“Live at the Old Feed Store” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Live at the Old Feed Store
GSM Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ recent release is a live album recorded over two days in 2013 at—where else—“The Old Feed Store,” an intimate venue in southern Illinois. For those of you not familiar with the band, Chris Jones is satellite radio host of Bluegrass Junction, award winning songwriter, and a columnist at Bluegrass Today. The Night Drivers are Ned Luberecki (banjo), also a host of Bluegrass Junction, banjo instructor, and songwriter; Jon Weisberger (bass), the 2012 IBMA Songwriter of the Year, columnist, and IBMA chairman; and Mark Stoffel (mandolin), a professor at Southern Illinois University. It’s hard to think of a group that exceeds this one in terms of instrumental prowess, broad knowledge of bluegrass music and its history, and contributions to the music with their work off the stage.

We’ve all been caught in the situation of watching a live show with disappointment due to a lack passion from the band, no rapport with the audience, or basically not sounding anything like the album. As a musician who regularly plays on stage, I always strive to accomplish an entertaining show for the audience; in the studio, I attempt to create a album that represents a live snapshot of a show. For that reason, I enjoy the experience of a live album—the stage patter, the crowd participation to formulate a feeling of being in the audience, and even the mistakes. There certainly aren’t many of the latter on Live at the Old Feed Store.

Mixed in with the strong original material are a few traditional tunes like “Bound to Ride,” the gospel classic “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which brings back childhood memories, and the classic fiddle tune “Forked Deer,” all of which use their well-known melodies as a jumping-off point for nifty individual expression.

Jones’ take on the classic theme of jealousy and relationships, “Like a Hawk,” and “Then I Close My Eyes” are prime examples of his writing talent, the latter including special guest Emily Bankester on an eerie tenor vocal.

The most entertaining song on the album is “Cabin of Death” written by Nedski as his attempt to write the perfect bluegrass tune that incorporates an upbeat feel, depressing lyrics, and powerful banjo licks.

Being a history teacher and civil war enthusiast, another of my favorite songs on the album is “Battle of the Bands,” (cowritten by Weisberger), which blends fine instrumentation with words that convey the reality of the cruelest war in America’s history.

This 15-track, 48-minute disc gives me the feeling of being in the front row at a great show—I’ll definitely be there in person next time Chris Jones & the Night Drivers come to my neck of the woods.

“Going Down to the River” by Doug Seegers

Doug Seegers
Going Down to the River
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It might be that my memory started playing tricks on me after I got the CD and read about Doug Seegers long journey in the music industry that included busking around Nashville , but I could swear I saw him busking on Broadway boot world a few years ago. I remember thinking that he was just a little too good to be out there doing that.

I’ll leave the biography for other articles, but I can tell you that though Seegers looks like a down-at-the-heels Hank Williams Sr. on the cover of Going Down to the River, he’s more than just a honky-tonker.

He does cover Hank’s “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight,” along with help from former bandmate Buddy Miller, with a herd-edged twang that also serves him well on “Pour Me,” which could have easily been written by Hank himself, but he’s also adept at other country styles. “Gotta Catch that Train” is a bit of Bob Wills mixed with modern-day Americana, and “Hard Working Man” and “Memory Lane” could have been mainstream country hits in the 1960s, though the stark lyrics to the latter are delivered with more real pain than just about anything from that era:

You’re my guardian angel
My addiction from Hell
But only Jesus really knows
All the love that I felt

“Burning a Hole in My Pocket” and “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again” have a bit of a Lyle Lovett feel, both lyrically and, with saxophones added, musically.

All of which is great, but it was the very slightest of letdowns after hearing the first four tracks, which had me held tight on first listen—and every one since.

Along with what’s now my favorite cover of Gram Parson’s “She” (with Emmylou Harris harmonizing with Seegers), “Going Down to the River” and “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” are right in the sweet spot, musically and lyrically, where Seegers just slays you with that lonesome, Johnny Rivers-tinged voice. With just a dash of Nick Lowe, “Angie’s Song” is the most soulfully pitiful song I’ve heard in quite a while, making me hope there’s more like this on Seegers’ next recording.

