“The Best Kept Secret” by Chris Cuddy

Cris Cuddy
The Best Kept Secret
self-released

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If there’s one thing everyone should agree upon, Cris Cuddy’s CD isn’t boring. It’s indie music, a mixture of blues, rockabilly, and a little Mexican and calypso and other styles you may not describe. He switches tempos and styles and keeps it all interesting from start to finish. Cuddy, who hails from Canada, composed or co-composed (with Tom McCreight) all the songs, sings lead and plays harmonica and acoustic guitar. His voice tends to be on the soft side and the overall feel is laid-back and easy, a bit of Jimmy Buffet aura. The lyrics can be quirky: “I was hangin’ around a drive-through daiquiri bar, had my eye on a guy I think was thinkin’ about stealin’ my car” and “I was runnin’ the Elvis chapel in the all night church.” “Drive-Thru Daiquiri Bar” is a story about someone who is lost in his passage through life, told with a bit of a calypso beat. It’s not sad so much as reflective and it’s easy to picture a crowd kicked back with a drink at hand, nodding and saying to each other, “that’s the way it is, man.”

“IBMA Blues,” strangely named because nothing about this CD is reminiscent of the IBMA other than a couple of the musicians, is a story about love lost due to his passion for his music. A couple of familiar names are on this one. Jim Hurst (guitar) and Emory Lester (mandolin and fiddle) appear on several tracks and play in their usual brilliant styles. “She Reminded Me of You” is a lost love song with a Mexicali sound, complete with an accordion and quavering steel guitar. Unless your musical tastes are stuck in one genre it’s hard to not like this track. Next he channels Marty Robbins with “The Big Chill.” He doesn’t sound a bit like Robbins but this is a song Robbins would have sung if he was still around, a song about a gunfighter in the old west. Going with rockabilly, he offers “The Best Kept Secret,” a story about a secret love affair, except for the neighbor who ends up with the girl the other guy has been keeping hidden.

If you like blues, listen to “The Luck of the Draw.” Roly Platt plays some great harmonica and Keith Glass tears it up on guitar. This is track I could listen to all day long. Another bluesy number, with brushes on the drums and a good bass line, is “Amy,” a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse.

The musicians are all top drawer and the arrangements are good. This isn’t a CD that grabs you, it’s not a slap in the face to get your attention. The music sneaks up on you and you find yourself immersed in it, stopping whatever you were doing to listen. This one goes into my short stack that I play over and over.

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“Adkins & Loudermilk” by Adkins & Loudermilk

Adkins & Loudermilk
Adkins & Loudermilk
Mountain Fever Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you use names like Monroe, Scruggs, Flatt, and Martin to define bluegrass, you can throw in Adkins and Loudermilk. There has always been a lot of room in the traditional bluegrass world to encompass differences in style and lyrics. The Stanley Brothers differ from Monroe who differs from the McReynolds Brothers. Edgar Loudermilk (IIIrd Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent, Marty Raybon) and Dave Adkins (Republik Steel) are carving out their own niche.

This CD features a number of tracks composed by Adkins and/or Loudermilk but the one that may catch your attention on the first listen is an old public domain number that’s been recorded by innumerable artists in a variety of genre. I don’t recall hearing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” done like an easy country ballad before, but I like it. A number that could lose some bluegrassers in the audience is Hoyt Axton’s “[Never Been To] Spain,” but it does give the musicians and singers a chance to vamp. Adkins is a good singer with a voice that gets more coarse as he drives up the force of his vocal, reminding me of Junior Sisk. Loudermilk is a ballad singer with a lot of range, easily getting down into the bass register. Loudermilk plays bass, while Glen Crain plays Dobro and sings harmony. Zack Autry plays mandolin and his father Jeff Autry plays guitar. Chris Wade plays banjo for the band. These are excellent musicians and the numbers are tastefully arranged and recorded. They stretch their legs on “Spain” but, overall, this picking will stand the test of bluegrass audiences.

“Where Do You Go When You Dream” touches on one of music’s favorite topics, love. It’s a question that has crossed the minds of many lovers: is she dreaming about me or…? “Blacksmoke George” (composed by Adkins and former bandmate, Wayne Benson) is darker, the story of a hunt for a badman that doesn’t end up well for the hunter. Love and murder, staples of bluegrass though they aren’t intertwined in this number. “Mournful Soul” is another dark song that for some reason calls “Long Black Veil” to my mind, even though they sound nothing alike. It’s another chance for some fine trading of the lead break between the guitar and banjo. Switching styles, “Georgia Mountain Man” (Loudermilk, Russell Moore and Wayne Benson) is all about growing up in a country home, learning sound values for your life, while “Cut The Rope” (Adkins) is an uptempo song that has an outlook that’s been echoed in spirit by many. Love ties two people together so, “if you’re going to walk away and leave me behind,” cut the rope. “Turn Off The Love” has a similar message but done as a heartbreaking ballad that would make a great country song. The band turns up the heat and tempo with “Backside of Losing,” a story about bad choices in life.

