“Through It All” by the Harper Family

The Harper Family
Through It All
Pisgah Ridge Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Harper Family brings songs of belief to bluegrass with excellent harmony singing and good musicianship.

A family band playing in the Midwest (their touring schedule shows Iowa and Missouri), the group includes Hannah Harper, 14 years old and their fiddle player; Dillon (mandolin and vocals) and wife Makeena Harper (vocals); Dalton Harper (guitar and vocals); mother Katrina (upright bass and vocals), and father Gaylon Harper (banjo and guitar).

“Through It All,” an Andraé Crouch song dating back four decades, features Hannah Harper singing lead. She has a beautiful voice, mature beyond her years. The family, with Tim Surrett playing resonator guitar, provides good musical support. For some excellent banjo work there’s a David Staton number, “In His Will There Is A Way.” Gaylon Harper drives the song with his banjo while Dillon Harper sings lead.

There are five major elements that make a CD fair, good, or excellent: the singers, the pickers, the arrangements, song selection and the technical side. The technical side includes recording, mixing and mastering. The Harper family are very good musicians and very good singers. The arrangements have diversity and show some thought was put into them. The technical side is good. What about the song selection?

The family has at least two good composers. Dalton Harper wrote “Child of the King” and mother Katrina Harper penned (and sings lead on) “Don’t You Want To Meet Him.” The latter is based on the biblical story (Mark 2:3-5) of the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends so he could be healed by Jesus. This is an excellent song.

“A Portion Of His Love” is a fast-paced number from Sonya and Ben Isaacs featuring an interesting vocal arrangement on the choruses. “In A Moment Just Like This” from Chris White Music (Chris White, Ray Scarbrough) is a song about the basics of Christian faith: when times are bad, the news isn’t good, where do you turn? Do you turn to God or turn your back on Him? “Spirit Wind” is a different take on this Casting Crowns number based on Ezekiel 37:1-14. I like the mandolin kickoff but the Harper version is brighter than the Crowns version, not quite as haunting. But if you like haunting (and I do), “The Judgement” has a touch of that. Surrett is playing resonator guitar and David Johnson is a one-man string section, playing violin, viola and cello on this number from the Kingsmen.

You have many choices of good groups and good CDs in the bluegrass gospel field. Sometimes the regional bands are overlooked because they lack name recognition. Don’t make that mistake with the Harper Family. If you like good Christian music that isn’t apologetic in its beliefs, you need to hear this CD.

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“Too” by Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome
Too
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It’s long been rumored that some big–name country stars can’t sing on key, so they use auto–tuners in the studio and on the road. Bluegrass producers might use it in the studio (although I doubt it’s widespread) but I asked Tom Feller, who provides sound to venues like Bean Blossom (and is half of Feller & Hill) about having it in his equipment. He’s not aware of any bluegrass group using them on their live shows.

I’ve heard Flatt Lonesome’s live show. What you get on their CDs is what you’d hear jamming with them around the campfire. Their pitch is excellent and their harmony is as good as you’ll hear anywhere. This is their second CD and they continue to make excellent bluegrass music. “Slowly Getting You Out of the Way” is a hard–driving Randall Hylton song that features some good breaks. “I’m Ready Now” is another pure bluegrass number on the gospel side. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill sings the lead with siblings Buddy and Charli Robertson adding their signature harmony vocals.

The musicianship of the group is excellent, too. Buddy Robertson plays guitar; sister Charli Robertson plays fiddle while sister Kelsi Harrigill adds mandolin. Her husband, Paul Harrigill, plays banjo and guitar and the band is rounded out with Dominic Illingworth on bass and Michael Stockton on resophonic guitar.

“Dangerous Dan” is a Tim Stafford/Barry Ricks number with a twist. It’s the story of a hard times moonshiner who ends up as a God-fearing preacher. It seems there’s hope for all of us. Another good Hylton song is “So Far,” yet another story of broken love.

Then there’s the countrygrass. It’s been part of bluegrass almost forever: how many Louvin Brothers songs have appeared on bluegrass recordings? Crowds I have seen at live shows seem to like it; they certainly applaud it. Some people don’t. A banjo–playing friend called me this morning complaining about a bluegrass–marketed CD that sounded too much like country. If you don’t object to countrygrass, there’s some very good numbers on this CD.

