“Sorrow Bound” by Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater
Sorrow Bound
Kingswood Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Toronto, Ontario—hotbed of Appalachian music.

Alongside the recent release of the Slocan Ramblers’ Coffee Creek, one might well have growing evidence that Canada’s most cosmopolitan city has more than a few inhabitants who know their way around the music of the holler.

Originally released a year ago, Sorrow Bound receives wider distribution this summer and deservedly so. Low and mournful are the sounds Kaia Kater, a traditional musician in her early 20s, appears to favour. Playing in the traditional clawhammer style—Art Menius has identified her as “the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century”—Kater has spent a great deal of time in West Virginia studying the traditions of Appalachian balladry and dance.

Much like Anna & Elizabeth have done, Kater plays with traditional music to gently knit together connections between ancient tones and modern times. Whereas that duo does so largely through their interpretation of traditional songs, Kater takes a more modernist approach, one equally necessary to allow the music to thrive and flourish. “Southern Girl ,” one of several originals contained on this stunning debut, has its foundation in the remnants of another time, but its passionate hopes are well observed in the changes our society is currently undergoing.

The title track is a revelation. Featuring what sounds like bowed bass, this atmospheric song explores dark challenges of previous times and personal yearning through poetic snatches of language, leaving the story open to interpretation; Kater’s frailing banjo flourishes provide percussive punctuation. Another Kater song, “Oh Darlin’,” in lyric, essence, and structure, could easily be a couple of centuries old.

Kater, who knows her way around the old songs like someone raised in the tradition, is nothing if not unconventional. A song borrowed from Anna & Elizabeth, “Sun to Sun,” flows into a French-language old-timey ballad. “Moonshiner,” familiar enough through interpretations from folks as varied as Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Buell Kazee, and the Sweetback Sisters—whose lead Kater follows—and like those sizable talents, Kater makes the song all her own. “Come and Rest” provides a coda of comfort and belief, while “West Virginia Boys” is less volatile than other renditions of the “cornbread, molasses, and sassafras tea” tune.

This album is an ideal balance of then and now, the past and present, of originality and influence.

Kaia Kater, who has performed throughout the eastern United States and Canada, is one of the many youthful performers by whose sure hands the traditions so many of us appreciate and love are being tended.

“Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” produced by Carl Jackson

Various artists
Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
Legacy Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Country music is obsessed about the past. The same technological changes that enabled it to be captured on record and broadcast on radio also helped hasten the urbanization of America, and country people used their music to help them make sense of the ways they chose to meet those changes—nostalgia as therapy.

Organized by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the crucible in which a centuries-old Anglo-American folk music tradition that found expression in barn dances, church choirs, fiddle contests at market day, minstrel shows, tent revivals, and families picking on the front porch became a business that would enrich the lives of millions with music and enable gifted musicians to make a living making music rather than in the coal mines, the field, the fox hole, or the whorehouse—it’s amazing what freedom of expression and free markets can accomplish.

Many of the 76 tracks from 19 different acts recorded by Peer were commercially successful, and two superstar careers were launched: those of Jimmie Rodgers—one of the first modern American celebrities and the prototype for songsters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and even, I would argue, Bob Dylan—and the Carter Family, who are perhaps responsible for collecting, preserving, and popularizing more pre-modern American music than anyone else. (See also the story of Lead Belly.)

Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited—a two-disc tribute to those sessions, made under the aegis of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol—should be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about country music—especially those with little previous exposure to Southern music or culture outside of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, or a television episode of Nashville.

Eddie Stubbs, whose resonant tones are familiar to Grand Ole Opry fans and WSM-AM 650 listeners everywhere—guides the listener through 18 contemporary takes on classic Bristol material, with ambient clips of the rough-and-ready original recordings to provide contrast to the modern, clean recordings and arrangements we’re more used to. The script, written by Cindy Lovell, concisely retells the story of the Bristol Sessions with telling biographical detail and historical context that even knowledgeable country fans will find enriching.

As a consummate Nashville professional on both sides of the studio glass, Carl Jackson is a perfect choice to produce this record. His choices arranging this well-known material, and manning the sound board, all pay off, and he even plays and sings on several cuts—including a bluesy duet on “In the Pines” with Brad Paisley and a wild run through “Pretty Polly” as lead singer and banjo picker.

