“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.

“Fiddle” by Smoke Dawson

Smoke Dawson
Tompkins Square Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The violin—or rather, for our purposes, the fiddle—has carried the implication that it is the devil’s instrument long before the Charlie Daniels pop-country operetta “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” From the legends surrounding Paganini on back to an ancient Greek music critic by the name of Aristotle, the fiddle has evoked suspicion and curiosity.

Some attribute this to apprehension at the debauchery that comes with drink and dance—the skilled fiddler for centuries before turntables and synthesizers performed the function now manned by the likes of Avicii and Skrillex, with wine or moonshine lubricating the proceedings as molly and mushrooms now do for many.

But I suspect that the fiddle is regarded as fiendish because of the visceral reaction only it can provoke. Neither the piano nor the guitar—and certainly no horn—can approach the infinite range of microtones and timbres possible with strings grabbing and scratching and pulling over a fretless fingerboard. Our ears can hear so much from a fiddle, and its sounds are often familiar and frightening in the same moment.

I was playing a digital copy of this reissue of this record—Smoke Dawson’s privately pressed “Fiddle” LP from 1971, with fascinating liner notes by Josh Rosenthal—the other day, and someone in the next room later remarked on the Celtic music they had heard.

It’s more the American folk or Appalachian style of fiddling that Dawson does here, but he’s definitely calling up the ancient tones and voices that poets like Bill Monroe and Van Morrison are always going on about.

“John Brown’s Dream,” “Cacklin’ Hen,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—indeed most of the 17 tracks here—have melodies recognizable to even casual listeners to bluegrass and American folk and country music—sometimes those melodies are known by other names, which underscores the magpie nature of the fiddlers that have passed them along—renaming, stealing, reworking, and reinvigorating at every pass. Dawson’s “Pretty Polly” is every bit as bracing as Ralph Stanley’s version, right down to the plucked-string kickoff that mimics the sound of Stanley’s banjo. If you listened to each version side by side for the first time with no context, you couldn’t say which was older or even when they were recorded.

Dawson also played the bagpipes, which make a striking appearance here on the third leg of the “Connaughtman’s Rambles/Devil’s Dream/Marche Venerie” medley.

“The Minotaur” closes the album with stutters and hums and an unworldly aura made more affecting by the knowledge it’s coming not from Satan but from one of us.



“Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Spending time with the music of Jean Ritchie quickly sends one down a rabbit hole of interpretations, variations, fragments, and re-imaginings of Scotch-Irish-English story songs. It can be fascinating to trace a tendril of one ballad to the chorus of another and the thread of a re-worded version of a third.
It can also be exhausting.

Rather more pleasant is allowing Ritchie’s unvarnished voice sweep one away to a world of Unquiet Graves, Maids Freed from Gallows, Rosewood Caskets, House Carpenters, and Orphaned Children. Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by her own dulcimer, by Doc Watson’s guitar and banjo, or by folks like Eric Weissberg (who nicely accompanies Judy Collins here on “One I Love”) and Marshall Brickman, Ritchie takes listeners to places that—within the most popular contemporary Americana performers—only the likes of Iris Dement does today.

As did Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed through their original songs, Dement and (as I learned living with this collection) dozens of unheralded mountain and hill singers, Ritchie transports the listener to a long ago place that only tangentially bears relevance to contemporary times.

Or, it would appear upon first listen.

Because woven into Ritchie’s ballads of courtship, disaster, crime, wonder, sentimentality, and loss are cautionary tales, tragic ballads, and ‘sparking’ songs that connect with motivated modern listeners by the very power of their antiquity and timelessness.

What is sometimes (frequently, perhaps) neglected when considering Jean Ritchie is that standing alongside the “ballads from her Appalachian family tradition,” to borrow a phrase, have been dozens of amazing, timeless creations—among them “The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Thousand Mile Blues,” and “Black Waters”—that are original compositions inspired by the realities of Ritchie’s experiences.

Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie is a two-disc, 37-track labour of love from producers Mick Lane, Charlie Pilzer, and Dan Schatz augmented by performers who not only have been influenced by and admire Ritchie, but many who have more than passing connection to the Kentuckian who was awarded a National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2002.

The set contains a blend of traditional and contemporary ‘folk’ approaches to the material, with a decided emphasis on presenting performers who may not be widely known within the broadly defined folk and Americana fields. Providing further balance, the producers have elected to feature many of Ritchie’s lesser known compositions alongside the many traditional songs for which she is well regarded.

Some who have contributed to this collection are familiar and contribute the expected exceptional performances. Robin and Linda Williams with John Jennings (“The L & N Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”) Peggy Seeger (“Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn,”) and John McCutcheon (“The Bluebird Song”) are among the most well-known of the performers.