“Letters Have No Arms” is a 1949 Ernest Tubb song that’s a great love song. (Bluegrassers may recognize a couple of other Tubb recordings: Wabash Cannonball and “one of his old favorites,” Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin.) “I Thought You Were Someone I Knew” is a waltz beat love song with an unusual fiddle interlude (some people might mistake the intro as flutes). “It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again” makes good bluegrass to my ears, but I can also imagine standing on the stage in a club singing it to a country crowd. Most times the country/bluegrass division is just the delivery and the instruments. “I Can’t Be Bothered” is very country, which is hardly surprising since it was recorded by Miranda Lambert. Of the two, I like Flatt Lonesome’s harmony better.

I expect the “too much country” argument will continue longer than it takes the pines to grow tall. If you aren’t concerned by it and like really good music, you need to run out and get this CD.

“Five” by Balsam Range

Balsam Range
Five
Mountain Home Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The last release from Balsam Range was Papertown in 2012. As good as they are, that’s too long to wait. They are receiving the recognition such a good band deserves and, while it’s not the cover the the Rolling Stone, they did make the cover of the July issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.

Some of their music isn’t Flatt & Scruggs-style traditional bluegrass, but more countrygrass. This is music done in a bluegrass environment (the usual four to six acoustic instruments, three-part harmonies) but could be done on a retro-country stage (you know, country before it became countryhiphoprappop). Though some who love their traditional bluegrass as the only “true” bluegrass complain, the audiences I’ve seen love this music as well as they do Jimmy Martin songs. It seems to me to be a reasonable expansion of genre rather than a threat to it. Dan Seal’s hit “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” from more than two decades ago cerainly fits the countrygrass mold. Buddy Melton’s (fiddle) lead is good stuff, doing the song as much justice as Seals did. I keep playing this track over and over.

“Don’t Watch These Tears” could be a country song. Caleb Smith (guitar) handles the lead work on this fast-paced, troubled love number. “Too High a Price To Pay” features yet another lead singer, Darren Nicholson (mandolin), and is another love-is-gone song.

Balsam Range’s members are all accomplished musicians. Melton played with Doc Watson and has solo projects on the market. Surrett is a man of many musical accomplishments and has performed some beautiful gospel music. Pruett is a graduate of the Jimmy Martin school of music.

Banjoist Marc Pruett is the only band member who doesn’t sing. Bassist and resonator guitarist Tim Surrett takes the lead on “Songs I’ve Sung,” a change of pace from love. This is a song that looks ahead to the end of the road, wondering more what will happen to the songs he’s sung than what will happen to whatever he owns. It’s something many of us have wondered as we grow older: will we be remembered when we’re gone or just fade from the memories of our friends? They dip further back into the past with the late Micky Newbury’s 1971 classic, “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be,” using a piano and steel guitar for more of a country sound.

What’s a bluegrass album without a murder song? “Moon Over Memphis” is yet another song about love and murder, faster paced than many songs like this (“The Crime I Didn’t Do”, “Knoxville Girl“). They throw in a song that must have been written for me: “Monday Blues.” Monday mornings get here too soon. On the traditional side, Milan Miller co-wrote “I Spend My Days Below The Ground,” a story about the hard life in a mining town: in the mines young to help your family survive, your dreams dying in the dark until you go too young, a victim of an accident or disease. There’s a good reason there are so many mining songs in bluegrass. And then there’s the Civil War. “From a Georgia Battlefield” has an old-timey sound to it, telling again the story of that horrible war.

The bluegrass genre has been around six decades. The fan base has expanded to include people who enjoy the countrygrass sound and that doesn’t seem to be threatening a loss of the traditional side. Balsam Range is an excellent example of a 21st century bluegrass band and Five is an excellent bluegrass CD.

“In the Shadows” by New Outlook

New Outlook
In The Shadows
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass and gospel music have always gone hand–in–hand, from Bill Monroe’s The Gospel Spirit, with such great songs as “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” to current masters such as Paul Williams. New Outlook, a midwestern regional band based in Ohio, joins the gospel field with an impressive CD.

