“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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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin’” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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“When Shadows Fall” by Ann & Phil Case

Ann & Phil Case
When Shadows Fall: Songs in the Popular Style
Dry Run Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Artisanal is an adjective that’s pretty effective marketing products these days, from cheese to furniture to mobile phone cases. In an era when most of us eat non-food that we buy with a virtual representation of money that is in itself fake and has not been based on something of value for the last century, more and more of us are realizing that Jefferson was right, that free people making and doing what they like in free markets are more likely to become and remain happy than those who submit to the cube farms and factoires, the bureaucrats and banks.

Based not far from me in Germantown, Ohio, Ann & Phil Case are gentle yet expressive singers, and musical artisans of the highest quality. So are their tools, which include here a 1929 Martin 0-21 guitar, a Washburn tenor ukulele (Lyon & Healy, 1931), a Regal Dobro model 27 from the mid-1930s, a Yale 000-size guitar (Larson Brothers, ca. 1920), and a 1924 Conn alto saxophone.

When Shadows Fall is dreamy and eclectic—like a trip up and down the radio dial sometime in pre-television America—moving from hillbilly fiddle tunes culled from rare 78s (“Rocky Mountain Goat,” “Havana River Glide,” “Evening Star Waltz,” and “Frolic of the Frogs”) to cowboy and country songs made popular by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers (“Treasures Untold,” “Any Old Time”), Gene Autry (“Old Missouri Moon,” “My Old Pal of Yesterday”), Patsy Cline (“I’ve Loved and Lost Again”) to a couple of tunes by notable (at the time) ukulele stars ((I’m Crying ‘Cause I Know I’m) Losing You,” “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”).

A couple of inspired song pairings make this 17-track, 47-minute disc really pay off: first, Ann’s a cappella vocal on the black gospel “Steal Away” followed  by the husband-and-wife harmonies on the Louvin Brothers’ “I Steal Away and Pray” and, second, the twin 1930′s dancehall hits “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “We’ll Meet Again,” ornamented by Phil with ukulele, Dobro, alto and tenor saxphones, and string bass.

While some musical artisans are content to master one style, When Shadows Fall make it plain that Ann & Phil Case master whatever they put their hands to.

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“Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass” by Murphy Hicks Henry

Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass
Murphy Hicks Henry
University of Illinois Press
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Murphy Hicks Henry has devoted a considerable portion of her recent life to writing this first history of women in bluegrass. Coming in at almost 400 pages, along with another hundred of notes and references, Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass is comprehensive and informative, expansive in its breadth and mostly captivating in its execution. The book is not without fault, and whether these are substantial deterrents will vary depending on perspective.

This is a largely scholarly examination of women in bluegrass, although Henry doesn’t hesitate to lighten the mood to include opinion within biting slabs of irony when such befits the argument. Henry utilized various methods to gather information about the women, both well known and those who had less prominent roles.

Generalizing because there is in evidence a wide variety of information gathering methods alluded to within the volume, Henry gathered questionnaire responses from women who played and sang bluegrass. She followed up with interviews, both with the subjects and with those who knew them, and she surveyed the pertinent bluegrass publications for mentions, reviews, and features; while many sources are noted, the bulk appear to have been drawn—as one would expect—from Bluegrass Unlimited, Muleskinner News, and the Women in Bluegrass newsletter. On the lookout for interesting tidbits, Henry also examined album liner notes, concert posters and handbills, band bios and press kits, and the popular press.

The resulting book serves as an amazing reference volume for those who research and write about bluegrass. Simultaneously, Henry has written a credible collection of stories that are simply enjoyable: the voice of these women come through in almost every instance—their challenges, their joys, their bitterness, their honesty, their elation, and their wisdom. All who enjoy bluegrass will benefit from knowing the stories of the women featured.

Segmented into decades, this substantial tome examines the women who were involved in pre-bluegrass and bluegrass from its earliest days beginning with those we should all know: Sally Ann Forrester, Wilma Lee Cooper, Rose Maddox, and Ola Belle Campbell Reed. While those more versed in the minutiae of bluegrass history than I may not learn as much, one suspects most who come to this text will benefit greatly from Henry’s research into these true pioneers of bluegrass.

