“Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third.
It can also be exhausting.

Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children. Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by her own dulcimer, by Doc Watson’s guitar and banjo, or by folks like Eric Weissberg (who nicely accompanies Judy Collins here on “One I Love”) and Marshall Brickman, Ritchie takes listeners to places that—within the most popular contemporary Americana performers—only the likes of Iris Dement does today.

As did Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed through their original songs, Dement and (as I learned living with this collection) dozens of unheralded mountain and hill singers, Ritchie transports the listener to a long ago place that only tangentially bears relevance to contemporary times.

Or, it would appear upon first listen.

Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.

What is sometimes (frequently, perhaps) neglected when considering Jean Ritchie is that standing alongside the “ballads from her Appalachian family tradition,” to borrow a phrase, have been dozens of amazing, timeless creations—among them “The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Thousand Mile Blues,” and “Black Waters”—that are original compositions inspired by the realities of Ritchie’s experiences.

Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie is a two-disc, 37-track labour of love from producers Mick Lane, Charlie Pilzer, and Dan Schatz augmented by performers who not only have been influenced by and admire Ritchie, but many who have more than passing connection to the Kentuckian who was awarded a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2002.

The set contains a blend of traditional and contemporary ‘folk’ approaches to the material, with a decided emphasis on presenting performers who may not be widely known within the broadly defined folk and Americana fields. Providing further balance, the producers have elected to feature many of Ritchie’s lesser known compositions alongside the many traditional songs for which she is well regarded.

Some who have contributed to this collection are familiar and contribute the expected exceptional performances. Robin and Linda Williams with John Jennings (“The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”) Peggy Seeger (“Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn,”) and John McCutcheon (“The Bluebird Song”) are among the most well-known of the performers.

Select songs have a contemporary presentation. The always formidable and impressive Janis Ian, supported here by Andrea Zonn, Alison Brown, and Todd Phillips, serves up a memorable version of “Mornings Come, Maria’s Gone.” An all-star lineup of John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Bryn Davies, Suzy Bogguss, and Kathy Mattea perform “Black Waters” capturing the emotional, physical, and geographical impact that brutally evasive and injurious coal mining practices have had on the southern United States.

Other performances are more reminiscent of the stark sounds and performances Ritchie grew up immersed within, such as Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen’s “Lord Bateman,” the Starry Mountain Singers “I’ve Got a Mother,” and Archie Fisher’s “Jackaro.”

While a handful of the performers have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so.

Sam Amidom (“The Cuckoo,”) fiddler Matt Brown (“Golden Ring Around the Susan Girl,”) and Rachael Davis (“One More Mile,”) and others including LePrelle, bridge the generations between themselves, Ritchie (who is now 92) and the original inspiration for these songs.

Tying things together, Kathy Mattea performs “Jubilee” with Ritchie’s sons Jon and Peter Pickow, who also appear with Kenny Kosek on “Last Old Trains A-Leavin’.” Suzie Glaze, who once appeared as Ritchie in a stage production, performs a telling version of “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” The Ritchie Nieces contribute “Twilight A-Stealing,” a song Ritchie writes that her family always sang together at the close of their evening porch sing-a-longs.

Ritchie herself appears twice. A delightful 1985 rendition of “Who Killed Cock Robin” (with contemporary Oscar Brand) is light and companionable. A final ’round’ of “The Peace Round” from 1992, augmented with the voices of many who appear throughout this wide-ranging tribute, closes the album on more pensive notes.

For those so inclined, Schneyer’s “Black Diamond Mines” isn’t the only song that includes a taste of bluegrass, but it is the one that most strongly embraces the sound. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer’s “My Dear Companion” flirts along the edges.

Like Ritchie, Dale Ann Bradley is from Berea, Kentucky, and the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year can’t help but have some ‘grass in her approach. Here, Bradley teams with Alison Brown and the Bankester vocalists for a take on “Go Dig My Grave,” and this take should find favour with those who appreciate Bradley’s approach to traditional material. (I have another paragraph or three about this fragment of “The Butcher’s Boy” available, but I had best leave that treatise to scholars.)

