Benefit of Doubt
4 Stars (out of 5)
Benefit of Doubt leaves no doubt what Pam Gadd’s been up to since her musical partnership with Porter Wagoner ended with his death in October 2007. The singer/songwriter/banjoist has finally finished her first album in over seven years and come up with the crown jewel of her career thus far.
“Hold What You Got” isn’t just the opener; it’s an advisory, as Gadd gathers an all-star cast and launches into fourteen tracks of fiery bluegrass and impassioned ballads. Gadd gets backing from Bryan Sutton, Aubrey Haynie, Andy Leftwich, Mark Burchfield, and former Wild Rose mates Wanda Vick and Nancy Gardner, and harmonies from Grasstowne’s Steve Gulley and former New Coon Creek Girl pal Dale Ann Bradley. She duets with Marty Raybon on “After the Fire is Gone” and Dolly Parton on “Apple Jack.”
Gadd’s clawhammer banjo on the latter and Scruggs-style picking elsewhere are excellent. Meanwhile, her vocals and lyrics are stronger than ever, particularly on the superbly-crafted “Until She Makes It Home,” “The Only Thing Left Between Us,” and the closing tribute “Farewell Wagon Master.”
If only the planet could negotiate these turbulent times with a fraction of the grace with which Pam Gadd glides between playful romps and heartfelt confessionals. Grassers can take solace in the beauty and brilliance Benefit of Doubt brings to the bluegrass world. Indeed, Gadd is good!
by Tim Walsh
Keep on Walkin’
3.5 Stars (out of 5)
On Keep on Walkin’, the Grascals keep on doing what’s made them a fan favorite and two-time IBMA Entertainer of the Year(with perhaps number three on the horizon). The former sidemen stir up twelve tracks of hard-driving bluegrass and sentimental ballads on their third release.
Once again, the Grascals call on Harley Allen (“Me and John and Paul”) for another wartime tearjerker, “Remembering,” as well as a nostalgic trip to “Indiana” (co-written with Grascal Jamie Johnson). They also dip back into classic country’s deep well and grass up “Choices,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line.”
They fail to draw the line though when they sandwich Aubrey Holt’s “Happy Go Lucky” between the thematic title track and the gospel “Farther Along.” Despite the stirring harmonies on the latter, the sequencing might leave the band open to questions about its sincerity.
That’s unfortunate because Terry Eldredge, Jamie Johnson, Jimmy Mattingly, Aaron McDaris, Danny Roberts, and Terry Smith are not only top-notch musicians but also bluegrass lifers who toiled in the music’s trenches for years. So no one should begrudge the band for being in the spotlight. However, the bright lights of Nashville loom near, and time will tell if the Grascals cross that line.
by Tim Walsh
Molly & Jack Tuttle
The Old Apple Tree
Back Studio Records
2 stars (out of 5)
The Old Apple Tree is a cozy home studio collaboration between young (thirteen at the time of the recording) Molly Tuttle and her Dad Jack, a well-known teacher, performer, and writer in the Bay Area. Recorded one instrument at a time, this fully-arranged DIY effort’s only other musical contributor is bassist John Kael.
Although he sings some lead, duet, and harmony vocals and plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, the elder Tuttle by no means props up his daughter on the fifteen tracks. Molly, who began playing guitar when she was eight, provides solid lead throughout, particularly on “Alabama Jubilee.” She plays strong bluegrass banjo on “June Apple” and superb clawhammer on her original title track.
Unfortunately, her vocal development lags behind her advanced musicianship. Reverence notwithstanding, enthusiastic offerings of “Rain and Snow,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and “Going Down That Road Feeling Bad” are rather ambitious. Conversely, her wistful take on Cousin Emmy’s “Graveyard” reveals potential to hone and utilize her range.
Molly Tuttle is an immensely talented teen from whom we’ll be hearing much more. However, the disparity between her musical and vocal prowess at this point in her career renders The Old Apple Tree an intermittently charming keepsake.
by Tim Walsh
The Dixie Bee-Liners
4.5 Stars (out of 5)
The opener “Down on the Crooked Road” isn’t just the Dixie Bee-Liner’s tribute to the legendary landmark and its music; it’s also where band co-founders Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward set up shop after toiling a few years in New York City. They came with empty pockets but not empty hands. While in Gotham, the band worked around Hart’s office job and Woodward’s anime voiceovers to self-produce and self-release a terrific self-titled EP.
Hart and Woodward have continued to build a buzz since returning to the bluegrass and rent friendlier confines of their native Southeast. They revamped the Bee-Liners with fiddler Rachel Renee Johnson and banjoist Sam Morrow, penned a deal with Pinecastle Records, and headed off to Nashville to record with producer Bill VornDick. There they hooked up with Infamous Stringduster Andy Falco, Kentucky Thunder’s Mark Fain and Andy Leftwich, former Grascal David Talbot, and Travis Toy of Rascal Flatts.
