“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.

“The Music of the Stanley Brothers” by Gary B. Reid

Gary B. Reid
The Music of the Stanley Brothers
University of Illinois Press (2015)

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

At Bean Blossom you sit on a gentle upslope from the stage. To your right is the entry road that goes down to the tail of the pond and the back of the stage before going back up to the Hippie Hill section of camping. The regulars all know when Dr. Ralph Stanley arrives or leaves, his long, white tour bus sliding along, all within hidden behind its windows. Soon after he arrives, someone will erect his pop-up shelter where he holds court to sign autographs and say hello to his fans. It wasn’t always like this.

When Carter Stanley was alive it was the Stanley Brothers show. Still today, a half century after Carter Stanley’s death, there are many songs sung on stage and around campfires that bear the Stanley Brothers name. Travel during the twenty years the brothers were active was by car or station wagon. The pace was often hectic, the financial rewards meager. Band members came and went frequently, as is still the case with many bluegrass bands. Bluegrass music, generally speaking, isn’t a lucrative endeavor unless you’re a breakout star, and many professional bluegrass musicians have another job to make ends meet. The Stanley Brothers stayed the course, putting their names into the bluegrass history books.

Remember when the brothers were doing that Rich-R-Tone session (#480700) back in 1948? When Art Wooten joined them? You don’t remember that?

Truth is, there are probably no more than a pickup-load of people who can remember all the band members through the years, let alone anything about the recording sessions or what was recorded when. But Gary B. Reid knows. In 1976 he sent a letter to Neil Rosenberg, a name known to many bluegrassers and author of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (1974), that started, “For the past several years I have been trying to compile a combination biography/discography on the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.” Reid was nineteen and it would be another thirty-nine years before that book was published. That is dedication. He did other things along the way, including starting Copper Creek Records.

The book covers the two decades the brothers were a professional act. Both served during World War II. Carter was discharged in February 1946 and joined up with Roy Sykes for a while. Ralph’s discharge was in October 1946 and by November they were making appearances along with mandolinist Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert and fiddler Bobby Sumner. Their last full concert was at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom facility. Carter died December 1, 1966, the victim of alcoholism.

This book is rich with information about their professional lives from one recording session to the next, where they were working and who was in the band. The data on the recording sessions is extensive. A typical entry is:

501103 Columbia session; producers: Art Satherly and Don LawCastle Studio, Tulane Hotel, 206 8th Ave., Nashville, TennesseeNovember 3, 1950

Carter Stanley: g|Ralph Stanley: b|Pee Wee Lamber: m

Lester Woodie: f|Ernie Newton: sb

4311 The Lonesome River (Carter Stanley)C. Stanley-L, R. Stanley-T, PW Lambert-HB 20816 HL-7291,HS-11177,ROU-SS-10,BCD-15564,CK-53798,B0007883-02

Neither the uncertainty surrounding song titles or the “borrowing” of songs are a focus of the book, but both are mentioned many times in these pages and this provides an interesting insight into the music business. Sometimes it’s using the same (or very similar) melody with more than one set of lyrics.

“The first song is ‘A Life of Sorrow.’ Carter and Ralph Stanley wrote it with an assist from George Shuffler. The melody is strikingly similar to a tune the Stanley Brothers had recorded earlier on Columbia, ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and is a good example of how the Stanleys recycled old tunes to create ‘new’ material.” [p. 32, Columbia #4 (Session 520411)]

and

“… used it as an opportunity to recycle the melody to one of their earlier recordings, ‘Little Glass of Wine.’ Known by a number of titles, ‘Tragic Love’ is most commonly called ‘Silver Dagger.'”

There are other examples of songs known by a variety of titles, as well as songs with disputed ownership, songs sold by their composer then the buyer taking songwriting credits, and the practice of claiming credit before agreeing to record the song.