Good music, good bluegrass that will be welcomed on most any bluegrass stage. Mix in some fun with “Spain” and you have a good CD. Adkins and Loudermilk are on a road that should lead to continued success.

“Wherever I Wander” by the Snyder Family Band

Snyder Family Band
Wherever I Wander
Mountain Home Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

HOT! That will be your first reaction to the music of the Snyder Family Band. Siblings Samantha (16) and Zeb (19) are joined by their father, Bud Snyder, on this unusual CD. The younger Snyders were mentioned in the review of Adam Steffey’s New Primitive CD, but now they’re blazing their own trail.

They have their feet in bluegrass—Zeb Snyder was nominated for the IBMA Momentum Award in 2013 and 2014. “Highway Call” is a great bluesy number that can fit into a bluegrass or country music set. Samantha Snyder, playing violin since age three, plays fiddle breaks on this track that are as good as any fiddle music you’ll ever hear with her brother adding great guitar as well as singing lead. That’s how most tracks are set up, Samantha Snyder playing fiddle and sometimes mandolin, Zeb Snyder playing guitar and mandolin with their father playing the upright bass. They make a lot of good music for a trio.

That said, there are three potential—but minor—reservations about their music. Any time you use multi-tracking to allow one person to play multiple intruments (or sing multiple parts) it can sound great on the CD, but what do you do for live performances? Bands usually figure this out, but it is a question mark. They chose to have no vocal harmonies. They are excellent singers and this isn’t a bad choice, but harmony singing fills out the vocals. The other reservation is trying to figure out the market for their music. If you dump blues, classic rock, classic country, bluegrass and western swing into a pot and wash out all dividing lines, that’s where this CD goes. If your tastes are as broad as their ambitions, there will be a great match between you and their music.

I enjoy all those genres so I find nothing but enjoyment with their music. “New River Rapids” is an interplay between the mandolin and fiddle with an imaginative melody. “Trick Shot” is another fun instrumental and “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” glides along at breakneck speed while “The Peach Truck” is six and a half minutes of vamp that showcases their great talents.

“Wherever I Wander” is an interesting melody and lyrics that are modern gospel. You won’t hear many gospel numbers like this one and may lose the lyrics just listening to their instrumental work. “Swamp Music” is a number that you can imagine Jerry Reed singing, co-composed by Ronnie Van Zant and Edward C. King of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame and released in 1974 on their Second Helping LP. The Snyder’s version doesn’t have the hard edge of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but nothing is lost with the change. Zeb Snyder entertains you with some glass bottleneck slide guitar while Amanada Snyder rocks on her fiddle. Another Samantha Snyder number is “Hittin’ the Highway,” a mixture of blues, rock and country with some great instrumental breaks.

I don’t think there’s a section of bins in the Ernest Tubb Record Shop for this CD. They need to make a new one labeled “RRGM” and stick it there. You’re missing an experience if you don’t listen to this one.

“Before the Sun Goes Down” by Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley

Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley
Before the Sun Goes Down
Compass Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Rob Ickes, one of music’s top resophonic guitar and lap steel artists, has undoubtedly had many offers to join other bands or artists on a full-time basis, but he’s remained a member of Blue Highway since that legendary bluegrass band’s inception in 1994. Ickes has branched out with solo projects, collaborations, and tons of session work, and his latest side project is with Trey Hensley.

A relative newcomer to the national scene (though he was Marty Stuart’s guest on the Opry when he was eleven), Hensley is an excellent singer and clearly knows which end of a guitar pick to hold. Hensley came into the studio to sing a scratch vocal (from the control room, no less) on “My Last Day in the Mine” for Blue Highway’s The Game. But the band liked his track so much that they just went ahead and released it.

Now Ickes and Hensley have now partnered on Before the Sun Goes Down, a strong fusion of bluegrass and traditional country. The title track is a great example of where those two styles—and their fans—meet. Was it written by Hank Williams? Or maybe Lefty Frizzel? Nope, the original recording was by Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys.

Hensley won’t be mistaken for Lester Flatt as he sings “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” but he nails it nonetheless. You can hear traces of Merle Haggard as Hensley sings “Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” a classic Haggard song. From that same era comes a Waylon Jennings hit, “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang.” Sticking with Haggard, they do “When My Last Song Is Sung,” a great song that goes on my list to learn as does “I’d Rather Be Gone” with Hensley channeling Haggard again. Bob Wills is best known for his upbeat western swing but “Misery” (Bob Wills/ Tommy Duncan/Tiny Moore) dates back to 1947 and is an excellent ballad that Haggard included in his repertoire, including Haggard playing fiddle in a triple fiddle break.

