“Circles Around Me” by Sam Bush

Sam Bush
Circles Around Me
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

The opening guitar chords in Sam Bush’s new CD Circles Around Me signal that this is a new turn in an old story. Sam Bush has produced a fine album of fourteen songs that return to an earlier era while forging into new territory. This is a neat trick, but Sam pulls it off with conviction and his customary high musicality. Sam uses his touring band of Scott Vestal, Byron House, Stephen Mougin, and Chris Brown to set and maintain the Bush sound while inviting a number of guests to share the microphone. Songs by Ebo Walker and an appearance Courtney Johnson reach back to his days in New Grass Revival. Four songs exceeding six minutes in length suggest the importance of the jam in a Bush performance or recording. Three traditional songs and a guest appearance by Del McCoury recall the importance of straight ahead bluegrass music in Bush’s music; the duo presents two Bill Monroe songs. All told, the CD communicates an elegiac tone in which Bush seems to be seeking to highlight and summarize his long, successful, and creative career.

It often seems that at a certain age — Bush is 57 — writers decide to look back at their careers and do some self assessment. These songs (or stories) are usually filled with regret, remembrance, joy, or some combination of these emotions common to people who have gained perspective and maturity. Circles Around Me introduces this CD and serves the purpose of opening the door of memory while leaving it open for still further growth and development. Albums often open with a bang, as if designed to grab and hold onto the listener. This song asks “how in the world did we get this far, holding tight to the tail of a shooting star?” Bush acknowledges the people and forces that have come into his life and suggests that those he’s influenced through the years are “running circles around me now.” There’s little if any regret to this refrain.

One of the most delightful elements of this album is the way Sam includes shades and shadows from his past in new and interesting ways. Songs from NGR days like “Souvenir Bottles” and “Diamond Joe” mix with the new murder song “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle,” a true story about the murder of Grand Old Opry star David “Stringbean” Akeman. He includes two older Bill Monroe songs sung with Del McCoury, who, along with his current acclaim, sang as a Bluegrass Boy early in his career. Then he writes a “Monroe-like” waltz tune and presents it with Edgar Meyer on bass, along with the rest of his family. The late Courtney Johnson, banjo player with NGR, and an Ebo Walker song help make the historical connection. The combinations and memories running through the disk circle back on themselves, reinforcing the title, “Circles Around Me.”

A highlight of Circles Around Me is Bush’s use of his road band at the center of the album. Scott Vestal on banjo, Byron House on bass, Stephen Mougin on guitar and harmony vocals, and Chris Brown’s percussion complement Bush and create the ensemble sound that grows when a band travels and performs together over a period of years. Guest appearances from Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Edgar Meyer on bass, along with his wife Cornelia Heard and son Nathan, and Del McCoury’s guest vocals are tastefully included and blend perfectly with the band.

With Circles Around Me Sam Bush has presented a brilliant collection of the old and the new, at once looking backward and forward. Still the consummate musician himself, he surrounded himself with others who share his vision and has produced a truly wonderful addition to the overall bluegrass catalog.

by Ted Lehmann

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“Forever Yours” by the Hagar’s Mountain Boys

Hagar’s Mountain Boys
Forever Yours
No label
3 stars (out of 5)

We first saw The Hagar’s Mountain Boys, in one of their very first performances, at the Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC about four years ago. At that time they were raw, just beginning to feel their way into becoming a band. A year or so ago, at the Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival in Roxboro, NC they were schedule for six sets over three days. This heavy duty schedule stretched their repertoire and their voices to the breaking point. Nevertheless, their work showed an increased maturity of vision as well as vastly improved performances and musicality. The addition of Blake Johnson on vocals added significant talent to their sound.

Now, with the release of their new CD Forever Yours, under the guidance of founder and front man Ricky Stroud has produced a fine, traditional bluegrass album that should have broad appeal.

Produced by Jason Moore , Mountain Heart bassist, Forever Yours offers four originals, one penned by Blake Johnson and the others carefully selected, as well as several appropriate covers that span the bluegrass waterfront pretty well. Except for the appearance of Jim Van Cleve on fiddle, the present recording displays the talents and skills of the band you’d see and hear at bluegrass festivals or other performances.