Early pioneers in country music, with many of their songs now standards in bluegrass, the Bailes Brothers penned and recorded songs in the ’40s and ’50s. One of the numbers, composed in 1942 and based on a message Walter Bailes heard in 1937, recorded innumerable times, is “Dust On The Bible.”

There are several other oft-recorded songs on this CD, so you may wonder why you should listen to yet another version. New Outlook’s take on “Dust On The Bible” is a Charmin™ version, softer and gentler than many bluegrass versions I’ve heard. Husband–and–wife team Brad and Lori Lambert are the vocalists along with Caleb Daughtery. They feature great harmony singing and offer a good alternative to the country stylings of Hank Williams and Kitty Wells or the southern gospel style of the Chuckwagon Gang. Is it worthwhile listening to yet another version of “Dust” and these other songs? In this case, definitely.

They go back for versions of “Will He Wait A Little Longer,” a Stanley Brothers number and Dottie Rambo’s great song, “If That Isn’t Love.” “Beautiful Altar of Prayer” compares very well to Doyle Lawson’s version with Jamie Dailey singing lead, and that’s a tough act to follow. Other songs from the past include the old hymn “Pass Me Not (O Gentle Savior),” a banjo–driven version “Cryin’ Holy Unto The Lord” and “Are You Building On The Rock.”

Additional musicians are Dave Morrison on Dobro, Dewayne Guffey on mandolin, and Dave Johnson on fiddle and Dobro. It was engineered by Dan Ward, something not usually mentioned in a review but Ward turns in a good performance singing bass on “I’ve A Mansion Over In Glory.” It’s too bad they didn’t use him on more tracks.

Included are some original compositions by Brad Lambert, including the title track, “Half Remains Untold,” and “See You In The Morning,” which will bring some tears. It’s the story of a couple in love but the man dies. She’s left remembering him saying, “I’ll see you in the morning or I’ll see you in glory.”

There’s not a throwaway track on this CD. It’s going in my stack of play–these–often.

“In Our Own Words” by Bluegrass Express

Bluegrass Express
In Our Own Words
Plum River Records
3½ 
stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Founded by patriarch, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Underwood and his son (bass, guitar, vocals) Greg Underwood, Bluegrass Express is a (mostly) family band that’s now has added third generation member Jacob Underwood (banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals) and mandolinist Andy Hatfield. They are joined on this CD by Tim Crouch (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin on “I’ll Be Gone”) and Bethany Burie (high baritone on “The Key To Heaven”).

Many have the opinion that some of the best harmony singing you’ll hear comes from family bands, and, and that holds true here. Also, all songs on this disc are Underwood family originals—a laudable effort when so many projects feature well-worn material—and the results vary from very good to not quite so good.

“I’ll Be Gone” is a pretty number about love problems, always a favorite subject for composers. It’s a countrygrass number—one that fits either a bluegrass or a classic country stage–and features Greg Underwood as lead singer. He has a good voice and is pleasant to hear singing. It features the banjo as a background instrument through much of the song and, for my taste, a bit more ingenuity would be welcomed, switching the instruments for some variation. I suppose it’s just a personal thing, but I just don’t much like an electric bass in bluegrass. The type of bass isn’t specified but it sounds to me like an electric flat-top. Decibel for decibel, note for note, I would enjoy an upright a lot more.

Gary Underwood sings lead on “It’s Raining Outside,” a slow, swinging, moody number with twin fiddles and nice breaks by the instrumentalists. This is a great number. He also sings lead on “Sinner Hear Me.” It has some swing to it, an interesting chord progression into some minor chords. You don’t hear many gospel swing numbers but they pull this one off nicely. Burie co-wrote the song she sings harmony on, “The Key To Heaven.” This is a good song but she’s low in the mix, mostly a function of not dialing back the lead on the chorus. That’s too bad for she’s a good singer.