While information about their travels is provided as part of their story, it also becomes a story of its own. Their nomadic lifestyle wasn’t (and isn’t) unusual in the bluegrass world, nor for most other musicians. You have to wonder how families survived and that’s one place the book will leave you wanting. Other than a few mentions of Ralph Stanleys ex-wife, Peggy, and the tidbit that Carter Stanley wrote “Baby Girl” in honor of his year-old daughter, Doris, you won’t get a peek into their family life. There is no mention of how Carter’s bouts with the bottle affected their music. Given the amount of information contained in the book, it’s easy to believe Reid might have another book in him to let us better know Ralph and Carter Stanley as people.

This is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the Stanley Brothers years (but understand it stops with Carter Stanley’s death). I found it an interesting read with my only caution that you may find yourself getting bogged down trying to follow and remember all the histories of people and changes in the band. Don’t get lost in the detail, just keep the book handy when you need to look up something.

 

“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Honky Tonk Land” by James Carothers

James Carothers
Honky Tonk Land
self-released

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Have you heard of Junior Brown? James Carothers? You’ll probably answer yes to Brown and “Who?” to Carothers. You need to change that.

Like Brown, Carothers’ take on country music is just off-center enough to make it really interesting.

These new country singers

They all sing about drinkin’

How it makes ’em have fun

But it got me to thinkin’

Something was missing, to me it was puzzling

It only gets better from there in “New Country Singers.” Carothers wrote the songs (except for one track composed by his father, Jim), does the singing and plays guitar. He’s backed by a group of very good session musicians including Eddie Bayers (drums), J. T. Corenflos (guitar), Scotty Sanders (steel guitar) and Gordon Mote, well known for his appearances with Bill Gaither and other gospel groups, on piano, as well as several other musicians.

While this is unapologetic honky-tonk music—loud, driving, often irreverent and sharp-witted—Carothers shows a softer side with “Where Did We Come From,” a song of memories of a kind of childhood that seems to have faded away.

Now the family and farm and pastures gone

But we got our SUVs

And we eat from a chain’s trough

And buy stuff made overseas

Well things ain’t quite what they used to be

I grew up in the country. I can’t argue with that.

He even includes a mystery song. Love, jealousy and…

35 years ago she was a looker and quite the magnolia prize

Had every feller ‘tween Yazoo and Tupelo

Talkin ’bout her big brown eyes

You ain’t ever felt another daughter of the delta

That’ll make you do anything

And it’s been a lot of years since she went and disappeared

Underneath the Mississippi clay

(tag)

There’s a tin roof and some broke down cars

Covered in kudzu vine

Have you ever driven through rural Mississippi? This captures the feel of the countryside, sets the scene. Do I like his lyrics? You bet I do. The only downside is there are only seven tracks.

His drawling voice and his lyrics are not champagne music, but they don’t serve much of that in honky-tonks. If you like the music of Brown, Jennings, Haggard, Cash and a long list of like singers, you need to find a copy of this CD and spend some quality time with a dose of country.

“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“Ghosts in the Field” by Shantell Ogden

Shantell Ogden
Ghosts in the Field
Hip Farm Chic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Good singer-songwriters have it rough in the country market these days. If you’re too good, then your material won’t get much attention from programmers or from more popular acts looking for material to record. If you dumb down your lyrics and use the same chords melodies, chords, and arrangements that those popular acts are beating to death, then why bother?

On her seven-song Ghosts in the Field, Shantell Ogden offers up a nice range of first-rate songs with a bright sound that will stand out in anyone’s current country or Americana playlist. While “Just a Little” captures the fleeting excitement of falling in love, and “Who Comes First” charts love turning to disillusionment, “Be My Rain” is about the hope of trying to avoid either extreme, written with a maturity that had me thinking of Jackson Browne.

Both the title track and “Blossom in the Dust” richly evoke the real, deep connection with the rural past and small town life that many of us share, putting to shame the big Nashville labels who’ve created the current trend of hicksploitation to convert that nostalgia into cash before the whole mess goes under.

Shantell Ogden is an artist making music the right way.

 

“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.