“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.

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“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.

“Ionia” by Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys

Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys
Ionia
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Named for the Michigan city in which it was recorded, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys’ second album—to go along with a couple of EPs—is one of the unexpected musical delights of this spring.

Americana at its core, their sound is not easily categorized beyond that wide-ranging identifier. They use acoustic bluegrass instruments, but no one who understands the term would refer to them as a bluegrass band; their music is too breezy and playful, lacking the drive most associate with ‘grass. One can hear folk roots throughout the album, especially on “The River Jordan” and “Old Song,” and it certainly isn’t country. There is even a bit of jazz flavor in places (“Hot Hands”) and it swings a bit when encountering Thelma and Louise-type circumstances in Todd Grebe’s (Bearfoot, Cold Country) “Criminal Style.”

Americana it is, then.

Ionia possesses a warm, groovy sparseness that allows the group to project a clear and bright set of music that reminds one of Edie Brickell fronting a really strong acoustic band. It is gorgeous.

While Lindsay Lou sings the majority of the leads, and does so quite brilliantly, this is much more than a singer-centered endeavor. Joshua Rilko (all manner of stringed instruments, but primarily mandolin) and bassist (some of it bowed, and more including Peruvian cajón) PJ George sing most of the harmony on these songs, providing each with vocal depth that nicely balances Lindsay Lou’s leads. Mark Lavengood plays Dobro on the majority of the songs, while also singing “Sometimes,” an earthy number from an outside source, Ben Fidler; less tasteful are his circa 1981 basketball shorts.

While other bands may achieve a rich, close sound in professional studio environments, LL&F chose to record in the home of friends, playing and singing in a tight circle. While obviously rehearsed and professional, the resulting music feels spontaneous and genuine. Built around Lindsay Lou’s voice, equally important to the LL&F sound are Rilko’s mandolin and Lavengood’s steel.

“Everything Changed” is one of the group’s stronger songs: it builds to a controlled instrumental crescendo that is dynamic. “House Together” is another vibe-rich song of interest. Every bit as engaging are the album’s final tracks, “Ionia” and “Smooth and Groovy.” The title track is a moody instrumental while the closing song is a vocal showcase for Lindsay Lou. Recently relocated to Nashville, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys appear to have taken the ‘next step’ in their career.

Recommended if you like Crooked Still, the Show Ponies, and/or the Infamous Stringdusters.

“Wherever I Wander” by the Snyder Family Band

Snyder Family Band
Wherever I Wander
Mountain Home Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

HOT! That will be your first reaction to the music of the Snyder Family Band. Siblings Samantha (16) and Zeb (19) are joined by their father, Bud Snyder, on this unusual CD. The younger Snyders were mentioned in the review of Adam Steffey’s New Primitive CD, but now they’re blazing their own trail.

They have their feet in bluegrass—Zeb Snyder was nominated for the IBMA Momentum Award in 2013 and 2014. “Highway Call” is a great bluesy number that can fit into a bluegrass or country music set. Samantha Snyder, playing violin since age three, plays fiddle breaks on this track that are as good as any fiddle music you’ll ever hear with her brother adding great guitar as well as singing lead. That’s how most tracks are set up, Samantha Snyder playing fiddle and sometimes mandolin, Zeb Snyder playing guitar and mandolin with their father playing the upright bass. They make a lot of good music for a trio.

That said, there are three potential—but minor—reservations about their music. Any time you use multi-tracking to allow one person to play multiple intruments (or sing multiple parts) it can sound great on the CD, but what do you do for live performances? Bands usually figure this out, but it is a question mark. They chose to have no vocal harmonies. They are excellent singers and this isn’t a bad choice, but harmony singing fills out the vocals. The other reservation is trying to figure out the market for their music. If you dump blues, classic rock, classic country, bluegrass and western swing into a pot and wash out all dividing lines, that’s where this CD goes. If your tastes are as broad as their ambitions, there will be a great match between you and their music.

I enjoy all those genres so I find nothing but enjoyment with their music. “New River Rapids” is an interplay between the mandolin and fiddle with an imaginative melody. “Trick Shot” is another fun instrumental and “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” glides along at breakneck speed while “The Peach Truck” is six and a half minutes of vamp that showcases their great talents.

