“Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver” by Special Consensus & Friends

Special Consensus & Friends
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

John Denver—like Olivia Newton John—is a divisive figure when discussing 1970s country music. Unlike his Australian counterpart, Denver was a slightly more natural fit for the genre, although that didn’t stop folks from ridiculing his blend of folk, country, and MOR pop. Within his timeless The Phoenix Concerts set, John Stewart even sets up a song by glibly quipping, “Sunshine on my shoulders… makes me sweaty.”

Despite three country number one singles, some twenty-plus appearances within the country single and album charts, and Entertainer, Male Singer, and Album of the Year awards from various industry organizations, Denver was always a county music outlier, ironically too pop for even Charlie Rich.

Those granny glasses and Muppet appearances likely didn’t help.

Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver is a very comfortable album, and there should be no negative connotations associated with that designation as one is not intended. Many of the selected tracks are instantly familiar, and their arrangements and presentations are uniformly appealing.

There is considerable diversity within the set, with Rhonda Vincent’s restrained lead vocals on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” complementing the sedate, emotive instrumental textures laid out by the Special Consensus. “Wild Montana Skies” features Claire Lynch and Rob Ickes, and sounds quite wonderful, with a bluegrass push kicking it up a notch. Lynch’s contributions are significant—she sounds great alongside Rick Faris—and the guitar playing of Dustin Benson is just this side of incredible.

In compiling this album, bandleader Greg Cahill and producer Alison Brown make several key decisions.

Presenting the ubiquitous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as an instrumental is just one of them, but a significant one. Of the Denver songs chosen, it is the one best suited to stand independent of lyrics, generating a different feel here than it would have with its (arguably) overly familiar refrains.

Supplementing the recording with several guests drawn from the Compass family of artists is another important choice. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate vocalist to sing lead on “Rocky Mountain High” than Peter Rowan, and the bluegrass sage absolutely nails his performance; the album’s closing track also features a chorus of singers including Lynch, Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley.

Speaking of Bradley, the Kentucky songbird duets with Faris on the endearing “Back Home Again.” Singing lead on the final verses, Bradley amplifies the emotional density of the song, transforming egocentrism into self-awareness. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is faithfully performed by John Cowan, but with the benefit of his unconventional bluesy approach to all things ‘grass.
Another excellent decision was going deeper into the Denver oeuvre than greatest hits albums would suggest. “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (featuring Jim Lauderdale), “Matthew,” and “Eagles and Horses” are each given memorable treatments, and considering these are most likely not songs the majority of listeners will recognize speaks to the strength of Special Consensus’ performances.

The instrumentation of “This Old Guitar,” I believe, is unique. On this track, all four members of Special Consensus play guitar—and only guitar—creating a tribute not only to a great song, but to an essential bluegrass component.

Limiting the album to only ten songs may not have been the best choice. While not stingy at 42 minutes, there was definitely room for more music. Most significantly, it ‘feels’ as if there should be more here—Denver had a deep catalogue, and this seems a sparse representation of his diversity. Leaving us wanting more is always a good idea, but…

Three tracks feature only the members of Special C. The performances of these songs are uniformly excellent, suggesting that the group might have comfortably stretched themselves had they decided to tackle another couple. I am certain the band could have nailed “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” for instance.

The Special Consensus and Alison Brown—who produced the album and is credited with the arrangements—have created a bluegrass album from songs that, in their original form, were far from bluegrass. As Dave Royko points out in his expansive and informative liner notes, “many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.” What I don’t believe Royko mentions is that Denver’s interpretation of these themes was not close to bluegrass, in singing style, mindset, or method of execution.

There is no mistaking Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver as anything but a bluegrass recording. The mandolin and banjo are prominent, the guitar lines clean and varied, the bass drives the pulse of the music. While the Special C doesn’t employ a fiddler, they have friends—Michael Cleveland, Jason Carter, and Buddy Spicher—to further enliven select songs.

