“Hylo Brown & the Timberliners” by Hylo Brown & the Timberliners

Hylo Brown & the Timberliners
Hylo Brown & the Timberliners
Rural Rhythm Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Frank Brown—dubbed Hylo by a deejay at WPFB in Middletown, Ohio who kept forgetting the first name of the singer with a wide vocal range—died in Mechanicsburg, Ohio a little more than a decade ago. It’s a short drive from there to Dayton where thousands of Brown’s fellow Kentuckians came looking for work after the war. They’d gather at the beer joints to hear songs of the place they’d left behind, giving the new musical form enough economic backing to flourish.

Brown joined the most commercially succesful bluegrass band of the music’s first generation—Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys—for the first time in 1957, and recorded his first album with his own band, the Timberliners, on Capitol the next year. From what I can tell, it looks like he rejoined Lester & Earl and continued to cut records as a solo artist or with the Timberliners when he had the time.

This disc is a reissue of a 1967 release for Rural Rhythm, the first of seven albums he cut for the label that’s putting out lots of great bluegrass these days.

Backed by Jack Casey (guitar), Ross Branham (banjo), John Maultbray (fiddle), and Danny Milhon (Dobro), Brown strolls through twenty songs—all of which bluegrass and country audiences would have considered standards back then—in just forty-three minutes. (A few of these are familiar instrumentals. Also, there’s a bass and a mandolin in the mix, but no credits in the notes.)

Though the band’s sound and style is similar to Flatt & Scruggs, the purpose here was clearly to let Brown charm the listener with that friendly, inviting voice, which remains full and rich whether its down close to the baritone lead or up in tenor territory. There are a handful of instrumentals here, but they’re even shorter than the vocal tracks.

“Little Bunch of Roses” and “Sweet Fern” are two fine examples of what Brown could do, as is his take on the Hank Williams tearjerker “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” As a bargain disc, this one’s a good pickup if you want to discover a great voice from the bluegrass past.


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“Dancin’ Annie” by Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie

Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie    
Dancin’ Annie
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

So many albums from notable bluegrass pickers these days feature the headliner with an assortment of other similarly famous pickers, and the results are usually satisfying—but that they are satisfying in the same way gets old after a while.

It’s refreshing to see banjo legend Bill Emerson (Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron) sticking to the tried and true approach of leading an actual band and trusting them to do great work in the studio.

Sweet Dixie is filled out by Teri Chism (bass), Wayne Lanham (mandolin), and Chris Stifel (guitar), all of whom play and sing with the effortless precision that we have long enjoyed from Emerson’s banjo. They split the vocal leads just about evenly, and their harmony singing and instrumental breaks are done in service of the song. Like I said: an actual band.

Stifel penned and sings a smooth lead on the bouncy title track, while the rest of this 12-track 39-minute CD features songs from other writers. The three on which Chism sings lead are particularly nice fits for her voice and this band: the hard-driving—both lyrically and sonically—”Two Hands on the Wheel,” Liz Meyer’s “The Only Wind that Blows,” and a simple, sweet version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

The three gospel numbers manage to be fresh and meaningful, rather than trite or preachy, and the two instrumentals—Emerson’s own “State Line Ride” and Lanham’s “Whistle Stop”—make this one a fun listen in the car.

The two best tracks here are “Days When You Were Mine” and “This Heart You Have Broken,” which isn’t surprising when you see that they’re both previously unrecorded songs from the songwriting team of Pete Goble and the late Leroy Drumm.

This approach to album-making has its roots in the 1970s, but Emerson and Sweet Dixie prove it still works.


“Healed” by Locust Ridge

Locust Ridge
Rural Rhythm Christian

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Listening to “Restoring The Love,” composed by Russell Allen and Steve Gulley, you start listening closely because the lead singer (either Russell or brother Larry Allen) sounds like and phrases the lyrics much like Gulley, the distinguished singer who discovered the group, produced and co-engineered the CD. From their web page it appears they are making appearances. The band is composed of brothers Russell (lead vocals, guitar), Josh (tenor, mandolin), Larry (baritone and lead, bass) Allen and their friend Andy Blalock (banjo, guitar). This CD is a bit unusual in the bluegrass genre as there is no banjo on any of the numbers. They are joined here by Gulley (guitar, harmony), Justin Moses (mandolin, resophonic guitar, fiddle, guitar), Mike Riddle (harmony) [The Primitive Quartet,] with the vocals on “Nails” provided by Dale Ann Bradley, Gulley, Larry Riddle, Greg Bullock and Archie Watkins as primary lead.

“Restoring the Love” is a song about Jesus touching people and restoring the love in their lives, from a man and his step-daughters to another man on the verge of suicide. “Nails,” a number on my short list to sing at my church, identifies each of us, sinners that we are, as the nails that held Jesus on the cross.

