“Things Left Undone” by Darren Nicholson

Darren Nicholson
Things Left Undone
Bearded Baby Productions
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Not to be overly philosophical, but I’ve found that reflections on how I’ve lived life increase as the decades roll by. The title song of Darren Nicholson’s new CD is a song I might have listened to but not heard at one time, sung without thinking. Now, I need to find somewhere to put this track so I can hear it on a regular basis.

When a stranger came knockin’, did you let him in?

Was there food on your table for a down and out friend?

Did you hide in the shadows? Did you walk in the sun?

Or do you regret the things left undone?

Good arrangement, good song.

While I’ve heard CDs that I felt had a wart or two, it’s rare to listen to a bluegrass CD that has anything less than superb musicians. This one isn’t pure bluegrass but ‘grass is its base and it meets the test. Nicholson plays mandolin and lead guitar plus doing the lead vocals. His list of accomplishments is long and he’s also a part of Balsam Range. He’s joined by a bevy of guests and Darren Nicholson Band members including Steve Sutton (banjo), Carl Jackson, Tim Surrett, and Aaron Ramsey plus others. How could you expect anything but good music from this lineup?

“Travelin’ Teardrop Blues” is a number about life on the road. It’s not traditional but it’s bluegrass, featuring Kevin Sluder on bass, Griff Martin on guitar and Tony Creasman on wallet box. It tells us about the tension between loving to travel but leaving behind loved ones. “Give Mother My Crown” has been covered many times, going back to its origin with the Bailes Brothers and a few years later by Flatt & Scruggs. Sparse, just a guitar and bass with Nicholson, Eddie Rose and Audie Blaylock doing the vocals. You won’t get much grassier than this, or the “Bluegrass Stomp,” one of Mr. Monroe’s compositions, featuring Steve Thomas on fiddle, and “Sugar Creek Gap,” a blazing instrumental.

They also dip their toes in country. “Way I’ve Always Been” is a Tom T Hall song from his 1997 Home Grown album, though they do it (with Sluder on lead vocals) twice as fast as TTH did. “In A Perfect World,” co-composed by Milan Miller, gets the full country ballad treatment with Jeff Collins playing some Floyd Cramer-tinged piano and David Johnson working overtime with guitar, fiddles, strings and beautiful steel guitar. If you like classic country ballads, this is as pretty as you’ll ever hear. “I’m Not Going There Today,” featuring Rhonda Vincent and Jennifer Nicholson on vocals and Miller on electic guitar, is another excellent classic country number.

Does your taste run to country, like Guy Clark’s “Rain In Durango?” Perhaps you like hot modern bluegrass: listen to “Dancin’ In The Kitchen.” They offer some rock-’grass fusion with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” in a bluegrass conversion. And then there’s the traditional side of their music. This CD isn’t pure bluegrass but it’s pure fun, and that’s what is important.

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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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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin’” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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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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“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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“New Frontier” by Missy Raines and the New Hip

Missy Raines and the New Hip
New Frontier
Compass Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I confess I haven’t followed Missy Raines’ career closely. She’s an acclaimed bass player in bluegrass (seven times an IBMA award-winner on her instrument). She’s recorded and appeared with with acclaimed guitarist Jim Hurst and, for the last handful of years, branched out in a new direction with the New Hip, playing the twin roles of bass player and lead singer.

The New Hip’s first release was 2009 and included numbers like “Stop, Drop and Wiggle” and “Eye of the Liger.” This is a departure from bluegrass and “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are At Home” is probably a rare blip on this band’s horizon. One part of the press releases for New Frontier describes the music as Folk-Americana while another one describes her current music as borrowed from Americana, newgrass, indie rock and acoustic jazz. I imagine most of us feel we know what folk and jazz are, and most probably have a good idea about newgrass. “Indie” and “Americana” are tossed around casually, but what are they? (Keeping in mind that many musical labels, especially “bluegrass,” can be debated endlessly.)

Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band. (http://americanamusic.org/what-americana)

Indie rock is a genre of alternative rock that originated in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1980s. Indie rock is extremely diverse, with sub-genres that include indie pop, jangle pop, C86, and lo-fi, among others. Originally used to describe record labels, the term became associated with the music they produced and was initially used interchangeably with alternative rock. As grunge and punk revival bands in the US, and then Britpop bands in the UK, broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, it came to be used to identify those acts that retained an outsider and underground perspective. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indie_rock)

Clearly, we could track definitions for a long time.

My ears hear some jazz, some rock, maybe some newgrass but that’s chiefly because of the choice of instruments. But, what it’s called isn’t very important. Is it good to listen to?

Raines makes good music. It may not appeal to some people who own every record Jimmy Martin ever put out, but it should draw an audience from fans of other genres. The title number is reflective, a little bluesy, and showcases Raines’ voice, which may surprise some people who never thought of her beyond being a first class bass player. She’s ably backed by Ethan Ballinger on guitars, Josh Fox (percussion) and mandolinist Jarrod Walker, a young man who has been around the bluegrass scene for awhile. On this number she’s joined by Zack Bevill of the Farewell Drifters.

“Nightingale” stays in the reflective mode. This is good music to absorb rather than singing along with. Just let it find your ears and set your mood. She’s joined by Sam Bush on “What’s The Callin’ For” which is a change of pace from the quiet and reflective. This is more rock than anything else and it has an infectious beat.

While it doesn’t destroy the enjoyment for me, if I get out of the “just absorb it” phase and try to understand the lyrics it’s a bit of a struggle. I’m still trying to figure out what “American Crow” is all about other than black feathers by the side of the road. Speaking of crows, “[The] Blackest Crow” is a wall of sound as it kicks off. This is an interesting approach to a song that dates back in some forms at least a hundred years. I don’t dislike this approach but, knowing its history, would like a sparser rendition.

No matter the direction her music takes, Raines is one of the best bass players out there and a pretty good singer to boot. Surrounding herself with these good musicians, her music is serious stuff that’s good for the ears.

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