“Cody Shuler” by Cody Shuler

Cody Shuler
Cody Shuler
Rural Rhythm Records
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Cody Shuler is a well-known name on today’s bluegrass circuit. He’s been the leader of Pine Mountain Railroad since 2006 and is a good mandolin player, songwriter, and singer. This is his first solo album. (Editor’s note: The Pine Mountain Railroad URL now re-directs to Cody Shuler’s site, which, on July 11, did not load any content—make of that what you will.)

For this 12-track project, Shuler employs a list of excellent bluegrass musicians including Tim Crouch (fiddles) and Rob Ickes (Dobro). Ron Stewart, Terry Baucom, Brent Lamons and Scott Vestal trade banjo duties while Eli Johnston plays guitar and Matt Flake plays bass. (Shuler also has Scott Linton playing percussion on several tracks, and I remain puzzled as to why so many CDs also include some sort of percussion. It isn’t intrusive here, and I’m not such a purist that I’m offended by the idea, but I just don’t hear the value added.)

Shuler composed all the songs and they are mostly good. “Bryson Station” is a hot instrumental while “Three Rivers Rambler” has more of a swing beat that could be a good dance tune. He’s got two new good gospel numbers as well: “The Day Love Was Nailed To a Tree,” a description of Jesus’ last days, and “Sea of Galilee,” which retells the story of Jesus and the storm.

Shuler’s singing voice seems to be reaching for his note in a few places on this project, while reaching the bottom of his range in others. He’s also doubling himself on harmony on all but one track. Another harmony singer or two would have made a big difference—like on “The One That I Love Is Gone,” which benefits from harmony singer Jerry Cole.

“My Home Is On This Ole Boxcar” is a great number and “The Beautiful Hills” is a good loved-her-and-killed-her song.

On the down side for me, “Goodbye, My Love, Goodbye” seems merely like an exercise in rhyming.

Goodbye, my love, goodbye

I’m asking please don’t cry

Wipe the teardrops from your eye

So long until next time

I’m coming back someday

When I cannot say

Another place, another time

Goodbye, my love, goodbye

That doesn’t do anything for me. “Love Me, Too” has some good lines but some awkward ones, too.

Whether it’s with a revived Pine Mountain Railroad, or in another setting with regular collaborators of his caliber, expect Shuler’s next project to more accurately reflect his talents.

“Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle” by Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle

Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle
Rural Rhythm Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley has been around the block a time or two. A veteran of Renfro Valley, he hit the national scene with Doyle Lawson, was a founding member of both Mountain Heart and Grasstowne, and spent some time with Dale Ann Bradley. He is a great tenor and lead singer and could have been a country music star back when they still played country music on the radio. It’s always a crowd-pleaser when he does a number like “The Grand Tour” and I’m looking forward to seeing him at Bean Blossom on June 18.

This new venture is a combination of country and bluegrass. Banjo player Matthew Cruby wrote “Mattie’s Run,” a fast moving instrumental also featuring Gary Robinson, Jr. (mandolin), guest Tim Crouch (fiddle), Bryan Turner (bass), and Gulley (guitar). As expected, they all pick like they were born with instruments in hand. Phil Leadbetter guests on Dobro and Mark Laws adds percussion on some of the tracks. If you like country music, you have to hear this version of Hank Cochran’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.” “It’s a Long, Long Way To the Top of the World” is a well known number done by Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers. The latter is the more soulful version and Gulley adds a big dose of soul with this version, sounding more country than bluegrass. “Every Time You Leave” is a Louvin Brothers song. Gulley’s version, with Amanda Smith, is reminiscent of the Emmylou Harris duet with Don Everly from her Blue Kentucky Girl CD. This is excellent music.

Gulley had a hand in writing several of the bluegrass numbers. “Leaving Crazy Town” is a hard-driving number while “She’s a Taker” is slower but still with good drive and shows off the band’s good harmony singing. Both were written with Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford. “You’re Gone” (written with Adam Haynes) has more of a country feel though played as bluegrass with a banjo/mandolin break. Winning the award for catchy hooks is another Gulley/Stafford song, “That Ground’s Too Hard To Plow” with the song’s title as advice about a heartbreaking woman.

“Not Fade Away” makes a good bluegrass number even though it was written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty and is a well-traveled rock number, performed by the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, to name just two more groups. It’s not always the song that makes the music bluegrass. Gulley also wrote the CD’s gospel number, “You Can’t Take Jesus Away.”

Gulley’s talent and style coupled with top quality musicians makes this a CD lovers of bluegrass and country will want to hear.