No one is identified as a bass singer, but if that’s a baritone line on “Silver and Gold” it’s a low one. This is a song with good drive and a moderate tempo, underlining their excellent harmonies. A switch of pace is a song I enjoy singing, “What Heaven Means To Me.” It starts with the first few bars recorded in a small country church somewhere, reminiscent of the Belmont Church of Christ I attended as a kid. That fades and then the group starts singing. This is a good way to introduce the song, a not-often used technique that provides a change of pace. Another public domain number is “Oh I Want To See Him,” a good Southern Gospel number.

Their music tracks closely with Southern Gospel, differing little except the instruments (you’d hear a piano with SG instead of a mandolin). “Canaan’s Land Is Just In Sight” is a great old song and they do a great version of it. The only thing missing is someone singing George Younce’s great bass line. “Looking Down In The Valley” is a story of a man wandering in the desert until he’s touched by Jesus’ hand:

Looking down in the valley I just came through

I can see I wasn’t all alone, for my Lord was there, too

And what I thought would kill me has just made me strong

He was there along

That’s easy to see

Looking down in the valley

That’s a powerful message for anyone who has lived through desperation.

This is a group with a powerful voice and a powerful message. Whether you’re a fan of bluegrass, country or Southern Gospel, if you like gospel music, you’ll enjoy listening to Locust Ridge.


“Ten” by Nu-Blu

Rural Rhythm Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Professional and amateur artists need to make choices about their music: do I play (and record) what I like? what fits a genre mold? what the fans like, what the fans will buy? If you’re blessed, all these come together. The hardest to measure may be fitting into a genre. I suppose rap is rap (if you agree that it’s music), but the argument over “what is bluegrass anyway?” never goes away on the bluegrass listserv. Country? Don’t get me started down that road.

Sticking with bluegrass, because Nu-Blu claims bluegrass roots in their press release (“… a unique sound which combines their love for bluegrass music and respect for its traditional roots …”), many people stop trying to define it and stick with “I know it when I hear it.” I’ll go with that, and my radar allows two or three degrees of variance from Mr. Monroe and the other pioneers who were there at the beginning. (The last band I was in had an Eagles number in the show and I liked it in a bluegrass setting.) Listening to Ten, I don’t much hear bluegrass.

I’ve generally liked Nu-Blu (Nights and Nail By Nail) but this CD doesn’t do much for me. It celebrates their ten years in the business and has ten new songs. The core band members are still there, Carolyn and Daniel Routh (bass and guitar, lead vocals), banjo player Levi Austin and mandolinist Austin Koerner, and they are joined by two of the best musicians in bluegrass, James Van Cleve and Ron Stewart on fiddle (Stewart plays on seven of the cuts). Good musicians all but mostly underused here.

Continuing their own description of their music, “… [it has] an edgy feel that gives their music a fresh energy and spirit.” Maybe so, but it mostly sounds like hot new country with a banjo to me. “Eddie’s Garage,” like several of the cuts, has a nice storyline but the melody is repetitive and it just doesn’t sound like bluegrass, edgy or not.

Took the pumps out in the eighties

Brews the coffee every morning

Lowers the flag down with the sunset

Still hand-writes all the orders

I just can’t hear Lester Flatt or Joe Mullins in those lyrics. It’s the same with “All Americans.”

There’s a strip mall around the corner, these signs in every window

Fear in almost all my neighbors’ eyes

There’s a disconnect between them, politicians and the people

And we know half the time they’re gonna lie

I agree with the story, but the story doesn’t make a good bluegrass song. It might make a good HNC song but don’t have the Boxcars on your mind when you buy Ten. And, again, the melody doesn’t grab me, the only instrumental break is a few bars of mandolin. They need to be making videos for CMT. Perhaps that’s where they’re headed; that’s a more lucrative corner of the world than bluegrass but HNC is the reason I don’t listen to FM radio and I’ve heard that sentiment from a good number of people.

There are cuts that I like. Going back to Flatt and Mullins, I can’t imagine Flatt singing a sentimental, heart-tugging song like “Without a Kiss,” but Mullins and the Radio Ramblers (considering them as a measure of good, 21st century bluegrass) could do this song. Nu-Blu, anchored by Carolyn Routh’s lead vocals sells this story about a miner who dies in the mine, whose wife knows that

Someday, I’ll find you in forever

‘Cause death is not as strong as love like this

I know that if you could, with your new wings

you’d fly back home from heaven

‘Cause you never said goodbye without a kiss

If you have just a few ounces of romance in your soul you’ll be touched by this song. “That Road,” with it’s banjo and fiddle kick off, is a good modern (no mountains, moonshine or mama) bluegrass song and “Giant Squid” is strangely named but a good instrumental. “Shadows of the Night” has a nice melody but a HNC feel, not bluegrass.

