“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.

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“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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“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.

dirk-powell_walking-through-clay

“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.

DistantLightsfront