“Gardens in the Sky: The Bluegrass Gospel of James King” by James King

James King
Gardens in the Sky: The Bluegrass Gospel of James King
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

It’s Christmas in July, courtesy of James King. His first gospel compilation has something for everyone. From traditional to modern, from classic cuts to new releases, “Gardens in the Sky” is full to the brim with gospel treasures. With the addition of special guests and frequent musical collaborators, this career-spanning disc is truly an embarrassment of riches.

The Stanley Gospel Tradition starts things off. James Alan Shelton’s driving lead guitar and a surprisingly brisk tempo make “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn” especially fresh.

But King is such a natural talent that he can breathe new life into the classics with nothing more than simple, heartfelt readings. He invigorates “Sweeter Than the Flowers” just by bringing his own emotions and experiences to it. That – and Kevin Prater’s hand-in-glove tenor harmony — is all the ornamentation it needs.

King seems to be a magnet for great tenor singers. Rhonda Vincent (“Don’t Worry Mama”) and Paul Williams (“I Just Steal Away and Pray”) appear separately on just one track each, but both of them will leave listeners clamoring for more.

Dudley Connell fans have reason to rejoice as he appears on “These Old Pictures,” plus five more tracks. The title track is an affecting brother-style duet that never descends into sentiment, but relies of the rock-solid faith of its youthful narrator. The ragged-but-right “Message for Peace” beautifully recalls the Stanley Brothers.

King and Connell are joined by Don Rigsby for three tracks from the original Longview (“Angels Are Singing in Heaven Tonight,” “Voice of My Savior,” and “The Touch of God’s Hand”.) With good, old-fashioned drive and high lonesome singing, this band creates great grass without even trying. Performances like this are what set bluegrass apart from any other music.

From the smooth yet soulful quartet harmonies of “Happy I’ll Be” to the passion of “Just as the Sun Went Down,” and the hushed, insistent harmonies of “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” King’s work with his own bands is just as solid.

For all that, two of the album’s best tracks spotlight King as a lead vocalist. On the aforementioned “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore,” his vocal is choked with emotion. His matter-of-fact reading of the previously-unreleased “Jerusalem Tomorrow” makes the story that much more suspenseful. Listeners will want to stop the CD when this one’s over, just to let the chill bumps subside.

If gospel music is the ultimate test of any bluegrass singer, then James King has passed with flying colors.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Different Roads” by The Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene
Different Roads
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

At first glance, Different Roads might seem a bit of a disappointment. The Seldom Scene recorded seven albums for Rebel Records, but this compilation pulls tracks from only three. Slip the CD into the player, though, and the disappointment vanishes in a cascade of guitar and mandolin.

The Scene does top-notch work on the fastest track here, “Pan American,” but it’s on slow and mid-tempo numbers that they demonstrate complete mastery of the concept of drive. Thanks to his trick of crescendoing into the ends of phrases, John Starling’s vocal drives as persistently as guest guitarist Paul Craft’s leads.

The full band uses the same technique throughout, always in the service of the music. The way Starling’s voice swells into the last chorus, which then dims to a whisper, is only one of the moments worth studying on “Wait a Minute.” Instrumentalists will be taken with Duffey’s simple yet stunning mandolin break, full of emotion, thanks to his expert use of dynamics. On the verses, Starling tests the limits of his baritone to heartbreaking effect. This classic track is gorgeous, soulful and astonishingly musical from beginning to end.

Repeat that last sentence for “Last Train from Poor Valley.” Starling wrings every last ounce of empathy and resignation from Norman Blake’s forlorn lyric. The way the band uses their impeccable diction to shape phrases demonstrates their exceptional musicality.

That musicality is no accident: Auldridge, Duffey, and Gray all came from the most musical band in bluegrass at that time: the Country Gentlemen. With the Scene, they recorded a compelling re-reading of the Gents standard, “Rebels Ye Rest,” making the original their own with a more urgent delivery.

If music is what occurs in the silence between notes, the Scene made some of their best music with  Starling’s “Gardens and Memories.” The reading is hushed and uncluttered, but driven nonetheless. This is due in no small part to bassist Gray’s distinctive walking bass lines, also used to marvelous effect on “Reason for Being” and “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.”