“There’ll Never Be Another You” is a fairly typical love–is–gone song—it’s not easy to come up with a fresh take on one of the oldest themes around. “Down In Tennessee” reflects on how much the singer loves Tennessee even though he has to be on the road. This is a good uptempo number and shows off the talents of the pickers.

Getting back to countrygrass, “New True Love” is a good number with a walking bass line. If you like country music you’ll love it, but it may circle people back to the “too much country in bluegrass” argument. I don’t think bluegrass is in danger of losing its identity, of becoming the new real country music with Jimmy Martin’s style of music lost in the shuffle. “Baby’s Gone For Good” is another heartbreaker with a more interesting arrangement, saving most of the instruments to come in after a few bars. It’s a good song, but you may re-start it a time or two as it has an odd, 2–beat pickup start.

This is a good CD, well worth a listen by anyone who enjoys countrygrass.

“Here Come Feller & Hill Again” by Feller & Hill

Feller & Hill
Here Come Feller & Hill Again
Blue Circle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass is both narrow and broad. It’s narrow because stepping outside the accepted six instruments causes queasiness in a lot of people. Steel guitar? Uh…maybe. Just don’t bring it on stage. Piano? Okay if it’s Buck White but keep the volume low. Drums? Whew, boy, bluegrass is going rock ‘n’ roll. The reaction to including country songs is usually less acidic, and you hear southern gospel, blues, old timey and rock songs.

On this new CD Tom Feller and Chris Hill push the bluegrass envelope a bit with a steel guitar (Hill, who also plays banjo, guitar and adds vocals) and drums (Feller, who adds guitar, mandolin, bass, Dobro on “The Government Blues” and vocals), but they aren’t straying too far from the bluegrass formula.

“Hey Baby” isn’t Bill Monroe traditional but it is from the pen of Aubrey Holt (Boys From Indiana, Feller’s uncle). Holt also wrote “Here Comes Polly,” a good bluegrass number that features Cody Jones singing bass. Keeping it in the family, Feller’s mother, Judy, contributes “Stone Woman Blues.” This is a good number in the classic country vein and features the great Michael Cleveland (another southern Indiana boy) on fiddles. Cleveland plays fiddle on most tracks with Glenn Gibson playing Dobro.

This underlines an important feature of their music—it’s aimed at the bluegrass market (a more viable market than classic country) and is well accepted by the bluegrass crowd (the Bean Blossom watchers were very enthusiastic), but it tends to be more classic country than bluegrass. This is acoustic country music, so it fits in a bluegrass environment, though no doubt those with purist leanings would complain. I had a chance to talk with Chris Hill and he tells me that their selection of classic country music is intentional, an aim for a niche market that isn’t being explored in depth by other bluegrass artists. Instead of bluegrass with an occasional country song, they are doing classic country in a bluegrass/acoustic format and their next CD, on the final production laps, will be a country CD with no pretensions of bluegrass music.

Tom T and Dixie Hall have written many good songs for bluegrass and they add two here. “The Government Blues” is a fine number that would have fit Jimmy Rodgers well, relating the many woes of taxes and no money. “Tired of Losing You,” with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals (co-written with Billy Smith), is a great country love song. This is the only number that you’ll hear Chris Hill’s steel work but it blends well and is not at all over the top. Another famous name from country music is Faron Young, who composed “Forget The Past.” Feller & Hill underscore the resemblance they bear to Buck Owens and Don Rich but on this number Hill has styling closer to Faron Young’s.

Speaking of Owens and Rich, Feller wrote a number in honor of their memory and includes bits of several of their hits in it. “The Ballad of Buck and Don” is tribute to one of the best duets in the history of country music.

They nod to gospel music with a Joyce “Dottie” Rambo song, “When Is He Coming Again.” It’s a story of fighting betwwen families and when will Jesus come again to relieve us of all the darkness of the world. Heather Berry-Mabe adds vocals to this track. They turn to bluegrass tradition with a Don Reno number, “He’s Coming Back To Earth Again,” singing it it the echoing style of Reno & Smiley.