Select songs have a contemporary presentation. The always formidable and impressive Janis Ian, supported here by Andrea Zonn, Alison Brown, and Todd Phillips, serves up a memorable version of “Mornings Come, Maria’s Gone.” An all-star lineup of John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Bryn Davies, Suzy Bogguss, and Kathy Mattea perform “Black Waters” capturing the emotional, physical, and geographical impact that brutally evasive and injurious coal mining practices have had on the southern United States.

Other performances are more reminiscent of the stark sounds and performances Ritchie grew up immersed within, such as Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen’s “Lord Bateman,” the Starry Mountain Singers “I’ve Got a Mother,” and Archie Fisher’s “Jackaro.”

While a handful of the performers have considerable name recognition, the overwhelming majority are less familiar—at least to me-—but their contributions provide substantive flesh to the beautiful skeleton that would have existed had only ‘stars’ been included. Traditional singers like Magpie (“Farewell to the Mountains,”) the incredible Molly Andrews (“Now Is the Cool of the Day”) and Elizabeth LePrelle (“Fair Nottamun Town,”) Riki Schneyer (“Blue Diamond Mines,”) and Kathy Reid-Naiman (“Pretty Betty Martin”) continue the art Ritchie has inspired for the past fifty and more years, and kick no small amount of major vocal arse in doing so.

Sam Amidom (“The Cuckoo,”) fiddler Matt Brown (“Golden Ring Around the Susan Girl,”) and Rachael Davis (“One More Mile,”) and others including LePrelle, bridge the generations between themselves, Ritchie (who is now 92) and the original inspiration for these songs.

Tying things together, Kathy Mattea performs “Jubilee” with Ritchie’s sons Jon and Peter Pickow, who also appear with Kenny Kosek on “Last Old Trains A-Leavin’.” Suzie Glaze, who once appeared as Ritchie in a stage production, performs a telling version of “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” The Ritchie Nieces contribute “Twilight A-Stealing,” a song Ritchie writes that her family always sang together at the close of their evening porch sing-a-longs.

Ritchie herself appears twice. A delightful 1985 rendition of “Who Killed Cock Robin” (with contemporary Oscar Brand) is light and companionable. A final ’round’ of “The Peace Round” from 1992, augmented with the voices of many who appear throughout this wide-ranging tribute, closes the album on more pensive notes.

For those so inclined, Schneyer’s “Black Diamond Mines” isn’t the only song that includes a taste of bluegrass, but it is the one that most strongly embraces the sound. Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer’s “My Dear Companion” flirts along the edges.

Like Ritchie, Dale Ann Bradley is from Berea, Kentucky, and the five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year can’t help but have some ‘grass in her approach. Here, Bradley teams with Alison Brown and the Bankester vocalists for a take on “Go Dig My Grave,” and this take should find favour with those who appreciate Bradley’s approach to traditional material. (I have another paragraph or three about this fragment of “The Butcher’s Boy” available, but I had best leave that treatise to scholars.)

One can be forgiven for believing that Jean Ritchie only sang traditional folk music. ‘Folk’ is now a near meaningless catch-all, but descriptive musical terms once meant something. Ritchie herself once quite ardently distinguished her traditional mountain, folk, and old-time music from modern sounds that emanated from southern cities. In her liner notes to the 1962 album Precious Memories, Ritchie wrote:

But, my friends will say, is this folk music? Perhaps not, by the strictest scholarly definition. Some have known authors, some have not changed essentially from their original forms; I would call them valuable and interesting period pieces, the natural outgrowth of the older folk music of the region… But these songs are more than that; they are brimming over with the simple basic emotions that touch us all.

Ritchie was writing about her set containing “new hillbilly” and “city” songs like “The Great Speckled Bird,” “The Wreck on the Highway,” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” songs that would—through their very pervasiveness, and no matter who originated them—become standards of country and folk repertoires, as ‘folk’ as any song that had traveled from Europe.

Strange then that some fifty years later she might have just as accurately been writing about this uniformly outstanding tribute.

“Chapter One – Roots” and “Chapter Two – Boots” by the Willis Clan

The Willis Clan
The Willis Clan: Chapter One – Roots
The Willis Clan: Chapter Two – Boots

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Most fans of bluegrass and country music are familiar with transition stories: Harold Jenkins (rock ‘n’ roll) to Conway Twitty; Marty Raybon, bluegrass to country (Shenandoah) back to bluegrass; the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys, from southern gospel to country. You don’t often hear of a transition from traditional Irish music to bluegrass, but Irish music is viewed as one of the foundations of bluegrass and many familiar bluegrass songs have Irish roots, such as “Raglan Road,” “Colleen Malone” and “Katy Daley.”

