“If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice” by Larry Rice

Larry Rice
If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Larry Rice was an understated and brilliant singer, songwriter, and mandolin player who never really achieved the recognition he deserved while living, partly because of the long shadow cast by his brother Tony Rice . Larry’s virtuosity is prominent on If You Only Knew: The Best of Larry Rice. This collection gives listeners incredible insight into his laid back vocal style, distinct mandolin picking, and his choice of material. This album collects work from his albums Hurricanes and Daydreams, Time Machine, Artesia, Notions and Novelties, and Clouds Over Carolina—a body of work spanning 20 years.

In the early 1970s, Rice was an integral part of JD Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys, as well as Crowe’s New South. During his time with Crowe, he was part of two very distinct vocal configurations and he brought different material to the group from the West Coast like “Devil in Disguise”, “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do?”, and “You Can Have Her.”

On this anthology, there are tremendous renditions of straight-ahead bluegrass classics like “Used to Be,” “Take my Ring from your Finger,” and “Four Wheel Drive.” These songs put Larry up front singing lead and playing fiery mandolin licks. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is an extremely intimate cut with Larry and his brother Tony; it is essentially a jam in their living room with just guitar and mandolin. The material presented here is actually quite diverse. “Pretty Polly” is given a modal treatment featuring Larry on a lower lead vocal than traditionally done on this song. The use of a low-tuned clawhammer banjo really emphasizes how different this arrangement is.

“Hurricane Elena” and “Plastic People Town” are incredibly sensitive songs—delivered in ’70s singer-songwriter style—about natural disaster and the shallow nature of huge cities and how lost love feels in such a place.

Stop reading this review. Go purchase this classic album. It showcases Larry Rice at his absolute best as a singer, instrumentalist and performer. Every true fan of incredible acoustic music needs this record.

“Songs from My Mother’s Hand” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Songs from My Mother’s Hand
Wrinkled Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

For those born after 1960, Mac Wiseman is little more than a name occasionally encountered when reading the history of popular country music.

Wiseman hasn’t recorded for a major label since 1973, and hasn’t made a country Top 40 chart appearance since a novelty song (“Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride”) in 1969. Even prior to that, he didn’t have the chart presence of many of his contemporaries. Why then does Mac Wiseman remain significant as we move into 2015?

In 1993, Wiseman was inducted as part of the third class of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame (then called the Hall of Honor) alongside Jim & Jesse McReynolds—ahead of luminaries including the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and the Country Gentlemen. “The Voice with a Heart,” certainly one of bluegrass and country music’s most emotive and sentimental singers, Wiseman joined first the Foggy Mountain Boys and then Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

Wiseman’s signature song, “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” has been recorded by scores, but it was Wiseman who made it a Top 5 number in 1959. He participated in the folk revival of the 1960s, and has released more albums than can reasonably be counted, including a spectacular set with Del McCoury and Doc Watson in 1998.

On the business side, Wiseman co-founded the Country Music Association, worked in A&R for Dot Records, and has remained a fiercely independent artist within the confines of the country and bluegrass worlds over the past several decades. Nearing his 90th birthday, the Virginia native has most recently been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and is said to have the longest running recording career in history.

Songs From My Mother’s Hand is a truly remarkable album. Not only are the performances enjoyable and heartfelt, but the album’s foundation stretches back some 80-plus years. Within the Wiseman family home, Mac’s mother Ruth would transcribe songs heard on the family’s Victrola radio, collecting them in a series of composition booklets that helped the youngster learn the popular songs of the day. Preserved through his long career, Wiseman hauled the notebooks to Nashville (apparently in a green plastic bag) and used these old transcriptions as the basis for the songs recorded for this album: truly then, these are songs from his mother’s hand.

According to album co-producer Peter Cooper, Wiseman recorded the vocals for this new collection in a single session. Wiseman’s voice remains rich and mellow, although there is no shortage of hints that he isn’t as vocally flexible as he may once have been. No matter such limitations when the execution of these timeless songs is so obviously masterful; Wiseman knows these now classic folk songs by heart, having sung them both as a child and throughout his life. Not every lyric matches the most frequently documented rendition, but such quibbles are inconsequential.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of Nashville instrumental and vocal A-listers, co-producers Thomm Jutz and Cooper have ensured that Wiseman’s singing be the focal point of the recording. Justin Moses (fiddle and vocals), Seirra Hull (mandolin and vocals), Mark Fain (bass), and Jimmy Capps (guitar, reso), along with folks like Alisa Jones Wall (Grandpa Jones’ daughter, hammered dulcimer), Jelly Roll Johnson (harmonica), Cooper (vocals), and Jutz (guitar and vocals) create an instrumental and vocal canvas that is brightened and highlighted by Wiseman’s warm timbre. The effect is that one has been invited into Wiseman’s home to listen to the man, perhaps seated at his mother’s kitchen table, sing these songs within a jam conducted amongst great friends.

