“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.

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“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.

 

LRR’s picks for the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards

The 25th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards show is Thursday, Oct. 2 in Raleigh.

Here are Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s picks from the final ballot IBMA voters were presented with. (Aaron is an IBMA voting member.)

One suggested change: If a someone has won a particular vocalist or instrumentalist award more than five times, why not make him ineligible for future awards in order to give others a chance? I don’t think Del McCoury, Adam Steffey, or Michael Cleveland would mind.—AKH

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Donald’s pick:
The Gibson Brothers

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Blue Highway
The Del McCoury Band

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Donald and Larry’s pick:
Balsam Range

Aaron’s pick:
Dailey & Vincent

Other nominees:
Blue Highway
The Gibson Brothers
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
The Del McCoury Band

Donald’s pick:
Blue Highway

Larry’s pick:
The Boxcars

Other nominees:
Balsam Range
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

SONG OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
“Grandpa’s Way of Life” – The Spinney Brothers (artist), Mark ‘Brink’ Brinkman (writer)

Larry’s pick:
“You Took All The Ramblin’ Out of Me” – The Boxcars (artist), Jerry Hubbard (writer)

Other nominees:
“Dear Sister” – Claire Lynch (artist), Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb (writers)
“It’s Just a Road” – The Boxcars (artist), William Keith Garrett (writer)
“The Game” – Blue Highway (artist), Shawn Lane and Barry Bales (writers)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Hall of Fame Bluegrass – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artist), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers), Rebel Records

Donald’s pick:
Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band (artist), Del McCoury (producer),  McCoury Music

Larry’s pick:
It’s Just A Road – The Boxcars (artist), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home LS

Other nominees:
Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Noam Pikelny (artist) Gabe Witcher (producer), Compass Records
The Game – Blue Highway (artist), Blue Highway (producer), Rounder Records

GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Won’t It Be Wonderful There” – Dailey & Vincent (artist), Brothers of the Highway (album), Mildred Styles Johnson (writer), Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (producers), Rounder Records

Donald’s pick:
“Love Does” – Darin and Brooke Aldridge (artist), Flying (album), Jamie Johnson, Suzanne M. Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (writers), Darin and Brooke Aldridge (producers), Organic Record

Larry’s pick:

“The Day We Learn to Fly” – Volume Five (artist), The Day We Learn To Fly (album), Stacy Richardson and Leroy Drumm (writers), Volume Five (producers), Mountain Fever LS

Other nominees:
“Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” – Donna Ulisse (artist), I Am a Child of God (album), Hazel Marie Houser (writer), Bryan Sutton and Donna Ulisse (producers), Hadley Music Group
“When Sorrows Encompass Me Around” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just A Road (album), Paul Edgar Johnson (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Johnny Don’t Get Drunk” – Adam Steffey (artist), New Primitive (album),  Public Domain, Adam Steffey (producer), Organic

Donald’s pick:
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy”- Special Consensus with Buddy Spicher, Michael Cleveland and Alison Brown (artists), Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (album), John Martin Sommers (wrtier), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Larry’s pick:
“Five Miles to Milan” – The Grascals (artist), When I Get My Pay (album), Danny Roberts (writer), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home

Other nominees:
“Graveyard Fields” – Steep Canyon Rangers (artist), Tell The Ones I Love (album), Mike Guggino (writer), Larry Campbell (producer), Rounder Records
“Skillet Head Derailed” – The Boxcars (artist), It’s Just a Road (album), Ron Stewart (writer), The Boxcars (producer), Mountain Home

RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
“Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School)” – Peter Rowan with Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie McCoury and Del McCoury (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

Donald’s pick:
“Martha White, Lester & Earl” – Terry Baucom with Marty Raybon & Buddy Melton (artists), Terry and Cindy Baucom (producers), John Boy and Billy Records

Larry’s pick:
“Wild Mountain Honey” – Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (artists), Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins (producers) Rebel Records

Other nominees:
“American Pickers”- The Grascals with Dierks Bentley (artists), The Grascals (producer), Mountain Home
“Wild Montana Skies” – Special Consensus with Claire Lynch & Rob Ickes (artists), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records

EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Flatt Lonesome

Donald’s pick:
Town Mountain

Other nominees:
Detour
The Spinney Brothers
Volume Five

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Del McCoury

Larry’s pick:

Buddy Melton

Other nominees:

Tim O’Brien
Frank Solivan
Dan Tyminski

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Aaron’s pick:
Claire Lynch

Donald’s pick:
Dale Ann Bradley

Larry’s pick:
Rhonda Vincent

Other nominees:
Alison Krauss
Amanda Smith

INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMERS OF THE YEAR

BANJO

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Noam Pikelny

Larry’s pick:
Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jens Kruger
Mike Munford
Sammy Shelor