The first hundred pages, which takes us through the 1950s and previously under-known (and for me, under-appreciated) performers including Grace French and the ladies from the Lewis and Stoneman families is filled with revelations, previously unknown connections, and the significance of the substantial role many of the women played within their (usually) husbands’ and family bands. For example, while I already knew (or, thought I did) much about Ola Belle Reed and Bessie Lee Mauldin, Henry considerably adds to my understanding. She brings the struggles faced by Patsy, Donna, and Roni Stoneman to the fore, making their challenges and sacrifices tangible, and fleshes out the details of Vallie Cain’s and the Lewis ladies’ lives.

Through her examination of the 60s, Henry sent me searching for music of folks I had hardly or never  heard of such as Jeanie West, Dottie Eyler, Wendy Thatcher, and Bettie Buckland, while providing additional insight into the lives of familiar legends including Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and the ladies of the Whites.

How I wish I had known as much about Gloria Belle when I met her at World of Bluegrass many years ago, and she so graciously handed me two of her albums: I had no idea who she was, and feel more the fool in light of reading Henry’s vibrant account of her rich and significant role within bluegrass history.

While providing a foundation for the history of women playing bluegrass—names, dates, places, and recording sessions—perhaps more importantly Henry highlights the contemporary reaction to those women. She highlights the sexist and dismissive  comments found within reviews and features, and almost as frequently notes the absence of mention of the women’s contributions.

Henry peels back the film of time to reveal the recollections and experiences of women such as Suzanne Thomas, Susie Monick, Martha Trachtenberg, Katie Laur, and Lynn Morris who found themselves continuing the female journey—sometimes near accidentally—in bluegrass. Each chapter provides additional context. The stories of Markie Sanders, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, and other California-based performers are of special interest.

Beyond the details and anecdotes, what becomes most apparent within these pages is how often, and well into the 80s, women playing bluegrass felt they were reinventing the wheel by assuming a position in the music. There seems to have been little cross-pollination of experience, the next generation seldom knowingly building upon the experiences of those who came before: a sense of isolation as a musician, as a singer, and as a performer is palatable within almost every story.

Lessons in leadership learned from Bill Monroe find their place within Betty Fisher’s story, and other aspects of Monroe’s character are found in Alison Brown’s. Musical epiphanies are found in Laurie Lewis’, as are lessons of business and the paying of dues. Ingrid Herman Reese’s (misspelled Reece) unabashed honesty, Ginger Boatwright’s strength, and Alison Brown’s vision should leave all readers impressed.

The book contains several typos that even I—with my limited knowledge of bluegrass and English sensibilities—identified. John Duffey’s surname is misspelled, a not unusual occurrence within the bluegrass press, but troubling in such a substantive publication. Could other details and facts also be questionable?

The New Coon Creek Girls, Vicki Simmons, and Dale Ann Bradley have their histories summarized in less than three pages, an obvious oversight. Whether Simmons and Bradley did not make themselves available to Henry, or whether she didn’t feel their contributions deserved little more than passing mention within a chapter on all-female bands is unclear, but this is a puzzling lapse.

Later chapters involving Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Cherryholmes, and even the only marginally relevant Dixie Chicks provide valuable information, but Henry’s style here becomes little more than an itemizing of each new album or DVD release with relevant quotes from participants and excerpts from reviews mixed in with dates of high school graduation, marriage, divorce, and children’s births: the life and color Henry brought to the pioneering women’s journeys is missing from this final quarter of her book.

Finally, while she painstakingly references her sources in appendices, I would have preferred direct attribution within the text; with so many references to ‘the Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer felt’ or ‘Muleskinner News wrote,’ I would have appreciated the comfort of knowing exactly who was writing what about the females under discussion as I read.
Murphy Henry, herself a prominent woman in bluegrass music, has produced a book of significant value. The stories she gathers are invaluable, her research obviously substantial. Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass is a comprehensive if imperfect account of the roles women have played in the evolution of bluegrass as a music, as a community, and as a cultural artifact. It is highly recommended.