Hensley’s guitar is impeccable and no one is going to question Icke’s playing. Master bassman Mike Bub anchors everyone while Aubrey Haynie and Andy Leftwich trade fiddle duties and Ron Block plays banjo. Another Alison Krauss veteran, Dan Tyminski, provides some harmony vocals along with Jon Randall Stewart, Suzanne Cox and and Blue Highway bandmate Shawn Lane. With this lineup you expect excellent music and you won’t be disappointed.

Hensley has a deft hand as a composer, too. “My Way Is the Highway” has an interesting chord progression and pays tribute to making your own way in life. Rounding out the CD is “Lightning,” an uptempo song remembering dad wrapped in a story about a moonshiner, Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On a Fast Train” and a bluesy number from Stevie Ray Vaughn, “Pride and Joy,” that has Hensley and Ickes trading licks before Hensley sings. This is good stuff.

Among the non-bluegrass instruments on this album are a piano (Pete Wasner) on “More Than Roses,” a country song about someone who really messed up his love relationship; it will take more than roses to fix it this time. Hensley picks a blistering hot electric guitar on a great version of Buddy Emmons’ “Raisin’ The Dickens.” The CD includes drums and percussion—played well by John Gardner—but, like on most bluegrass and acoustic country recordings where the rhythm is carried just fine by the interplay of instruments, they don’t add enough value to justify their inclusion.

Unless you’re tradition-bound to the point where you’ve never heard a good song unless it was Lester Flatt or Waylon Jennings, you’ll greatly enjoy this effort by a master musician and an up-and-coming singer.

“In Style Again” by Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown
In Style Again
Plowboy
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

In 1959 I was a kid with a lot of exposure to country music because that was the music—really the only music—my dad loved. But it was at grandma’s house that I first heard “The Three Bells.” I was mesmerized, drawn to the smooth baritone of Jim Ed Brown. For the next fifty-six years he’s remained one of my favorite singers. He, as well as his many contemporaries, disappeared from mainstream “country” radio years ago. But they persevered, still playing dates, maybe moving to Branson, still playing the Opry. And now Jim Ed Brown has a new CD.

“Who gave the world the right to turn the page, and leave me here feeling twice my age?” The title song asks this and many of us feel that way as the decades roll along, but it’s a question that Brown can certainly ask as he saw his career fade from the spotlight. It’s not that his fans don’t still love him, but his fans are feeling the touch of age and the crowds that follow stars like Garth Brooks or Luke Bryan far outnumber the crowds around country stars from the music’s golden era. It’s an introspective question, not maudlin, and it makes a touching song. He’d just like to be “In Style Again.” He’s joined by sister Bonnie on a beautiful number, “When The Sun Says Hello To The Mountain.” Chris Scruggs’ pedal steel underscores this song with a classic melody. And speaking of classic melodies, his longtime singing partner Helen Cornelius joins him on Carl and Pearl Butler‘s “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.”

“Laura (Do You Love Me)” is an easy-flowing love song of a love lost because he’s out traveling the world. There’s a hint of an Irish air in it but it’s truly a country ballad. Brown, who will turn 81 on April 1, 2015, still has that beautiful baritone but his voice shows a few signs of age. At times you can now hear some gravel in his voice as you do on this number, sometimes he has some trouble hitting the notes. There was recent news that he returned to the Grand Ole Opry after a four-months absence being treated for lung cancer. That may have affected his singing some during this recording but, if you can reduce it to numbers, his voice is still 95 percent as good as ever. “Tried and True” is a country number that will take your breath away if you’re a fan of the ’60s sound with a walking bass line. Vince Gill sings backup on this one.

“It’s A Good Life” is the story of a life lived as best a man could while “Older Guy” is a put-down of young guys is favor of the wisdom of age. It has a swing sound that you’ll enjoy, almost inviting you to dance even if you have two left feet. Sharon and Cheryl White join him on “You Again,” another song that looks back across the years but he’ll still choose the love of his life again. “Watching the World Walking By” is another swing song that has a happy note to it.

The backup musicians and singers are all excellent, the arrangements all good. There’s some variety in song styles and my preference would be a narrower focus, more on his ’60s and early ’70s music, but that’s my own prejudice and this selection will probably appeal to a wider range of folks. One of his songs asks, “Am I Still Country?” It has some really good lines comparing a meat loaf boy to a Chinese-food man, but he concludes he’s still country. There’s not much country in country music these days, but Jim Ed Brown’s got it and he’s still country.