The Scene’s individual members drew attention to themselves in spite of – or perhaps because of – their consciousness of the ensemble as a whole. “Pictures from Life’s Other Side” boasts an unusual duet, in which Eldridge plays something called a dobro-banjo, weaving in and out of Auldridge’s back-up lines without ever getting in the way of the vocal trio. For all their instrumental prowess, the Scene’s vocals were (and are) what sets them apart.  Duffey, Starling, and Auldridge concocted a vocal blend that never sacrificed their individual sounds.

It takes expert musicians to do that, and the Scene managed it every time they harmonized. The blend is particularly good on “Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” “Old Train” (made better by Auldridge’s peerless dobro work) and “Walk Through This World With Me.” To the latter, Duffey brings his special brand of soul, all the more remarkable because he never shouts.

Soul was the hallmark of this edition of the Seldom Scene. In John Starling and John Duffey, they had two of the most soulful lead singers in the business – a vocal partnership as classic and deeply missed as that of Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin. Their vocals shine with emotional truth, whether on contemporary tracks like “Easy Ride from Good Times to the Blues” (driven by drums and Auldridge’s pedal steel) or traditional favorites like Earl Scruggs’ “I’ve Lost You” and “If That’s the Way You Feel,” from Ralph and Peggy Stanley.

The classic Seldom Scene packed more music into 14 tracks than some bands do into a lifetime of work. “Different Roads” is a worthwhile substitute for the exhaustive box set that they so richly deserve. But, at this rate the current, equally deserving lineup may beat them to it.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Same Old Man” by John Hiatt

John Hiatt
Same Old Man
New West Records
2 stars (out of 5)

If there’s any truth to the lyrics on his latest album, then John Hiatt is one conflicted guy. First, he’s celebrating a time when “I had nothing to live up to/Everywhere to be” (“Same Old Man”) and dismissing a loyal companion, saying “I woulda took her with me/But that trail never ends” (“Ride My Pony”.)

Then, he’s getting all gushy about wuv. And if that last sentence reads more like, “Hell just froze over,” then here’s a sampling of his lyrics. Read ‘em and weep:

“I wanna thank you, babe/For lettin’ me back in/I wanna thank you for askin’ me/To love you again” — “Love You Again.”

“That’s what love can do/Make you feel brand new” — “What Love Can Do.”

“When the old seems almost new/That’s when my heart burns cherry red for you” — “Cherry Red.”

“Two hearts/One for me and one for you/Two hearts/Do you feel the way I do” — “Two Hearts.”

“We’ve been down a rough road or two/This is another one we’ll get through” — “Same Old Man.”

“There’s nothing written anywhere/That suggests the blues’ll set you free,” Hiatt sings in “Old Days.” Indeed, that might be his raison d’etre for this record. Yes, sentiment can be effective, but if Hiatt should be taking lessons from anyone, it should be Carter Stanley, Beatles-era Paul McCartney, or Richard Rodgers, not the folks at Hallmark. It’s shocking to see Hiatt fall into the fledgling writer’s trap of too much telling and not enough showing. Most of the album’s 11 tracks suffer this fate, and the musical clichés (Hiatt verges on self-parody here) don’t help.

“Same Old Man” has some worthwhile moments. Hiatt’s daughter, Lily, contributes tart harmonies to two songs. Luther Dickinson adds some understated but illustrative fills on National reso. And Hiatt can’t forget himself entirely. There are flashes are lyrical brilliance among the recyclables.

By far the most brilliant is “Hurt My Baby.” Hiatt wails in pain and outrage, about a loved one’s deep emotional wounds: “No need to be explicit/ Anyone can see/The injury was permanent/The wound was really deep.”

When, in a throwaway line, he names the perpetrator(s) of the crime, the effect is shattering, and absolutely free of cliché. Is it because Hiatt has to work harder to comprehend a hurtful situation? Or is he using boilerplate lyrics elsewhere to avoid a deeper understanding of his happiness? In the end, maybe John Hiatt is a lot less conflicted than his lyrics would have us believe. Now, all he has to do is show it.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“10 Years of European World of Bluegrass” by Various Artists

Various Artists
10 Years of European World of Bluegrass
Strictly Country Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

So, the high cost of gas is putting the brakes on your festival-going plans for the summer? Never fear: Producer Liz Meyer and the fine folks at the European World of Bluegrass have put together the festival to end all festivals on an outstanding two-disc set. They’ve culled the best of the best from 10 years of festival shows to bring us 48 bands from 15 countries, including the United States. Here are some of the highlights:

The four-piece band, Footprints, and their seamless fusion of hardcore high-lonesome with vocals in their native Slovenian.