As news of this young band gets around, they are being seen more widely, including an appearance in Florida this winter. The tempos and strong rhythm the band generates captures the excitement of traditional bluegrass with most songs having been written fairly recently.

Blake Johnson shows a first class high baritone bluegrass voice with good timbre and plenty of soulfulness, communicating emotion and commitment to the song. It’s an honest and strait forward voice that’s easy to listen to and rewarding. His range of emotion and ability to sell content adds a fresh dimension to the genre. His singing on Travis Tritt’s “Anymore” reaches out to a listeners heart. He does a creditable job on bass.

Ricky Stroud plays solid and tasteful mandolin as well as contributing a good lead on one song. His harmonies are dead on and he’s to be commended for having the humility, as the band’s founder and front man, to leave the heavy vocal lifting to the very talented Johnson.

Mike Johnson, Blake’s father and the band’s guitarist, contributes three leads and offers solid harmonies. The band shows its musical versatility on the traditional a capella gospel song “Lord, Don’t Leave Me Here,” Cliff Smith on banjo offers capable work along with good vocal harmonies.

Forever Yours is a very pleasing effort by the Hagar’s Mountain Boys. It has been released on a private label, and can be obtained from the HMB Web site. Steve Gulley wrote the liner notes. This CD presents a refreshing new band in a good light. It’s worth your attention.

by Ted Lehmann

“Whatcha Gonna Do” by the Claire Lynch Band

The Claire Lynch Band
Whatcha Gonna Do
Rounder Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

Claire Lynch’s new CD on Rounder Records, Whatcha Gonna Do, falls comfortably into the realm of Americana, its bluegrass, country, folk, blues, and jazz roots showing clearly through in a delightful collection of mostly new songs.

She presents a set of twelve songs each chosen to show off her light, friendly, and emotionally subtle voice and the musical versatility of her very fine band. As befits a band whose members have already won five IBMA individual awards and are nominated for an additional two in 2009, the band demonstrates musical depth and variety with plenty of melody and versatility.

Lynch builds on her bluegrass and acoustic roots to create an album worth repeated listening and thoughtful appreciation. With a train song, a mine song, a couple of road songs, some light gospel, and an appreciation for rural life and values, Whatcha Gonna Do fits easily and comfortably within the bluegrass world while offering lots of opportunities for lovers of other genres to discover and appreciate Lynch’s musical vision.

Lynch has either written herself or co-written four of the songs in this collection. “Highway” is a women’s road song that celebrates re-discovering one’s self worth on the endless road. “Face to Face” (co-writteen with Donna Ulisse) is a light and hopeful gospel song. “Widow’s Weeds” provides and old-timey sound and feel while lamenting continued mourning for a lost husband. In the last cut on the recording, Lynch celebrates the dark loneliness of the deep southern woods in a song called “Woods of Sipsey” dedicated to her grandmother.

The CD makes the obligatory nod to Bill Monroe in “My Florida Sunshine,” one of Monroe’s more forgettable, though tuneful, songs. For me, “Barbed Wire Boys” and “Great Day in the Mornin’” are among the highlights. Singer songwriter Jesse Winchester makes a guest appearance; otherwise the band for the CD is Lynch’s road band.

With the versatile and virtuoso playing of Jim Hurst on acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, and, in one cut, mandolin, and Mark Schatz’s always impressive work on bass, the CD does not lack for strong instrumental play. Jason Thomas on fiddle and mandolin, although less known than the others, is impressive in his work here. Lynch’s voice is flexible and engaging, and the harmony vocals contributed by Hurst and Thomas are unobtrusive, while making the appropriate contributions.

While Whatcha Gonna Do may not appeal to hard core traditional bluegrass music fans, its broader appeal is undeniable. It fits neatly into the progress of her music. People who attend Lynch concerts will see and hear the band on the recording, a good feature, and will find the recording an excellent representation of her live performances. The CD is easy to listen to, but not easy listenin’. It’s worth buying and adding to any collection.

by Ted Lehmann