Pretty Good Girl

“Distant Lights” by the Pine Hearts

The Pine Hearts
Distant Lights
thepinehearts.com
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Old Crow Medicine Show, Mumford and Sons, and Chris Thile can be held to account for unleashing upon the world countless imitators and musicians influenced by their approach to new (but not always that new, really) acoustic folk- and bluegrass-inspired music.

Much of it is trite. Some of it is inspired. Little, in my experience, encourages repeated listening: the Pine Hearts make music that does.

Hailing from the string-band, bluegrass hotbed of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the Pine Hearts are a trio well-versed in music making. Each member has extensive experience playing roots-influenced and bluegrass music, and their wide-ranging backgrounds have shaped a sound that is notable in its fresh application of timeless approaches.

As always, it starts with musicianship, and Joe Capoccia (guitar), Lob Strilla (banjo) and Derek McSwain (mandolin) come together to create a bass-less trio that is solid. Grounded in rock and traditional folk, bluegrass, and old-time music, the Pine Hearts communicate confidence through their music. There is nothing tentative in their approach.

The album’s only non-original is a take of “Big Sciota,” and their interpretation quickly became a favorite of this listener. Listening to their collaborative efforts on “Somewhere Between”—the dexterity of the flatpicking, the cohesive way it blends with the frailing on the banjo, and the manner with which the mandolin’s rhythm ties them together—provides significant evidence of the trio’s musical maturity.

The Pine Hearts hold nothing back as they assemble a selection of original songs that are distinctive, memorable, and downright appealing. The album’s centerpiece is “Heartache or the Whiskey,” a song that stands with the finest heard this past month: “Which came first, the heartache or the whiskey? Which is worse, being wrong or being alone?” Eternal questions asked nightly, I’m sure.

“Last Man Standing” is a powerful song, one of the closest resembling the widespread understanding of bluegrass, sonically speaking. The album’s opening track “Don’t Let The Stars Bring You Down” has a sing-along quality similar to “Wagon Wheel.” Throughout the album, the vocals are relaxed and unfettered by worry of conventions.

If the Pine Hearts possess weakness, it could be found here. Me? I appreciate their seemingly unschooled and natural approach to singing.

Distant Lights isn’t complicated. It is just good.

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“Come Home To Me
” by the Gloria Darlings

The Gloria Darlings

Come Home To Me

Self-released

3½ start (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

A very interesting album recently made its way to me, and once again I find myself enamoured with a group that was previously completely unknown to me.

Seattle’s Gloria Darlings are an old-time and long-gone country-influenced, vocal-based duo. Featuring nine original songs as well as a pair of classic country covers, the Gloria Darlings’ debut album delivers bright and lively acoustic music.

Call it bluegrassish-folk music, label it acoustiblue (please) or alt.country (does anyone use that anymore?), the Gloria Darlings have crafted an appealing collection of music that flies by in a flash.

Melissa Jane Pandiani handles most of the lead vocals and contributes all the guitar, while her partner Amelia Boksenbaum also sings while doing dual heavy lifting on fiddle and mandolin. Michael Connolly, who recorded and mixed the album, plays bass.

The album kicks off with as strong a song as I’ve heard this month: “Come Home To Me,” written by Pandiani, starts with the lines, “It’s so confusing, the way that you can spur me on; from a thousand miles away, you turn up in all my songs.” Gentle and yearning, Pandiani is at her best contemplating the complications of a relationship that has gone awry.

There are several songs here to capture listeners’ interest. “Insomniac’s Lullaby” possesses a  pleasing sound, with seemingly dream-induced lyrics benefiting from nice fiddle and an especially satisfying little mando break. The protagonist of the likeable “Ghost Girl” isn’t nearly as sinister as the title might suggest—well, other than cutting down the first stranger she meets in Nashville: really, she’s just a girl from Heartache City looking for love.

The duo ably cover Ray Price’s “You Done Me Wrong” and the Louvins’—via Jim & Jesse—”Hide & Seek”, while making their own songs fresh and contextually consistent with their influences. The spirited “Jack of the Wood” as well as “Music Men” further reveal their appreciation of old-fashioned mountain music.