“Lessons Learned” by Ronnie Reno

Ronnie Reno
Lessons Learned
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ronnie Reno is a seasoned professional who makes good bluegrass music—and he makes it his way.

Being the son of a legend doesn’t guarantee success, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Reno is the host of Reno’s Old Time Country Music on RFD-TV and often shows clips of his father, Don Reno, with a young Ronnie playing mandolin in dad’s band. From that start, he’s carved a path through music that includes five years with the Osborne Brothers, nine years with Merle Haggard, then seventeen years with his family (father Don Reno for two years until his passing, the entire time with brothers Dale and Don Wayne Reno). He continues on today with his band, the Reno Tradition, and is seen at many festivals and shows throughout the year.

My father loved country music but never thought much of bluegrass, especially the banjo. When I finally started playing bluegrass with some friends here in southern Indiana, I doubted I could do much singing because my image of bluegrass centered on Bill Monroe. While I love Monroe’s music, I was pleased to learn there are a variety of singing styles in bluegrass. Reno’s style is laid-back, relaxed—with neither the high tenor of Bobby Osborne nor the modern approach of someone like Dan Tyminski. You feel like it’s a warm, summer afternoon on the back porch with you and Reno sitting in cane back chairs and sipping lemonade.

This new CD is billed as a solo effort, though members of Reno Tradition are in the mix, including Mike Scott (banjo) and John Maberry (mandolin). It gets a little confusing after that. Robin Smith plays bass on one track and is shown as Reno Tradition’s bass player on the group’s web page, while Heath Van Winkle appears on an old version of the page and plays bass on the other tracks. Jackie Miller has been Reno’s fiddler for several years and also plays mandolin. He plays mandolin on one track while Steve Day, who has been seen playing fiddle on the TV show lately, is the fiddle player. They are joined by Marty Stuart’s drummer, Harry Stinson.

All but two tracks were composed by Reno. The title number is an easygoing song about the lessons learned through the years of life—a vantage point shared by those of us who have been around a few decades. “Trail of Sorrow” is a fine Don Reno song featuring Van Winkle singing tenor and Sonya Isaacs singing high harmony, while “I Think of You” is a love ballad Reno wrote with his wife on his mind. Turning the other direction is “Bad News at Home,” a story about those times a man messes up and knows what’s in the cards when he gets home. It features a lively tempo and a 6-2-5-1 chord progression for a different pace. “Lower Than Lonesome” is another uptempo song about the downside of love.

An extra treat that sorta, kinda breaks out of the easygoing love or loneliness pattern is Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late” with guest David Frizzell sharing the lead.

Ronnie Reno is to bluegrass what Red Skelton was to comedy: talented, easy-going, and always enjoyable.

“The Legendary J. E. Mainer” by J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cut-Ups


J. E. Mainer with Red Smiley & the Blue Grass Cutups

The Legendary J. E. Mainer
Rural Rhythm Records

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Mainer was 70 years old by the time he made this album, released in 1968. He had been on the national music scene for more than four decades and was a well-known personality, playing “gospel, bluegrass, comedy, love ballads, wild mountain fiddle breakdowns and traditional folk and country blues.” Mainer and Smiley were both North Carolina natives. Mainer died June 12, 1972, just six months before Smiley passed.

The pairing of Mainer and Smiley was likely one of convenience and marketing aptitude. Though some gave Mainer’s music a bluegrass label, what you’ll hear is more old-time or roots music. It’s not likely to be of interest to people only interested in the music of bluegrass, but those who want to know the history of the music will be drawn to it. Bluegrass wasn’t invented from some vacuum by Bill Monroe; it was a refinement of music that was played for more than a hundred years in the mountains and frontier settlements. Looking down the list of cuts you won’t find many that are played on the bluegrass stages today. “Arkansas Traveler” is familiar as a fiddle tune, but Mainer does it as a comedy routine, as it was done in vaudeville. It was also the Arkansas state song (with lyrics written by a committee) at one time. “Shady Grove” has been recorded over 100 times by such diverse artists as Patty Loveless, Hot Rize, Taj Mahal and, of course, Doc Watson. Mainer’s version is a good listen, featuring a juice harp —something you don’t hear on a recording every day. Mainer does “Home Sweet Home” with a harmonica and many of us will remember “Shortnin’ Bread,” though you may not know it was composed by James Whitcomb Riley.