BASS

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Mike Bub

Donald’s pick:
Barry Bales

Other nominees:
Missy Raines
Mark Schatz
Darrin Vincent

FIDDLE

Aaron and Donald’s pick:
Michael Cleveland

Larry’s pick:

Ron Stewart

Other nominees:

Jason Carter
Stuart Duncan
Bobby Hicks

DOBRO

Aaron’s pick:

Rob Ickes

Donald and Larry’s pick:

Phil Leadbetter

Other nominees:

Jerry Douglas
Andy Hall
Randy Kohrs

GUITAR

Aaron, Donald, and Larry’s pick:
James Alan Shelton

Other nominees:
Tony Rice
Kenny Smith
Tim Stafford
Bryan Sutton

MANDOLIN

Aaron and Larry’s pick:
Adam Steffey

Donald’s pick:
Frank Solivan

Other nominees:
Sam Bush
Sierra Hull
Chris Thile

“Heartland” by the Downtown Mountain Boys

Downtown Mountain Boys
Heartland
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

If you like bluegrass the way Bill Monroe did it, you’ll get excited as soon as you hear the first notes of this CD, “Riding On the L&N”. This is a Bluegrass Cardinals’ number from the ’80’s and the Boys do it well. Staying with the railroad theme, they offer a Seldom Scene number from four decades ago, “Raised By The Railroad Line” and a tune many have heard from the Lonesome River Band, “Like a Train Needs a Track” with guitarist Don Share singing lead. Speaking of Mr. Monroe, included is one of his compositions, “Old Ebeneezer Scrooge.” This is a great instrumental that should be played more often. Paul Elliott plays fiddle and does an excellent job. He’s performed with a number of well-known acts (Alison Brown, John Reischman) and is also a composer. The mandolin is the centerpiece of this number, of course, and Tom Moran turns in a masterful performance.

Animals have cropped up in bluegrass through the years (“Molly & Tenbrooks,” “Echo Mountain” and, of course, “Old Shep”) and now there’s another song that should join that group. Bassist Terry Enyeart wrote and sings lead on “Shannon’s Last Ride,” a story about having to “put old Shannon down.” The old horse has been around thirty years and it’s just time. The number was inspired by Enyeart using his backhoe to bury a neighbor’s favorite horse. A song based on a lifetime of stories is “Timber.” This number has an old-timey sound and was written by Enyeart based on stories told him by his logger camp fiddler grandpa and grandmother, a cook in the camp. It tells a story you might expect, including the man who was killed by a falling limb then covered by a gunny sack while the work went on. Elliott composed the fiddle music and also composed the title song. It’s a bit unusual (on a mixed vocal-instrumental CD) to name the CD after an instrumental, but this is a beautiful number.

Banjoist Dave Keenan sings lead on a “Up and Down the Mountain,” another number traced to the Bluegrass Cardinals but performed by a long list of bands through the years. There are no bad songs on this CD but my favorite is “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.” Played in a minor chord, it’s another murder song but it’s a pretty one. It’s been recorded by such diverse artists as the Steeldrivers (band members Chris Stapleton and Michael Henderson composed the song) and Adele. This goes on my “gotta learn it” list.

The band is from the northwest and their schedule shows their touring limited to that area. If you’re lucky enough to see them in person, grab the opportunity. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this CD if you like traditional bluegrass.

“These Tears I’ve Cried” by Steve Scott Country

Steve Scott Country
These Tears I’ve Cried
self-released
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Here is another good entry in the country-rock field, songs called country by the radio stations and people who buy the records, but sound like rock music. There are any number of rock bands from some decades ago—like Credence Clearwater Revival—that you could plug into the playing of these tracks and no one would miss a beat. In that vein of music, Scott has come up with some good songs (all written by him). The title song is a ballad with the steel guitar the primary lead instrument. A good steel player can reach out and grab your heartstrings and the steel in this song has that sound, it just doesn’t match what he’s singing. He doesn’t touch you with the lyrics.

One issue for me is Scott’s elocution. He breaks out of the soundalike clutch of “country” singers on the radio today but his pronunciation is unusual. It’s not a twang, it sounds more like an affectation but seems to be his normal way of singing. It takes some getting used to before it stops stealing your attention from the song.

“Thoughts On Fire” is a love song that has some nice touches with an easy beat on a flattop guitar and some steel and fiddle in the background. It lapses into country-rock mode on every verse, though, with a wall of sound that makes it hard to sort out the background instruments. The music follows the country-rock formula with a bit of diversity in the kickoff then a lot of licks strung together through the rest of the song. It would be interesting to hear a country record with the instruments having space in each song, playing some creative fills and lead breaks that are more than just bending strings and making a lot of noise.