The Special Consensus is approaching their fortieth year with Greg Cahill at the helm, and after nearly twenty albums, they somehow continue to become stronger and more appealing. Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver isn’t a typical Special C album, but it certainly sounds like one.

Thank God they remain bluegrass boys!

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“Reflections” by Don Williams

Don Williams
Reflections
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Often when I dismiss most of what comes from Nashville these days as not being country music, people misunderstand. I think they’re inferring that I insist everything sound like the Carter Family, Hank Williams Sr., or Bill Monroe, or that I’m against any sort of elements from genres like pop or rock.

That’s not it at all. After all, the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash borrowed heavily from all sorts of other styles, but they’re rightly regarded as country originals. It’s not the addition of non-country elements that makes something not suitable to be called country, but rather the lack of individual artistic integrity. You can get away with a lot as long as your foundation is the proverbial three chords and the truth.

Don Williams is a classic country singer and songwriter, even though his sound would never be likened to honky-tonk. His sound isn’t twangy at all, but his simple words paired with his legendary, laconic delivery are as country as you can get, and 2012′s And So it Goes proved he’s as good as he’s ever been.

Reflections is an apt title for this collection of 10 tracks written by others, as it shows how the Williams style has both drawn from and help shape the best country songwriting of the last few decades.

Opening with Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Williams puts us out on a lonely highway dreaming of love at home, in the same place countless truckers experienced his music in the 1970s. Guy Clark’s “Talk is Cheap” takes us further toward the horizon with a gently ascending melody nudging along the chorus that serves as this album’s theme:

Talk is cheap

and time’s a-wastin’

get busy livin’

or at least die tryin’

Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” are the other two instantly recognizable songs, and Williams makes each his own with perfect, simple arrangements aided by co-producer Garth Fundis (Keith Whitley, Alabama).

The other six songs fit so well with Williams’ persona and the well-known covers—especially “Healing Hands” (with whispered harmony from the Issacs) and “Stronger Back”—that you’d assume they all came from the Gentle Giant’s own pen. The fact that they didn’t proves that, either as a singer or a songwriter, Don Williams is as country—and as great—as it gets.

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“Fruits of My Labor” by Aaron Burdett

Aaron Burdett
Fruits Of My Labor
Organic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been a fan of Bob Seger for decades, even though I can only sing along to snatches of his music. He manages to put more words into a phrase than I can wrap my tongue around.

When I heard Aaron Burdett’s first number, “Something Out Of Nothing” my first thought was how much he reminds me of Seger. His phrasing, the lyrics, even the melody could be a Seger song. Then I’m wondering what market niche he might find. It’s not bluegrass despite Andy Pond’s banjo and Casey Driessen’s fiddle in the background; it’s not classic country, and not hot new country (I like it too much to be HNC); it’s on the fringes of rock. I suppose that makes it Americana, though that’s really a useless classification. “Something Out Of Nothing” is a love song, reflections of a love that’s grown to make something out of nothing. “Harmon Den,” another track sporting a banjo (Brian Swenk of Big Daddy Love) is grassier, the story of a man who has tried the world but needs to go back home to Harmon Den. It seems to be a reference to the days of the CCC, fitting for an Americana CD. All the numbers were composed by Burdett and it’s obvious he has some range in his work.

“The Love We’ve Got” is quieter, a love song with some good pedal steel work by Matt Smith. It’s appealing with minimal instrumentation, Smith, Burdett (guitars), Will Jernigan on bass, and Billy Seawell adding percussion. Josh Goforth plays banjo, mandolin and fiddle on “Going Home To Carolina,” a song about a man’s life that could easily be adapted to bluegrass. The title number, including Smith’s steel and adding Tony Creasman on drums and percussion, is another good number about a man’s life that is very Seger-like. The more I listen, the more I like this music.