“It’ll Be Too Late” is another good country song while “Never Ending Song of Love” will be familiar to many. Made popular by Delaney & Bonnie, whose members at times included Duane Allman and Gregg Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and Eric Clapton, it was also recorded by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. This is the only track with drums. I asked Hill why they included drums and he told me the track seemed to be missing something and adding the drums tied it all together. But the wildest selection is “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a Richard Rogers number recorded by such diverse groups as The Ventures and The London Festival Orchestra, though you’ll have a hard time hearing Feller & Hill’s version in the orchestral recording. Crazy as the idea may sound, this makes a good instrumental for a bluegrass band.

If you like country mixed with bluegrass you’ll thoroughly enjoy this up-and-coming duo.

“Down on the Farm” by the Stevens Family Bluegrass Band

The Stevens Family Bluegrass Band
Down On The Farm
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Family bands—parents and kids—often must suffer comparison to the Cherryholmes clan since their remarkable success. The Stevens Family Band is the Cherryholmes meets Duck Dynasty. When they’re at home JW (the dad) enjoys coon hunting (a favorite of Jimmy Martin and myself) and running his trapline with Luke, number seven of ten children. Four (Sissy, 1974), seven (Luke), eight? (Ben, 1983), nine (Sam, 1990) and ten (Tommy, 1997) join Dad and Mom (Nancy) to make up the band.

Given that JW Stevens is a minister it’s not surprising that the CD is heavy with spiritual songs. “City of Gold” (Nancy Stevens singing lead) is a good, upbeat gospel number. The vocalists are all good (Sissy and Luke Stevens singing harmony) and it’s a good arrangement. She also sings lead on “How Great Thou Art,” done a cappella, showing their strong harmony singing with children Luke, Sissy and Ben joining in, though Ben struggles a bit with the lower registers of the bass part. Her other lead number is shown here as “Search The Book” by Jerry Golf (actual title, “Please Search the Book Again” by Jerry Goff) and it’s a great gospel number. They include a drop to a minor as a transition from the 1 chord to the 4 chord and it’s a perfect touch. You can hear different arrangements on the web and this is the best I’ve heard.

JW Stevens sings lead on one number with Nancy singing harmony. “Old Fashion Love” is secular, a description (in their own words) of their relationship. This makes a beautiful love song.

The title song was penned by Sissy Stevens and is a picture of the family. Songs like this often fail because the lyrics or melody just can’t make the grade—too cute, too simplistic, too focused on the writer—but this is a vary good number and should have wide appeal to other bands looking for a good song. Brother Luke penned “She’s The One,” a story about being on the road and leaving loved ones behind. It’s a good, hard driving number and is especially interesting because it’s a display of the instrumental abilities of the band. They tend to be laid back on most of their numbers, providing good support but no sparkling breaks. This track leaves no doubts about them as pickers.

“A Living Prayer” (Ron Block) is a powerful gospel number and Sissy, Luke and Ben provide powerful harmony to drive it. The late Randall Hylton wrote “Where Rainbows Touch Down,” an illustration of his songwriting abilities and yet another beautiful harmony number.

This is a CD that may get overlooked in a crowded marketplace but it is definitely worth a listen. You’ll be glad you took the time.

“Memory of a Mountain” by Ma Crow and the Lady Slippers

Ma Crow and the Lady Slippers
Memory Of a Mountain
self-released

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Lady Slippers are unusual (but not unique) as an all-female bluegrass band. They’re from Cincinnati and have a solid regional reputation. A look at their upcoming events shows them working in Ohio and several surrounding states. The biographical information for the members (Ma Crow, Trina Emig, Margie Drees, Vicki Abbott) lists a number of bands they’ve performed in (Chicken Deluxe, Jennie Lyn Band, Dr. Twang and the Stainless Steel) but you may not recognize the names.

They describe their music as bluegrass/American/mountain, and it indeed sounds like some combination of bluegrass and old-timey. Drees penned three of the numbers. “Liberty Hill” is a song about trying to find liberty from oppression and fits the bluegrass mold. Ma Crow sings lead on all the vocal tracks and here she’s joined by Drees singing harmony. Their playing is good as are the harmonies. The title song has a very pretty melody and tells a sad story of the Appalachians: mining has destroyed many mountains and this is a story of memories before mining took away the beauty. Emig has a melodic banjo break that will catch your attention. Staying with the mountain theme, the third Drees number is “Daughter of the Mountain” and is more-or-less the story of Ma Crow’s mother, Nadine. All good tracks, very close to classical bluegrass with a touch of old-time feeling.