“Geronimo (You’ve Got Me Wonderin’)”has an unusual kickoff. Scott sounds like he’s down in a well doing some swamp rock, reminiscent of the theme song to Justified. This one has some interesting stuff in it. The lyrics don’t grab my attention and I could do without the thud-thud back-beat of the drummer, but there’s some resophonic guitar and very bluesy keyboard/organ work in this number.

“Don’t Say You’ll Walk Away (Tonight)” mixes some interesting, quiet mandolin work mixed with loud guitars crashing in the background. The guitar break is more of a formula than a solo. Like many of his songs, you have to work to piece together a cohesive story from his lyrics. This doesn’t seem unusual for this style of music so there are undoubtedly significant numbers of people who can get into this groove. I have to admit I miss songs like “Lonesome 7-7203.” They told the story; you didn’t have to piece anything together.

There’s good music here for fans of the country-rock-indie (the CD was #32 on the Roots Music Report for November 2013), lots of crashing guitars and a strong drum beat so you can dance. If “Come Sundown” is one of your favorites, you’ll be disappointed.

 

“Dream Big” by the Darrell Webb Band

The Darrell Webb Band
Dream Big
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When Darrell Webb takes the stage he owns it. He stalks back and forth, puts a leg up on the front rail as he sings and plays, moves to a musician taking a break to share with him or just watch. He’s energetic and intense. He doesn’t just play, he performs. I reviewed Bloodlines four years ago and started by saying, “As soon as “I’m Bringing Home Good News” kicks off you know you’re in for a ride and it’s on a bluegrass train. Darrell Webb took a good Merle Haggard song and gave it a triple shot of Red Bull.” Fifteen hundred days later, hundreds of shows later, he hasn’t worn off his edge.

Dating back hundreds of years, coins have been placed on the eyes of the deceased so they can pay Charon, the ferryman, to row them across the River Styx – even though most of us aim for the River Jordan. “Ferry Man,” co-written by fiddler Jim VanCleve, is pure bluegrass, all about a life of hard times and hard living that’s come to a sad end:

Mother died when I was young

Father drank to kill the pain

The way my father left this world

I sadly did the same

Webb plays mandolin and sings the lead, joined by VanCleve, Tim Stafford (guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo), Shawn Lane (tenor) and Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar) and Jason Moore (bass). Just a sampling of the great musicians on this CD, a who’s who of the groups Webb has been a member of through the years, the instrumental work is excellent.

Staying with pain and despair, “Bad Old Yesterdays” is all about love so good then love gone bad, she was “unfaithful with the one I trusted most.” Bandmate Jake Joines plays Dobro and former LRB bandmate Sammy Shelor plays banjo with Aaron Ramsey playing mandolin. Things go from bad to worse when he’s about to swing on the “Devil’s Rope.” Bandmates Jared Hensley (guitar) and Jeremy Arrowood ( NS Bass) join him while while Webb plays both mandolin and banjo.

“Flying South to Dixie” has been around a long time and recorded by a slew of artists. It may qualify as the song with the most composers based on a Google search. Cindy Walker (who is credited here), Hank Snow, Hank Locklin and Robert Weber all pop up as composers. This may have arisen from the old custom of registering variations in your own name. Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldredge join Webb on vocals on this on this swinging old country song.

Another nod to the past is a Dr. Ralph Stanley favorite, “Pretty Polly.” Webb’s interpretation and banjo playing are top-notch. Moving to a more modern sound, “So Far” is a love song that Ronnie Bowman helps to sing and Phil Leadbetter contributes resophonic guitar. “Folks Like Us” will resonate with most anyone listening to it, describing the chasm between the working man and the rich man, asking if there’s “a way to get ahead that doesn’t make us bleed.” After all the news of greed and grift among people and companies that make more in an hour than most of us do in a year—or a lifetime—a lot of people will hear this story. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent add vocals.

Webb and VanCleve composed “Mashtag,” an instrumental that starts off slow and reflective before kicking it up a notch. Another number that probably speaks more to older fans, those of us with enough years that we can look a long way back to the time when life seemed it would go on forever, is “More Life.” Co-written by Mike Reid, a great songwriter whose singing career didn’t last long enough, with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals, it’s the story of a man nearing the end of life. Thinking of what he will do “as soon as gets his back up to speed,” the nurse comes in “with something for the pain” and asks if there’s anything more he needs.

More life, more time

More faith and the presence of mind

To breathe deeper, love stronger

Stay in the moment one moment longer

Less anger, less worry, more life

Oh, my.

Darrell Webb will go down in the books as one of the great stars of bluegrass and this CD is just one piece of the proof.