fiddle and he’s always a welcome addition. Have you ever had a come-to-Jesus moment? Used to describe an epiphany when you realize an important truth, most of use have had one (but we all know at least one person who wouldn’t know an epiphany if it chewed their leg like a Pekinese), Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley turned it into a meaningful song. The singer has, literally, come to Jesus and hopes he didn’t wait too long. I know people who wear their faith like their skin—it’s been with them forever—but a lot of us needed that come-to-Jesus moment and the good news that it’s never too late.

I heard Roy Acuff sing “The Great Speckled Bird” countless times but, with the respect due Mr. Acuff, Stephenson’s version is one of the prettiest ones you’ll hear. Another good number, this one composed by Albert Brumley, is “The Prettiest Flowers Will Be Blooming.” It’s been recorded by many—the Legendary Marshall Family had a good turn with it—but I never get tired of this one. “Will You Meet Me Over Yonder” is another good traditional song. Other numbers rooted in bluegrass tradition are the Lester Flatt—composed “Thank God I’m On My Way” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Born Again.”

“Morningtime Always” is the promise of Heaven. Co-written by veteran writer Bill Castle, Stephenson and Laney share the lead.

Stephenson is tilling old but fertile soil with this CD. His band is always on the top of their game and he puts his own stamp on these songs. If you like your gospel bluegrass style, this is a good bet.

*The last news I’ve had about Parmley dates back two years when he announced he was “taking some time off from the music business to pursue other interests.” He had enjoyed a long run in the business, including the Bluegrass Cardinals (Stephenson was also a member), and will hopefully come back to bluegrass at some point.

Another Cardinals alumnus is Dale Perry. I’ve seen him as a banjo player, a bass player and a sound technician and he does all of them well. He’s also a good bass singer. Hopefully, he’ll find another niche on the circuit soon.

Jimmy Fortune had a great run with the Statler Brothers (21 years) and has been on his own since they retired in 2002.

“On a Winter’s Night” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds

John Reischman and the Jaybirds
On a Winter’s Night
Corvus
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

John Reischman is an excellent mandolinist (who also makes occasional use of mandola and octave mandolin) and the Jaybirds are all accomplished musicians. They have put together an appealing extended-play CD for Christmas.

Their music is sometimes described as roots bluegrass and the emphasis should be on the roots part. Most would call it old-time music with an occasional venture into bluegrass and even folk music. A number on this CD that would fit into most any bluegrass show is “Shine Like a Star In The Morning.” It can be found on American Folk Songs for Christmas, a 1957 release by the Seeger Sisters on Smithsonian Folkways. This is a compilation made by Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed by her daughters, Peggy, Barbara and Penny. The quartet version here is very well done.

Two other tracks from the Seeger’s LP that found their way here are “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Oh, Watch the Stars.” The latter is beautifully presented by bassist Trisha Gagnon with Greg Spatz’s fiddle adding a Civil War-era feel to it. Gagnon also performs “Joseph and Mary,” telling the Bible story of Joseph and Mary when Mary reveals she is pregnant (with the baby Jesus) and Joseph unhappily responds. This is #54 on the list of Child Ballads. Gagnon also performs an old black spiritual, “I Heard From Heaven Today.”

Jim Nunnally (guitar) sings lead on a song you may identify with Doc Watson, “A-Roving On A Winter’s Night,” a folk song with Appalachian roots. Nick Hornbuckle adds some exquisite banjo work on this number. “Christmas Eve” is a sparse instrumental played by the banjo and (although not identified by track, I believe) the octave mandolin, while the banjo and fiddle are the leads, with a good guitar break, in an old fiddle tune “Breaking Up Christmas.” The quartet adds a bouncing traditional spiritual, “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby?

Reischman and the Jaybirds have put together eight fine tracks that center around, but are not limited to, Christmas. If you like some old-time in your bluegrass and appreciate good picking and harmony, you need to hear this one this holiday season.

“Another Day From Life” by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
Another Day From Life
Rebel Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Wow. That was my first reaction as I listened to the Radio Ramblers’ latest CD and I’m sticking with that. Having a very good stage show and producing an excellent CD don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, and it seems many bluegrass groups do better with the CDs than showmanship. Mullins, for me, does both very well. He has a very good band, is a good banjo player and singer, and what he talks about during his show adds to the bluegrass book of knowledge, it’s not just chatter.

Veterans Day has just passed and my church played a video accompanied by “Some Gave All.” That song gets to me every time I hear it and now I can add “The Last Parade” from Another Day from Life to that list. Duane Sparks (guitar) sings lead, Mullins (banjo) tenor, and Mike Terry (mandolin) baritone. It’s a story about a young man who has given his life for his country and now he’s come home for his last parade. It starts off with just the guitar behind Sparks, describing the people along the parade route. The mandolin joins in with a sparse melody on the second verse as the storyteller “took my flag” and “took my place on the town’s main drag.” Then the band and harmony singers join in. You feel it all the way to your heart. That’s the mark of a good song.

The band are all excellent musicians and they take the time to come up with good arrangements for the tracks. Bands are often so concerned about what notes they are going to play that they forget to consider when not to play. Space creates impact and this band understands this. The other band members are Randy Barnes (bass) and Evan McGregor (fiddle). Put them all together and you have a great traditional bluegrass band.

“Johnson Island Prison” was a real Civil War prison and this song tells about the unhappy life of a prisoner there, a Rebel who hates the cold of this northern jail. They shift to another form of misery with “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” This is an old Porter Wagoner song and the rest of the title line is “tomorrow you’ll cry.” This number has an unusual melody and chord progression. (For you musicians, it’s 1 – 5 – 2 – 5 – 2, or C – G7 – D7 – G7 – D7. It sounds like the second line changes chords up one step.) Herschel Sizemore penned “Going Back To My Old Kentucky Home,” all about moving to the city for a better job, hating it, finally going back to the country and Kentucky. This is a saga that’s been repeated many times as people emigrate from the rural areas of the bluegrass belt but find the cities aren’t the life they want.

Mark Brinkman has penned a number of excellent songs and he’s done it again with “Through a Coal Miner’s Eyes.” Shut your eyes and let the story take you down into the ground and abyss of the underground coal mine. It’s all a lot of people have but not a place I want to go. If you hear an instrument on this number you can’t quite place, it’s probably Sonny Osborne’s guitjo being played by Mullins. Staying with the working man theme, they celebrate the life of the blue collar worker with “Blue Collar Blues,” a lively number that tells us the ups and downs of the blue collar life.

Songwriter Bill Castle wrote the title number, describing all the things that go on in life: happiness, strife, drunks, bad news. It’s an unusual topic for a song but Castle wrote a good one. Another song mixes the notion of life’s woes with a life once lived. “Hymns From The Hills” features some great four-part harmony with Barnes singing the bass line. Another very good four-part track is the old gospel number, “The Dearest Friend I Ever Had.” Another gospel track is one that is well known in southern gospel circles but not heard as much in bluegrass. Bill and Gloria Gaither’s “Because He Lives” is one of the best gospel songs you’ll ever hear and the band does a fabulous job with it.

One of the most celebrated songwriters in country music across the decades is Hank Williams. “May You Never Be Alone Like Me” has all the pathos you expect from a Williams’ ballad and I love his version, but the three-part version from the Ramblers nails this song and the mandolin and fiddle take a beautiful break on it. Speaking of country music, they do a hot version of Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly,” recorded by Bob Wills in 1942.

Joe Mullins and his Radio Ramblers are one of the best groups on the circuit and you’ll wear out this CD on your player.

 

“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.

“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.