The disc package is also top-notch. Created by Latocki Team Creative and Backstage Design, and with excellent  liner notes by Cooper and photos from Wiseman’s family collection, it is a beautifully composed offering, worthy of attention when awards for such are considered.

Each song offers something special, with the less frequently encountered songs notable. “Old Rattler,” a timeless song about an old coon dog, is infused with energy from the harmony chorus; Wiseman’s voice reveals his personable chuckle during the final verse. The album’s saddest song, “Answer to Weeping Willow,” is as grim as the more familiar “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow,” while the pure pitiful “Eastbound Train” pulls in as a tight second.

These songs, including “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and “Little Redwood Casket” have great meaning to Wiseman, and he communicates their importance in every vocal nuance. That songs composed and performed eighty, a hundred, and several hundreds of years ago remain engrained within our musical vocabulary is a testament to the density of their message, the value of their stories.

That they sound fresh and relevant today is a measure of Mac Wiseman’s talents as a great musical communicator.

“The Legendary J. E. Mainer” by J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cut-Ups


J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cutups

The Legendary J. E. Mainer
Rural Rhythm Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Mainer was 70 years old by the time he made this album, released in 1968. He had been on the national music scene for more than four decades and was a well-known personality, playing “gospel, bluegrass, comedy, love ballads, wild mountain fiddle breakdowns and traditional folk and country blues.” Mainer and Smiley were both North Carolina natives. Mainer died June 12, 1972, just six months before Smiley passed.

The pairing of Mainer and Smiley was likely one of convenience and marketing aptitude. Though some gave Mainer’s music a bluegrass label, what you’ll hear is more old-time or roots music. It’s not likely to be of interest to people only interested in the music of bluegrass, but those who want to know the history of the music will be drawn to it. Bluegrass wasn’t invented from some vacuum by Bill Monroe; it was a refinement of music that was played for more than a hundred years in the mountains and frontier settlements. Looking down the list of cuts you won’t find many that are played on the bluegrass stages today. “Arkansas Traveler” is familiar as a fiddle tune, but Mainer does it as a comedy routine, as it was done in vaudeville. It was also the Arkansas state song (with lyrics written by a committee) at one time. “Shady Grove” has been recorded over 100 times by such diverse artists as Patty Loveless, Hot Rize, Taj Mahal and, of course, Doc Watson. Mainer’s version is a good listen, featuring a juice harp —something you don’t hear on a recording every day. Mainer does “Home Sweet Home” with a harmonica and many of us will remember “Shortnin’ Bread,” though you may not know it was composed by James Whitcomb Riley.

This CD, while a studio recording, is more like the recording of a live show. Songs may start with a dialogue between Mainer and someone in the band, like Gene Burris on “Shortnin’ Bread.” The cuts aren’t arrangements, there’s no intricate interweaving of parts. The music starts, showcases Mainer, and it ends. The quality of the music is generally good, though some of the fiddle playing (probably Mainer rather than Tater Tate) gives an understanding of “sawing” on the strings. The enjoyment of music is in the ear of the beholder (consider the very basic sound of the Tennessee Two) and people enjoyed the comedy as much as the music. Other groups employed these simple, vaudevillian comedy routines (Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers’ “Model T” routine) though you don’t see them much today.

Several of the numbers are borrowed from other performers who, in turn, adapted them from old songs. “Devilish Mary” was a favorite of the Skillet Lickers and “Papa’s Billy Goat” is associated with Fiddlin’ John Carson. One reason why this CD is important is you’re not going to find many modern recordings of these links to the past, songs like “I Had An Old Grey Mare,” “Old Blind Horse” or “Eleven Cents Cotton.”

If you’re interested in old-time music, in music history, or searching for hidden gems to arrange to your liking, this CD should be in your collection.

“Tried and True” by Annie Lou

Annie Lou
Tried and True
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Annie Lou’s Grandma’s Rules for Drinking was absolutely magical, a delightful blend of ‘big-tent’ music that brought together bluegrass and old-time string band music into a lighthearted and thoroughly impressive package.