Transcendent a cappella gospel from the Czech Republic’s Relief and Italy’s Mideando String Quartet, whose bass vocalist – the liner notes offer no clue as to who sings what part — is one for the ages.

Raymond McLain (banjo) and Mike Stevens (harmonica) raising a ruckus on a lightning fast dash through “Train 45.” Likewise, the Hunger Mountain Boys on “Feast Here Tonight” and the Czech trio, Jiri Kralik & the Rowdy Rascals, with a version of “Ida Red” that would make the New Lost City Ramblers proud.

Sublime pre-bluegrass sounds from the Dutch band, Skyland, on Doc and Rosa Lee Watson’s “Your Long Journey,” and Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, on the broadside ballad “Wood Thrush Song.”

Outstanding performances from American favorites, Bill Clifton & Pick of the Crop (“Little Whitewashed Chimney”), Randy Waller & the Country Gentlemen (“Southbound Train”), and Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass (“When My Time Comes to Go”).

The innovative gospel sounds of France’s Springfield, who combine driving, Watson-style, guitar with black gospel-style vocals on “Paul and Silas.” This is a band to watch.

The crisp, driving style of yet another band to watch. Jussi Syren & the Groundbreakers come from Finland, but their “Life of a Steel Driving Man” is pure Appalachia. Syren’s rough-and-ready lead vocal and his songwriting chops will thrill traditionalists.

Sublime contemporary grass from both sides of the Atlantic. The members of the Czech band, Goodwill, all play with exquisite tone and musicianship, but Martin Vitasek’s whiskey-rich guitar and lead vocals make this another band to watch. Also in that category, The New England Bluegrass Band grasses up the Everly Brothers classic, “Brand New Heartache” with yearning trio harmonies.

Those are just a few of the brilliant performances in this set. There are many more tracks worth repeated listening, and many more bands worth seeking out. “10 Years of European World of Bluegrass” is a collection of remarkable diversity and depth.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Now” by Boudler Acoustic Society

Boulder Acoustic Society
1 star (out of 5

In many ways, the Boulder Acoustic Society offers up typical new acoustic music. There’s the bouncy, clean-cut jive, the Chet Baker vocal stylings, the “It’s a Small World” approach to material, where Latin blends into gospel blends into jazz, and the resulting juggernaut deracinates everything in its path.

But the Boulder Acoustic Society adds something to the mix: a performance level that starts promisingly, but degenerates into amateurishness and, finally, incompetence.

Guitarist Brad Jones is the standout musician, with nice moments on “Gospel Plow” and “Lullaby of Birdland,” but nothing to write home about. “Birdland” gets an evocatively smoky intro from upright bassist Aaron Keim, whose writing shows promise with “Daddy’s Got the Jake-Leg.”

“Jake-Leg” gets some textural interest from Keim’s five-string work, but his lead vocal is uninspired. Only in the outro does he find the grit that might have made this a decent cut.

Poor technique mars the CD throughout. Jones, on ukulele, has problems with tone and technique in “Tico Tico.” “Birdland” and “Now Is the Hour” suffer pitch problems in the lead vocals.

The worst offenders are fiddler Kailin Yong and accordionist Scott McCormick. Their lifeless imitations of Stephane Grappelli and Astor Piazzola might have made Now merely tedious, but neither one seems to have heard of rhythm chunks. Their mid-range cat fights make some cuts (especially “Lullaby of Birdland”) cacophonous to the point of torture.

The closing track, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” delivers the coup de grace: four minutes and 14 seconds of barroom sound effects and the kind of sloppy-drunk sing-along that drives music lovers to flee long before last call.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Last Good Kiss” by Last Train Home

Last Train Home
Last Good Kiss
Red Beet Records
4 stars (out of 5)

If you’ve overdosed on teen celebs (well-behaved and otherwise), D.C. band Last Train Home has the cure: music by and for grown-ups. Their latest release is packed with intelligent, emotionally truthful lyrics, tuneful vocals, and a scintillating mix of influences from 80s power pop and cowboy music, to border radio and Brazilian jazz.

