“Della Mae” by Della Mae

Della Mae
Della Mae
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I’ve been playing this album regularly for the past few months, but couldn’t figure out what to write about it considering the number of quality reviews that have been published. But, once more unto the breach…it is my vocation, after all. Della Mae is the quintet’s third album, and features the four core members of the group with guest bassist Mark Schatz pinch hitting.

Vocal dynamo Celia Woodsmith continues to front the group and contributes some guitar, with the leads played by Courtney Hartman who also plays the banjo. Kimber Ludiker is the very expressive fiddler and Jenni Gardner handles the mandolin, certainly one of the group’s strongest assets. The album was recorded prior to Zoe Guigueno joining the group on upright bass.

I can’t locate my copy of the group’s previous Rounder album This World Oft Can Be, so I don’t have much to go by except my memory—which is fragile at the best of times. But I recall that album having a more apparent bluegrass foundation than does Della Mae. I do have their debut album I Built This Heart on hand, and the group’s sound has certainly changed over the course of time.

Gone are most obvious elements of bluegrass, a noticeable evolution. Nowhere in the press sheet for the album, or in Ed Helms’ liner notes, is the word ‘bluegrass’ mentioned. They remain, however, a powerhouse outfit, pouring out a loud ‘n’ proud blend of soulful Americana. If the group is happy they are to be applauded for following their muse wherever it takes them.

Much attention has gone to the lead track, “Boston Town,” and Woodsmith’s working-woman’s anthem is certainly worthy of notice; like the finest songs of Maria Dunn, Hazel Dickens, and John McCutcheon, the labour-positive message is wrapped in optimum musical cloth. “Rude Awakening” is an incredible song, and Woodsmith’s voice can’t be contained, although it is completely controlled. Woodsmith and Hartman are the group songwriters, and wrote either together or individually eight of the album’s eleven songs.

Della Mae’s opening trio of songs is as strong a burst as I’ve experienced this year. “Can’t Go Back” rounds out this powerful initial salvo, a song with interesting changes and impressive lyrics.

Hartman takes the lead on “Long Shadow,” a song she co-wrote with Sarah Siskind, a personal favourite. Hartman has a terrific voice, robust with a shade of mystery, and the song is a bit dark in its exploration of creative processes and (maybe?) mental health. Gardner also takes a solitary, rambunctious lead (“Good Blood”) bringing additional diversity to the Della Mae vocal sound.

In addition to “Good Blood,” there are two other (and more familiar) songs covered. “To Ohio,” recognizable perhaps to roots types via Emmylou Harris’s inclusion of the Low Anthem song as a ‘bonus track’ to the deluxe version of Hard Bargain.

Equally impressive is the group’s interpretation of the (too) often recorded “No Expectations.” Although I am sure the world didn’t need yet another roots version of the song, Della Mae’s is darned enjoyable with great slide effects from (I presume) Hartman.

Della Mae is a hard-hitting album for folks who have been hit hard. And from my experience, that is most of us.

“When I’m Free” by Hot Rize

Hot Rize
When I’m Free
Ten In Hand Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Hot Rize is a deservedly iconic band, beloved for their take on bluegrass music, their rambling discourses during a show, and for their alternate egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. I saw them last year and it was 50 percent talk, 50 percent music. But, a CD is all music and they waited almost twenty-five years to do another studio album. It’s done well, in the top ten on the chart and three songs in the top 20 at one time. (The August 7 chart (Bluegrass Today) shows only “Clary Mae” still there, making a rapid fall from #2 to #19 in two weeks. The Roots Music Report, on the other hand, shows the CD at #6, down from #1 last week.)

“Clary Mae” is a good bluegrass number, rolling along supported by Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick’s renowned banjo playing. Wernick founded the group in the 1970s with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and the late Charles Sawtelle. They have a lot of life left for a group that stopped touring in 1990, making only a few appearances until reformong as a band after all these years, Sawtelle’s spot being filled by Bryan Sutton. It does seem that they are back on the road again, making something of a comeback which has complicated things for O’Brien. He was a part of the Earls of Leicester and is having to mostly step away from that group to commit more time to Hot Rize. I suppose there are worse dilemmas.

