“One More Road” by Shannon & Heather Slaughter & County Clare

Shannon & Heather Slaughter & County Clare
One More Road
Elite Circuit Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There are many covers of “If I Were A Carpenter” but the Slaughters’ version is going into my list of favorite cuts. The couple’s (Shannon and Heather) voices meld well and the instruments, especially the banjo, are restrained, making the song comfortable and easy listening.

County Clare isn’t a bluegrass household name—yet—but they have performed with well known names like the Lonesome River Band and Larry Stephenson. Shannon Slaughter is an accomplished songwriter (nominated for a Dove Award and winner of the Chris Austin songwriting contest at Merlefest) and was co-writer on half the songs on this CD. He sings and plays guitar while Heather Slaughter sings and, on the CD, plays upright bass (she’s switched to mandolin now). They’re joined on the CD by John Boulware (fiddle, vocals), Ron Inscore (now departed from the band, playing mandolin and adding vocals), Casey Murray (banjo). Rob Ickes (resonator guitar) is one of the guest musicians. The arrangements are well done and there’s a variety of music.

If you missed the TV miniseries Hatfields and McCoys then “The Ballad of Johnse Hatfield” may not make a lot of sense to you. It’s one version of those tragic times while the “true” version can be found in a post by one of Devil Anse Hatfield’s descendants. Historical accuracy aside, this is a good example of mountain music with many verses and a limited range of melody, along with Tina Steffey’s (wife of Adam Steffey) clawhammer banjo. A change of pace musically but with another tragic story is “Daddy Killed The Calf,” a story of hard times on the farm in the Oklahoma dust bowl days of the ’30s.

They go back to the Civil War and still more tragedy with “The Lives of the Innocent,” featuring a guitar break by Slaughter. It’s hard to write anything about that war without a theme of tragedy and this is another story of death and loss. “They Never Got the Chance” is another slant on tragedy, a commentary on lives lost because of abortion. But not everything is dark on the CD. “When Scruggs Made Me a Star” is a fast moving number about Earl Scruggs’ influence on bluegrass, another tip of the hat to one of the great masters of the banjo.

The range of topics and styles keep you interested in this CD. They do reach out to other songwriters, including a couple of hits from the country music world. Heather Slaughter sings an excellent country version of “Pass Me By,” recorded in 1973 by Bob Luman and Johnny Rodriguez, most commonly associated with the latter. This cut features Mike Johnson on the steel. (He is the bandleader on RFD-TV’s Country’s Family Reunion.) She also does a resounding version of Rodney Crowell’s “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” made a hit by both Emmylou Harris and Lynn Anderson. For pure Monroe bluegrass it’s hard to beat Bill Castle’s “It’s In My Mind To Wander.”

Good singing, good music, good arrangements and a variety of themes and musical styles—this is a CD that will keep you listening from start to finish.


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“Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler
Thirty Tigers

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

As a child through the 1970s, I was raised with the Little House on the Prairie television series. When I discovered the public library  during the summer between grades four and five, among the dozens of books I devoured were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. In the years since, and despite the contextual racism and other challenges presented by the novels, both overt and subtle, they remain favorites; without doubt Little House in the Big Woods remains one of the coziest novels to read on cold winter evenings. Further, for years I have hoped to visit Mansfield, Missouri and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, and this coming spring it just may finally happen.

Therefore, I come to this set predisposed to positivity.

When I reviewed a previous volume (The Arkansas Traveler) in this continuing series several years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how song titles carelessly skimmed over while reading as a youth brought to life memories of the novels. That album, while serving as a historical retrospective, was a dang fine listen. With Pa’s fiddle at its heart, it was not surprising that the old-time music collected therein prominently featured fiddle—lively and light, then mournful and introspective.