Boksenbaum (who goes by Milly Raccoon) is an impressive fiddler, and her work on that instrument and the mandolin provide connections to bluegrass, old-time, and traditional country that many will appreciate.

Come Home To Me may come unheralded, but with its release the Gloria Darlings are informing us that they are a duo to whom we should pay more than a passing listen.

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“Fly Away” by the Rosenthals

The Rosenthals
Fly Away
American Melody
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

In spite of their status as formative instruments for just about all of American music, using banjo and jazz trumpet as the main sonic components of an Americana-tinged album isn’t exactly an obvious idea. (There was the recent collaboration between the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but that was the attempt, failed in my opinion, to combine two iconic bands, not simply two instruments) Indeed, it may not have occurred to the Rosenthals were they not father and son.

Phil Rosenthal is well-known to bluegrass and Americana fans as the lead voice of the Seldom Scene from 1977 to 1986, and he plays a little mandolin and guitar here along with an easy-going banjo; son Daniel is an accomplished horn player, who sings some harmony and adds some bass and Fender Rhodes piano. Will Graefe (electric and acoustic guitar), Mike Connors (drums, percussion), and Rick Stone (alto saxophone) drop in here and there to accent the echoey, resonant soundscape, and the other half of the Rosenthal/Sommers musical family—mom Beth and sister Naomi—add some backing vocals.

Phil’s voice these days (I’ll be using first names here on out) is textured like Nick Lowe’s while his approach is that of a laid back Willie Nelson, if one can imagine that. There are five traditional tunes of the 14 tracks here, and the one to try first is “Pretty Polly.” Phil takes a familiar bluegrass attach on the banjo at a languid pace, while Daniel’s keening horn lines give the ballad a wide, cinematic feel that had me reimagining the familiar scenario. “I’ll Fly Away” is recast here as a funeral song for a cold New England morning, rather than the Pentecostal romp we’re used to, but it works.

The rest of the tracks, we’re told, were built from lyrics abandoned by Phil around the time Daniel was born “some three decades ago.” From the songs chosen it seems as though Phil was working perhaps on an album with a definite theme or feel, which we can deduce from titles like “This Rainy Afternoon,” “Dreamed Last Night,” and “Relaxed.” This is indeed an album for a dreamy, relaxed, rainy afternoon; it will put you in that mood no matter what it’s actually like outside.

One cut that changes the mood is “Sunlight on the Garden,” an adaptation of a 19th century drinking poem that sounds like an early Pink Floyd outtake thanks to Graefe’s wiry guitar and Daniel’s arrangement. Another is the penultimate track “We’ll Talk Tomorrow,” an inviting instrumental with Daniel’s horn and Stone’s sax shimmering above Phil’s guitar. A couple of more warm-hearted compositions like this would have made more accessible an album whose sad beauty is, at times, a little too sad.

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“The Definitive Doc Watson” by Doc Watson

Doc Watson
The Definitive Doc Watson
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Doc Watson’s recording career began in 1962, but his presence seems to extend back into history much further than that. Born in North Carolina in 1923, and blinded by disease in his first year, he soaked up every note he could hear—over the radio and from the family Victrola—and by his death in 2012 had become to the American acoustic music what Mark Twain is to American literature. One can hear a little bit of everything that came before and what came after Watson in the music he made. While Samuel Clemens wielded a cigar, a pen, and a wit that was both friendly and fearless, Arthel Lane Watson’s tools were a nimble clawhammer banjo, a booming guitar—steel-stringed and flat-picked, always—and a voice strong and broad enough to sing just about every type of song an American might care to sing without the aid of electricity.

Watson, who recorded dozens of albums and played thousands of sets, made plenty of music for any archivist to come up with countless representative permutations, but Sugar Hill’s Fred Jasper’s playlist of  34 songs on this two-disc set spanning one and three-quarter hours hits the spot for newcomers and longtime fans alike.

The first 10 tracks—save a brisk guitar duet on “Black Mountain Rag” with John Herald—feature only Doc, on stage or in studio with either a guitar or banjo, in the first three or four years as a national performer. His relatively youthful presence is as distinct and commanding as that of legends like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt who were being re-recorded near the end of their lives spent mastering their art. Watson, who had half a century of music yet to come, was already masterful: effortless on a languorous “St. Louis Blues,” brooding on “The House Carpenter,” which one should compare and contrast with Bob Dylan’s take from The Bootleg Series, Vol.1, and swaggering on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Anniversary Blue Yodel (Blue Yodel #7.”

The meat of this feast—the second half of disc one, the first half of disc two—chronicles Watson’s musical relationship with son Merle, who was a chip off the proverbial old block on banjo and guitar, from the late 1960s until Merle’s death in 1984. They pick some country blues worthy of both halves of that descriptive phrase, and offer a simple, yet exquisite take on the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train.” The first disc ends with father and son enacting the six-minute cinema of the sex-and-death English folk song “Matty Groves,” a track from 1966 that I’d somehow missed up until now, but have been wearing out the last couple of weeks.

Disc two brings in many of the pickers who came after Watson and, following his example, showed that folk and country music—in the original, musicologically correct senses of those adjectives—need not be merely simply played, repetitive music by which one dances in barns. Dan Crary, Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Marty Stuart, and Mark O’Connor show here with Watson, and throughout their remarkable careers, why they are regarded the world over as musicians who can play and create music as soulful, complex, or grand as any composer or musician from any other musical tradition.

The Definitive Doc Watson closes with a three-minute romp through “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in a hotel room in 2006 with Sutton, one of the few guitarists worthy of being discussed along with our subject here. It’s striking in that you have to really listen to keep it straight who is playing what—showing that Watson’s shadow looms long—and that you could have labeled this as a recording with Merle from 1970, or as one of Watson’s debut recordings (if there was someone who could pick quite this good in 1962) and it would fit right in.  Just load it up and play it—in order or on shuffle; it’s all great. Steeped in time and shaped by it, Watson is himself timeless.

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“Bittersweet” by Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard
Bittersweet
Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The current matriarch of the bluegrass-infused, old-time, and folk-rich branch of the roots music family, Alice Gerrard has been prominent since the 1960s when her early and continually influential recordings with Hazel Dickens significantly shifted the bluegrass world.

Prior to that, and well-documented elsewhere, Hazel and Alice had met and began singing at Washington, DC/Baltimore house parties, moving onto coffeehouse performances within a burgeoning bluegrass environment. Their collaborative recording output—four albums as a duo as well as a fifth as the Strange Creek Singers with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz—was limited, but highly significant and exceedingly impressive.

While Alice Gerrard has an extensive resume as a recording artist within several different configurations, as a guardian of old-time music, as founder and past editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald, and as a touring musician, she has recorded as a ‘solo’ artist only intermittently, on approximately a ten-year cycle.

1994′s beautiful Pieces of My Heart and 2004′s equally resonant Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss appeared on the Copper Creek label. As on those recordings, Gerrard’s voice on the new Bittersweet, released on producer Laurie Lewis’ Spruce and Maple imprint, is pure and powerful: Gerrard’s voice is multi-dimensional, and as Lee Smith wrote two decades ago, she can sing anything: “holler, shout, belt it out, swing a little, croon a little, and then flat-out break your heart.”

Significantly, Bittersweet is comprised entirely of original material; an exceptionally talented interpreter of others’ music, Gerrard has ably demonstrated that she takes things to another level when singing one of her rare compositions. Her catalog is laden with jewels, be they “Agate Hill” or “Calling Me Home” from the previous solo recordings, or “Custom Made Woman Blues” from the Hazel & Alice album; Gerrard cuts to the emotional core.

The thirteen songs included herein are each of great quality, and their execution is equally remarkable. “The Stranger” and the title cut show Gerrard examining the echoes of memory, the passage of time and the passing of history, a theme that can also be found within “Tell Me Their Story.” The unaccompanied opening song, “Lonely Night” establishes the otherworldly qualities much of the album reveals.

The banjo-based “Borderland” possesses a haunting sound and lyrics that could be a few hundred years old; ‘Polly’ even makes an appearance. “Payday at the Mill” is the only slightly more lighthearted companion to Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” and her own “Custom Made Woman Blues.” Well known for being a bit maudlin, Gerrard shows her other side on the positively buoyant rebound song “Sun Keep Shining On Me.”