“Doggone” is on the rockabilly side with good harmony singing, a rocking medium tempo song. “Blue is Fallin'” is a song about some hard times and features a nice guitar break by Sutton. “Western Skies” is all about wanting to get back to western skies and features Wernick’s banjo in the driver’s seat. Like the individual members of the group, whose careers have prospered through the years but not always in the bluegrass genre, these songs are on the fringe around the core bluegrass sound of Monroe, but are greatly enjoyed by bluegrass fans.

They show their gospel side with “I Am The Road,” a song with the drive of a bulldozer—neither hot nor fast, it’s  a relentless force telling a message of faith. It isn’t told in the usual words of God and faith, but the message is there.

I am the road, I am the way

Many walk down and many will stray

Straight and narrow, far and wide

You won’t be lonesome while side by side

The track that’s named like a gospel number, “Glory in The Meeting House,” is actually an instrumental, Irish-sounding jig, light-hearted with an old-time feel. “Sky Rider” is another instrumental, featuring syncopated banjo by Wernick. Sutton is always there supporting the band with his excellent guitar playing—especially on several breaks in “You Were On My Mind This Morning.” He made his first big splash in bluegrass as a member of Kentucky Thunder and went on to become famous as a session player and touring with artists like Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Following Charles Sawtelle’s death in 1999, the band re-grouped in 2002 and invited Sutton into the fold.

“A Cowboy’s Life” is not very grassy except for the banjo, but a great story song and a nice change of pace. Another on-the-bluegrass-fringe cit is “I Never Met a One Like You,” on which one of the group’s career-spanning signature traits— Nick Forster’s clean, understated bass guitar—can be appreciated.

“Run Away Tonight” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Run Away Tonight
Mountain Home Music Company

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are earning a reputation as one of the top bands in bluegrass. Their music reflects strong ties to traditional bluegrass and they rely heavily on the band members’ talents as songwriters. Three of the four-man band regularly appear on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Bunction (Jones, Weisberger and Luberecki).

Chris Jones plays guitar and does the lead singing. His distinctive voice is pitched lower than standard for bluegrass music, and is more a balladeer than his peers. It’s an easy voice to listen to and doesn’t take the adjustment needed by fringe bluegrass fans to some of the more traditional voices and stylings (such as Danny Paisley). Jon Weisberger plays bass and sings baritone and also adds to the mix his talent as a composer. Jones and Weisberger wrote “She’s Just About To Say Goodbye,” which features the fiddle of Troy Engle and harmony vocals of Darin and Brooke Aldridge. This is a good, country-style love song with an interesting arrangement.

The pair also wrote “Laurie,” an uptempo bluegrass number with Ned Luberecki providing a banjo break, Jones showing his skill on lead guitar and former Night Driver Casey Driessen playing fiddle. Their third number is “One Night in Paducah,” featuring Buddy Melton singing tenor and Tim Surrett playing Dobro. Bandmember Mark Stoffel provides an interesting mandolin break on this haunting song about love gone wrong in eerie circumstances. Jones had a hand in some of the other cuts, such as “My Portion and My Cup,” co-written with Donna Ulisse and featuring the Aldridges singing harmony. This is the only gospel number on the CD. Jones went solo on composing with “Dust Off the Pain,” another suffering from heartbreak song (bluegrassers do a lot of suffering) and “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride,” a high speed number with Driessen playing fiddle.

Going back a bunch of years they cover a Flatt & Scruggs number, “Thinking About You.” This cut features Del McCoury singing tenor and Bobby Hicks playing fiddle. It’s tough to get more traditional than this and it’s a good song from those early masters of bluegrass. They also have a Tom T Hall number, “Pinto the Wonder Horse Is Dead.” It may not be bluegrass, but it’s a great story song from the master of story songs. It takes me back many years to memories just like these. They stay true to Hall’s 1971 version. Switching gears, they include an old-time/Gaelic number, “The Leaving of Liverpool,” done by groups like the Dubliners. Strictly speaking, this isn’t bluegrass either, but a first cousin, much closer than the country-pop some bluegrass groups are including in their CDs.

Night Driver mandolinist Mark Stoffel composed “Shelby 8,” a very good instrumental with some minor chords and an interesting progression. There’s some excellent picking in this one. Ned Luberecki adds a banjo number, “Bowties Are Cool” which raises the oft-asked question (at least by me), how do they come up with these titles?

This CD solidifies the Night Drivers spot in the pack of leading bluegrass groups. It’s a good buy.