“Wherever I Wander” is an interesting melody and lyrics that are modern gospel. You won’t hear many gospel numbers like this one and may lose the lyrics just listening to their instrumental work. “Swamp Music” is a number that you can imagine Jerry Reed singing, co-composed by Ronnie Van Zant and Edward C. King of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame and released in 1974 on their Second Helping LP. The Snyder’s version doesn’t have the hard edge of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but nothing is lost with the change. Zeb Snyder entertains you with some glass bottleneck slide guitar while Amanada Snyder rocks on her fiddle. Another Samantha Snyder number is “Hittin’ the Highway,” a mixture of blues, rock and country with some great instrumental breaks.

I don’t think there’s a section of bins in the Ernest Tubb Record Shop for this CD. They need to make a new one labeled “RRGM” and stick it there. You’re missing an experience if you don’t listen to this one.

“Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection” by Lead Belly

Lead Belly
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

Subscribe to The Lonesome Road Review (look in the right column) or tweet this article (tagging @LonesomeRoadRev) before midnight Eastern time April 7 for a chance to win one of two copies of the 10-track promo CD from Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. Winners chosen at random.)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Lead Belly was from Van Morrison, on his masterwork album Astral Weeks (1968). Amidst the stream-of-consciousness lyrics there aren’t many concrete concepts or identifiable characters, but there in the title track Van is “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall.” One biographer puts this down to Van’s being known to keep a poster of Lead Belly with him to put on the wall of whatever room he crashed in, giving us the picture of the diminutive Ulsterman home from the pub lying on the floor looking up at the legendary singer while drifting off to dream of all the weird, exciting American music that came from his father’s vast record collection.

The world of blues and jazz and country in the South was strange and distant even for American musicians of the rock generation, much less the son of a shipyard electrician living in a block of flats on Hyndford Street, Belfast. The distance was not a temporal one—the great musicians of the first generation of recorded music were either not long dead or, in dozens of cases, still alive and even performing—but rather one of geography, class, and (often) race. The story of how those distances were bridged in America, and much of the West, is one that begins with music, and the technologies of radio and recording that allowed individual souls to affect each other viscerally and emotionally in a way that only the highly literate were able to experience before.

Born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jan. 20, 1888 at Mooringsport, Louisiana, Lead Belly was one of the key musicians to come of age in the dawn of the recording era, and his peculiar talent as a gatherer of songs kept much of the music that black Americans sang in church, in the fields, and in prison alive long enough to be captured by machines—just as A.P. Carter, with help from his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, did for the music of Appalachia.

Lead Belly did it so well that if one wanted to pick a place to start listening to and learning about 20th Century American popular music, a perfect place to start would be Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Listening to more than five hours of his recordings on these five compact discs (including some live recordings and an entire disc of radio performances) it’s hard not to be amazed at Lead Belly’s ambit. He sangs both familiar and obscure—with musicianship and vocal styles both sophisticated and primal—in musical idioms like “play songs” for children, of-the-moment political broadsides, field hollers, work songs, minstrel tunes, bawdy blues, sanctified gospel, and—of course—prison songs.

Essential to understanding the man and his music—and the reason to spend $100 on the physical copy of this release—is the 140-page book that also occupies this gorgeous 12″ by 12″ package. Along with dozens of great photographs of Lead Belly and miscellaneous ephemera, there is documentation of and commentary on each track from project producers Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways archivist, and Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, who each contribute an essay that takes us far past Lead Belly’s legend to reveal the man.

That legend began in 1933 when John and Alan Lomax—the father-son team of song hunters who chased after music “uncontaminated” by modernity—found and recorded Lead Belly, who serving time for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—tellingly known as Angola. When they returned the next year, Lead Belly was pardoned by Gov. O.K. Allen— for “good behavior” past his minimum sentence time, perhaps prompted by a song Lead Belly wrote about Allen—and returned with them to New York City, where headlines like this beckoned folk fans with a curiosity for the exotic:

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There is no doubt that this legend—buttressed by a newsreel reenactment of Lomax “discovering” Lead Belly at Angola, and the singer’s customary stage costume of prison garb or coveralls—helped sell the man and his music, not too different from the way  musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to 50 Cent have done it. No one bothered to note that Lead Belly’s homicide convictions all stemmed from drunken brawls, not train robberies or home invasions. Because urban blacks weren’t keen on being reminded of farm and prison life, Santelli notes, Lomax didn’t try marketing Lead Belly to them, but went right at the white liberals who liked politics with their pop culture in a way that Tom Wolfe later identified as radical chic.