They are talented and they can make good music, but this is a mixed effort and I hope it’s not the direction bluegrass is going.

Nu-Blu Ten

“Gypsy Runaway Train” by the Roys

The Roys
Gypsy Runaway Train
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

You won’t notice it unless you like to read the fine print on CD inserts, but this is a bifurcated CD. It’s not unusual to see a variety of studio musicians on a track-by-track listing, but it appears they were on one track with this train when recording the songs they penned, then switched tracks for the cover songs, recording as a band (Elaine Roy on guitar and Lee Roy on mandolin).

All the musicians do an excellent job, with the studio crew including players like Andy Leftwich, Mark Fain, Randy Kohrs and Cody Kilby. The reason for this unusual split is their original intent to release two extended play CDs (i.e., half a CD) a few months apart. Rural Rhythm decided they preferred a full CD so the two parts were melded together.

This mixture of old and new should appeal to many fans. While some songs are flogged endlessly (like the “Orange Blossom Special”), fans at shows and festivals appreciate the older songs and a set of nothing but new material can be confusing, leaving no space to put down roots as listeners. Part of this may be that many new songs don’t have the traditional sounds bluegrassers love. “Half of Me” (composed and sung by Elaine Roy) is a beautiful number, but leaning more towards ’70s country than Monroe-style bluegrass. The title song is a description of life on the road as a musician and it’s not hard to imagine this fitting the repertoire of classic bluegrass bands.

If you’re looking for music from the roots of bluegrass, they do their version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” including the now common slow intro with a segue to a fast tempo. It seems everyone does it that way now, but it would be interesting to hear an arrangement closer to Monroe’s original version. Another old one is “He Took Your Place,” a gospel number from Flatt & Scruggs. Matthew Downing, their former banjo player, has a great melodic passage on this one.

They reach to the country side for a Merle Haggard hit, “Ramblin’ Fever,” kicked off by current fiddle player, Clint White. Lee Roy plays mandolin on the traditional tracks and he’s a capable player. “You Can Count On My Love” is an original composition with a traditional sound and a strong drive, while “Another Minute” is more heartfelt, written as a tribute to their grandfather. It expresses a sentiment that many of us have felt about a love one lost: “What I wouldn’t give to be by his side … Lord, what I wouldn’t give for just another minute with him.”

They do a nice duet on Johnny Bond’s “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” but, while they sing “Born With A Hammer In My Hand” (Blue Highway) well, they don’t sell the song to me. Part of the problem is that’s just not a song that needs a woman’s touch, but Lee Roy just doesn’t have enough growl in his voice for that song. On the other hand, they do a great job on Adam Steffey’s “What Gives You The Right” and “Those Memories of You.” The latter was first recorded by Bill and James Monroe and later by Pam Tillis, but is known by many from the Trio’s (Dolly Parton/Lina Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris) recording.

If you’re a fan of Country’s Family Reunion then you may have seen the Roys there, but they don’t get enough mic time to show their strength as bluegrass singers. Their CDs and stage show showcase them better and, after you hear this CD, you’ll understand why their star is on the rise.


“The Back Forty” by Marty Raybon & Full Circle

Marty Raybon & Full Circle
The Back Forty
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Many people in front of a microphone just sing. Marty Raybon emotes. There’s something about his voice that tugs your emotions the way he wants them to go, happy or sad. He started in bluegrass then made it big in country leading the band Shenandoah before coming back to bluegrass. I was suspect of his initial return—as many in the bluegrass community were of the wave of country stars who all of a sudden discovered their inner Jimmy Martin—especially since many of the songs on that CD were remakes of Shenandoah hits, but he’s stayed committed to bluegrass, not just looking for a place to peddle some CDs because country radio has frozen him out.

His personal appearances are just as good as his CDs. He avoids useless chatter and sings his heart out for the crowd. I recently saw him perform several of the songs off this CD. One goes back a few decades for a giant hit for Webb Pierce; “Slowly (I’m Falling)” is a classic love song and Raybon speeds up his version (in comparison to Pierce’s), giving it a happy feel more than heartfelt emotion. For emotion plus gospel you need to hear “Look For Me (For I Will Be There Too)” composed by Rusty Goodman.

After you’ve been there ten thousand years, a million, maybe two

Look for me for I will be there, too

If you tie belief in heaven with love here today, those words will touch your heart.

Raybon also shows us he can write. Numbers that he co-wrote include “That Janie Baker,” a fast-moving number with drive—the bluegrass combination everyone strives for—and “Mountain Love,” another lively song that kicks off with a banjo-fiddle melody. “A Little More Sawdust On The Floor” is a call for us to take some time out of our busy lives to enjoy life while we can, while he goes down the road of having messed up his life and now about to pay the cost in “The Big Burnsville Jail.”

