“I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands” by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske
Inspired equally by the spirit of the classic forebears of old-time music and later arriving artists who have continually refined the music as an important contemporary art, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have now released three albums of modern minimalist musical lore, each exceeding that which came before it.

A taste of bluegrass, a dollop of folk, a sprinkling of modern stringband adventurousness, and a healthy measure of fresh approaches to old-timey songs, and you have the recipe to distinguish this duo within the multitudes creating modern folk-based, acoustic music.

Morrison and West are stalwarts of the Pacific Northwest music scene, and  I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands finds them incorporating additional musicians within their fold. Most prominent perhaps are fiddlers Ryan Drickey and Brittany Haas who twin up and complement Morrison and West throughout. Working without liner notes, I’m unable to distinguish between who is playing bouzouki where—O’Brien, Morrison, and West each contribute on that instrument, while O’Brien and Morrison also play mandolin.

Morrison’s old-timey banjo playing is beautiful, especially on songs like “James is Out” and “Fiddlehead Fern,” while West’s guitar parts are equally impressive; “Ritzville”/”Steamboats On the Saskatchewan” is a veritable showcase for the ensemble, and West’s guitar on “Livin’ in America” is captivating.

Vocally, Morrison continues to take most of the leads—deep, gritty expressions of open spaces, challenged individuals, and sorrowful times. West’s vocal harmony is rich, an ideal foil to Morrison, who is vocally reminiscent of O’Brien. West also takes the lead on the exceptional “Pocket Full of Dust.”

The duo’s intrinsic vitality provides the album with a consistency in sound, firmly ingrained in their experiences. Grounded by the music of Norman Blake, Kelly Joe Phelps, and certainly producer Tim O’Brien as they are, one can also appreciate their wholly original approach to acoustic roots music. “The Natural Thing to Do” is a straight ahead ‘tear in my beer’ country shuffle, whereas the wordy “Anxious Rows” clips along at the pace of a fiddle contest burner, but with an emotional depth seldom encountered .

As with the previous Our Lady of the Tall Trees, the majority of the songs are Morrison originals but there are a few familiar songs included as well. The Louvin’s mournful “Lorene” is given a gorgeous treatment. Alice Gerrard’s melancholy “Voices of Evening” is appropriately aching, while “Green Pastures” raises the spirit.

With this stellar creation, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are sure to continue to expand their listening base, and it shouldn’t be too long before they are widely appreciated by those who enjoy riveting, fresh expressions of old-time music.

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“Poison Cove” by Milan Miller

Milan Miller
Poison Cove
BluSadie Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass fans love a mystery, especially with some murder thrown into the plot. The title track of Poison Cove gives us a good dose of that. A young boy hides in the bushes and watches his father, a moonshiner, kill a revenue agent. That’s a secret he has to carry all his life. Some might call songs like this a celebration of violence but I don’t see it that way. This is a story of life disrupted, not a celebration. When the song kicks off I hear a resemblance to “Brown Mountain Light,” evidence that there are a finite number of notes and ways they can be pleasingly arranged, and sometimes songs will trigger memories of each other. “Yellow Jacket Mine,” an uptempo number about an 1869 disaster, is another one that triggers a musical memory, this time from an (unfortunately) obscure Tim Ryan CD.

Miller’s career has been that of a sideman and composer. IIIrd Tyme Out’s “Pretty Little Girl From Galax” is his composition. On his first solo release he’s penned (or co-composed) all the songs but one and proves himself as adept with words and melodies as he is with strings. On various cuts he plays guitar, mandolin and resonator guitar. He’s backed by familiar names like Shad Cobb (fiddle), Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar), Scott Vestal (banjo) and Ron Stewart (fiddle). Mark Winchester plays bass and wrote the one song Miller didn’t compose. “Swept Away,” like the title song, is going to be one of those songs I put in my favorites folder. It’s a lament, the story of a young girl swept away in a flood.

Swept away by muddy water

Damn the river, blame the rain

Swept away my only daughter

Left me here drowned in pain

The refrain ends on a minor chord and you can feel the pain in your heart. That’s good music: make you laugh, make you cry, then make you smile again.