“Better than I Deserve” by the Farm Hands

The Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet
Better than I Deserve
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Farm Hands Bluegrass Quartet (not to be confused with the Farmhands Band) are four seasoned veterans who have now been together four years. Daryl Mosley plays bass and sings. He spent ten years with New Tradition, a bluegrass gospel quartet, then ten years with the Osborne Brothers. His composition “He Saw It All” was a #1 hit for the Booth Brothers. Part of his Osborne Brothers tenure included his present bandmate Tim Graves. Graves has been SPBGMA’s Dobro Player of the Year eight times. He also spent time with Wilma Lee Cooper and James Monroe. He has played in several iterations of the band Cherokee with his friend and Farm Hands bandmate Bennie Boling.

Boling is a multi-instrumentalist who plays banjo for the Farm hands. He’s also an accomplished songwriter with songs recorded by Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys. Rounding out the group is guitarist Keith Tew, who has played in Rhonda Vincent’s band and toured with Vassar Clements. His compositions have been recorded by the Lonesome River Band and Lou Reid. This is a lot of talent packed into one band.

Included in this CD are two Boling songs. “Farm Country” is an interesting instrumental with Boling, Graves and guest Jason Roller (fiddle) trading licks. “He’s Got An Answer for Everything” (co-written with Jim McBride) is a gospel number that says what Christians believe. Other gospel numbers are the well known “Over in the Gloryland” and “Streets of Gold,” a beautiful song about the heavenly home of the faithful. Mosley contributes “The Way I Was Raised,” a song about manners and a lifestyle that kids don’t learn as often these days. The band’s harmonies are very good and the musicians know how to support the song without overwhelming the singer.

Mosley also wrote “Better than I Deserve” is an unusual a cappella number that starts out as an solo then adds a variety of percussive sound effects and a background quartet of Mike Reid, Bruce Dees, Lisa Silver, and Nick DeStefano. Reid is a talented singer/songwriter who also had a career in pro football. His CD from several years back is still one of my favorites; twenty-one of his compositions have gone to #1 on the country and pop charts. Dees has had a long career as a session player and enjoyed a long relationship with Ronnie Milsap, including singing backup on one of my favorites, “Lost In The Fifties Tonight.” DeStefano has worked with a number of stars including Kathy Mattea and Lisa Silver has enjoyed a long Nashville career. That’s an impressive backup quartet. The song isn’t mainstream bluegrass but it’s good listening.

Tew adds one song, “Mama Prayed and Daddy Plowed,” a song about a hard but good life in the country, and they pick up three good country numbers: Jerry Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times,” Merle Haggard’s “The Way It Was in ’51” and a Randy Travis hit, “From Your Knees,” a song about a man who has reached the end of the line in love, a bed he made all on his own.

This is another very good CD from the Farm Hands, full of good songs and great picking.

“Better Than Blue” by the Trinity River Band

The Trinity River Band
Better Than Blue
Orange Blossom Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and that’s apt for this CD, whose cover art doesn’t let on that this is a family band—parents Mike and Lisa Harris with children Sarah, Joshua, and Brianna—and one loaded with talent. Make no mistake, though—there’s good bluegrass inside.

The title song was co-written by Larry Cordle and is a good love-gone-bad bluegrass number. Sarah Harris has an excellent voice and plays a mean mandolin. She also sings lead on “Faithless Heart,” co-written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Mountain Heart. The harmony singing sounds great, as you might expect from a family band.

Brianna Harris is the fiddle player and sings lead on “Daddy’s Hands,” a Top 10 country hit composed and recorded by Holly Dunn. She is a good singer, just not quite as strong as her sister, Sarah. There is a murder song, of course. “Steel and Blood” was written and performed by Mike Harris and it’s a good ‘un. Lizzy is a victim with a gunslinger in her past. He comes looking and tries to take her back but she solves that with a knife. That sounds like justifiable homicide to me but the jury sends her to a grave. Not everyone likes a death-and-violence song but they are a constant thread in bluegrass and I’ll be surprised if this one doesn’t live on around the campfires.

The band has a deft touch with love songs like “I’ll Love You Just the Same.” Joshua Harris has some haunting Dobro lines and their arrangement has Lisa Harris laying out and then back in with the bass. I really enjoy songs with thoughtful arrangements and they’re doing a good job of it. Joshua shows his skill with the banjo as the band rips through “Mystery Train.” This number has been around a long time and many people will best remember Elvis Presley’s version.

They include another country hit with Mark Wills‘ “Jacob’s Ladder,” the lead sung by Joshua Harris. It’s obvious talent runs deep in this family with their singing and picking – and song writing. Sarah Harris composed “My Heart Will Find Its Way To You” and “Pure Poison,” a song with more drive than a Mack truck. Mike Harris also contributes a hot instrumental, “Barefoot Breakdown,” which shows off his guitar skills as well as stretching the playing muscles of the rest of the group. These are all front-row musicians.

Also included is a traditional Irish number, “Willie and Mary,” that shows they can step outside the bluegrass/country mold.

This Florida-based band has only been touring since 2011 but they are going to be a force in this music. This is a great CD that will find it’s way into my player over and over.