Jackson expertly pairs artist to song throughout, including country music royalty (Dolly Parton on “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Emmylou Harris on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” Marty Stuart on “Black Eyed Susie,” and Vince Gill on “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”), A-listers from other genres (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,”
Sheryl Crow on “The Wandering Boy,” Keb’ Mo’ on “To the Work”), and bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “I’m Redeemed” and Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time on “Train on the Island”).

Ashley Monroe (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), the Shotgun Rubies (“I Am Resolved”), and the Church Sisters (“Where We’ll Never Grow Old”), and Ashley & Shannon (children of Glen) Campbell (“The Wreck of the Old Virginian”) add a touch of youth, as does Corbin Hayslett, who won a contest to be on this record with his thrilling take on “Darling Cora,” the standout track from this project.

And though the Bristol Sessions seem like ancient history, a couple of tracks show just how young country music still is. Eighty-five-year-old Jesse McReynolds—a hall-of-famer in both country and bluegrass music—scrapes out “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind” on the very same fiddle that his grandfather Charles McReynolds used when he recorded the same song with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. And the Chuck Wagon Gang, a Southern Gospel quartet that’s been working continously since 1935—with a revolving roster of members, of course—lead a choir comprised of all the Orthophonic Joy artists on a valedictory “Shall We Gather at the River,” one of their biggest hits, which they recorded in 1949 based on the Bristol recording by the Tennessee Mountaineers (actually a church choir from Bluff City, Tenn. given that soubriquet by Peer).

Though the current state of popular country music is worse than ever, thanks to commercialism, there is more opportunity for today’s listener than ever before to experience the joy of good music—of every variety, especially country—than ever before, also thanks to commercialism. Think of this record as good whiskey cut with water—not quite the pure stuff, but plenty good enough to give you a thirst for the real thing.

“The Music of the Stanley Brothers” by Gary B. Reid

Gary B. Reid
The Music of the Stanley Brothers
University of Illinois Press (2015)

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

At Bean Blossom you sit on a gentle upslope from the stage. To your right is the entry road that goes down to the tail of the pond and the back of the stage before going back up to the Hippie Hill section of camping. The regulars all know when Dr. Ralph Stanley arrives or leaves, his long, white tour bus sliding along, all within hidden behind its windows. Soon after he arrives, someone will erect his pop-up shelter where he holds court to sign autographs and say hello to his fans. It wasn’t always like this.

When Carter Stanley was alive it was the Stanley Brothers show. Still today, a half century after Carter Stanley’s death, there are many songs sung on stage and around campfires that bear the Stanley Brothers name. Travel during the twenty years the brothers were active was by car or station wagon. The pace was often hectic, the financial rewards meager. Band members came and went frequently, as is still the case with many bluegrass bands. Bluegrass music, generally speaking, isn’t a lucrative endeavor unless you’re a breakout star, and many professional bluegrass musicians have another job to make ends meet. The Stanley Brothers stayed the course, putting their names into the bluegrass history books.

Remember when the brothers were doing that Rich-R-Tone session (#480700) back in 1948? When Art Wooten joined them? You don’t remember that?

Truth is, there are probably no more than a pickup-load of people who can remember all the band members through the years, let alone anything about the recording sessions or what was recorded when. But Gary B. Reid knows. In 1976 he sent a letter to Neil Rosenberg, a name known to many bluegrassers and author of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (1974), that started, “For the past several years I have been trying to compile a combination biography/discography on the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.” Reid was nineteen and it would be another thirty-nine years before that book was published. That is dedication. He did other things along the way, including starting Copper Creek Records.

The book covers the two decades the brothers were a professional act. Both served during World War II. Carter was discharged in February 1946 and joined up with Roy Sykes for a while. Ralph’s discharge was in October 1946 and by November they were making appearances along with mandolinist Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert and fiddler Bobby Sumner. Their last full concert was at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom facility. Carter died December 1, 1966, the victim of alcoholism.