Ma Crow as a lead singer fares well but, as always, personal taste has to be considered. Her singing voice is much closer to Hazel Dickens than to the standard crop of modern bluegrass female vocalists. Production qualities are good, not surprising since the CD was mixed and mastered by Ron Stewart. Stewart, a good singer with a husky, smoker’s voice, makes a gigantic vocal contribution by adding a couple of grunts during “Get Up John.” Emig plays a good mandolin on this number and Drees plays fiddle. The fiddle playing is adequate but won’t blow you away.

“Shady Grove” and “Ages and Ages Ago” are familiar numbers. “Time Is Winding Up” is a public domain gospel number presented in an old-time, unadorned way that you might not recognize if you’ve heard Helen Millers version. I’ll stick with the acoustic version. “Going To The West” is another old number and features some of their best harmony singing, and they have a good presentation of “Montana Cowboy,” done by Emmylou Harris as “Montana Cowgirl.”

The one song that simply loses me is “No Mermaid.” This is a Sinéad Lohan song, covered by Joan Baez and sounds out of place in this album setting.

The picking is good, though none of it will blow away your toupee. The singing is all good as long as you like this style of unadorned melody. Given the status Hazel Dickens in this music, a lot of people do. It’s worth a listen.

 

“Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band” by Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band

Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band
Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band
Pulley Tunes
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

A lot of good music is made in bluegrass by bands that don’t have national recognition. Listen to Commonwealth Bluegrass on “Dry Run Creek,” a number best identified with the Seldom Scene’s 1995 Dream Scene album. They get it right, with an eerie feel by playing it in a minor chord and the high tenor’s slide up on the bridge. They do a good job on “Ashes of Love,” the old Johnnie & Jack song that’s been recorded and sung so many times the words are worn out. Randy Cook sings on-key and keeps time and that’s the basic requirements for bluegrass and country, and on-key isn’t always accomplished by artists. (That’s not a dig at bluegrass and country singers. Jim Nabors has great technical vocal abilities but I can’t hear him doing “Dark Hollow.”)

The numbers written by banjo player Malcolm Pulley are good bluegrass, a bit in the Jimmy Martin do-it-simple vein. “Living In The Country” is a description of life in the country, from watermelon to corn likker. Mike Sharp has a great Dobro break on this track. “Wearing My Heart Out On My Sleeve,” featuring fiddle by Ron Stewart, is a love song that Martin might have sung. The lyrics don’t challenge your imagination much as they strive to rhyme but it’s bluegrass that the crowds will enjoy. Pulley has some very good banjo breaks scattered throughout the CD.

Lance Seal is a competent bass players but he’s playing a stick bass (based on one of their videos) and you can make those sound like a Fender or a Kay. His sounds like a Fender. I’m not a purist but I don’t like the Fender sound in bluegrass. Jason Owen does good guitar work on “The Door Is Always Open,” the Dave & Sugar song that went to #1 on the country charts. This is yet another country song that plays well in bluegrass. Waylon Jennings put the song out in 1975 but his release of “Rose In Paradise” was several degrees more popular and Commonwealth Bluegrass has a good version on this CD. Either in the studio or the mix they should have done some filtering on this song as the S’s are sibilant, but it’s still enjoyable and a good arrangement.

Guitarist Jason Owen penned “He Wants To Be A Daddy Now,” a touching song about a man who abandoned his daughter then later has a change of heart. If you like broken love songs you’ll like “Getting Over You,” or perhaps a number that’s traditional like “Molly Rose” written by Lynnwood Lunsford, and if you’ve never heard “Purple Valley Blues” you’re in for a treat.

“Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
Rounder Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Steep Canyon Rangers play good music. “Knob Creek” is as pretty a bluegrass tune as I’ve ever heard. Their album Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and 2012’s Rare Bird Alert was nominated for the same award. In 2011 the Rangers and Steve Martin won Entertainers of the year at IBMA. Pretty heady stuff.