On her third outing as Annie Lou, Anne Louise Genest has changed things up a little. The favorable acoustic elements remain, but bluegrass fervor is less apparent. With Andrew Collins again producing, Tried and True possesses more gloss than its predecessor and feels less spontaneous.

What remains consistent is the brightness brought to songs such as “Envy Won’t Leave Me Be” (which kicks off with, “I wish I could drink like you/to the bottom of the bottle all the way through…”), “Haunted,” and “In the Country.” Annie Lou’s openness, writing of longing and comfort like few others manage, builds bridges between her experiences (real and imagined) and those of the listener. She isn’t navel gazing; she is identifying commonalities through lyric and strumming.

Chris Coole (banjo), Max Heineman (bass and vocals), and Chris Quinn (a bit more banjo) from Toronto’s Foggy Hogtown Boys are among those who join their compatriot Collins (mandolin and guitar) in augmenting this production. Especially interesting is the depth bowed bass contributions of Joe Phillips bring to a couple of tracks including the lead-off title track.

One would be remiss to neglect a mention of the albums’ significant cover, Hazel Dickens’ monumental “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song.” It is on this track that Burke Carroll’s pedal steel efforts are really appreciated, lending additional wistfulness. While Annie Lou has been favorably compared to Dickens, listening to Tried and True Alice Gerrard’s enduring ability to remain contemporary and relevant while exploring ancient sounds comes foremost to mind.

Over the course of three albums, Vancouver Island’s Annie Lou has carved out a wee niche in the acoustiblue world that binds folk, bluegrass, and old-time. By continuing to redefine the music she explores in imaginative ways, Annie Lou reveals herself to be a musician, singer, and writer of considerable means.

“On a Winter’s Night” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds

John Reischman and the Jaybirds
On a Winter’s Night
Corvus
Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

John Reischman is an excellent mandolinist (who also makes occasional use of mandola and octave mandolin) and the Jaybirds are all accomplished musicians. They have put together an appealing extended-play CD for Christmas.

Their music is sometimes described as roots bluegrass and the emphasis should be on the roots part. Most would call it old-time music with an occasional venture into bluegrass and even folk music. A number on this CD that would fit into most any bluegrass show is “Shine Like a Star In The Morning.” It can be found on American Folk Songs for Christmas, a 1957 release by the Seeger Sisters on Smithsonian Folkways. This is a compilation made by Pete Seeger’s stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed by her daughters, Peggy, Barbara and Penny. The quartet version here is very well done.

Two other tracks from the Seeger’s LP that found their way here are “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Oh, Watch the Stars.” The latter is beautifully presented by bassist Trisha Gagnon with Greg Spatz’s fiddle adding a Civil War-era feel to it. Gagnon also performs “Joseph and Mary,” telling the Bible story of Joseph and Mary when Mary reveals she is pregnant (with the baby Jesus) and Joseph unhappily responds. This is #54 on the list of Child Ballads. Gagnon also performs an old black spiritual, “I Heard From Heaven Today.”

Jim Nunnally (guitar) sings lead on a song you may identify with Doc Watson, “A-Roving On A Winter’s Night,” a folk song with Appalachian roots. Nick Hornbuckle adds some exquisite banjo work on this number. “Christmas Eve” is a sparse instrumental played by the banjo and (although not identified by track, I believe) the octave mandolin, while the banjo and fiddle are the leads, with a good guitar break, in an old fiddle tune “Breaking Up Christmas.” The quartet adds a bouncing traditional spiritual, “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby?

Reischman and the Jaybirds have put together eight fine tracks that center around, but are not limited to, Christmas. If you like some old-time in your bluegrass and appreciate good picking and harmony, you need to hear this one this holiday season.

“1” by Hog-eyed Man

Hog-eyed Man
1
Yodel-Ay-Hee Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Rick Saenz

I admire listeners who can navigate the subtleties of old-time music—the tunings, the geographical distinctions, the techniques—but I am not one of them. And so at first I was hesitant about reviewing this CD, a collection of 15 lesser-known old-time tunes (I only recognized three titles) with sources and tunings duly noted. But the unusual instrumentation (fiddle plus lap dulcimer/mandolin) intrigued me, the resulting sound drew me in, and the sensibilities of the players closed the deal.

Jason Cade is my kind of old-time fiddler, with a powerful rough tone, double stops everywhere, a love for the lower register, and a strong rhythmic pulse whether the tune is sprightly (“Far in the Mountain”) or more leisurely, as in his excellent solo take on “Highlander’s Farewell.” Cade embraces a broad view of his instrument, having fiddled for bluegrass/hip-hop group Gangstagrass and country music group the Weal and Woe. Rather than approaching the tunes here as museum pieces, he wrestles them to the ground and insists they yield their secrets. Sometimes they do.