Surrounded by some of the finest acoustic musicians working today—Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Todd Phillips, Rob Ickes, and Tom Rozum—Gerrard’s voice, both literally and figuratively, is given the opportunity to be clearly expressed. One hears the wondrous ache within “Tell Me Their Story,” feels the mystical joy of the blues “Somebody Have Mercy” offers, and the faint hopefulness of “Maybe This Time” and “Unexpected Love.”

Bittersweet is a timeless recording, one that dynamically reinforces Alice Gerrard’s position within the Americana/roots music communities, not only as a ‘pioneering woman of bluegrass’ but as a formidable force as a contemporary songwriter, musician, and singer. Gerrard turned 79 last month; with Bittersweet she acutely delivers the message that she continues to have a great deal to offer, providing songs you can cry to as well as offering hope when it can be most appreciated.

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“New Primitive” by Adam Steffey

Adam Steffey
New Primitive
Organic
Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you’ve seen the Boxcars lately then you know that Adam Steffey has slimmed down quite a bit, something that’s hard to do for musicians living out on the road. Thick or thin, however, Steffey is one of that special group of mandolin players at the top of the heap. He plays with precision, style and taste.

In this outing he’s performing without his Boxcar sidekicks, concentrating on melding bluegrass and old-time styles. He didn’t go far to find a banjo player, being joined by wife Tina playing clawhammer on several tracks.

While a number of banjo players, including Dr. Ralph Stanley, will play some clawhammer banjo, many bluegrass musicians don’t speak kindly of old-time music, using variations of “eight bars played eighty times” to describe it. Having sat in with some old-time bands I can appreciate that description, but it’s also a too simplistic dismissal of the genre. In fairness, I’ve also played in and listened to bluegrass bands that would play an instrumental to death, believing that every instrument deserved two if not three turns playing the entire melody. Bluegrass is a melting pot of styles and genre, and many of the tunes played have been performed by country, blues, gospel or old-time artists as well, so a CD such as this should be well received.

Is the music Stingbean played clawhammer or frailing? The term is often used interchangeably except for those few who smugly smile at us of the banjo-ignorant masses when we speak of the art of assailing the pig-skinned music maker.

Actually, the banjo head may be pig, calf or goat skin (I suppose horse hide or a really big ‘possum could be used, too), but I digress. If you’re interested in frailing vs clawhammer, look at this Wikipedia article or this site which has some video examples (one which features Stringbean with Earl Scruggs playing rhythm guitar).

Old-time music also has some imponderable titles, but, whatever they may be called, Steffey’s musical approach makes the tunes fun listening. Banjo players sometimes choose “Cluck Old Hen” as their solo, but here it is played with sparse accompaniment, a delicate approach to this old song. “Big Eyed Rabbit,” on the other hand, is a bluegrass band energetically playing and passing the lead to each other. Siblings Samantha (fiddle and vocals) and Zeb Snyder (guitar), at the ripe old ages of 14 and 17, play on the CD but it’s Eddie Bond playing fiddle and singing on this track along with Barry Bales (Union Station) on bass. “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies” is a gentle, beautiful ballad sung here by Samantha Snyder. (It’s listed here as traditional but is also widely attributed to Kate Rusby.)

Steffey includes tunes popular in bluegrass such as “Blackberry Blossom” (titled here as “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”), a number usually played with gusto by bluegrass bands but played here with a gentle touch, the mandolin as centerpiece rather than a fiddle (or, in some cases, Tony Rice’s guitar). “Chinquapin Hunting” is another minimalist arrangement (mandolin and guitar). “Squirrel Hunter” (or “The Squirrel Hunters”) is an excellent example of how to make a simple tune interesting. A less accomplished group might repeat the two-part melody over and over but Steffey’s group vamps around the melody to take it to new places.

It’s easy to imagine a group of musicians sitting in the lamplight, cider (and maybe some ‘shine) close by, as you listen to “Fine Times At Our House,” but Steffey has surrounded himself with a group of talented musicians who take these traditional numbers to new places. This CD should be a delight for both fans of bluegrass and old-time music.

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