I saw the Rangers in Georgia a few years ago. I liked the show. I like Steve Martin. I haven’t heard much of them together because I don’t often listen to radio. My go-to-work car doesn’t have satellite radio and my wife likes the ’60’s channel in her car. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started the CD and that’s why you’re reading these reviews, trying to decide if a CD is worth your money.

This package includes a DVD (the show was taped live) and the DVD tells a better story than the CD. The DVD has two additional tracks and includes the stage banter, audience shots, and gives you better context than the CD. From the start it’s clear that this is the Steve Martin show. He’s the front man, he tells the jokes and plays or trades lead on the banjo. When you visit SCR’s website it becomes clear this is a collaboration but they are in a supporting role with Martin (50 shows a year) while keeping their identity as they perform separate from him. Other clues about what to expect are subtle: the website listing shows SCR last after Martin and Edie Brickell and SCR’s members aren’t named in the package.

The SCR aren’t just window dressing, though. The first number is “Katie Mae,” a hot one that whets your bluegrass appetite. Despite not being familiar with it I figured it was adapted from Flatt & Scruggs or someone like them, but the only other number with that name I can find is a Grateful Dead piece adapted from the blues and they aren’t even cousins. It turns out it was composed by Brickell. Other than the music on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (by SCR members) the songs all list Martin or Brickell as composer or co-composer and SCR isn’t involved. “Katie Mae” on the DVD shows Martin playing lead banjo, trading off in spots with Graham Sharp. Martin’s a good banjo player and enjoys carrying the bluegrass message in his TV appearances.

One of Martin’s funny lines is at 11:00 on the DVD: “I know what you’re thinking: There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” It’s hard to tell from shots of the audience how many of them follow bluegrass—I suspect a substantial number were there for the Steve Martin show—but they liked that line while veteran bluegrassers really understand the punch line. “Jubilation Day” is one of his comedy song routines (a breaking up story from a “whew, it’s over perspective”) and the bass player takes an impressive break on the number. “The Crow” is a good instrumental bluegrass number and is the title track of Martin’s 2009 album that won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards.

Edie Brickell is associated with the New Bohemians and the Gaddabouts, and is now closely allied with Martin and his bluegrass shows. She comes in at 26:40 (DVD) to sing “Get Along Stray Dog.” This is more old-timey than anything else. The music takes a turn at this point to some sort of fusion between old-time, folk, and Irish jig with her singing somewhere in Dylan’s camp, breathy with a rising and falling inflection. There’s an electric guitar and drums and a keyboard have been added. The audience liked it. Bill Monroe fans probably not so much. It’s unclear if she has a genre in mind. I suspect she’s following her own muse: infused with acoustic music but still very influenced by rock/pop. If you listen to “Love Like We Do” (New Bohemians) you’ll find a lot of similarities with her work on this CD.

“Stand and Deliver” is the SCR (Martin and Brickell are off stage) plus some percussion doing bluegrass on the progressive side. They follow that with “Hunger,” a blues number with an electric guitar. Not bluegrass but I liked the song and the arrangement.

There’s far too much material to cover it all, especially on the DVD. Some other highlights are “Pretty Little One,” close to a bluegrass story song but it also has an old-time sound. The verses tend to have a repetitious melody and go on and on with both murder and comedy woven into the lyrics. Martin sings lead with Brickell joining in now and then. Next “Auden’s Train” kicks off, credited to Martin and Nicky Sanders. That may confuse you because it’s the “Orange Blossom Special” with lyrics borrowed from W H Auden’s Calypso.

Woody Platt (guitar) sings lead on “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a Martin number that makes good bluegrass. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” isn’t politically correct, but it’s funny. Maybe we worry too much about being politically correct.

Bluegrass fans attend a performance or buy a CD expecting the music to be the show. Some of the best bluegrass bands out there don’t try too hard at showmanship. When you buy this package expect the Steve Martin show with music added. You’ll enjoy the DVD if you’re a Steve Martin fan because he puts on a good show. If you’re considering the CD expecting more “Knob Creek” bluegrass, you’ll be a little disappointed.