“Powerlines” by Mustered Courage

Mustered Courage
Powerlines
Travianna Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

This CD is a mixture of some good bluegrass that segues into a combination of what you might call indie-newgrass-roots. It’s full of good instrumental work with all the instruments found in a traditional bluegrass band, and a little harmonica thrown in.

“Standing By Your Side” makes a good bluegrass number. I don’t hear the Stanley Brothers in it but Nothin’ Fancy might do it. “Cruel Alibis” starts off with some minor chords, slow, bluesy, then kicks into high gear with good breaks by the instrumentalists. “Old Steam Train” has a strong drive, a story about love gone bad. If you want a good, hard driving instrumental, “Allegheny” will fill the bill and it does an excellent job of showcasing the skill of the pickers on this CD.

The band is made up of people most of the bluegrass world won’t recognize. One factor in the lack of name recognition is they hail from Melbourne, Australia, where they are described as “the link between Bill Monroe and Mumford & Sons.” They are stars in the Austrlian folk and roots scene. The band includes Julian Abrahams (guitar, vocals), Paddy Montgomery (mandolin), Texas native Nick Keeling (banjo, lead vocals) and Joshua Bridges (bass and vocals). CD guests include Kasey Chambers (vocals), Yen Nguyen (bass vocals), Kat Mear (fiddle), Peter Fidler (Dobro) and Christi Hodgkins (harmonica). Lack of name recognition has nothing to do with ability and these folks can pick the strings off their instruments.

Nothing shows off singing skill like an a cappella number and they nail it with “Towin’ the Chain.” “Go To Hell” goes off into the indie field (doubt you’d ever hear this at a typical bluegrass concert), an unhappy lover who is telling his mate where to go. “Behind the Bullet” is close to Grateful Dead rock and you’ll have to work a bit to figure out the lyrics, while “My Hometown” is softer while still sounding like a close cousin to a rock song.

If I was booking bands for a show and snagged Old Crow Medicine Show, Mustered Courage would make a good addition to the show. If I had Doyle Lawson, not so much. If you’re into roots and indie with a touch of bluegrass, this is your ticket.

“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!

“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.

“Wood, Wire & Words” by Norman Blake

Norman Blake
Wood, Wire & Words
Plectrafone Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Norman Blake has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing at key points when American acoustic country and folk music has connected to mainstream culture—his guitar work has been part of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969), The Johnny Cash Show on ABC (1969-1971), John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain (1971), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand (2007), and the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Cold Mountain (2003), Walk the Line (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

But unlike Woody Allen’s protean protagonist, Blake was significant to all of those projects because his nature doesn’t change—he’s the deep root to the past that gets stronger with time, a trait that has made him (probably) more widely heard—but not as well-known—as fellow guitar giants Doc Watson and Tony Rice, whose work prods tradition forward with force and ingenuity.

Blake’s specialty, as the news release accompanying this 12-track, 54-minute album notes, is “turn of the century ragtime guitar picking,” a style of music that formed when music made by the middle class in their parlors and ex-slaves in their fields trysted in brothels and saloons before giving birth to the blues and jazz.

An unaccompanied Blake takes us back to that era as we hear his fingers glide over the steel strings of his 1928 Martin 00-45 guitar* to produce the clear, bell-like tones of “Savannah Rag,” the gently bumping bass line of “Blake’s Rag,” the warm and shady “Chattanooga Rag,” and the stately precision of “Cloverdale Plantation March.”

Though they sound like tunes that could have been adapted from the catalog of Scott Joplin, these four compositions are Blake originals, as are all the other songs on the album—something I wasn’t aware of until looking at the liner notes after listening to the whole disc a few times.

The only internal clue that Wood, Wire & Words contains contemporary material at all is “Grady Forester’s Store and Cotton Gin,” Blake’s tribute to his boyhood home of Sulphur Springs—when gas was 19 cents a gallon and stamps were three cents—which begins:

Now the evening sun is sinking down in Georgia
‘Cross the gravel roads, the red clay and the pines
That old whippoorwill
He’s callin’ from the hill
Of some long-forgotten time

“Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace,” “Black Bart,” “The Keeper of the Government Light on the River,” “The Incident at Condra’s Switch,” and “Farewell Francisco Madero” are all splendid folk songs full of detail and drama, and written by Blake from true-life events. Listening to him tell these tales in his laconic singing style is as enjoyable as it would be to hear Bret Harte or Mark Twain read one of their stories aloud in front of a warm fireplace on a cold night.

The only other contributor here is, happily, Nancy Blake, Norman’s wife and duet partner on the Grammy-nominated albums (for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year) Blind Dog (1988), Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To (1992), While Passing Along This Way (1994), and The Hobo’s Last Ride (1996). The duo harmonize on the co-written “There’s a One Way Road to Glory,” a gospel message calling us toward freedom and away from war that is reminiscent of—and, sadly, as likely to go unheeded—as “Down By the Riverside.”

Blake’s brilliance at effortlessly making new music that sounds and feels as if it could be a hundred years old is what makes Wood, Wire & Words as enduring as anything else from the deep well of American music that Blake has been drawing from all along.

*Blake plays this guitar on all tracks, excepting “The New Dawning Day” and “”Farewell Francisco Madero,” on which he plays a 2004 Martin 000-28B Norman Blake Signature Edition guitar.