This cut also underlines my only criticism. Miller sings lead with Buddy Melton singing tenor and Darren Nicholson (both members of Balsam Range) singing baritone. You can hear the harmony vocals, but barely, and on other tracks they are even harder to make out. I would have liked it better being able to clearly hear the harmonies along with some creative note shifting by the tenor. But this is a minor point on an otherwise great CD. I like what he gives us better than some recent top-name releases.

He starts off with some humor, a man who is going to make it to his notion of big one day because he’s “Savin’ Up For A Cadillac.” I like the sense of urgency and continuity he creates by the extended instrumental ending of “Cadillac” and the immediate jump into “A Little Bit Of You.” It would be fun to hear that on more CDs (and especially at more shows, where, to borrow a phrase, “a little less talk and a lot more action” would be appreciated).

He gives us some blues, a man who has the love of his life but takes her for granted until she leaves, and now she’s “Playing Hard To Forget.” His one gospel number, “Whose Name Do You Call,” illustrates the strength of creative arranging: every song doesn’t have to start with a banjo riff. And then there’s the Irish connection.

Some instrumentals that have been handed down through the old-time days have Irish connections, but you don’t hear many new vocal numbers that overtly mention an Irish theme. “The Saddest Man In County Clare” tells a tale repeated in all countries, a quiet tale of lost love, but set in Ireland with references to Dublin and County Clare. I asked Miller about this and he tells me, “My wife and I were spending the night in Ennis in late June 2010, and ended up listening to some tunes at a place called Patrick’s. Things were slow in town that evening, and only a few other people were in the pub. The young man in the next booth was sharing with a friend about a chance encounter earlier that day with his former love interest. Although he was trying to play it cool, it was apparent that he was still very much in love with this woman.” And that, folks, is one way to write a good song.

The other song is “Spike Island Blues.” “As we were looking out at the [Queenstown/Cobh] harbor one evening, a friend who lives there started telling me about Spike Island and the efforts that were underway to open the island for tours. He gave me an overview of the history of the prison, … . It seemed like great subject matter for a bluegrass song … During our last trip in October 2012 the prison was open … It was even more gruesome than the vision I had in my mind when putting the song together. It made Alcatraz look like a five star hotel.” History makes good bluegrass, too.

Good music from start to finish. This one’s worth every penny you’ll pay for it.

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“The Comeback Album” by Eric Brace and Peter Cooper

Eric Brace and Peter Cooper
The Comeback Album
Red Beet Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The fourth album from Nashville singer-songwriters Eric Brace and Peter Cooper may not be their best album (I continue to favor You Don’t Have to Like Them Both, their 2008 debut), and neither is it the strongest release of this calendar year. It will not change the course of music history, and it is not likely to be the subject of scholarly writing throughout the next decade.

It is a wonderful collection of music that has provided me with hours of enjoyment; I suspect it might do the same for others who appreciate thoughtful, melodic interpretations of country and roots music that owes as much to Tom T. Hall (the subject of their previous tribute album I Love) and Jerry Jeff Walker (who gets name-checked within the album’s lead track “Ancient History”) as it does the likes of Todd Snider and Kieran Kane.

I feel quite inadequate attempting to describe music executed within such an accomplished setting. The collective musicianship contained within The Comeback Album is staggering, continually engaging, and the composition of the songs—the ebbs and flows, the changes in tempo and mood, as often as not indicated by subtle shades of acoustic and electric guitar—sometimes attributed, as in the playing of Thomm Jutz on the lead track, elsewhere not- is profound.

Lloyd Green, Cooper’s collaborator on the earlier The Lloyd Green Album, plays pedal steel on every second song, and consistently does just enough to make each track stronger than it might have been without his efforts.

The album comes in at forty minutes, and during that time the duo examine or at least consider subjects both significant and light. From a Tennessee jail cell to the remnants of a life spent searching for ambition in a dead-end job and a never-ending bottle, and no few opportunities to examine matters of lust, love, and loss, Brace and Cooper write and perform songs that are as memorable and substantial as they are even-handed and self-aware.