Burdett’s music is reflective, descriptions of life, but he manages to change the subjects of his scrutiny to avoid getting bogged down with sameness. The supporting musicians are excellent—Burdett himself does some neat guitar break in “Water In The Well”—and the drums, often an object of my scorn, are tastefully played instead of beating your ears until they bleed.

I liked it the first time I heard it. I like it better with each play. This one’s going into my play-on-the-road collection.

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“Roll Me, Tumble Me” by the Deadly Gentlemen

The Deadly Gentlemen
Roll Me, Tumble Me
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Like it or not, bluegrass music is evolving.

It has been written many times in many ways, but much of the music currently associated with the term ‘bluegrass’ is no small bit removed from that created by the founders of the music.

The Deadly Gentlemen, a quintet based in Massachusetts, are among the recent bands whose music is close enough to warrant mention within conversations about bluegrass, but is so different as to further blur the vision of those who look at music through myopic lenses.

Deadly Gents songwriting principal Greg Liszt—Virginia native, molecular biologist, Americana practitioner with the likes of Crooked Still as well as Bruce Springsteen’s banjoist of choice for The Seeger Sessions—may serve as the musical core of the group, but the entirety of their acoustic foundation is firmly entrenched.

Liszt’s four-finger style of playing is unusual, but one doesn’t notice an obvious difference when listening. What is curious is their approach to vocals. Rather than utilizing lead with two or three part harmony, a choral group approach more familiar to other contemporary music is the Deadly Gentlemen’s preference.

Lead singer Stash Wuslouch has an affable vocal quality, with fiddler Mike Barnett most frequently joining in on co-leads. The group has a distinctive sound, one that is woody, hollow, and oh so refreshing. The entire group takes responsibility for arranging Liszt’s songs, and one can (perhaps mistakenly) attribute the liveliness of the recording to the members’ playing off each other. Dominick Leslie’s mandolin playing is impressive throughout, and while bass player Sam Grisman recently left the group, his presence on the recording is significant.

Outside their instruments of choice, the Deadly Gentlemen have as much in common with the Beatles, Dan Fogelberg, and Mumford & Sons as they do the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Dailey & Vincent. Their songs are simultaneously dreamy and earthy with a vibe that both trippy and grounded.

Sometimes they are frantic in their approach (“A Faded Star”), while at other times they are subtle and emotive (“Bored of the Raging” and “Beautiful’s Her Body.”) While there are breaks and fills, the instrumental parameters of this group are not as hard and fast as one may associate with standard bluegrass, albeit that there are extreme variation in approach within even the most ‘traditional’ of the music.

Their songs are wordy, sometimes dense and frequently poetic. The Deadly Gents don’t sing of mountain homes, mothers and grandmothers, and ploughs in the field, but they do consider “what might have been” (“I Fall Back”), the passing of time (“It’ll End Too Soon” and “Now Is Not The Time”), and failing relationships (“All The Broken Pieces.”) The subject manner therefore, if not its execution, is complementary to the traditions of acoustic roots music.

This writer’s favorite song is the slightly twisted “Working,” although the atmospheric sound of the title track is what was first noticed. “Working” pretty much sums up the ironic, occasionally pithy, philosophy of the album: it isn’t perfect, but it’s only music.

    Work’s not bad and work’s not hard,
I don’t kill chickens or break rocks in a yard.
Work’s not bad and it’s not that tough,
I’m not breaking my neck or my back or my balls in the rough.

Is this bluegrass? I don’t think so—for me it falls into that appealing world I call acoustiblue. If it is bluegrass, it is out on the farthest branches of the Rowan tree.

Does it matter? When Roll Me, Tumble Me completed its initial play through, I smiled and the first thought that came to mind was, “That was good.”

And, it is.

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“Cross My Heart + Hope to Die ” by D.B. Rielly

D.B. Rielly

Cross My Heart + Hope to Die 

Shut Up & Play

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Where do rock ‘n’ roll and roots meet?

Right here, my friend. The title says is all: Rielly promises to be true, but knows he won’t be. Can’t be.