This book is rich with information about their professional lives from one recording session to the next, where they were working and who was in the band. The data on the recording sessions is extensive. A typical entry is:

501103 Columbia session; producers: Art Satherly and Don LawCastle Studio, Tulane Hotel, 206 8th Ave., Nashville, TennesseeNovember 3, 1950

Carter Stanley: g|Ralph Stanley: b|Pee Wee Lamber: m

Lester Woodie: f|Ernie Newton: sb

4311 The Lonesome River (Carter Stanley)C. Stanley-L, R. Stanley-T, PW Lambert-HB 20816 HL-7291,HS-11177,ROU-SS-10,BCD-15564,CK-53798,B0007883-02

Neither the uncertainty surrounding song titles or the “borrowing” of songs are a focus of the book, but both are mentioned many times in these pages and this provides an interesting insight into the music business. Sometimes it’s using the same (or very similar) melody with more than one set of lyrics.

“The first song is ‘A Life of Sorrow.’ Carter and Ralph Stanley wrote it with an assist from George Shuffler. The melody is strikingly similar to a tune the Stanley Brothers had recorded earlier on Columbia, ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and is a good example of how the Stanleys recycled old tunes to create ‘new’ material.” [p. 32, Columbia #4 (Session 520411)]

and

“… used it as an opportunity to recycle the melody to one of their earlier recordings, ‘Little Glass of Wine.’ Known by a number of titles, ‘Tragic Love’ is most commonly called ‘Silver Dagger.'”

There are other examples of songs known by a variety of titles, as well as songs with disputed ownership, songs sold by their composer then the buyer taking songwriting credits, and the practice of claiming credit before agreeing to record the song.

While information about their travels is provided as part of their story, it also becomes a story of its own. Their nomadic lifestyle wasn’t (and isn’t) unusual in the bluegrass world, nor for most other musicians. You have to wonder how families survived and that’s one place the book will leave you wanting. Other than a few mentions of Ralph Stanleys ex-wife, Peggy, and the tidbit that Carter Stanley wrote “Baby Girl” in honor of his year-old daughter, Doris, you won’t get a peek into their family life. There is no mention of how Carter’s bouts with the bottle affected their music. Given the amount of information contained in the book, it’s easy to believe Reid might have another book in him to let us better know Ralph and Carter Stanley as people.

This is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the Stanley Brothers years (but understand it stops with Carter Stanley’s death). I found it an interesting read with my only caution that you may find yourself getting bogged down trying to follow and remember all the histories of people and changes in the band. Don’t get lost in the detail, just keep the book handy when you need to look up something.

 

“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.

“Memories and Moments” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Memories and Moments
Full Skies Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

On this, their second studio album, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien go together like soup beans and taters, or peanut butter and jelly. Memories and Moments conveys the love these two have for the songwriting process and the fun they have with the spontaneity of switching vocals, songs, and instruments.

Darrell Scott, born in eastern Kentucky, has won countless accolades for his songwriting, both on material recorded by more famous artists and that included on his solo releases. With an approach to Appalachian culture that is passionate and intentional, Scott has become one of my favorite songwriters in modern music.

Tim O’Brien became a bluegrass household name as a member of Hot Rize (formed in 1978), and his name is included on dozens and dozens of liner notes since, as a songwriter, guest vocalists, or session player.

Thirteen years after their release of the stunning Real Time (2000) and a year after the live disc We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This (2012)*, these Americana mavens turn in another classic—a 14-song album of superb songwriting, electrifying live-in-studio performance, and well-chosen covers of George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine, who appears as a guest vocalist singing one of his hits “Paradise.”

The album starts with a song written by O’Brien “Time to Talk to Joseph” about traveling in the hollers dark and deep. The clawhammer banjo adds a nice touch to harmonies from Scott. My favorite track is “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” it’s a song about how mining techniques have changed over time, while the miners’ struggle has not. Scott and O’Brien trade harmonies and lead throughout the song, which shows a different perspective on a song written by the two. The title track “Memories and Moments,” a song written by Scott, mourns the swiftness of life and being left with just memories.

“Just One More,” a song written by George Jones, has a reverence far classic country music, which Scott and O’Brien don’t veer far from. I like when artists create their own versions of songs by other artists but sometimes it’s really nice to “tip the hat” at the songwriter and create a memorial of their song. This is the case with the Hank Williams song “Alone and Forsaken,” where Scott and O’Brien create an eerie sound that one could mistake for the ghost of Hank himself.