Accordion and muted trumpet spin a slow conjunto rhythm under a lyric that uses small-town carnival attractions as metaphors for the vagaries of love in the outstanding “Kissing Booth.” The cool, jazzy Brazilian feel of “The Color Blue” contrasts sharply, and feels out of place on this record. Even so, the band captures the sound perfectly with unison trumpet and vocals, reminiscent of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.

The cowboy melody of “Anywhere but Here” evokes the dusty, deserted bus station that lead vocalist (and chief songwriter) Eric Brace is no doubt headed for when he says, “I’ll tell you what/I’ll use my feet to say goodbye.”

Last Train Home’s alt-country pedigree (Keyboardist Jen Gunderman did time with the Jayhawks and Caitlin Cary) is well utilized throughout. The title track, with its propulsive, Marshall Crenshaw-meets-the Jayhawks vibe is a delight. “May” intriguingly fuses border radio with jazz. The keening vocal harmonies of “Flood” are so tight that they fairly buzz. Both “Flood” and “Can’t Come Undone” shine with Jen Gunderman’s instantly recognizable keyboard style.

Brace’s lyrics are so deliciously complex that it’s hard to choose which ones to cite. On “Marking Time”, he sings, “Let’s walk/Through the graveyard/Look for the headstones/That have our names,” conjuring a relationship that’s doomed to die.

“Go Now” is too honest to be played at graduation ceremonies, but that’s exactly where it should be heard. “At the break of the day/It’s good luck and Godspeed/I got some advice/But it’s less than you’ll need,” Brace sings. He could have been cloying. Instead, he says, “I see your hands on your old guitar/you’ll grow a thick skin/and you’ll break a few hearts/singing to drunks at the end of the bar.”

Last Good Kiss does have its problems, though. For all its diverse influences, it relies too heavily on the same arid single vocal/acoustic guitar texture. The band has a talent for vocal harmonies, and a veritable orchestra of instruments to choose from. The album suffers because they don’t make the best use these resources. But there’s more than enough here to whet the appetites of old and new fans alike for their next release.

by Maria Morgan Davis

“Crowd Favorites” by Claire Lynch

Claire Lynch
Crowd Favorites
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Crowd Favorites collects Claire Lynch’s most requested numbers, ranging from four re-recorded Front Porch String Band tunes to ten subsequent Rounder releases. With able backing from Jim Hurst and Missy Raines, among others, Lynch skillfully traverses a wide range of musical styles.

Her blue-tinged vocals are the highlight of the grassy “Train Long Gone” and the more overtly bluesy “Jealousy.” The straight-up swing of “Fallin’ In Love” would have benefited from some of those blues.

Lynch switches gears with the classic country tune, “Silver and Gold,” and fares equally well on the full-out grass of “If Wishes Were Horses.” The rollicking, Cajun-inflected “Thibodeaux” gives the strongest hint of the great time to be had at a Claire Lynch show.

“The Day That Lester Died“ mourns Lester Flatt in the context of bluegrass’ growing pains. A fragment of “On My Mind” makes a poignant coda.

Lynch’s gorgeous voice is one of the most recognizable in acoustic music, but her skill as a songwriter makes her work ripe for interpretation.

“Sweetheart, Darlin’ of Mine” delights with its ethereal harmonies. “Kennesaw Line,” about death on the battlefield, builds slowly to an intense, emotional peak. “Your Presence is My Favorite Gift” is a sweet slice of country gospel, while “Hills of Alabam,’” with its aching vocal, uses a contemporary folk setting for a lyric about lonely life on the road.

As different as these numbers are, any of them would be at home on Nanci Griffith’s next CD of cover tunes, or one of Jennifer Warnes’ increasingly rare new releases.

“Friends for a Lifetime,” a tender valentine from a mother to her infant son, seems ripe for the picking the next time the folks at Disney decide to do an animated fairy tale. If that happened, Lynch would become the deserving favorite of a much bigger crowd.

by Maria Morgan Davis