One can be forgiven for believing that Jean Ritchie only sang traditional folk music. ‘Folk’ is now a near meaningless catch-all, but descriptive musical terms once meant something. Ritchie herself once quite ardently distinguished her traditional mountain, folk, and old-time music from modern sounds that emanated from southern cities. In her liner notes to the 1962 album Precious Memories, Ritchie wrote:

But, my friends will say, is this folk music? Perhaps not, by the strictest scholarly definition. Some have known authors, some have not changed essentially from their original forms; I would call them valuable and interesting period pieces, the natural outgrowth of the older folk music of the region… But these songs are more than that; they are brimming over with the simple basic emotions that touch us all.

Ritchie was writing about her set containing “new hillbilly” and “city” songs like “The Great Speckled Bird,” “The Wreck on the Highway,” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” songs that would—through their very pervasiveness, and no matter who originated them—become standards of country and folk repertoires, as ‘folk’ as any song that had traveled from Europe.

Strange then that some fifty years later she might have just as accurately been writing about this uniformly outstanding tribute.

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“Taproot” by Three Tall Pines

Taproot
Three Tall Pines
self-released
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Taproot is a six-song, 23-minute EP, the third studio effort from New England bluegrass/Americana quartet Three Tall Pines.

Dan Bourdeau (guitar, vocals), Nick DiSebastian (bass, guitar, vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin, vocals), and Conor Smith (fiddle, vocals) are joined by guest banjo picker and producer Ron Cody on five bluegrass standards and one fine Bourdeau original—the decidedly Welchian “Stonewalls.”

TTP won’t be mistaken—especially vocally—for most of the bluegrass bands that include “Walls of Time,” “Crying Holy,” and “Angel Band” in their repetoire, and that’s a good thing. Their arrangments have a hint of the rock/jam band sound to them, getting the right mix of reverent and refreshing.

Smith’s playing throughout is especially good, and he’s joined on two tracks by a couple of fellow fiddlers to great effect: Britanny Haas on a soaring “Raleigh & Spencer” and by Haas and Lauren Rioux on “With Body & Soul.”

This was my first notice of TTP, and I’ll be looking forward to more material, especially original compostions as good as the lone example here.

“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.

 

“Ancient Dreams” by Red June

Red June
Ancient Dreams
Organic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Since 2010, the North Carolina trio Red June has become increasingly well-regarded within acoustic Americana and folk music circles for their warm three-part harmonies, insightful writing, and compelling musicianship.

Ancient Dreams is their third album, and first with outside label support. While their previous albums were in many ways spectacular (consider, as example, Remember Me Well‘s “Biscuits and Honey” and “McKinney Blues” or Beauty Will Come‘s “Cloud of Dust” and “Soul’s Repair”), Ancient Dreams sees the band taking steps forward to further define their space within an increasingly crowded artistic marketplace.

Red June—Will Straughan, Natalya Weinstein, and John Cloyd Miller—combine traditions of southern roots music—country, old-time, and bluegrass—with influences from Weinstein’s classical music background and the vocal precision of the folk-pop world.

Working with producer Tim Surrett (who doubles on upright bass), the trio have maintained their penchant for creating original songs that could emanate from no other roots outfit. Red June, in the course of three albums over five years, have defined their sound. And it is a wonderful one.

Straughan’s “Black Mountain Night” has evocative lyrics (“I swear as I look down, from this mountain on that town, For a moment, everything’s alright”) from which genuine emotion is wrung.

Miller’s “Where We Started” examines the cyclical nature of relationships, and his “I Still Wait”—sung with Weinstein—is an acceptance of the fleeting connections made when one is firmly committed to a personal existence.

Their vocal mastery is ably demonstrated throughout the album’s eleven songs, perhaps never more so than within “I Am Free,” the album’s a cappella centerpiece. Straughan’s resonator contributions never overwhelm the blend of natural vocal harmony the three share; rather, the guitar’s mournful notes accentuate the intensity of this seemingly organic connection. Similarly, Weinstein’s fiddle complements the sparse instrumental canvas the band utilizes.