Unlike that previous set, which featured masterful vocal performances from the likes of John Cowan, Elizabeth Cook, Andrea Zonn, and Jeff Black, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is an album of instrumentals. As before, Matt Combs ably handles the fiddling. Missed here are the contributions of Butch Baldassari, in who’s memory the album is dedicated. As Pa’s Fiddle Band, the musicians bringing these songs to life include familiar bluegrassers Shad Cobb (banjo), Dennis Crouch (bass), Matt Flinner (mandolin) Bryan Sutton (guitar) as well as Buddy Greene (harmonica) and Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle, and piano).

Sure to be enjoyed by all fans of old-timey sounds, this latest volume sounds a bit more “uptown” than the previous set. The arrangements are more refined with the full-band presenting a less rustic interpretation of the tunes. Perhaps the tunes, including a personal favorite, the spritely picked “The Yellow Heifer,” received interpretations such as those included here in the 19th century, but I wouldn’t bet on it. These, therefore, are not faithful reproductions of the music heard by Laura, Mary, and the clan, but rather relatively modern interpretations of a selection of tunes mentioned throughout the Little House series.

The performances are dynamic and fully enjoyable. The doleful sounding “Golden Years are Passing By,” played by Bryan Sutton, causes one to reflect on passing days while the full-band reprise of the tune intensifies the ache into something even more pensive. The old fiddle tune “Polly Put the Kettle On”, featuring Joe Weed on fiddle, is closer in spirit to what I ‘hear’ when reading the novels. Some tunes bring a religious element, omnipresent within the Little House series, including “My Sabbath Home” and “Jesus Holds My Hand.”

The song notes of Dale Cockrell, which places each tune within both historical and Little House contexts, are superb, concise and interesting.

There are but two elements of the album that give me pause.

There first is simply a matter of preference. If these recordings are built on the legacy of Wilder’s writing, I do wonder why the songs are presented as ‘band’ recordings as Pa usually played unaccompanied. While I very much appreciate the performances contained within Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler, when listening I don’t strongly hear Wilder’s sense of place or voice.

My second hesitation around the project concerns the stated intent of this recording is to “place [Charles Ingalls] among the first rank of old-time fiddlers whose music is foundational to so much in American music.” This goal seems to be revisionist to my wee historical brain. While Ingalls’ playing is woven throughout the Little House novels, it seems to me that that was the limit of his influence.

I am willing to be corrected, but in my admittedly limited reading of fiddle playing in American history, the name Charles Ingalls isn’t prominent. I might suggest, as is hinted in Cockrell’s notes, that Ingalls’ influence didn’t extend past his family and immediate circle, and as such he is simply one of likely thousands of fiddle players whose music informed and entertained his family, but didn’t have historical relevance; the difference being, of course, that their daughters didn’t write about the experiences as widely as did his.

Quibbling aside, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is a very enjoyable, supremely played collection of songs that further illuminate the importance of the Little House series in our understanding of American history and the place music serves within it. And, it is a dang fine listen.


“Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down” by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
Sugar Hill Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV is one of the few havens for good music of any sort on television these days, as the multifariously talented and ever-genial Stuart, along with His Fabulous Superlatives—Kenny Vaughan (guitars), Harry Stinson (drums) and Paul Martin (bass)—create a genuine sense of fun with their love for, and mastery of, country music.

This ten-track disc captures some of that fun, but not all of it. The 32 minutes spent with this aptly named band are like having a couple of drinks in a bar on Broadway where the band happens to be really good, but you won’t be thinking about it the next day.

“Tear the Woodpile Down” has the boys at their best, with a driving rhythm and bumblebee Telecasters buzzing everywhere, and “Sundown in Nashville” perfectly evokes the heartbreak that so many wannabes must feel every night in that town of half-met dreams.

“Hollywood Boogie” is a Tele tour-de-force which should get some Grammy attention for best country instrumental performance.

But the rest of the material is merely good, played and sung expertly, but without that spark and smirk that Marty can bring to the performance.

“Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” with Hank III joining Marty on one of the Hillbilly Shakespeare’s maudlin sermons, falls just a little flat too. For two of country’s hardest rockers not to rip their way through one of Hank’s hard-edged numbers is a missed opportunity.

Perhaps on record where his natural charm isn’t as prominent, Stuart would do well to employ a co-producer that would press him toward some riskier choices that, more than anyone in Nashville I can think of, he’d be capable of conquering.

“Don’t Wait For The Hearse To Take You To Church” by Rodney Dillard & The Dillard Band

Rodney Dillard & The Dillard Band
Don’t Wait For The Hearse To Take You To Church
Rural Rhythm
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens 

Rodney Dillard (The Dillards, the Darling Family, Andy Griffith) and his wife, Beverly, have an active ministry that includes music. This CD is an example of the music they use in their ministry with some Mayberry homilies thrown in.

A variety of musicians appear on the CD. Steve Bush and Beverly play banjo. Steve, Rodney and Tim Crouch play guitar with Crouch, primarily a studio musician who has played with some of the biggest names in country music, also playing fiddle and mandolin.

George Giddens (fiddle, mandolin) is a member of Dillard’s band. Also playing fiddle is Bruce Hoffman. Rodney adds resophonic guitar and Bush is also playing mandolin and bass. Rounding out the recording group are Marty Wilhite (bass [down towards the bottom of the web page]), a Branson musician who has played with some very big names in the music business, Pete Generous (percussion) and Jim Glasty (harmony vocals).

The CD is loaded on the heavy side with familar songs featuring traditional arrangements. “Somebody Touched Me,” “Softly and Tenderly” and “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” all have Rodney singing lead. It’s not bad music but, unless you’re just a big Dillard’s fan, there’s not enough unique material here to lure my dollars away. The musicians provide a solid backing to the vocalists but it’s not especially inspired picking. Beverly takes the lead on “[Old] Gospel Ship” and I like her singing but, again, the musical breaks are not all that exciting.

The most entertaining songs are “Hear Them Thunders Roarin” (which appears to be a traditional song but I can’t pinpoint its origin), “River of Jordan”, an old gospel number going back to the Florida Boys, and “Heaven,” a song that’s been around bluegrass for decades. The harmony vocals on “Heaven” aren’t nearly strong enough – they are an integral part of that song, but the instrumental work is very nice. Beverly sings lead on these songs.

The CD ends with four one minute stories about how life in Mayberry is a good example to follow today. I really liked the various series about Mayberry, but these little tidbits don’t much inspire me.

“Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot and Ravelin’” by The Grascals

The Grascals
Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot and Ravelin’
BluGrascal Records
3 stars (out of 5)

The Andy Griffith Show is a standard in American culture that I am sure almost anyone can remember watching at some point in their lives. The Grascals, no doubt honored at the chance to give some new life to some Mayberry standards, have partnered with Mayberry’s Finest Brand Foods to produce this seven-track EP.

This is not a typical Grascals release, but rather a novelty tribute album with close attention paid to the preservation of the integrity of the show’s original music.

Over the years The Grascals have made a name for themselves taking bluegrass standards and mostly traditional bluegrass sounds and adding just enough of their own flair to the equation to create a unique, modern bluegrass sound. However, this EP leaves me scratching my head in that respect. I feel like an opportunity was missed to bring a more modern feel to these great old favorites, following their own formula of past success. Instead the band stuck to the roots of the music chosen for this collection and the results are serviceable, just not all that you would expect from The Grascals.

That said, the musicianship on this album is above average and holds true of what you expect from The Grascals as far as musical execution. The picking on “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” and “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” especially, is great, and the entire EP flows well together and really captures the nostalgic feeling of The Andy Griffith Show.

The biggest area of weakness this EP has is its brevity. With seven tracks and roughly 14 minutes of music, the lowest price I found was $6.97 plus shipping. Not the best value, unless you are specifically looking to fill the collection as a fan of either The Grascals or The Andy Griffith Show, but good music nonetheless.