This CD, while a studio recording, is more like the recording of a live show. Songs may start with a dialogue between Mainer and someone in the band, like Gene Burris on “Shortnin’ Bread.” The cuts aren’t arrangements, there’s no intricate interweaving of parts. The music starts, showcases Mainer, and it ends. The quality of the music is generally good, though some of the fiddle playing (probably Mainer rather than Tater Tate) gives an understanding of “sawing” on the strings. The enjoyment of music is in the ear of the beholder (consider the very basic sound of the Tennessee Two) and people enjoyed the comedy as much as the music. Other groups employed these simple, vaudevillian comedy routines (Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers’ “Model T” routine) though you don’t see them much today.

Several of the numbers are borrowed from other performers who, in turn, adapted them from old songs. “Devilish Mary” was a favorite of the Skillet Lickers and “Papa’s Billy Goat” is associated with Fiddlin’ John Carson. One reason why this CD is important is you’re not going to find many modern recordings of these links to the past, songs like “I Had An Old Grey Mare,” “Old Blind Horse” or “Eleven Cents Cotton.”

If you’re interested in old-time music, in music history, or searching for hidden gems to arrange to your liking, this CD should be in your collection.

“Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two” by Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups

Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups
Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“Bluegrass” is indefinable because it’s a notion in your mind. Some will insist it must be something Bill Monroe would have played. Others prefer the Old Crow Medicine Show or newgrass pioneers like Sam Bush (who does a fine job on traditional numbers, too). Some will say it must have a banjo to be bluegrass, or it needs that “high, lonesome” sound. It can’t have drums, some say, while others scoff amplified instruments. Most of us take a middle-of-the-road approach and simply say, “I know it when I hear it,” which, of course, does nothing to quell the arguments.

In general, though, the core music is comprised of some combination of banjo, flattop guitar (preferably a Martin), mandolin, fiddle (violins are for highbrow music), resophonic guitar and upright bass. A common compromise is the bass because of its bulk. Bands substitute an acoustic flattop bass, a “stick” bass or a “Fender” bass. Mr. Monroe once had an accordion, though that’s as rare as hen’s teeth. Variations of core instruments may include a viola (in the case of Nancy Blake, a cello) or a mandola (IIIrd Tyme Out’s Wayne Benson) and sometimes a snare drum, steel guitar or piano.

It’s the music more than the songs that make it bluegrass. As we look at the songs included in these two CDs, songs that are cross-genre will be noted but I believe few will argue their inclusion in bluegrass. Harmony singing, sometimes two part, sometimes three part and, more rarely, four part, is very important and the harmony on these tracks is beautiful.

Bill Monroe is heralded as the father of bluegrass and Jimmy Martin declared himself to be king of bluegrass, but there is a sizable list of people who were there in the early years and helped shape the music. Arthur “Red” Smiley appeared on the scene at the age of twenty-one. In 1949 he joined Don Reno, fresh from a stint as a Blue Grass Boy, in the Tennessee Buddies of Tommy Magness then Reno & Smiley went on their own in 1951. They were a popular pairing and you can still see parts of their TV shows on Ronnie Reno’s show on RFD-TV (featuring a very young Ronnie Reno on mandolin and Mac Magaha – later Porter Wagoner’s fiddle player). Reno & Smiley made great music but disagreement over their touring schedule lead to a split in late 1964.

Smiley and his band, the Blue Grass Cut-Ups, made three recordings for Rural Rhythm before his TV show was cancelled in 1968. Smiley briefly retired, then joined Reno and Bill Harrell in 1970. Red Smiley died January, 2, 1972 at the age of 47.

These two separately released Red Smiley CDs (how could you buy just one?) have a slew of titles most fans will recognize. “Summertime Is Past and Gone,” a Monroe number, features excellent bluegrass harmony. “Roll On Buddy” has been recorded by countless bands through the years. Billy Edwards has a hot hand on the banjo on the recordings. Tater Tate is playing fiddle and tears into a short (1:09) “Big Sandy.” and a hot “Black Eyed Susan.” “Wreck of the Old No. 9″ isn’t as widely played as “Wreck of the Old 97″ but is still recognized by older fans. “Take This Hammer” is associated by many with the folk music movement but was made popular long before that by Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter. “900 Miles” is another old song that is often associated with it’s Folk renditions. “Darling Corey” was made popular by the Monroe Brothers but it’s origin dates well before then and no one knows for sure where it came from.

Volume One’s gospel numbers are still popular today. “Working On A Building” and “Somebody Touched Me” are heard most often but “Something Got Hold of Me” is still heard in bluegrass circles. “Tupelo County Jail” may be most familiar to many as a Webb Pierce or Mel Tillis recording. (Coincidentally, there is an insight into the music business connected to this song. The video linked above includes an introduction to the song by Webb Pierce. He attributes the song to Mel Tillis. On another site you’ll see the song attributed to Tillis and Pierce and the image of the 45 r.p.m. record clearly shows both names. It’s likely Pierce followed a fairly common practice of recording the song only if he got partial writer’s credit.)