A pair of instrumentals—“31″ and “Gabriel’s Storm”—provide ample evidence that Red June is a multi-dimensional band worth a listen for many reasons.

Red June’s Ancient Dreams serves as more than a calling card from an emerging artistic collaboration. It is a formidable achievement, attuned to modern approaches in the creation of timeless sounds.

“Carter Girl” by Carlene Carter

Carlene Carter

Carter Girl

Rounder Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lives are filled with regret.

Carlene Carter’s story is well documented. In brief, she is the child of June Carter and Carl Smith, ex-wife of Nick Lowe, star of the “Cruel To Be Kind” video, a recording artist with several memorable performances before becoming an overnight success in 1990 with “I Fell in Love” and a series of hit and near-hit singles.

Then came the darkness, the lost and non-recording years, the substance abuse and career implosion. I’m guessing Carter has her share of misgivings about her life, the opportunities squandered, the negative impacts she may have had on herself and others.

I’m confident she has no uncertainties surrounding the recording of Carter Girl, the album many of us have been waiting for her to create since we first heard her sing. Beneath the spunk, rockin’ country, and the irreverence, and long before “I Fell in Love,” many knew that she would one day release an album that truly spoke to and explored her familial and musical roots. Performances from her TNN series Carlene Carter: Circle of Song—clips of which are on YouTube—reveal the appreciation she had for the music of the original Carter Family, of Mother Maybelle, and that of the Carter Sisters.

For the last decade—as she cleaned up her life and fully embraced the legacy afforded to her—Carter has grown stronger and fully blossomed. She was well-received in the theatrical performance Wildwood Flowers, and her album Stronger made numerous year-end ‘best of’ lists in 2008.

While she has consistently kept her family close on her albums—A.P.’s “The Winding Stream” was featured on Little Acts of Treason, which also featured Carl Smith on a reprise of his chart topping “Loose Talk,” Stronger‘s title track and “The Bitter End” contain more than a little autobiography, she’s recorded “Foggy Mountain Top,” “Ring of Fire,” and “My Dixie Darlin'” on various albums, and as liner writer Jim Bessman notes, going back to 1978’s “Never Together (But Close Sometimes),” Carter was using the Carter scratch method of picking—never has she dedicated an album highlighting her family’s importance on her music.

Now in her late-fifties, and completely comfortable with herself and her place as a bridge to country music’s past, Carter has, with producer Don Was, brought together an all-star band and several guests to celebrate and honor the legacy of her family. She has frequently spoken of having felt an obligation to carry the music of the Carters to subsequent generations, and with Carter Girl she has certainly done Maybelle, A.P., Sara, June, Anita, and Helen proud.

The album includes ten songs selected from the immense Carter catalogue. To her credit, Carter hasn’t selected only the most familiar songs—no “Wildwood Flower,” for example, nor then “Will The Cirlce Be Unbroken,” “No Depression in Heaven,” or “Keep On the Sunny Side.” She’s dug deep, searching out, connecting with and revitalizing timeless songs.

The formidable “Little Black Train” kicks off the album, as astute a choice as any made with the disc. This song with a clear message of getting right with the Lord pulses with conviction and forewarning, and the vocal harmonies of the amazing Elizabeth Cook and Joe Breen (Mr. Carlene Carter) on the chorus make things that much more intense. As expected, the song is livelier in Carlene Carter’s hands than when recorded by her forbears in 1935, with the rhythm section of Was and Jim Keltner propelling the song.
Cook shows up throughout the album, never more impressively than on the full-blown duet “Blackie’s Gunman.” Carter no longer attempts to hit the highest notes she once did, and leaves these to Cook who nails the harmony parts. Carter’s voice is huskier, more robust than in her video play days, but this works wonderfully with this material. She still sings like a dream. Sam Bush contributes mandolin to this track, making the instrument’s sound to slightly resemble an autoharp.