“Rare Bird Alert” by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Rare Bird Alert
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When I’m assigned an album to review, it gets a minimum of two listens. Frequently, up to five thorough listening sessions are held before putting fingers to keyboard.

As I type these words, I’m listening to Steve Martin’s astoundingly bright Rare Bird Alert for the twelfth or thirteenth time this week. With each listen, something new appears—a lick I hadn’t previously noticed, a progression that hadn’t registered.

It is entirely justified that the Steep Canyon Rangers are given co-billing with Steve Martin on this album as their contributions contribute to a cohesiveness that was lacking on Martin’s justifiably well-regarded bluegrass album of 2009, The Crow. Whereas that album had numerous guests dropping in, Red Bird Alert’s core is more stable: Martin and the Rangers with The Dixie Chicks, Sir Paul McCartney, and cellist Ron Clearfield appearing on individual tracks.

Additionally, the song selection appears more contemporary; unlike The Crow which contained Martin compositions dating to the late 60s and several of which had previously appeared on The Steve Martin Brothers album of 1981, the notes to Red Bird Alert would appear to indicate that it is comprised of fresher numbers.

Honed by months of road travel, the Rangers and Martin have most obviously developed chemistry. If there is an emerging star within this set it must be Woody Platt. The Steep Canyon Rangers’ vocalist has been notable for his fine voice—quite unlike any other within the bluegrass major league—and throughout Red Bird Alert he is provided numerous opportunities to impress. Hearing him sing “Yellow- Backed Fly” and “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” one is convinced that there are no limits to what he may attain.

Elsewhere, the competencies of the Rangers are apparent. If Platt is most noticeable from a vocal perspective, Nicky Saunders’ fiddling is an instrumental star; the arrangements are so perfectly attuned to the needs of the song that one can’t listen to these songs without noting Saunders’ brilliant work.

Graham Sharp contributes 5-string in complement to Martin’s playing; the two trade breaks in places (and my ears can’t stop the difference) and when Martin favors clawhammer-style, Sharp sticks to three-fingered rolls. Mike Guggino (mandolin) and Charles Humphrey III (bass) maintain the rhythm and step up for their own little flourishes when the time is right; in the liner notes, Martin rightly draws attention to Humphrey’s break on “Jubilation Day”

Without resorting to hyperbole, Rare Bird Alert contains 35-minutes of almost perfectly balanced bluegrass. The obvious instrumental prowess is augmented by tight harmonies; Martin’s vocal challenges are kept in check by the Rangers’ expertise in this area; up-tempo instrumental pieces are places alongside slower, gentle songs.

“Best Love” (featuring McCartney) and “You” (featuring the Dixie Chicks) could fit comfortably within adult contemporary radio formats and therefore will get much attention. The heart of the album appears to be Martin’s very fine instrumentals. Both “Northern Island” and “The Great Remember” evoke their ambiguities through the nuance of their notes.

Excepting the title refrain, “More Bad Weather on the Way” is a spirited instrumental showcase that affords each of the six principals an opportunity to play off others. “Hide Behind a Rock” and the title track bookend the bulk of the album and as such provide the framing to what is completely invigorating listen.

Martin saves his most blatant comedic moments to the album’s final two tracks, although “Jubilation Day” has its moments earlier on. Comedy may not be pretty, but it is individual so listeners will need to make their own determination of the value of the album’s final seven minutes. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” while guileful, isn’t clever enough to withstand multiple listenings. On the other hand, “King Tut” never gets old. Go figure.

Finally, the album packaging is terribly impressive. While others labels and artists are minimizing costs, Rare Bird Alert is provided a tri-fold housing and booklet containing elaborately decorated panels, elaborate notes from Martin, and 10 collector cards featuring the participants; excessive perhaps but well-appreciated in this time of belt-tightening and diminishing expectations. Kudos to the design team of G.Carr and Salli and Jim Ratts for making it work.