Other musicians on these recordings include John Palmer playing bass and Gene Burris/Burrows playing mandolin (which you hear little of) and guitar. Smiley plays guitar, also.

“In The Pines” has crossed genres several times and is heard on a regular basis at bluegrass shows today. “Silver Bells,” a number I’ve heard on guitar, is played here with a banjo-fiddle lead. The last time I heard “Little Birdie” was a couple of years ago on Dr. Ralph Stanley’s show. “Oh! Monah” has an interesting pedigree as a pop song being played in bluegrass. Listening to the intro to Ted Weem’s version, you have to wonder how this could ever translate to bluegrass. The lyrics give a clue but still it’s evidence of the importance of the music making the bluegrass.

“Shady Grove” has been around about forever. Smiley’s version is played at breakneck speed and my preference is Doc Watson’s version. This is one of those songs that has countless versions floating around. “Fallen Leaf,” on the other hand, was a new one for me. A 1952 recording from the John Quincy World Folklore Collection is another example of a genre-jumping number rearranged for bluegrass.

Take a break, let your ears rest, then drop in Volume Two.

The Cut-Ups included several gospel numbers that you’ll hear over and over at bluegrass shows. “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “Take Me In the Lifeboat,” “I’ll Be No Stranger There,” (and you’ll hear some mandolin on this one) and “A Beautiful Life” are all familiar songs. Some may remember “The Pale Horse and His Rider,” a song co-written by Walter Bailes and recorded by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Williams also recorded “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” a popular song a few decades ago. Listen to the melody and you’ll be reminded of another popular song. “The Man of Galilee” is less known, at least today. “Living the Right Life Now” was recorded around 1961 by Molly O’Day with more of an old-time sound.

Another popular theme in bluegrass is death, sometimes with violence. The death of a child is recorded with “Budded On Earth To Bloom In Heaven.” For all you eclectic music collectors, this is the version recorded by Martha Carson, not Freaky Chakra’s version. Jimmie Davis co-wrote a song Bill Monroe recorded and is remembered by fans, “Plant Some Flowers By My Grave.” This is another example of very good lead singing by Smiley along with good harmony from Tate and Burris/Burrows. These CDs have value for the fan who has been around some years, good singing and good picking, but should not be disregarded by newer fans of bluegrass. Smiley wasn’t breaking new ground with these recordings but they were a part of marking the trail for traditional bluegrass.

It’s a rare festival that doesn’t feature at least one rendition of “Katy Hill.” “Banks of the Ohio,” a popular murder ballad has been recorded by such diverse talents as Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Olivia Newton-John and a host of others, while Willie kills Molly in “Little Glass of Wine.” None of them have anything on Smiley’s version. “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail,” “It’s Raining Here This Morning” and “Prisoner’s Dream” all touch on another familar theme, jail time.

“Little Darling Pal of Man,” a Carter Family number, is presented here as an instrumental and, for this pair of CDs, the rare track that should probably have been left off. It features a couple of bass breaks played enthusiastically but with questionable intonation. After the break it seems like the band hasn’t figured out what to do with the banjo jumping in while the rest must be having a cup of coffee for a measure or so. Oh, well, they weren’t perfect. “Prosperity Special,” a 1:02 quickie is a better number that traces back to Bob Wills. Rounding out the CD are “Baby Girl” and the lament “Ain’t Nobondy Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”

Red Smiley was a first-generation pioneer in bluegrass, coming on the scene a handful of years after Bill Monroe. It would be a shame if he disappears from the collective bluegrass psyche as the years march by and older fans are no longer here to jostle our memories. Taken one by one this collection doesn’t offer the very best of his work—the cuts are too abbreviated, there’s too much of a feeling that Uncle Jim O’Neal was looking for songs to memorialize rather than putting together an instrument for Smiley and his band. But Smiley did a good job with what he was given and this is a rare opportunity to buy a collection of his music. If you love traditional bluegrass you should be listening to these CDs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Bluegrass Kinda Christmas” by the Roys

The Roys
Bluegrass Kinda Christmas
Rural Rhythm Records
3½ stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

The Christmas album, as a concept, is perceived distinctly differently than a normal musical recording. We expect a bit more fun on such recordings, especially in the acoustic music world. The Roys’ Bluegrass Kinda Christmas is that—well-produced and charming, with a down-home country delivery.

The smooth, strong sibling harmony from Lee and Elaine is the main attraction here, especially on Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” and the Buck Owens/Don Rich “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy,” along with perennial favorites like Tex Logan’s “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’,”  Adolph Adam’s “O Holy Night,” and a playful romp through “Winter Wonderland.”