 

Notable releases: Anna & Elizabeth and Lynda Dawson & Pattie Hopkins

Anna & Elizabeth
Anna & Elizabeth
Free Dirt Records

 

 

 

 

 

Lynda Dawson & Pattie Hopkins
Traditional Duets
Self-released

 

 

 

 

 

There is something to be said for the simple things in life; Sunday evenings with the family, a warm summer night on the porch with a glass of lemonade, the feeling of snow falling on your face, and of course my favorite—impromptu jam sessions with great friends.

In music, these simple things also give you pleasure of experiencing the rawness and the bond shared between a duo group, seen as they sit in your living room on a late Saturday night.

Duos have been captivating music lovers for decades but most of the time they are in a conglomerate of instruments that takes away from the intimacy of two people with two instruments. These two records help us concentrate on the simple things; two albums, two duos, four instruments, three chords and the truth.

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle create an old-time, almost eerie sound that takes you to the cultural landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. It is evident through this album they share a deep love of the folk tunes archived in the catalogs of our forgotten culture.  The mishmash of guitar, fiddle, and clawhammer banjo adds to the feel of the inspired versions of these eclectic songs.

In the same vein, Lynda Dawson & Pattie Hopkins  album “Traditional Duets” focuses on traditional bluegrass and country numbers. Songs like “Train on the Island,” “Sittin’ Alone in the Moonlight,” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” fill the 13-track album with jam tunes you would expect to hear at bluegrass festivals across the country. The fiddle and guitar combo adds simplicity to the sound that recreates good memories of good times.

In the world of supersized meals, unlimited Internet access, and 24-hour news coverage, it’s nice to live the motto, “less is more”.  Do yourself a favor and buy an album that takes you back to the good ol’ days when music was music.

“The Phosphorescent Blues” by the Punch Brothers

The Punch Brothers
The Phosphorescent Blues
Nonesuch Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Music is fickle. Music is emotional. Good music can come with any label, or no label at all. All three prerequisites for music are covered with the fourth studio album by the Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues, an emotional album that requires a complete listen in order of the tracks, similar to a book. Similar to a good book, each title is like a chapter in a book leading to the climax with protagonists and antagonists.

(In case you didn’t know, phosphorescence is when something glows with light without becoming hot to the touch, like the glow-in-the-dark stars on a teenagers bedroom ceiling.)

I’ve seen the Punch Brothers several times in concerts and festivals throughout the country and have always been a fan since hearing their first album. Mandolin magus Chris Thile and the boys—Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass)— might just be one of the most talented groups of bluegrass musicians ever assembled, but that doesn’t automatically make for a great band. Without a doubt, these guys have a unique musical ability to work together as a cohesive unit to create music that is fascinating, inspirational, and motivating.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, The Phosphorescent Blues begins with the 10-minute plus melody “Familiarity” that includes a variety of effects, chamber harmonies, and classical tinges. This song sets a tone that carries though the rest of this album, almost making it a concept album. “Julep” is a tale of drinking a mint julep on the front porch, a perfect song to show off the way each member of the band plays interdependent roles that when blended together create a cohesive work. “I Blew It Off” is a poppy upbeat song that weaves in and out of dynamics with a drum kit and harmonious melodies that seem to get stuck in your head. “Magnet,” though written by the Punch Brothers, has a Beck-like feel, with reverb-heavy vocals and modern-pop drums. “Boll Weevil” is a traditional song transformed by the signature Punch Brothers spin, and it’s definitely the most bluegrassy track on the album. Though it’s only 2½ minutes long, it allows each instrument to stretch out on the melody. The love song “Little Lights” closes things out with a somber feel.

If you are a fan of the Punch Brothers’ previous forward-leaning, youthful acoustic music, you should like this album. If you haven’t yet had a taste, I recommend just pushing play and opening up to their excellent musicianship.

“Sorrow Bound” by Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater
Sorrow Bound
Kingswood Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Toronto, Ontario—hotbed of Appalachian music.

Alongside the recent release of the Slocan Ramblers’ Coffee Creek, one might well have growing evidence that Canada’s most cosmopolitan city has more than a few inhabitants who know their way around the music of the holler.

Originally released a year ago, Sorrow Bound receives wider distribution this summer and deservedly so. Low and mournful are the sounds Kaia Kater, a traditional musician in her early 20s, appears to favour. Playing in the traditional clawhammer style—Art Menius has identified her as “the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century”—Kater has spent a great deal of time in West Virginia studying the traditions of Appalachian balladry and dance.