Rob McMaken accompanies not on banjo but the less expected mandolin and (especially) lap dulcimer—well played, but the overall results are uneven. Often the fiddle overwhelms, and when the dulcimer takes a lead, energy drops quite a bit. The sound is richest when interplay is limited and the dulcimer/mandolin takes a support role—providing a lush droning bed for Cade to play atop, either doubling the melody for extra power or supplying parts of the melody so that Cade is free to go exploring.

The CD saves the best for last, so begin with the final cut, the driving “Hog-eyed Man.” The fiddle is the star here, but the mandolin is put to best possible use, sometimes doubling the fiddle work, sometimes adding a bed of chimes, sometimes dropping out altogether—making for One Big Instrument you’ve never heard before but will want to hear again. Then move on to the penultimate tune, “Winder Slide,” a stately march reminiscent of “Bonaparte’s Retreat”—the pace is slow enough that the dulcimer reinforces the rhythm, and the resulting rich blend is a sound that likely inspired this project in the first place.

“Fiddle Tune X” by Billy Strings & Don Julin

Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X
No label
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Michigan acoustic duo Billy (Apostol) Strings and Don Julin have released their second recording, a live album entitled Fiddle Tune X. It is an animated, forceful collection of mostly very familiar songs, none of which appeared on their debut album of last year.

I have heard it argued—and may have taken this position myself—that a duo cannot play bluegrass as it is impossible to include the necessary elements of the genre with only two instrumentalists. Strings (guitar) and Julin (mandolin) may not feature fiddle or bass, but everything about their stance suggests deep interest in and respect for bluegrass. They are certainly a bluegrass duo.

While the sound may not be bluegrass in its purest form, the essence of the music is certainly concentrated within the duo’s sparse framework. They draw on the fiddle-tune foundation of bluegrass (“Salt Creek”/”Old Joe Clark”), the influence hillbilly and country sounds had on its founders (“Beaumont Rag,” “Walk On Boy,” and “Miss the Mississippi and You,”), and the standards that are at the core of the music (“Poor Ellen Smith,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”)

While such a repertoire may appear tired or pedestrian, such is not the case. Strings and Julin bring an abundance of energy to their performance, feeding off each other and their audience to elevate these frequently encountered songs. While most of the songs have been around next to forever, the pair—working around a single mic—have found a way to make the overly recognizable extremely appealing.

Without overstating things, Doc Watson—whose spirit doesn’t seem to be too far removed from these boys’ hearts—comes to mind; you comfortably anticipated how a Doc Watson performance would unfold, but that didn’t stop you from leaning forward to listen. Same here, although the familiarity factor is obviously less apparent.

Strings sings the lead throughout with Julin coming in with complementary tenor. The bulk of the songs were recorded at various venues including small halls, bars, and homes. These songs have the most vigour, with the audiences’ enthusiasm for the duo readily apparent. They play to the crowd rather shamelessly and good-naturedly, extending both “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie” to six minute-plus jams, guitar and mandolin exchanging the leads while also coming together in impressive displays of companionable accompaniment. The opening pairing of “Beaumont Rag” and “Walk On Boy” showcase Strings considerable flatpicking skills.

A large handful of songs were recorded without second guessing or overdubs in a snowbound farmhouse early this year, and it is on these cuts that the duo are at their strongest. Absent the whooping and hollering of the more exuberant members of their fan club, one can more readily appreciate their talents.

Julin’s title tune is a driving bluegrass instrumental that threatens to go by a bit too quickly were it not for Strings’ judicious tempo adjustment on his break. “Dos Banjos,” Strings’ composition, has a real mountain sound with timeless lyrics that could be lifted from a Hobart Smith side. Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” is perhaps the album’s most pensive tune, and showcases the duo at the highest level. Strings’ playing, while considerable throughout the 17-track recording, is especially appealing here with Julin serving up delicate notes that are terribly impressive. The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son” is another highlight.

The closing rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded on Third Man Records Voice-o-Graph is the only jarring bit on an otherwise terrific collection; given this and Neil Young’s indulgent A Letter Home, let’s hope the fascination with this low-fi method is a quickly passing fancy.

Billy Strings and Don Julin have captured some of their favorite live performances within this collection. Augmented with their isolated farmhouse recordings, the duo have crafted a very pleasing set of acoustic music. I anticipate frequently returning to Fiddle Tune X. Especially recommended for those who appreciate Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien.