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

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

By Aaron Keith Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liz Longley” by Liz Longley

Liz Longley
Liz Longley
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Liz Longley begins her self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut with “Outta My Head,” a perfect slice of late 1990s Lillith Faire-style pop that has her remembering the good things about an old flame—the road trips to concerts, the exchange of mixtapes, and “the John Martyn record that we spun till it was dead.”

Memory usually tells us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves, suppressing the messy bits and turning the mundane into nostalgia—it’s easy to build a hit song merely by making lists of things from the years when your target audience felt like their lives were still ahead of them.

Good songwriters deal with the mess head-on, and their insight lets you make your own nostalgia about the stuff that’s unique to you.

Longley has had me feeling like that as I’ve played this record over and over the last several weeks. Something about “Outta My Head” made me think of Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing,” which made me remember how I used to feel whenever I would hear it, which made me start thinking a lot about that time in my life, which has lots of parallels to the things Longley must have been turning over in her head when she wrote “Outta My Head.” It’s that kind of interplay between artist and listener that makes music so much a part of our inner lives.

Though it’s Longley’s songwriting that makes this a great record, it’s her voice that most people notice first. Fans of modern country music will notice her voice is every bit as strong and of roughly the same type as the popular female singers of today; more discerning listeners will note that it’s clearly better than any chart-topper you’d care to name—and that Longley can actually sing, and in just about any style she cares to try. The 11 tracks on this record have a unified sound with lots of different influences—subtle ones—from pop and country music from the 1970s and each decade since.

All of this helps Longley put across an impressive cycle of songs about love and memory—the stab of excitement tinged with fear when we feel intense desire for the first time that’s so strong we keep chasing it (“Camaro”), the disbelief when someone is taking that feeling away from you (“This is Not the End”), the mix of shame and resolve when you take that feeling away from someone because they can’t come with you where you’re going (“Memphis”), the rush when you find someone who makes it all feel new and risky again (“Never Loved Another”), the feeling you get from that one person you know you shouldn’t keep coming back to (“Bad Habit,” which is also might be the best song ever written about cigarettes), and the renewed optimism that you may have actually found someone good for you (“You’ve Got that Way”).

A couple of songs included on this album don’t quite fit this theme, nor are they quite as good, but Longley ties everything together with a love song of incredible emotional intensity and simplicity. With the aptly titled “Simple Love,” she tells us how it feels to escape the cycle that has obsessed countless songwriters, offering hope to those who are still caught there.

“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“Ghosts in the Field” by Shantell Ogden

Shantell Ogden
Ghosts in the Field
Hip Farm Chic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Good singer-songwriters have it rough in the country market these days. If you’re too good, then your material won’t get much attention from programmers or from more popular acts looking for material to record. If you dumb down your lyrics and use the same chords melodies, chords, and arrangements that those popular acts are beating to death, then why bother?

On her seven-song Ghosts in the Field, Shantell Ogden offers up a nice range of first-rate songs with a bright sound that will stand out in anyone’s current country or Americana playlist. While “Just a Little” captures the fleeting excitement of falling in love, and “Who Comes First” charts love turning to disillusionment, “Be My Rain” is about the hope of trying to avoid either extreme, written with a maturity that had me thinking of Jackson Browne.

Both the title track and “Blossom in the Dust” richly evoke the real, deep connection with the rural past and small town life that many of us share, putting to shame the big Nashville labels who’ve created the current trend of hicksploitation to convert that nostalgia into cash before the whole mess goes under.

Shantell Ogden is an artist making music the right way.

 

“The Best Kept Secret” by Chris Cuddy

Cris Cuddy
The Best Kept Secret
self-released

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If there’s one thing everyone should agree upon, Cris Cuddy’s CD isn’t boring. It’s indie music, a mixture of blues, rockabilly, and a little Mexican and calypso and other styles you may not describe. He switches tempos and styles and keeps it all interesting from start to finish. Cuddy, who hails from Canada, composed or co-composed (with Tom McCreight) all the songs, sings lead and plays harmonica and acoustic guitar. His voice tends to be on the soft side and the overall feel is laid-back and easy, a bit of Jimmy Buffet aura. The lyrics can be quirky: “I was hangin’ around a drive-through daiquiri bar, had my eye on a guy I think was thinkin’ about stealin’ my car” and “I was runnin’ the Elvis chapel in the all night church.” “Drive-Thru Daiquiri Bar” is a story about someone who is lost in his passage through life, told with a bit of a calypso beat. It’s not sad so much as reflective and it’s easy to picture a crowd kicked back with a drink at hand, nodding and saying to each other, “that’s the way it is, man.”

“IBMA Blues,” strangely named because nothing about this CD is reminiscent of the IBMA other than a couple of the musicians, is a story about love lost due to his passion for his music. A couple of familiar names are on this one. Jim Hurst (guitar) and Emory Lester (mandolin and fiddle) appear on several tracks and play in their usual brilliant styles. “She Reminded Me of You” is a lost love song with a Mexicali sound, complete with an accordion and quavering steel guitar. Unless your musical tastes are stuck in one genre it’s hard to not like this track. Next he channels Marty Robbins with “The Big Chill.” He doesn’t sound a bit like Robbins but this is a song Robbins would have sung if he was still around, a song about a gunfighter in the old west. Going with rockabilly, he offers “The Best Kept Secret,” a story about a secret love affair, except for the neighbor who ends up with the girl the other guy has been keeping hidden.

If you like blues, listen to “The Luck of the Draw.” Roly Platt plays some great harmonica and Keith Glass tears it up on guitar. This is track I could listen to all day long. Another bluesy number, with brushes on the drums and a good bass line, is “Amy,” a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse.

The musicians are all top drawer and the arrangements are good. This isn’t a CD that grabs you, it’s not a slap in the face to get your attention. The music sneaks up on you and you find yourself immersed in it, stopping whatever you were doing to listen. This one goes into my short stack that I play over and over.

CrisBestkeptsecretcoverlrg

 

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

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

By Aaron Keith Harris

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

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

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

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

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