A question that has to be asked is what part Lead Belly himself played in this hokum. He was a poor black man from the South in a country segregated by both law and custom; the best he could expect was paternalism—which he certainly got from the Lomaxes. More unfortunate is the glaringly obvious realization that King Kong was released just a few months before Lead Belly was “discovered,” an uncomfortable fact that even today informs any serious discussion of race and entertainment in America.

Lead Belly certainly knew what was going on, and he eventually broke with the Lomaxes over both the money and his role as convict/bumpkin. It seems reasonable to think that he simply thought of himself as a musician who wanted to work, and decided to put up with the hassle. Though did write and record some political songs (“Scottsboro Boys,” “We Shall Be Free,” with Woody Guthrie, “Jim Crow Blues,” “Bourgeois Blues”), he never became an activist. “He simply was willing to ignore our radical politics,” Pete Seeger said.

The last few years of his life did bring more artistic freedom and satisfaction than the years preceding it, thanks to Lead Belly’s association with small-time record label owner Moe Asch, a folk enthusiast who also recorded Guthrie, Seeger, and Cisco Houston. Instead of orchestrated studio sessions, Asch would merely make some suggestions on what to record then let his artists record live around an open mic. Asch treated these recordings with much more respect than those before (no more albums with titles like Negro Sinful Songs), but that didn’t result in better sales.

Musicologists Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith also recognized the value of Lead Belly’s art, and recorded him in 1948 on a new open-reel tape deck that allowed for longer recordings (including Lead Belly’s spoken introductions) than the wax cylinders that most previous recordings had been made on. The fifth disc in this collection is devoted to selected tracks from those Last Sessions, which Asch released on his new Folkways label in 1952 as two 2-LP sets—another new format, supplanting 78s.

Lead Belly always hoped and even believed, it seems, that his work would lead to wealth and notoriety—and it did. The year after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the Weavers sold half a million copies of their version of “Goodnight Irene,” helping folk music become noticed by enough post-war American record consumers to generate tremendous interest in the work of Lead Belly and his peers.

But none of this would have mattered if Lead Belly hadn’t been an excellent musician He didn’t just stand up and bash away on his trademark Stella 12-string guitar while simply belting out songs without nuance. As powerful as his voice could be, he always used it to serve the song and connect with the listener. Combine that—and his vast memory—with uncanny timing (“Out on the Western Plain,” “Rock Island Line,” “Alabama Bound” ) and deceptively intricate guitar work (“Fannin Street,” “Ella Speed”) and you have what Santelli calls “an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer” capable of playing just about anything someone waned to hear. Performances like “The Gallis Pole” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)” are as idiosyncratic and intense as anything done by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, or the Monroe Brothers (“The Gallis Pole” contains all the instrumental and vocal elements that Led Zeppelin tried to capture on their version, “Gallows Pole;” and “Black Girl” was reworked by Bill Monroe as the keening “In the Pines” and, in harrowing fashion, by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged).

There are countless musical phrases and lyrical allusions in this set that have echoed down through the years, and whether Lead Belly composed, modified, or simply recorded these songs, the shade his body of work casts is immense (click on any song title below to see how later musicians used Lead Belly’s material).

“The Midnight Special,” “John Henry,” “Take This Hammer,” “Alabama Bound,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Easy Rider,” “Duncan and Brady,” “How Long, How Long,” “John Hardy,” “Outskirts of Town,” “Black Betty,” “Stewball,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “On a Monday.”

“Irene (Goodnight Irene)” is, of course, the one song that Lead Belly will always be known for, though his version seems to be based on performances by Haverly’s Colored Minstrels of a composition by Gussie Davis. Its sentimental melody and macabre lyrics are made by Lead Belly’s mournful shout into an the kind of strange, unsettling experience that demands a response. It doesn’t seem right that it took the mawkish version of this song by the Weavers to introduce the post-war music industry to the man who, as much as anyone, created such a thing.

“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.