The result – Ripe – is a fruitful full-length debut. One can take their pick from twelve originals highlighted by reprises of three masterpieces from the EP – the bluesy gospel “Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain,” the old-timey “Yellow-Haird Girl,” and the epic “Lost in the Silence.” The nine new songs include the superbly-crafted “She’s My Angel” and a pair of Civil War standouts (one co-written with Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford).
Ripe offers refreshing range and depth as it beautifully bridges contemporary and traditional sonics and subjects. In short, the Dixie Bee-Liners have found a sound that’s sweeter than honey.
by Tim Walsh
3.5 stars (out of 5)
Apparently, 20 years with the Jayhawks affords one ample cause for serious self-examination. On his solo debut, guitarist Gary Louris soul searches on ten abstractions connected by evocative imagery and producer Chris Robinson’s well-orchestrated arrangements.
Vagabonds begins with Louris finding spiritual rebirth in “True Blue” and freedom in “Omaha Nights.” “To Die a Happy Man” ultimately erupts into a revival with the Laurel Canyon Family Choir, which is comprised of Robinson, Susanna Hoffs, Jenny Lewis, Jonathan Rice, the Chapin Sisters, Andy Cabic, Jonathan Wilson, and Farmer Dave. Midway through the disc, that bunch and Louris latch on to the mantra “We’ll get by, but we don’t know how.”
Not satisfied with that, however, Louris continues to pose questions against ethereal pop backdrops in the Lennon-esque “Black Grass,” the unsettling “I Wanna Get High,” and the pedal steel infused “D.C. Blues.” Perhaps his most plausible revelations surface in the latter, with its opening “It almost seems laughable/It shouldn’t be this hard” and chorus “Hand me down my walking cane/Hand me down my shoes/It’s my game to win/It’s my game to lose.”
It is his game, and it will entertain those who spectate and challenge those who play along. Just don’t be disappointed if, after 43 minutes of music have elapsed, the only thing you’ve figured out is that he hasn’t figured out anything either. That said, Gary Louris certainly has come up with a compelling work of art nonetheless.
by Tim Walsh
The Band of Heathens
The Band of Heathens
3 stars (out of 5)
The Band of Heathens was born at the legendary Momo’s in Austin, where its singers and songwriters Colin Brooks, Ed Jurdi, and Gordy Quist transformed their regular co-billings into on-stage collaborations. The Heathens quickly became heroes in the local club scene and started racking up Austin Music Awards.
The quintet (completed by bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman) continues its badboy persona and barroom vibe on its self-titled studio debut. Eleven originals harken a cross between 70s southern rock and Little Feat that’s unfortunately tarnished by white boy blues that sounds like, well, white boy blues.
Make no mistake: these guys and producer Ray Wylie Hubbard are much too talented to turn out the southern sound mainstream country won’t let us forget. However, when the smoke clears, the dust settles, and the buzz wears off, we’re left mostly with refrains like “I’ve got my heart strapped to my sleeve/I’ve got my sleeve tucked in my jeans/I’ve got my jeans tucked in my boots/I’ve got my boots walking back to you.” Not bad, but not quite.
The exceptional standout “40 Days” (with Patty Griffin) and the on-the-mark groove of “This I Know” and “Nine Steps Down” demonstrate what can be accomplished with a little less testosterone. Indeed, the Band of Heathens is capable of being so much better than the best bar band one’s ever heard.
by Tim Walsh
Asking for Flowers
5 stars (out of 5)
Credit Canadian Kathleen Edwards for taking the time after 2005′s Back to Me to not just restock her inventory of songs, but to come up with a magnum opus on her third full-length release stateside. With eleven new masterpieces, affective all-out vocals, brilliant backing, and Jim Scott’s perfect production, one simply can’t ask for anything more from Asking for Flowers.
The ominous opening notes from Jim Bryson’s piano lead our moody heroine into “Buffalo” with heart on sleeve awash in swirling strings paced by Gary Craig’s pounding percussion. Yet the anticipated eruption that eventually occurs on “Oh Canada” is preempted by a pair of hilarious outbursts. “The Cheapest Key,” in which Edwards emphatically qualifies each musical key, sets up the resigned title track, and the twanger “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory,” with classic lines “You’re cool and cred like Fogerty/I’m Elvis Presley in the 70s,” provides the requisite relief after the gut-wrenching “Alicia Ross.” Those four tracks should vie for Song of the Year.