He couldn’t be a purist if he had to, and in being so completely eclectic, he embraces the heart of Americana—stringband, zydeco, blues, and soul, country, jugband, gospel, and parlor music—a heart that is fired by a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat.

D. B. Rielly is yet another of those under-known purveyors of music embraced by a select, fervent collective of listeners who have somehow tripped across his gems within overwhelmingly crowded streams of social media. To listen to D.B. Rielly and not love him is akin to smelling bacon and not salivating.

I first encountered Rielly three years back when he released the remarkable album Love Potions and Snake Oil. That set was amazing. This one, more so by a factor of Tony Joe White.

Who is D.B. Rielly? Hell if I know—he doesn’t tour northern Canada too often. His website bio reads, in full:
“D.B. Rielly was born in the hearts and minds of lonely widows. He was raised by traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen and fed a strict diet of Cream of Wheat and Gilligan’s Island until, at the age of three, he was sent off to receive his education at the I Don’t Like Your Attitude, Young Man, Academy of Discipline.

Decades later, realizing he’d never be able to snatch the pebble from anyone’s hand, they “graduated” him. D.B. was unprepared for a world full of choices, opportunity, reality TV, and boy bands, so he wandered—clutching tightly to the only memory he had left: the sound of a Hoover Deluxe 700. It’s no surprise that he gravitated toward the accordion—and is shunned by music-lovers everywhere.

So back on the road he goes. You may spot him hitching a ride somewhere, anywhere you’re headed is fine. You may spot him in a deserted diner trying to look up the waitress’ skirt. But one thing is certain: “wherever dogs are howling and little children are holding their ears, you’ll find D.B. Rielly and his squeezebox.”

In other words, I wish he was my dad.

Rielly brings to mind several disparate artists of greater renown, and is none the worse for these comparisons. “Moving Mountains” sounds like something Paul Birch might have recorded a decade ago on his brilliant Last of My Kind, and “Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” is a funky little Louisiana-influenced country tune that reminds me of Dwight. Bobby Charles’ bluesy essence find second life within Rielly’s hopeful “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The female protagonist in the lively “Roadrunner” is the one D. B. won’t let get away; the restraining order is in the mail.
Two solo numbers, “Come Hell or High Water” and “Your Doggin’ Fool,” serve as highlights. With multi-tracking, Rielly weaves guitar, accordion, percussion, and banjo into interesting and dense musical tapestries, revealing his individuality while embracing the music of his roots. Really, there isn’t a down moment within Cross My Heart + Hope to Die‘s all too few 35 minutes.

Bob Seger’s song of 40 (!) years ago, “Turn the Page,” is revitalized by Rielly and his band, maintaining its lonesome vibe while nourishing it with banjo, percussion—via washboard—and especially Hiromasa Suzuki’s guitar. The urgency of this road song is magnified through Reilly’s intensified treatment. It is the albums only non-original.

Like Scott Miller, Mike Plume, Kate Campbell, Antsy McClain and a couple ten thousand others who are devoted to making their kind of music—come hell or high water—D. B. Rielly is a songwriter, singer, and musician of immeasurable quality.

Dang me if I can figure out why Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are on every radio station from there to here and D. B. Rielly ain’t. He’s like Marty Stuart with an accordion. Buddy Miller without friends. Roy Orbison without glasses, and Iris Dement with testosterone.

D. B. Rielly is just plain good.

Listen.

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“We Made it Home” by Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman

Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman
We Made it Home
Maker/Mender Records
5 stars (out of 5)

I’m glad to have encountered this dup for the first time, having been previously, and inexcusably, unaware of not only their award-winning progressive bluegrass band Front Country, but Walker’s debut solo project Gold Rush Goddess (2012).

We Made it Home—so named as the result of the duo’s unwinding at home after months of touring—is aptly intimate, but also open and wide-ranging, like the best conversations. Producer Laurie Lewis gets a warm sound from Walker and Groopman, who trade off on vocals, guitar, and banjo (with some mandolin from Groopman, and, on two cuts, Mike Witcher’s resophonic guitar).