Aunt Helen’s venerable “Poor Old Heartsick Me,” a hit for Margie Bowes, is the type of song that almost anyone can sing-along with, while “Troublesome Waters” proves once again how difficult it is to listen to others sing with Willie Nelson. For me, this is the album’s only stumble. Willie is Willie, of course, and while it isn’t musical malpractice, it does interrupt the flow of the album.  I’ve long wondered why female singers attempt to harmonize with Nelson on slow-tempo numbers. Both Nelson and Carter’s vocal parts sound good in isolation, but to my ears their blend doesn’t. The performance is forced. Would it have worked better had they been eye-to-eye in the same studio when recording? Possibly.  I just know I would rather have heard Carter sing the song without Nelson.

More successful is when Kris Kristofferson drops by to join in on “Black Jack David.” The song, one of many that A.P. Carter borrowed from the folk tradition, works largely because the two singers match each other’s phrasing more comfortably than Nelson and Carter do. Carter also provides guitar accompaniment in the style of Mother Maybelle, a very noticeable contribution.
Utilizing modern technologies, Carter closes out the album singing with her mother, aunts, and Johnny Cash on “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” an emotionally abusive song of codependency disguised as a working man’s protest if ever there was one, while Carter sings June’s “Tall Lover Man” like the country classic it should be.

Within an artistic creation with no end of highlights, two of the most dramatic come directly from Carter’s imagination. “Lonesome Valley 2003″ is built around the classic spiritual, but is made more intense through the inclusion of Carter’s lyrics sharing the heartbreak of her family’s losses of that year.

The instrumentation of this track is beautiful—Carter’s piano, Rami Jaffee on Hammond, and guitars from Greg Leisz and Blake Mills—while Carlene sings as if she is in a country church, paying tribute to her loved ones. The emotion in her voice is palatable, and she says she genuinely choked up on the final verse. With lesser singers, this would be an affectation; for Carter, it’s the truth: she’s lived this song. Vince Gill’s vocal support may go unnoticed upon first listen, but it’s there on the chorus giving the arrangement additional depth.

The greatest song Carlene Carter may have ever written is re-recorded for this collection. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” originally appeared on the breakthrough I Fell in Love album, and at the time was a dramatic statement that—notwithstanding the country-rock beats of the title track and the video and stage prancin’ that accompanied it—she was a still a Carter girl.

A tribute to her grandmother and her aunts, the song wistfully reminisces about the days and nights on the road in the car with “grandma and her girls.” Now that all those mentioned in the song are gone, including the Wildwood Rose herself, Carter’s sister Rosey, the song assumes additional dimension. It was a stunning performance then, and it is even more so now, and it is on this track that Carter sounds most at ease—reinterpreting herself for a new generation, if they’re listening.

No regrets then with Carter Girl. At 47 minutes, it is a substantial project. The reservations I have with Willie Nelson’s performance are likely a product of my own prejudice; Was and Carter obviously appreciated what he brought to the studio.

The album is more than a tribute album to the various branches of the Carter family. It is the testament of a granddaughter, daughter, and niece committing herself fully to the legacy she has always embraced, a promise long ago made that the circle would remain unbroken.

“I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands” by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske
Inspired equally by the spirit of the classic forebears of old-time music and later arriving artists who have continually refined the music as an important contemporary art, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have now released three albums of modern minimalist musical lore, each exceeding that which came before it.

A taste of bluegrass, a dollop of folk, a sprinkling of modern stringband adventurousness, and a healthy measure of fresh approaches to old-timey songs, and you have the recipe to distinguish this duo within the multitudes creating modern folk-based, acoustic music.

Morrison and West are stalwarts of the Pacific Northwest music scene, and  I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands finds them incorporating additional musicians within their fold. Most prominent perhaps are fiddlers Ryan Drickey and Brittany Haas who twin up and complement Morrison and West throughout. Working without liner notes, I’m unable to distinguish between who is playing bouzouki where—O’Brien, Morrison, and West each contribute on that instrument, while O’Brien and Morrison also play mandolin.