 

“All Star Duets” by Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time

Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time
All Star Duets
MightyCord Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Wordsmith mogul Larry Cordle has been a heavy hitter with hit songs for decades in Nashville.  The former accountant has contributed to records that have sold more than 55 million copies worldwide since he left his day job to become a full-time musician/songwriter.  His newest release is a “greatest hits” duet album including a dozen A-list country and bluegrass acts who have recorded his work in the past, including Ricky Skaggs (“Highway 40 Blues”), Garth Brooks (“Against the Grain”), Trisha Yearwood (“Lonesome Dove”), Dierks Bentley (“You Can’t Take it With You When You Go”), and Kenny Chesney (“The Fields of Home”).

Unlike a lot of premier Nashville songwriters whose vocal talents make it plain why aren’t out front on stage, the Mighty Cord has been singing in the major leagues with these all stars for quite a while—the tear-jerking throwdown with Terri Clark, “Cure for the Common Heartache.” Cordle’s performances really draw out the personalities of his duet partners, all of whom take full advantage of the opportunity to put their particular spin on these great songs.

The instrumental lineup is also quite stellar—Bryan Sutton, Kristin Scott Benson, Andy Leftwitch, Mike Anglin, Jenee Fleenor, Randy Kohrs, Tim Croutch, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Benson, Chris Davis, and Kim Garner—and the tones and execution of the instruments were superbly captured by Slack Key Studio (Randy Kohrs) and Ben Surratt at Mark Howard’s Signal Path Studio.

Del McCoury (“The Bigger the Fool”) and Travis Tritt (“Rough Around the Edges”) bring the hardcore ‘grass, and Alison Krauss’ reworking of “Two Highways” 25 years after her original version helped make her a teenage superstar is especially satisfying.

“Murder on Music Row,” which is 15 years old now, closes the album with Daryle Singletary and Kevin Denney helping Cordle show that a good country song written for its own sake will always outlast whatever is written to be trendy and marketable.

 

 

“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“Man of Constant Sorrow” by Ralph Stanley & Friends

Ralph Stanley & Friends
Man of Constant Sorrow
Cracker Barrel
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’m not sure how many Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers albums have been named Man of Constant Sorrow, but I own three. Similarly, I don’t know how many projects have been created in the past two-plus decades that pair Stanley with a host of other singers, but I had three—Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1992), Clinch Mountain Country (1998), and Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (2001)—before the latest such set arrived.

I’m not complaining, mind. As long as Dr. Ralph is willing and able, and as long as those who admire his talents come to pay tribute, I will be listening. This new 40-minute set from Cracker Barrel has a great deal to offer.

Co-produced by Americana legends Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale (who, don’t forget, recorded I Feel Like Singing Today (1999) and Lost in the Lonesome Pines (2002) with Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys), Man of Constant Sorrow is a consistent, wonderful album from (almost) start to finish.

The Clinch Mountain Boys accompany Stanley on the vast majority of these familiar numbers, most of which were recorded in the intimacy of Miller’s living room. The guest vocalists and musicians are among the most recognized within the Americana, country, and bluegrass fields and include Josh Turner, Dierks Bentley, Ricky Skaggs, and Lee Ann Womack.

Recording with Stanley for the first time is Del McCoury; a highlight of the set, the two take on Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” As he is always, McCoury is in fine voice taking the lead, and by re-establishing much of the lyrical integrity missing on the version Stanley recorded in 1971, the song is given a mighty performance heightened by Stanley’s tenor.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform in a close vocal trio with Stanley accompanied by bassist Paul Kowert. A song often treated as a throwaway, on “Pig In A Pen” Welch especially appears to bring her ‘give-a-damn’ on this track; listening to her performance, which seems to inspire Stanley, one could easily be convinced that it is a song of major lyrical importance.

Ronnie McCoury and his mandolin make a few appearances including when Miller and Lauderdale assist Stanley on “I’m The Man, Thomas,” another frequently recorded Stanley favorite. Nathan Stanley sings “Rank Stranger” with the Clinch Mountain Boys, while his grandfather takes care of “Man of Constant Sorrow” with his very capable band.

Robert Plant continues to endear himself to the roots community with stunning vocal contributions on “Two Coats,” a song Stanley has recorded a couple times previously. Plant reaches the core of the song, and the arrangement is sparse and no little bit haunting.

The only glitch heard on the album most likely comes down to personal taste. The piece that surely resonates most closely with Stanley is his personal recitation over “Hills of Home,” and—like most similar pieces—it is just a little too precious and contrived for repeated listening.

Man of Constant Sorrow is just the latest in a series of albums, including last year’s disc of duets with Ralph Stanley II and A Mother’s Prayer, that provide no shortage of evidence that Ralph Stanley remains a vital entity in his 87th year.

“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.