There are those who continue to challenge the motives of Steve Martin as he explores his love of bluegrass and the banjo. To those I would suggest, Get over it and actually listen! Rare Bird Alert is a spectacular, artistic creation that can only benefit the bluegrass community as a whole.

“A Bluegrass Tribute To Historic RCA Studio B” by The Stars of Farm County Jubilee

The Stars of Farm County Jubilee
A Bluegrass Tribute To Historic RCA Studio B
Farm County Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Just so you know, this isn’t even countrygrass (despite the title). It’s country music with mostly acoustic instruments and bluegrass musicians. Despite having a banjo (Bennie Boling [whose name is spelled wrong on the CF jacket]), it never sounds much like bluegrass. That doesn’t make it bad, though. If you’ve ever been a fan of country (before it became pop) then you’ll recognize some old favorites.

Before you open the case you will face at least one puzzle: what in the world is “Farm County Jubilee” and who are its stars?

It turns out this is the brainchild of Daryl Mosley, the “affable” bass player and vocalist for Bobby Osborne’s band, resophonic guitarist Tim Graves and “heart-tugging girl singer’” Stacy Scruggs (from the Farm County Jubilee website). They are filming fifteen minute webcasts that will play on their website and the show was taken to SPGMA earlier this year.

Mosley, who has been with Rocky Top X-press for almost a decade, is an accomplished composer and bassist. He’s also the best singer of the trio with an easy-listening baritone. Whether he’s doing a laid-back version of Don Gibson’s “Give Myself a Party,” Porter Wagoner’s upbeat “Katy Did” or a rocking version of “My Window Faces The South,” he makes listening a pleasure. He is a very good bass player, too, although it sounds like he’s playing his Epiphone Zenith bass, which is an acoustic electric bass. While acoustic electrics – as well as Fender-style electric basses – are not uncommon in bluegrass (remember, this album hints at being a bluegrass CD), traditionalists still favor the upright bass. The upright was the standard in country music, too, and it’s a good bet that Junior Huskey played an upright on some of the original recordings.

Tim Graves is the 2011 SPGMA Dobro Player of the Year. He formed the band Cherokee in 1981 with his friend Bennie Boling and has played with James Monroe, Wilma Lee Cooper and Bobby Osborne. The curious may wonder what his current relationship is with Osborne and the two websites don’t dispel the curiosity. On Graves’ site the only mention of Osborne is, “For two years (2001-03), Graves was the full-time Dobro player for bluegrass legends and Opry members, The Osborne Brothers.” On Bobby’s site it says, “Tim joined in November of 2001 [and] left the Group in 2005 [then] returned to the X-Press in 2008 and stayed until March 2009. Tim returned in 2010, and is on his third stint with Bobby.” Well, that clears it all up. At least he’s in the X-press band picture.

As good as he is on the resophonic guitar, he’s not a great singer. Where Mosley is relaxed and smooth (think of Jim Ed Brown, appearing, incidentally, on the Marty Stuart Show with Paul Martin playing the upright bass), Graves sounds forced, sometimes off-key. He does a good job on “Another Day, Another Dollar” which is uptempo. His vocal limitations are more evident on two Elvis songs. “I’m Coming Home” is also uptempo but it’s chock full of words. Compare:

Well, it’s so very hard to have to leave the one you love

And you get more lonely with each passing day


Another day, another dollar

Daylight comes, I’m on my way

He seems to have some trouble with all the words and hitting the notes. “I’m Counting On You” is a pretty ballad but, again, he’s just a little off on it.

Stacy Scruggs is a bit of a mystery. She seems to be making regular appearances around Nashville but so far hasn’t left much of a trail. She’s a good singer, but sometimes a little stingy with her words. “I Wish I Felt This Way At Home” feels choppy. She doesn’t do this with “Gentle On My Mind” and does that number very well, as she does with “How’s The World Treating You,” a beautiful ballad done by Don Gibson and Dottie West in 1969.

