“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.

“Trouble Follows Me” by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
Trouble Follows Me
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Growing up on a farm in Eastern Kentucky in the 1980s, my dad had this old 1977 Ford Series 2600 tractor.  This tractor was the workhorse of its era—nothing fancy, just a three-cylinder diesel-powered engine humming along at 38 horsepower. This tractor was steady and true; it seemed to know what you wanted it to do. When first listening to the Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice album Trouble Follows Me, I kept imagining that old blue tractor plugging along through the fields, steady and true. Just like the tractor, Sisk is in his niche here doing what he does best—singing traditional bluegrass music.

Eastwood Studios did a great job of getting the true tones of each instrument, including Sisk’s smooth, rich voice, which blends well with the harmony vocals of Johnathon Dillon (mandolin) and Jason “Sweet Tater” Tomlin (upright bass). This nostalgic blend gives the listener the feel of traditional bluegrass but adds just enough intuitive licks to keep you on your toes. This album also features tunes from some of my favorite songwriters: Bill Castle, Ronnie Bowman, Michael Martin Murphy, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Dallas Frazier—and one track by the legendary Carter Stanley. I love when bands tip their hats to the vintage tones of our grassfathers who shared the same vision for rooted traditional music.

The album starts with the nice hook of Bill Castle’s “Honky Tonked to Death,” fun tale of one being mixed up in the shenanigans of traveling musicians, followed by “Don’t Think About it Too Long,” which recalls the Bluegrass Album Band sound with some nice banjo picking by Jason Davis. After these two mid-tempo songs, Ramblers Choice shifts to a higher gear with “I’d Rather Be Lonesome.” As Billy Hawks’ fiddle saws, I’m tapping my toes with the fast paced three chords and the truth.

Dallas Frazier’s song “All I Have To Offer You is Me” was once popularized by the great country singer Charlie Pride, and Sisk has plenty of room in its slow tempo to work in the strong emotion that he’s known for creating, and he puts chills down my spine when he hits the lyric “and the silence grows louder” in the evocative melody of “Cold Empty Bottle” from songwriters Ronnie Bowman and Bryce Barker.

The bare-bones “Walk Slow,” written by Tom T. and Dixie Hall, has nice lead guitar from Hawks, and has more of a singer-songwriter texture than the rest of this album; another change of pace is Tomlin singing a smooth lead on the Michael Martin Murphy song “What am I Doing Hanging Round

Sisk’s credentials as a Stanley disciple are strongly evident, both with “Our Darling’s Gone,” a lesser-known Carter Stanley composition, and “Jesus Walked Upon the Water” an a cappella gospel song with the type of arrangement Ralph Stanley helped popularize in bluegrass circles.

“Frost on the Bluegrass” offers a fresh take on the central bluegrass theme of longing for home after leaving for work, and is one of my favorite tracks on the album, as is the title track, a hard-driving co-write from Sisk and his father, Harry Sisk Sr.

I might like to hear a more diverse mix of songs, particularity tempo-wise (which can be difficult as traditional bluegrass seems to favor a lot of mid-tempo songs around the 120bpm range), but make no mistake: any fan of traditional bluegrass will appreciate the quality of musicianship, songwriting, and singing that Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice deliver here.

“Brownsboro” by the Misty Mountain String Band

The Misty Mountain String Band
Brownsboro

No label
3 stars (out of 5)

By John H. Duncan

Louisville’s Misty Mountain String Band sounds like many new wave string bands you may have heard—but, they do it better than most. Their sophomore release Brownsboro is full of genuinely good picking and singing, and is firmly tied to this decade.

A Kickstarted project with pop sensibilities, it’s clearly influenced by the Infamous Stringdusters, and the String Cheese Incident, Mumford and Sons (the banjo, when included, is played in either a Pete Seeger style or clawhammer style; however, it is not too prominent).

A lot of crowdfunded music projects have produced very slick presentations with all the trappings of a good band that were formerly provided by record companies—high resolution pictures, videos, t-shirts and web sites—but the music sometimes doesn’t cut it. But the 10-song, 40-minute Brownsboro overall is breezy, melodic, and well-played.

Brian Vickers (guitar), Neal Green (fiddle), Paul Martin (mandolin and banjo), and Derek Harris (bass) have created songs on this album that showcase melody focused picking (eight of the 10 tracks are originals) and their pop-flavored harmony singing is pretty refreshing. “Caged Bird” grabs a nice gypsy jazz feeling, and “Ship in a Bottle” is a perfect example of their influences outside of Americana, with Green’s fiddle and Martin’s mandolin closing the song with a brief but lovely baroque outro.

The two strictly instrumental tracks on the album are mid-tempo and sans banjo: the slightly Celtic title track and the haunting, lonesome “Turin’s Lament,” which evokes Bill Monroe’s “Dead March” and features a slow flat picked intro by  Vickers with a bowed bass counter point by Harris.

The truly standout track is “Everlasting Arms,” beautifully arranged and sung in a powerfully subtle way with fine fiddling from Green.

“Steam Powered Aero Plane,” the album’s other familiar track, doesn’t come off as well, as both the picking and singing sound tentative compared to the legendary original from a legendary band, but that’s merely a quibble about a nice disc from a band with real potential.

 

“The Way I’m Livin'” by Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lee Ann Womack had an extended reign as one of the most prominent country music entertainers of the late ’90s through to the late-aughts. But country music record companies are fickle these days, so Womack returned this autumn with her first album of new material in six years on Sugar Hill.