Apparently unflappable, Brace and Cooper bring in the unlikely trio of Mac Wiseman, Duane Eddy, and Marty Stuart to perform one of Tom T. Hall’s earliest songwriting hits, “Mad.” Described by Phil Kaufman (related in the song notes) as ‘The Neverly Brothers,” Cooper and Brace are that unlikely duo of (seemingly) even-minded, focused individuals who are greater for their collaboration.

As they have in the past, Brace and Cooper share material written by others, in this case Karl Straub (again) and David Halley, whose “Rain Just Falls” closes the disc.

Never shying from self-deprecation, the pair are equally adept at self-evisceration, as on the needs-to-be-a-classic “She Can’t Be Herself.” Coloured in heartache by Green’s waves of blue steel, this Brace/Cooper composition should be accompanied by the number for the local mental health helpline. Brace’s “Kissing Booth” reminds me of John Wort Hannam, and I realize that reference means little outside of Alberta…but it shouldn’t, ’cause JWH is amazing: small town life and individual perspective magnified by shared experience and universal emotion. Beautiful stuff, if anguish inducing.

Eric Brace and Peter Cooper’s The Comeback Album is eminently appealing, and should keep listeners enthralled with clever phrasing, both lyrical and melodic, accomplished lead and harmony singing, and especially impressive instrumentation.

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“New Primitive” by Adam Steffey

Adam Steffey
New Primitive
Organic
Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you’ve seen the Boxcars lately then you know that Adam Steffey has slimmed down quite a bit, something that’s hard to do for musicians living out on the road. Thick or thin, however, Steffey is one of that special group of mandolin players at the top of the heap. He plays with precision, style and taste.

In this outing he’s performing without his Boxcar sidekicks, concentrating on melding bluegrass and old-time styles. He didn’t go far to find a banjo player, being joined by wife Tina playing clawhammer on several tracks.

While a number of banjo players, including Dr. Ralph Stanley, will play some clawhammer banjo, many bluegrass musicians don’t speak kindly of old-time music, using variations of “eight bars played eighty times” to describe it. Having sat in with some old-time bands I can appreciate that description, but it’s also a too simplistic dismissal of the genre. In fairness, I’ve also played in and listened to bluegrass bands that would play an instrumental to death, believing that every instrument deserved two if not three turns playing the entire melody. Bluegrass is a melting pot of styles and genre, and many of the tunes played have been performed by country, blues, gospel or old-time artists as well, so a CD such as this should be well received.

Is the music Stingbean played clawhammer or frailing? The term is often used interchangeably except for those few who smugly smile at us of the banjo-ignorant masses when we speak of the art of assailing the pig-skinned music maker.

Actually, the banjo head may be pig, calf or goat skin (I suppose horse hide or a really big ‘possum could be used, too), but I digress. If you’re interested in frailing vs clawhammer, look at this Wikipedia article or this site which has some video examples (one which features Stringbean with Earl Scruggs playing rhythm guitar).

Old-time music also has some imponderable titles, but, whatever they may be called, Steffey’s musical approach makes the tunes fun listening. Banjo players sometimes choose “Cluck Old Hen” as their solo, but here it is played with sparse accompaniment, a delicate approach to this old song. “Big Eyed Rabbit,” on the other hand, is a bluegrass band energetically playing and passing the lead to each other. Siblings Samantha (fiddle and vocals) and Zeb Snyder (guitar), at the ripe old ages of 14 and 17, play on the CD but it’s Eddie Bond playing fiddle and singing on this track along with Barry Bales (Union Station) on bass. “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies” is a gentle, beautiful ballad sung here by Samantha Snyder. (It’s listed here as traditional but is also widely attributed to Kate Rusby.)

Steffey includes tunes popular in bluegrass such as “Blackberry Blossom” (titled here as “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”), a number usually played with gusto by bluegrass bands but played here with a gentle touch, the mandolin as centerpiece rather than a fiddle (or, in some cases, Tony Rice’s guitar). “Chinquapin Hunting” is another minimalist arrangement (mandolin and guitar). “Squirrel Hunter” (or “The Squirrel Hunters”) is an excellent example of how to make a simple tune interesting. A less accomplished group might repeat the two-part melody over and over but Steffey’s group vamps around the melody to take it to new places.