Of the two duets, the Mosley/Scruggs rendition of “Just Someone I Used To Know” is clearly the best. Their voices meld well, though not as well as Porter’s and Dolly’s original version. The Mosley/Graves duet of “Bye Bye Love” isn’t even close to the Everly Brother’s version.

If you remember when country music was still country then you’ll enjoy this CD. It’s not perfect but it’s very good. Their effort at an Internet TV show is interesting and older shows can be seen on YouTube. Let’s all wish them luck.

“I Wish Life Was Like Mayberry” by Rodney Dillard & The Dillard Band

Rodney Dillard & The Dillard Band
I Wish Life Was Like Mayberry
Rural Rhythm
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Dolly Parton. Roy Rogers. Vincent Price. Ralph Stanley. Some names instantly fire images in your mind. Andy Griffith has enjoyed a varied career on TV and in movies, but many of us will always first think of Mayberry. Likewise, when I hear or see “Dillard” (even when it’s on a department store) I instantly think of The Darlings.

Rodney Dillard has enjoyed a varied career in bluegrass, TV, and other music-related endeavors, including working with the likes of The Byrds and Ricky Skaggs. Through it all, he has maintained indelible ties to his Mayberry roots (notwithstanding that the town Mayberry is patterned after is in North Carolina, Dillard is from Missouri and the show was filmed in California).

Obviously, he isn’t straying with this new CD. He’s not breaking any new trails in the snow, so if you like vintage Dillards material and/or The Darlings, you’re going to enjoy this CD. Many of the songs can be heard “live” by Googling the title with “YouTube” (without the quotes) appended to the end. The CD opens with a short homily about Mayberry and closes with five philosophical musings using dialog from the Andy Griffith Show as life lessons for today.

In between you’ll hear some bluegrass standards like “Doug’s Tune,” “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms,” “Dooley,” and “Salty Dogs Blues.” These are, by the way, all new recordings with Rodney singing lead. Vocally, Rodney is in the middle latitudes. He’s not a great crooner but he sings with confidence and can carry a tune on key.

“There Goes The Neighborhood” is a humorous take on the population shift to what used to be farmland:

They’re movin’ in a little more every day

Playin’ golf where we used to bale our hay

They don’t like our ping flamingoes or the outhouse when the wind blows

We’re startin’ to feel out of place

I can’t say I ever liked pink flamingoes and I don’t miss the outhouse, but I sure do appreciate what the song says.

“There Is A Time” is a very nice but abrupt change of pace. (Two interesting alternative takes that are worth your time to watch are a 1963 take featuring Charlene and another with Andy singing it as a ballad.). “Wicker Rocking Chair” is a nice, contemplative number but Dillard’s singing sounds strained as he works through it, lacking the greater ease he displays on “Dooley.”

The final cut of music is very good listening, but odd in this setting. Several song titles were mentioned on the Andy Griffith Show that were clearly for comedy, like “Never Hit Your Grandma With a Great Big Stick.” Rodney wrote a melody for “Wet Shoes In The Sunset,” and banjoist Steve Bush, along with Andrew Belling’s orchestration (it isn’t clear if Belling simply scored the music also conductedthe orchestra), bring it to life. Nice but strange.

“Memories of John” by The John Hartford Stringband

The John Hartford Stringband
Memories of John
Red Clay Records/Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Had John Hartford done nothing but write “Gentle on My Mind” and bring the banjo to national attention on the The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash show in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his service to bluegrass and old-time music would have been immense. But, given the financial freedom that comes with having penned a megahit song, he spent a long, fruitful career in acoustic music that dipped deep into the past while looking far into the future.

Of his extensive list of recordings, this, though a tribute album made by his close musical associates, can be considered his final album, as his presence permeates it both figuratively and literally. (Hartford also participated in another tribute album recorded live a few months before his 2001 death.)