Morrison’s old-timey banjo playing is beautiful, especially on songs like “James is Out” and “Fiddlehead Fern,” while West’s guitar parts are equally impressive; “Ritzville”/”Steamboats On the Saskatchewan” is a veritable showcase for the ensemble, and West’s guitar on “Livin’ in America” is captivating.

Vocally, Morrison continues to take most of the leads—deep, gritty expressions of open spaces, challenged individuals, and sorrowful times. West’s vocal harmony is rich, an ideal foil to Morrison, who is vocally reminiscent of O’Brien. West also takes the lead on the exceptional “Pocket Full of Dust.”

The duo’s intrinsic vitality provides the album with a consistency in sound, firmly ingrained in their experiences. Grounded by the music of Norman Blake, Kelly Joe Phelps, and certainly producer Tim O’Brien as they are, one can also appreciate their wholly original approach to acoustic roots music. “The Natural Thing to Do” is a straight ahead ‘tear in my beer’ country shuffle, whereas the wordy “Anxious Rows” clips along at the pace of a fiddle contest burner, but with an emotional depth seldom encountered .

As with the previous Our Lady of the Tall Trees, the majority of the songs are Morrison originals but there are a few familiar songs included as well. The Louvin’s mournful “Lorene” is given a gorgeous treatment. Alice Gerrard’s melancholy “Voices of Evening” is appropriately aching, while “Green Pastures” raises the spirit.

With this stellar creation, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are sure to continue to expand their listening base, and it shouldn’t be too long before they are widely appreciated by those who enjoy riveting, fresh expressions of old-time music.

“The Sacred Shakers Live” by the Sacred Shakers

The Sacred Shakers
The Sacred Shakers Live
Signature Sounds

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Through the years I’ve attended a number of happenings—church services, jams, shows with local performers—where the singers are untrained. That doesn’t necessarily mean bad, off-key, or off-time, just no cultured vowel sounds or beautiful diction. These are people who enjoy singing and don’t keep a scorecard on perfection.

Meet the Sacred Shakers. They combine a variety of related music styles, including old-time, bluegrass, country, and rockabilly to serve up their own brand of spiritual music, performed by a group that includes musicians who are Christian, agnostic and Jewish. It’s clear this isn’t your usual gospel offering. “Take Me In Your Lifeboat” has been performed and recorded by a long list of bands, but you may have never heard this particular combination of banjo, electric guitar, driving upright bass and drums. Guitarist Jerry Miller released his own CD (reviewed here) a year ago and is an ace instrumentalist in band of top-notch players.

The leader of the Shakers is Eilen Jewell. She has a good voice with a timbre that sets her apart from most female vocalists. Her version of “All Night, All Day” has a swinging, bluesy feel, with a good break by Miller and an a cappella ending that showcases the harmony singing of the group. Her rendition of Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me” is reminiscent in tone with Dickens’ version but more relaxed, with blues influences.

“Little Black Train,” a song done by Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family, has a dark feel to it with the banjo playing a repeating riff and some haunting minor chords from other instruments in the background. The fiddle music of Daniel Kellar plays an important role on this number, but on some tracks he must be trying for an old-timey sound as he comes across a bit scratchy. The band takes a different approach to “Lord, I Am the True Vine” with a rock-and-roll kick and then singing it like a gospel revival, drawing a picture of everyone waving their hands and swaying to the music. “Run On” shows off their harmony singing with the background singers responding to the lead.

This is a CD of contrasts, recorded live with an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. Banjo balanced against rock and country electric guitar, rockabilly bass, a drummer who knows how to drum, very good harmonies, a fiddler that is sometimes impressive and sometimes not, and enthusiastic vocalists. This is music with religious roots but not producing a religious atmosphere, played for enjoyment, not conviction. If for no other reason, you need to listen to it because of Miller’s guitar work throughout.

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