The picking here is as good as the singing, with the Roys’ road band—Clint White (fiddle), Daniel Patrick (banjo and Dobro), and Erik Alvar (bass)—meshing with Lee’s mandolin and Elaine’s guitar in the cohesive way only musicians who have played a great deal together can achieve.

Josh Swift, Doyle Lawson’s Dobro player, guests on Keith Whitley’s country Christmas standard “There’s a New Kid in Town,”  which features a moving lead vocal from Lee, who plays a bright-toned mandola on this cut, as well as the smooth intro to “Santa Train.”

The title track is an upbeat original—with some nice Scruggs-style from Patrick—that lots of other bluegrass bands won’t be able to resist recording over the next several years. Bluegrass Kinda Christmas is the kind of holiday album that will delight true bluegrassers and the casual music fan alike.

“Family, Friends & Fellowship” by Steve Gulley

Steve Gulley
Family, Friends & Fellowship
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley is at home with a bluegrass, country, or gospel song. A favorite spot in his bluegrass performances is when he steps up to the mic to sing George Jones. Gulley typically sings in the lead register, between baritone and tenor but can hit the tenor part when he needs to. If you had to pin his voice to a genre, it’s more country than bluegrass but bluegrass isn’t totally about that high, lonesome sound. He’s a veteran performer, from his young days in Renfro Valley to time with Doyle Lawson and helping found two very popular groups, Mountain Heart and Grasstowne. Now he’s released his first gospel CD.

Family, Friends & Fellowship has elements of country as well as bluegrass, easily slipping from one to the other. “The Man I Ought To Be” is classic country music. Fiddles, steel guitar, bass—it will stop a country music lover in his or her tracks just to savor that kickoff. The message is a good one, too, talking about the struggles of living a Christian life. One of its great lines is “I never felt so tall as when I fell down on my knees.” His wife, Debbie, sings harmony and she doesn’t take a back seat to anyone with her singing ability. Gulley co-wrote this song and wrote “Scars In His Hands,” a number he recorded with Mountain Heart, one of their best songs. On this cut he’s joined by Kenny and Amanda Smith plus Jason Burleson playing mandolin and Brandon Godman, who plays fiddle on several tracks.

“What Would You Have Me Do” is a story about the dark times of life that Gulley wrote, hoping its message might help someone along life’s way. Some of the CDs multi-track supporting artists are Phil Leadbetter (resophonic guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle), Stewart’s bandmate Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Tim Stafford (guitar). On the country numbers you’ll hear Les Butler paying piano and Terry Crisp on steel with Mark Laws providing percussion on most tracks. These are some of the best musicians in bluegrass and country. Bringing together such a diverse group likely means at least some of them recorded their tracks remotely, but that had no effect on the quality of the end product.

Another family-affair song is “God’s Not Dead,” with Gulley’s parents Linda (lead) and Don (baritone) joining Steve and Vic Graves (bass vocals). Gary Robinson, Jr. and Bryan Turner (both members of Gulley’s new band, New Pinnacle), Stuart Wyrick and Scott Powers contribute, too. Graves also sings lead on an 1893 hymn that’s one of my favorites, “I Must Tell Jesus.” Gulley turns to his old boss and friend Doyle Lawson to help on “Pray For Me” and a nice arrangement of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” Lawson sings baritone while Don Gulley sings lead. Don Gulley is a veteran radio announcer and performer and is clearly in his element on this CD.

Carl Story co-wrote “Light At The River” and one of my favorite singers, Ricky Wasson, shares the lead duties on this good old song. A great partnership lasted a few good years when Paul Williams played in Jimmy Martin’s band. One product of their relationship was “Stormy Waters.” Harking back to their days together in Renfro Valley, Gulley sings this one with Dale Ann Bradley. He reaches into southern Gospel to give us a G. T. Speer song, “I Never Shall Forget the Day,” along with Joe Mullins, a singer who ranks high in my list of favorites. Debbie Gulley sings harmony then takes her turn on lead with a touching number that leads to some soul searching, “Could You Walk a Mile.” This is a number we should all listen to carefully. Another song from southern gospel that will touch your soul comes from Ronald Hinson, “That I Could Still Go Free,” featuring Debbie Gulley and Mark Wheeler on harmony. What a great song this one is.

The CD closes with a song that probably all of us know, “Jesus Loves Me,” featuring grandson Mack on the intro and Alan Bibey on mandolin.

This is Gulley’s first gospel CD. After you hear it you’ll be hoping it’s not his last.