Chris Sharp (guitar), Bob Carlin (banjo), Matt Combs (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Mark Schatz (bass), who comprised Hartford’s band for his last five Rounder recordings and for live gigs during the last few years of his life, are the house band here, choosing a mix of Hartford favorites and a couple of songs—”Madison, Tennessee” and “She’s Gone (And Bob’s Gone with Her)”—that Hartford wrote but never recorded.

The results of a quick recording session, the Stringband tracks are perfect realizations of the Hartford sound, and guest vocals from Tim O’Brien (“M.I.S.I.P.” and “Lorena”) and Alan O’Bryant (“Delta Queen Waltz”) are moving without being mawkish. Bela Fleck, George Buckner and Alison Brown also guest on individual tracks with their interpretations of Hartford’s banjo style.

The biggest treats here are two short demos recorded by Hartford in the 1960s: the lighthearted “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” and the album’s fitting closer, a gentle, sweet, wordless, whistling tune called “Fade Out.”

Memories of John, depending on your exposure to his music, can serve as either an introduction to Hartford’s tremendous body of work or a capstone for his career. Either way, it’s great listening.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert
Rounder Records
3 stars (out of 5)

More than just about any label since Stiff in the late ’70s, Rounder Records has accompanied me on my life-long musical journey. With a diverse roster of artists represented at all points along four decades, quality is a hallmark of the Massachusetts-based label. So it is with regret that I provide a lukewarm recommendation for this live collection of Americana roots music.

The full spectrum of Rounder’s history is overlooked—likely by logistic necessity—in favour of the slimmest of present slivers.

Under-represented is the continuing commitment Rounder has made to bluegrass (The Grascals, James King, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Hazel Dickens…), blues (realizing he is no longer with Rounder, wouldn’t it have been cool to have had George Thorogood tearin’ the place apart? Or maybe James Hunter, even?) and singer-songwriters (Carrie Newcomer’s absence is notable, as is that of Cheryl Wheeler, Bruce Cockburn, Kathleen Edwards, and the multitude of others who have their albums released by Rounder).

Also, as anyone who has watched the PBS presentation of this event knows, select featured cuts weren’t recorded at the gala evening last October at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. One wonders the benefit of including Crossroads audio and Madeleine Peyroux numbers from a Los Angeles concert.

However, one should review an album for what it is, not what it isn’t. What Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert is, is pretty good.

By limiting each act to two selections, the label has allowed the gala celebration to be captured on a single disc. From swinging Louisiana sounds represented by Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, to instrumental exploration from Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas, and the lively spectacle of banjo man Steve Martin fronting the Steep Canyon Rangers, much musical ground is covered.

Actress and singer Minnie Driver opens the set with the appealing “Cold Dark River,” and soulful Irma Thomas digs deep with “River is Waiting” and “Don’t Mess with My Man”  representing her long Rounder tenure.

Rounder’s First Lady Alison Krauss appears both with Union Station and Robert Plant; a performance of “Rich Woman” is the aforementioned Crossroads piece. One of the most satisfying performances emanates from the pairing of Abigail Washburn with Fleck on “Keys to the Kingdom.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter appears late in the disc performing a pair of numbers including an intense rendition of “Why Shouldn’t We.”

The sound is everything one expects from a modern live recording, with a balanced mix that highlights the featured soloists. There are no surprises amongst the 18 performances, and the Grand Finale Gospel Medley fails to build upon the limited momentum.

Perfect for an evening of public television, this concert recording—while a fine commemorative piece—seems excessively safe. At its best, the songs of AKUS, Nathan Williams, MCC, and Driver pull listeners into a shared, celebratory experience. At its worst, it is slightly bland and that is too bad; Rounder has been anything but bland!

Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert cruises along the middle too solidly for one who finds interesting stuff more often in the ditches.

by Donald Teplyske