What stood out for me on first listen were “Betelgeuse” and “Black Grace,” both Walker compositions and the type of modern singer-songwriter folk songs that normally send me running. I’d have thought it improbable for someone to write and sing just one song using astronomy as a metaphor for human emotion that I could stand, but here Walker gives me two in a row that might as well be perfect.

In contrast, “O Heartbreaker” is as visceral as it gets, and the best example here of Walker’s rich and sincere voice.

The title track recalls the arrangement of a Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott duet, and Groopman’s vocal delivery both on harmony and lead vocals (“Retinue,” “Sweet Sunny South,” and “Come On Mule”) recalls Scott’s gift for both soulfulness and storytelling, albeit in a more laid-back manner.

Every track here is a nice discovery, especially “Billy the Champ,” which is the most delightfully strange song I’ve heard in a long while. Telling you about it would take the edge off, so just take my advice and have a listen.

All of that, plus a languorous stroll through Peter Rowan’s “Mississippi Moon” and a fantastic cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” make this one my favorite surprise of the year.

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“Love Has Wheels” by the Bankesters

The Bankesters
Love Has Wheels
Compass Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass music listeners know this family band makes good music, most notably from. A release from the song “Looking Forward To Look Back,”a track from their last CD that went to #1 on the Bluegrass Today airplay chart. On their new project, Phil and Dorene Bankester, their three daughters—Alysha (mandolin, fiddle), Melissa (bass( and Emily (fiddle, clawhammer banjo)—and Melissa’s husband, Kyle Triplett (everything but the fiddle) take yet another step forward.

It’s been said that family harmonies are the best and with the daughters providing most of the vocals, nothing you hear on these numbers will put the lie to that statement. Their instrumental work is as strong as their vocals, and, as country music has taught us, commercial success is linked to marketability and having three lovely youngsters out in front of the band boosts their market appeal.

“When I’m Gone” is an old number co-written by A. P. Carter. The Carter Family version has found new life from the Bankesters as “Cups (When I’m Gone)” and the change in title is best explained by the video for the song, which was a centerpiece in the 2012 film, Pitch Perfect (performed by Anna Kendrick in the film). Sierra Hull plays mandolin and contributes vocals (and appears in the video). I was sold at the 2:48 mark – the two young girls doing the cups could as well be my granddaughters.

Another good one is “Love Has Wheels” which includes Josh Williams on guitar and harmony vocals. It rolls along at a fast clip, driven by a solid bass beat. “Rise Up” is a change of pace with the only instrument a bluesy guitar played by Jim Hurst. This is an excellent opportunity to hear just how well they sing harmony.

I don’t hear any Bill Monroe in “I Gotta Have You” but I believe most bluegrass crowds would be okay with it, especially the great bass lines. “Reluctant Daughter” is a different take on a gospel song and features some nice clawhammer banjo. “Love Don’t Give Up On Me” features Rob Ickes on the banjo and ventures into the pop/country genre more than bluegrass. It’s one of several tracks that features Larry Atamanuik (who has appeared with Alison Krauss) on percussion. Traditionalists frown upon drums in bluegrass, but these are not over the top. Personally, I would be happy without them but I’m not in a lather about it.

Alison Brown produced the CD and appears on “Found,” another country-pop influenced song.

This is a group with a bright future. Whether they choose the traditional sounds of bluegrass, range farther out, or work both sides of the road, they make good music and should draw a diverse crowd of fans.

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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.

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“Blue Ruin” by Head for the Hills

Head For The Hills
Blue Ruin
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

As their flyer says, no one can stick this group’s music into a neat genre. It’s been described as “post-bluegrass, progressive string music, modern acoustic noir, and bluegrass bricolage.” I won’t attempt to do better.