He reaches out to country music again for a 1977 number one song from Charley Pride, “She’s Just An Old Love Turned Memory.” Another song from the past is “The Late Night Cry of the Whippoorwill,” released in the ’80s by the Virginia Squires, a group that included Sammy Shelor and Mark Newton. Songs of loneliness and lost love are perfect for Raybon’s expressive voice. Still another country broken heart song is “Hurt Me All The Time,” a 1998 song from Joe Diffie.

This is another solid performance from Raybon, a mixture of country-turned-bluegrass, songs that are fun and songs that touch the heart. As Raybon begins his fortieth year as an entertainer, he shows he is getting stronger as time goes by.


“God Didn’t Choose Sides: Civil War True Stories about Real People, Volume 1″ by Various Artists

God Didn’t Choose Sides: Civil War True Stories about Real People, Volume 1
Various Artists
Rural Rhythm Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The Civil War, or, as it’s more properly called, the War Between the States, has been the subject of several great bluegrass songs—”Legend of the Rebel Solider” by the Country Gentlemen, “Last Day at Gettysburg” by Larry Sparks, and “He Walked All the Way Home” by Blue Highway” come to mind—and this 13-track, 45-minute effort from Rural Rhythm Records adds to the list in a refreshing way.

On God Didn’t Choose Sides, executive producer Sam Passamano II employs a strong lineup of singers, musicians, and songwriters to create a dozen original songs (the album-closing hymn “There is a Fountain,” which gets a gentle, yet majestic reading from the Gap Creek Quartet, is the exception) about actual people who played a part, willingly or not, in a truly horrific war.

Paula Breedlove, Mark Brinkman, and Mike Evans, working in different combinations, share most of the writing credits, with Brad Davis, Ray Edwards, Terry Foust, Steve Gulley, and Tim Stafford also pitching in.

The product is some fine original tunes that offer neither the shallow cant that lionizes the politically motivated Lincoln and the butchers he employed as generals, nor romantic notions of the South, which was controlled by slaveholding oligarchs—the one percenters of the South, if you will—who allowed their blessed homeland to be attacked because they put their private interests ahead of it.

One of the best vocals on the disc, unsurprisingly, comes from Dale Ann Bradley on “Christmas in Savannah,” a tale of a group of Union soldiers from “General Sherman’s line” who brought yuletide provisions with mules dressed as reindeer to the residents of the besieged town. It’s a nice story that shows that even in the worst circumstances people find ways to be kind, but there’s no mention of the fact that Savannah was the lone city that General Sherman, one of America’s most shameful war criminals, didn’t put to the torch on his sadistic march across a defenseless south at the behest of Lincoln and Grant.

I know pointing out things like that aren’t the point of this project, but a little true contrast now and then between the actions of politicians and generals on one hand and ordinary folk on the other can only enhance the esteem we have for the latter.

There are a couple of songs that do that to some degree by pointing out the inhumane treatment of prisoners on both sides—the brooding “Providence Spring” from Tim Stafford and the deceptively soothing ghost story “The Lady in Gray” from Ronnie Bowman.

There are also stories of individuals doing the best to act bravely and honorably in situations where such actions seldom come to a good end: “I’m Almost Home” from Steve Gulley whose delivery embodies the snuffed-out joy of a soldier who leads one last charge only to die on the front steps of the home he had left to go fighting, Russell Moore bringing his sentimental tenor to “A Picture of Three Children” clutched in the hand of a dead solider, the Lonesome River Band performing “The Legend of Jennie Wade” in which three friends try to communicate over hundreds of miles to no avail, and Bradley Walker’s voice singing of one man’s “Last Day at Vicksburg” with stentorian richness.

We meet some other great characters too: the feisty “Old John Burns” from Ricky Wasson & Dwight McCall who turn in one of the ‘grassier cuts included here, Carrie Hassler’s melancholy “Carrie’s Graveyard Book” about a woman who honored the dead to an extent far beyond anyone could have asked her to do, and Dave Adkins’ soulful story of “The River Man” who risked his life repeatedly to help slaves cross the Ohio River.

My favorite track from this fine collection is “Rebel Hart,” from Brad Gulley, son of Steve Gulley and lead singer for Cumberland River. The upbeat track about a 16-year-old Virginia girl who used her feminine wiles and incredible courage to inflict improbable injury after injury on those who had invaded her country cries out for a movie version.

Before “There is a Fountain” closes things out, elder statesman Marty Raybon offers the title track with his characteristic humility, reminding us that the God of the Bible who was worshiped by those victimized could never  have ordained an unnecessary war fought for political reasons that killed as many as 750,000 people. One wishes that a nation that had survived such an ordeal would have learned its most obvious lesson.