Memories and Moments is a gem of an album.

*Editor’s Note: We normally try to review albums as close to the release date as possible, but this one was released about 18 months ago. We didn’t find out about this disc until months after its release, then it was assigned to a writer who had it for a while before backing out.

 

“Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” by Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
Dualtone Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music and the Texas songwriter tradition are about as different from one another as any other pair of styles in country music, but Robert Earl Keen is not the first master of the latter to put his hand to the former. Though Happy Prisoner doesn’t approach the brilliance of The Mountain—Steve Earle’s 1999 classic with the Del McCoury Band for which he wrote original songs—Keen’s ramble through a 14-song set* of bluegrass standards is a fun listen, unlike similar projects from some Nashville stars looking to crow about how country they are.

Keen eschews the familiar lineup of first-call bluegrass studio players in favor of his own band—plus banjo guru Danny Barnes—who “played to bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us.” Barnes’ presence is most felt on the low groove “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” whose arrangement bears a welcome resemblance to the Groovegrass Boyz’ “Macarena,” and his idiosyncratic picking is a good fit for Keen and his band.

The result is a spirited freshness that makes up for the lack of technical brilliance. Keen’s easy drawl finds some new feeling in well-worn songs like “East Virginia Blues,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and “This World is Not My Home.” And grassy numbers like “The Old Home Place,” “Walls of Time,” and, with harmony from Peter Rowan, “99 Years for One Dark Day” would please even old-school pickers. (However, Keen probably should have picked a modern song other than “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which simply can’t get any better than the McCoury cover or Richard Thompson’s own version.)

Guest vocals from fellow Texans Lyle Lovett (“T for Texas”) and Natalie Maines (a gorgeous “Wayfaring Stranger”) are good enough to make one wish Keen invited more of his peers to help him put some Lone Star shine on the high lonesome sound.

*There’s a deluxe version with a few extra tracks, which weren’t included in our review copy.

“Ionia” by Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys

Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys
Ionia
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Named for the Michigan city in which it was recorded, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys’ second album—to go along with a couple of EPs—is one of the unexpected musical delights of this spring.

Americana at its core, their sound is not easily categorized beyond that wide-ranging identifier. They use acoustic bluegrass instruments, but no one who understands the term would refer to them as a bluegrass band; their music is too breezy and playful, lacking the drive most associate with ‘grass. One can hear folk roots throughout the album, especially on “The River Jordan” and “Old Song,” and it certainly isn’t country. There is even a bit of jazz flavor in places (“Hot Hands”) and it swings a bit when encountering Thelma and Louise-type circumstances in Todd Grebe’s (Bearfoot, Cold Country) “Criminal Style.”

Americana it is, then.

Ionia possesses a warm, groovy sparseness that allows the group to project a clear and bright set of music that reminds one of Edie Brickell fronting a really strong acoustic band. It is gorgeous.

While Lindsay Lou sings the majority of the leads, and does so quite brilliantly, this is much more than a singer-centered endeavor. Joshua Rilko (all manner of stringed instruments, but primarily mandolin) and bassist (some of it bowed, and more including Peruvian cajón) PJ George sing most of the harmony on these songs, providing each with vocal depth that nicely balances Lindsay Lou’s leads. Mark Lavengood plays Dobro on the majority of the songs, while also singing “Sometimes,” an earthy number from an outside source, Ben Fidler; less tasteful are his circa 1981 basketball shorts.

While other bands may achieve a rich, close sound in professional studio environments, LL&F chose to record in the home of friends, playing and singing in a tight circle. While obviously rehearsed and professional, the resulting music feels spontaneous and genuine. Built around Lindsay Lou’s voice, equally important to the LL&F sound are Rilko’s mandolin and Lavengood’s steel.

“Everything Changed” is one of the group’s stronger songs: it builds to a controlled instrumental crescendo that is dynamic. “House Together” is another vibe-rich song of interest. Every bit as engaging are the album’s final tracks, “Ionia” and “Smooth and Groovy.” The title track is a moody instrumental while the closing song is a vocal showcase for Lindsay Lou. Recently relocated to Nashville, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys appear to have taken the ‘next step’ in their career.

Recommended if you like Crooked Still, the Show Ponies, and/or the Infamous Stringdusters.