They also demonstrate the stylistic breadth that often transforms the singer/songwriter’s output into catchy pop and rockers like “Oil Man’s War” and “Run.” Edwards is flanked by studio stalwarts Bryson, bassist Bob Glaub, drummer Don Heffington, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and guitarist/husband Colin Cripps. Producer Scott pulls all the right strings – from Kevin Fox’s string arrangements combined with scorching guitars to Edward’s solo acoustic on “Sure as Shit.”
“Goodnight, California,” the dreamy six and a half minute lament that closes the disc assures us that Faler’s “Mercury” is still “parked out under the light,” but now Edwards is ready at the wheel with complete confidence, honesty, and openness. She won’t turn the ignition because she’s perhaps had a shot or two. However, she’ll take you on a ride you’ll never forget!
by Tim Walsh
A Bluegrass Tribute to the Stars of Country
2.5 Stars (out of 5)
Well, I guess A Bluegrass Tribute to the Stars of Country certainly sounds better than A Record Label’s Attempt to Boost its Back Catalogue. Pinecastle Records has combed its vaults and come up with fourteen convenient covers for the concept. There are no newly recorded or previously unreleased tracks on this collection.
Nor is the concept particularly novel, as traditional bluegrass and classic country clearly are musical siblings. That’s good news actually, because tributes that stretch often turn out to be travesties. Sensible parings of great songs with talented artists should yield quality cuts, and they have here.
The track list reflects the impressive rosters Pinecastle has retained: from Hall of Famers Jim and Jesse (“Foolin’ Around”) and the Osborne Brothers (“Waltz Across Texas”) to renown veterans Eddie Adcock (“San Antonio Rose”), Jack Cooke (“I’m Walking the Dog”), and the Reno Brothers (“Mama Tried”) to up-and-comers Nothin’ Fancy (“Tupelo County Jail”). The disc also includes two tracks each from Terry Eldridge and Wildfire, as well as contributions from Josh Crowe, Jim Hurst, New Tradition, and Larry Stephenson.
The bad news is the total absence of women: both among the performers and the artists who popularized these classics. This glaring omission underscores the convenience factor behind the conception of this compilation.
by Tim Walsh
Pretty Runs Out
2 Stars (out of 5)
Whether or not Amanda Shaw’s name has been called when choosing sides for basketball, at 17, the New Orleans fiddler, singer, songwriter, bandleader, and actress already has amassed an impressive resume. She won Offbeat’s 2004 Cajun Artist Award and the 2005 Big Easy Award for Best Female Entertainer. She also starred in Hurricane on the Bayou and had feature roles in two Disney television movies.
On her Rounder Records debut, Pretty Runs Out, Shaw partners with producer Scott Billington and a crew of top-notch musicians that includes drummer Mike Barras, guitarist Cranston Clements, bassist Ronnie Falgout, multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, and guest vocalist Sarah Borges. They cover a lot of ground in thirteen tracks: from Cajun instrumentals to co-writes with Shannon McNally and Anders Osborne and a version of Jack Johnson’s “Gone.”
Nearly each track is executed flawlessly. Nevertheless, although one dares not question Ms. Shaw’s life experiences, Pretty Runs Out boils down to love and love-gone-wrong songs sung by a 17-year old girl. Her credibility runs into “Brick Wall,” a funk flop full of grunts and vocal struts. The title track simply isn’t convincing, but it and “Woulda Coulda Shoulda” pack enough cliché for commercial radio.
Shaw and her band (The Cute Guys) landed an opening slot for Taylor Swift, and the talented teenager seems destined for stardom. Rounder thinks so, and they’re probably right.
by Tim Walsh
4 stars (out of 5)
The opener asks “How High is that Mountain,” but the real question on Thankful might be, “How high can Larry Stephenson’s vocals go?” The 5-time SPBGMA award winner’s trademark tenor is in prime form on his fourth bluegrass gospel album and nineteenth release overall.
Thankful turns out twelve tracks of hallowed treasures and new gems. Stephenson dug into his record collection for the Louvin Brothers’ title track, the Lewis Family’s version of “Set Another Place at the Table,” and Kitty Wells’ cover of “I Need the Prayers.” On the flipside, Barry Clevenger’s “Weary Pilgrim Welcome Home” and Tonya Lowman’s “When I Get Home” are new songs that sound older than the hills. And in a class by themselves are Tom T. and Dixie Hall who (along with Troy Engle) penned “Lord It’s a Hard Road Home.”
Stephenson’s impressive support cast includes Shad Cobb, Sonya Isaacs, Missy Raines, and former band members Dustin Benson and Aaron McDaris. Isaacs’ harmonies are the first female vocals to be heard on a Larry Stephenson recording.
Thankful is a very personal effort by Stephenson, who lost his mother and four close friends in 2007. It may also be his finest, and it should contend for the IBMA’s 2008 Gospel Recording of the Year.
by Tim Walsh