Much like Anna & Elizabeth have done, Kater plays with traditional music to gently knit together connections between ancient tones and modern times. Whereas that duo does so largely through their interpretation of traditional songs, Kater takes a more modernist approach, one equally necessary to allow the music to thrive and flourish. “Southern Girl ,” one of several originals contained on this stunning debut, has its foundation in the remnants of another time, but its passionate hopes are well observed in the changes our society is currently undergoing.

The title track is a revelation. Featuring what sounds like bowed bass, this atmospheric song explores dark challenges of previous times and personal yearning through poetic snatches of language, leaving the story open to interpretation; Kater’s frailing banjo flourishes provide percussive punctuation. Another Kater song, “Oh Darlin’,” in lyric, essence, and structure, could easily be a couple of centuries old.

Kater, who knows her way around the old songs like someone raised in the tradition, is nothing if not unconventional. A song borrowed from Anna & Elizabeth, “Sun to Sun,” flows into a French-language old-timey ballad. “Moonshiner,” familiar enough through interpretations from folks as varied as Bob Dylan, Cat Power, Buell Kazee, and the Sweetback Sisters—whose lead Kater follows—and like those sizable talents, Kater makes the song all her own. “Come and Rest” provides a coda of comfort and belief, while “West Virginia Boys” is less volatile than other renditions of the “cornbread, molasses, and sassafras tea” tune.

This album is an ideal balance of then and now, the past and present, of originality and influence.

Kaia Kater, who has performed throughout the eastern United States and Canada, is one of the many youthful performers by whose sure hands the traditions so many of us appreciate and love are being tended.

“Me Oh My” by the Honeycutters

The Honeycutters
Me Oh My
Organic Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“I had a baby but the good Lord took her, she was an angel but her wings were crooked.” I love writing songs and sometimes I hear a lyric that I sorely wish I had written. One of our sons has handicaps (I know, that’s not the politically correct term) and, for me, the lyric nails it: an angel with crooked wings. That’s the opening line of the title song and it does not go downhill from there.

The Honeycutters label their music as country roots (watch lead singer Amanda Anne Platt discuss her music). That’s different than classic country (Jim Ed Brown, George Jones) but it’s a close cousin. Two of country’s enduring stars, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, have composed some songs that you’re not likely to hear on a Bill Anderson or Ray Price recording. I can imagine Haggard and Nelson in an intimate setting (a resort bar at Lake Monroe, Indiana, where Nelson likes to stay when he’s in town) with something less than a thousand fans somewhere in the dark at the tables, jamming and drinking a beer or two. Some of those songs could come from this CD. Another surprise with this CD is all the tracks were composed by Platt. It isn’t unusual to see a CD with songs composed by the band or one person in the band, but not many are consistently this good from track to track.

“Lucky” is a quiet song of pathos, a love affair going down hill: “I’ve got the mind of a junkie, you’ve got the heart of a child.” That’s not a recipe for success but falling in love is rarely affected by the probability of success. There would be far fewer divorces if we were all that logical. “Jukebox” is on a different plane, as country as anything you would have heard on the radio back in the day. Rick Cooper’s bass supports the band and Josh Milligan’s percussion is enjoyable, not the thunk, thunk you hear too often on “country” records. Matt Smith adds to the mix with some very good steel guitar. “Not That Simple” includes some fine mandolin from Tal Taylor while Phil Cook appears with piano and organ. You’ll find yourself hoping Platt’s life isn’t as complicated and sad as all her songs. This song tells about a man and woman who love each other but have commitments to others. There are too many good lines in this song to list without just writing the lyrics.

Whether it’s a quiet song like “Little Bird,” an ode to wanting to break away from the life you’re living (“Hearts of Men”) or a critique (“Well, look at you, you’re like a pony with a broken leg, You’re always scared ’cause you can’t run away” from “All You Ever”) Platt consistently hits the mark musically and lyrically.

I suppose, if you live a Pollyanna life, if it’s all sunshine and roses, then this CD might puzzle you, you won’t get what she’s telling. On the other hand, if your life’s ups and downs look like the pulse line on a heart monitor, if you’ve ever felt the blues sucking at your soul, cursed and laughed at love, there are fourteen messages on this CD that you’re going to really enjoy. Me? I’m going to look for their first two CDs.

TheHoneyCuttersMeOhMyBigCov