It’s easy to imagine a group of musicians sitting in the lamplight, cider (and maybe some ‘shine) close by, as you listen to “Fine Times At Our House,” but Steffey has surrounded himself with a group of talented musicians who take these traditional numbers to new places. This CD should be a delight for both fans of bluegrass and old-time music.

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“Nail by Nail” by Nu-Blu

Nu-Blu
Nail By Nail
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Nu-Blu’s latest release on Pinecastle is an all-gospel album. The group was started by husband and wife team Daniel (guitar and vocals) and Carolyn (bass, lead vocals) Routh nearly a decade ago. They tend toward a contemporary bluegrass sound and this CD is no different. Don’t expect to hear their version of “Life’s Railway To Heaven.”

Traditionalists or not, there are some powerful songs in this collection and Nu-Blu does an excellent job presenting them. Bandmates Levi Austin (banjo, vocals) and Austin Koerner (mandolin) are joined by Greg Luck (IIIrd Tyme Out, J D Crowe) on fiddle along with the Rouths, all good musicians, providing excellent support for the vocals.

“The Abyss,” a haunting melody based on minor chords, is a plea for help because “Hell has called my marker in.” It’s the story of a person captured by sin and standing on the abyss of Hell. Starting with just Carolyn Routh singing and the guitar behind her, the mandolin and bass come in on the second verse, then it builds with the fiddle. By the time the banjo kicks into the break you’re captured by the song. What an excellent arrangement. “The Carpenter” has an easy-going sound, praising Jesus as a part of the singer’s life. Aside from the instrumentation, this could have been done by (no pun intended) the Carpenters. If you listen to just the melody it has the same kind of flow as many of their songs.

For Christian impact, the strongest song is “Hammer.”

The sound of a hammer on the nails

As it echoes through the hills

The pounding of the heart that they must kill

And I can’t erase it from my my mind

Though I’ve tried so many times

I’ll never forget the hammer on the nails

That’s a song that will stick with me, you can mark it down.

“Martha and Mary” (from the pens of Becky Buller and Nancy Cardwell [executive director of IBMA]), taken from Luke 10:38-42, is the oft repeated story of two sisters, one intent on meal preparations for the visiting Jesus while the other listens at his feet. It compares the singer to Martha, anxious to take an active role in her Chrsitian walk. Another easy-flowing number is “Where Did You Get That Water,” showing off the singing talent of Levi Austin. My only complaint about the CD is it’s another disc short of music with only seven songs. As good as Nu-Blu is here, a full CD would have been a better treat.

You don’t have to be a bluegrass fan to enjoy and be moved by this CD, and it should appeal to most of the bluegrass world, too.

“There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” by McCamy’s Melody Sheiks featuring R. Crumb

McCamy’s Melody Sheiks featuring R. Crumb
There’s More Pretty Girls Than One 
Arhoolie Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

First off, if you haven’t seen director Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, do so now.

Having done that, you know who Robert Crumb is and why it’s not surprising that this American expatriate to France who digs old records is a guest artist on Ian McCamy’s fiddle project for the indispensible Arhoolie Records. You also know why There’s More Pretty Girls Than One is an apt title.

Crumb plays an easy rhythm guitar on all but a couple of the disc’s 17 tracks (he plays tenor banjo on the opening cut “Home! Sweet Home!”) and sings in a pretty straight old-time style on a a couple of familiar numbers: Charlie Poole’s “Goodbye Booze” and the the title track, which sounds fresh here for having been taken at more languid pace than is usual these days.

McCamy and his band—Stephen Harrison (piano, double bass, five-string banjo) and Ilan Moss (fiddle, five-string banjo)—are the real treat here, making this 51-minute pass down the memory lane populated by long-lost 78-rpm records a pleasure for devotees and newcomers alike, hopefully prompting the latter to track down some of the names in  the liner notes for further listening.

McCamy’s fiddle tone and approach are perfect for this project, grabbing all the old, woody tones without overplaying the nostalgia. When Moss joins on twin fiddle, as on “Old Molly Hare,” “Drunken Hiccups,” and “Sail Away Ladies, Sail Away,” it gets even better.