The Way I’m Livin’ is pure country with all the duality such entails. The difference this time out is that the songs come from a selection of the finest Americana writers of recent decades.

Some songs are sad and sentimental (“Send It On Down,” from Chris Knight and David Leone), while others find her dancing with the devil (the album’s wonderful—but largely ignored by country radio—lead single from Adam Wright, “The Way I’m Livin’.”) Julie Miller’s “Listen To The Wind” provides depth, and allows Womack to cut loose vocally while playing off the band, notably electric guitarist Duke Levine. Also among those contributing songs are Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, Brennan Leigh, and Bruce Robison, with two.

Folks like Mac McAnally (guitar, piano), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Hank Singer (fiddle, mandolin) and Glenn Worf (bass) create a throwback country sound that is clearly appealing.

Throughout this expansive album, Womack is in exceptional voice. Too mature to confuse histrionics for passion, to these ears Womack has never sounded better, more comfortable, or assured. “Nightwind” is a showcase for Womack’s singing, with gentle backing allowing her to carry the emotional weight of the song. “Same Kind of Different” sounds familiar, in a light and positive way, from first listen. Roger Miller’s performance of “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore” just missed the Top 10 in 1971; here, Womack flips the perspective and in doing so softens the off-putting tale of a sad man obsessed with a dancer.

“Out On The Weekend” is yet another chance for Womack to shine as she enlivens and freshens Neil Young’s classic song. Instrumentally, the performance is fuller than Young’s, and Womack’s voice is so much warmer; swapping the gender of the teller allows Womack to inhabit the song, delivering intensified vulnerability.

Within an industry where Nashville is reality, there should be room for an artist of Lee Ann Womack’s quality and intensity on the charts and radio. It appears, however, that Womack is going to have to continue creating her own path well outside the commercial country mainstream, much like folks such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris did before her.

It has worked out pretty well for them; no reason it shouldn’t for the multiple Country Music Association Award-winning Womack.

 

“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.

“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
Masterworks
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.

“I Can’t Wait” by Fayssoux

Fayssoux
I Can’t Wait
Red Beet Records
4½ Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Rather than complain about the lack of ‘country’ within current country music offerings, how about we do some work and go looking for music that will satisfy our desires?

One might certainly start with the likes of Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Kasey Musgraves, and Holly Williams. Lee Ann Womack’s latest would be another fine place to visit. Craig Moreau and Doug Seegers recently released albums that would decidedly fall within most folks’ definition of country, and don’t forget Chuck Mead, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell: call ‘em Americana if you like, but that’s country, too.

Which brings us to Fayssoux McLean, someone that many have heard but many more will not recognize. Back in the last century, Fayssoux Starling received vocal credit on early Emmylou Harris albums, ones that should be on most of our shelves: Pieces of the Sky, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and Blue Kentucky Girl. While she counts Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the aforementioned Crowell as admirers, Fayssoux (her albums are credited to her first name only) has released only a single album previously (2008’s Early,) one of the first to earn the Red Beet imprint.

I Can’t Wait is a pretty exquisite country music album. Again, call it Americana if it makes you feel better, but with its emphasis on instrumental support, vocal clarity, songs of quality, and clean production, this reminds me of the finest country music I’ve heard. I am well aware most country music isn’t acoustic (as this album is), and I’m also well aware that not all country music sounds like this, and thank goodness for that because we don’t need twenty identical albums released every month.

Fayssoux has a vocal approach that is assured, but measured; she isn’t out-belting the karaoke Patsy Clines and Miranda Lamberts. She sings with just enough passion and spirit to allow the song room to breathe. She sings, “You may rise, you may fall, that’s the way it rolls…it’s hell on the poor boy,” within RB Morris’ dark song (“Hell On A Poor Boy”), and you wonder how others have left this song unrecorded. Given a female voice, another layer of desperation is revealed within “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” likely the most recorded song on the album, and there is no reason “When the Thought of You Catches Up With Me” shouldn’t be on every country playlist this autumn…well, beyond the obvious quality it represents.

Fayssoux contributes five originals to the set, each of which can unabashedly stand with the songs from Lauderdale, Kieran Kane (and Sean Locke and Claudia Scott), and Mose Allison not already referenced. The swinging “Ragged Old Heart” recalls a long-gone time (and has some beautiful fiddling from Justin Moses to boot,) while her co-write with album co-producer Peter Cooper, “Golightly Creek,” captures an entirely different mood within its reflections and remembrances.

A pair of songs Fayssoux co-wrote with Cooper and the album’s other co-producer Thomm Jutz are the shining jewels within an album of gems. “Running Out of Lies” (“I’m running into trouble ’cause I’m running out of lies”) is worthy of Harlan Howard, and the Civil War-themed “The Last Night of the War” softly conceals its intensity within its bouncy bluegrass-infused trappings.

With core instrumentation provided by Fayssoux (acoustic guitar), Jutz (more acoustic guitar), Brandon Turner (even more acoustic guitar), as well as Sierra Hull (mandolin, natch), Moses, and Mark Fain (bass), the album benefits from acute vision. Cooper and Donna Ulisse provide vocal harmony, as do Jutz and Turner, again lending to the cohesive qualities of the album’s production. The addition of the splendid “I Made A Friend of a Flower Today,” recycled from the Red Beet Tom T. Hall set of a couple years back, does nothing to upset this balance.
Do you like gentle country music? Appreciate superior lead and harmony vocals within country music? Crave the clean lines of acoustic music and the clarity fine songwriting affords a listener? I Can’t Wait, out last month, should provide the satisfaction such descriptions suggest.