They take you on a wild ride of songs that are well played, full of lyrics that you probably need to write down so you can study them to understand them. As they tumble and jumble in your mind you do well to catch the general drift of where they’re going. It isn’t that they can’t be heard, unlike Louie Louie, it’s more like they’ve been swigging coffee and Red Bull™ all day.

The title song switches moods to Simon & Garfunkel after you survive the first two tracks. “Take Me Back” is all about someone who isn’t wild about where they are in life and wants to go back to a different time. “Never Does” has a neat bass intro and is about someone having a problem with love—I think.

I can’t imagine any bluegrass band singing “Light the Way” but it would make a good instrumental. It sports some good banjo and fiddle music in the current rendition. “Breakfast Noir” is a bluesy, jazz infused number that’s an interesting trade of lead lines between the fiddle and the mandolin, some guitar and some kind of woodwind added in here and there. It makes a great instrumental. Another fine instrumental, and one that could be picked up by a bluegrass band, is “Priscilla the Chinchilla,” complete with some very good Dobro work. “Scrap Metal” is much heavier with lyrics that sound very serious and could no doubt be the subject of hours of conversation seeking their true meaning.

I can think of people who will love this music (a potential commonality is they are Dead Heads) and a banjo player I’ve played with many times who would use the disc for target practice. This is one you just have to listen to before you’ll know how it grabs you. I think I’ll keep it handy but let the music tickle my fancy while the words fall out of my head as fast as they come in.

“The Streets of Baltimore” by the Del McCoury Band

Del McCoury Band
The Streets of Baltimore
McCoury Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music’s founders tended to think and record in terms of singles, as the radio era dictated, and when they had ten or twelve sides, they were packaged and sold as a set. Monroe and others did some “concept albums,” as they were called after Sinatra pioneered the concept, and second-generation acts like the Seldom Scene made a handful of great albums qua albums, but, now that the iTunes model seems to have triumphed, a case can be made that the Del McCoury Band has put out a discography of bluegrass albums that will never be bettered.

When Del and sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) in the early 1990s moved to Nashville full-time, brought in fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub (since replaced by the capable Alan Bartram), and signed on with Rounder Records, they started a run of more than a dozen great projects over twenty years using a formula that made them crossover stars and plowed the field for the O Brother phenomenon. The formula was, and remains, simple, straightforward, and accessible: mix bluegrass standards, new songs from Nashville songwriters, and well-chosen covers from other genres, and play them in a hard-edged bluegrass style with virtuoso instrumental flair, then let Del’s incomparable vocal range and power bring it home.

The Streets of Baltimore—so named for the version of Bobby Bare’s 1966 country hit done here in the style that Del and his Dixie Pals probably did it when they played frequently in that city at that time—sticks to that winning formula. It would be worth the price of a full disc just for Del’s transformation of the soft jazz standard “Misty” into a jaunty excuse for him to show off his irrepressible personality through his amazing, swooping tenor voice. Ronnie’s mandolin break shows that he can handle just about any style with an impeccable taste that other pickers often leave behind in a flurry of notes.

The Platters’ doo-wop classic “Only You” is another gem, transformed into an upbeat hop by Rob’s perennially under-heralded banjo and, again, Del’s obvious relish in singing a great song in a whole new way. Verlon Thompson’s “I Need More Time” has Del in a meditative mood, and the arrangement slightly recalls “City of Stone,” which has been a live show-stopper for the band for years.

“Once More With Feeling” introduces some country piano to the proceedings, which isn’t so shocking when you realize it’s Del’s nostalgic take on one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ more emotive country records from the Killer’s Nashville period.

The rest of the 13 tracks, which clock in at a total of 45 minutes, are pretty standard McCoury fare, which in this case amounts to really good but not great. “Blues Rollin’ In,” for example, sounds like an attempt to recapture the vibe of “I Feel the Blues Movin’ In” and a couple of other, better, songs from the back catalogue, which has now reached the point that even the men who made it will have a hard time improving upon it.

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