The Willis Clan offers two CDs. Roots is Irish music with a combination of vocals and instruments that may not be familiar to many. You’ll hear a bass, a violin and a banjo, but there’s also an accordion, whistles, pipes and a bodhran. Your first thought may be that you know nothing about this music, have never heard it, but as you listen the songs have a ring of familiarity. You may have never heard “Ship of the Line” or “Jack B”—all the tracks were composed by the Clan—but you’ve heard this style of music on TV and in the cinema. It’s closely related to Celtic music and, without splitting hairs over origins, you’ll hear similar strains in Lord of the Rings. It will be familiar if you’ve ever been to a Celtic Woman concert (I highly recommend the experience) or listened to Enya.

The Clan ably performs the music. They are very good singers and musicians. These are the twelve children (whose names all begin with “J”) of Toby and Brenda Willis. Rather than attempt telling their stories here, visit their web page and read about each of the children. (Also visit a page telling of a tragedy that befell the family. Given the time frame, these must be the siblings of Toby Willis.)

And now they have added bluegrass to their repertoire. Again, all tracks are originals by the family (lyrics on their website) and most of the family is involved in the CD. Father Toby played the synths. Musicians include the six older children (Jessica, Jeremiah, Jennifer, Jeanette, Jackson and Jedi) while the next four (Jazz, and Julie, Jamie and Joy Anna on “Butterfly”) contribute vocals. Only their mother and Jaeger and Jada sit this one out. Guest musicians include John and David Meyer (banjo: “City Down Below”, piano: “Plowin’ Song”) and Chris Wright (percussion).

You can hear some of the Irish in their bluegrass. Every band wants its own identity but the Cherryholmes are the comparison many people will make. They remind me of the Cherryholmes, especially the last two years of their existence. The Willis’ brand of bluegrass has a very modern sound and some modern lyrics. “The Fields Have Turned Brown” was a look at life away from home. The Clan sings about “Since I Left Home:”

It’s a little bit wilder

It’s a little more free

Discovering on my own

Discovering me

Love is a favorite topic of many genre, and one take on it is “Nervous Breakdown,” a reaction when someone the singer may love approaches. “Ode To A Toad” is weird from a bluegrass perspective, but a cute song. It’s recitation about a “squat and slimy – big and fat” toad who “in mud he wallowed – bugs he swallowed” until he tackled something too big.

Finally in desperation

Giving way to aggravation

Out he stepped into the street

Never knowing what he’d meet

A passing car was unaware

Of tragedy occurring there

And lickity split, berbump, ker-splat

The grup was gone…

The toad was flat

A pancake colored brown and green

The spectacle was quite obscene

Not Jimmy Martin. Maybe Lester Flatt?

They include a good gospel number, “City Down Below,” about God’s destruction of Sodom with just a hint of a segue to the present. My favorite is “Sadie,” a tragedy about a woman who mysteriously died. If they were making a classic bluegrass CD and filled it with a dozen more like this one they would be on target—allowing for the inevitable differences of opinion about anything musical.

Unless your music collection is nothing but Mr. Monroe and Dr. Stanley, there’s a lot to enjoy in these CDs: impressive picking and singing and a load of talent concentrated in this family that makes Tennessee their home.












“Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir” by Josh Graves, edited by Fred Bartenstein

Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir
Josh Graves (Edited by Fred Bartenstein)
University of Illinois Press
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you made a Mt. Rushmore for bluegrass music instrumentalists, there would have to be six faces—not five as Bill Monroe originally intended—and that sixth face would have to be the smiling visage of Josh Graves. Burkett Howard Graves, known professionally as “Buck” or “Uncle Josh,” was born in Tellico Plains, Tennessee (Monroe County, oddly enough) in 1927 and popularized the use of the Dobro, or resonator guitar, in bluegrass music.

Others, including yodeler Cliff Carlisle and his Hawaiian steel guitar and Bashful Brother Oswald, who played Dobro with Roy Acuff, had made the slide guitar sound part of country music, but when Monroe’s new brand of music called bluegrass branched off just after World War II, the Kentucky bandleader brought with him only guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and his own rapid-fire mandolin. Joined with Earl Scruggs three-finger banjo style, the new style became a separate and distinct form of country music.

In a series of recorded interviews that Fred Bartenstein has shaped into Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir, Josh Graves tells us how his Dobro playing was able to cut in and become a partner in what quickly became a highly stylized dance. First with Mac Wiseman and, starting in 1955 with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Graves’ tone-rich, loud Dobro sound—the right hand influenced by Scruggs’ picking style, the left hand by Lightnin’ Hopkins and other black blues players—cut through the other noise to become an accepted part of a music played by hard-headed men whose main innovation was to tweak and then codify tradition.

At 176 pages (including a foreword from Neil Rosenberg, an introduction from Fred Bartenstein, and 16 pages containing 41 great black and white photographs) Bluegrass Bluesman is a slim volume, but that’s one of its virtues. The effect is that of spending a a day on the bus with a genial host who has lots of great stories not only about himself, but of many of the founders of one of America’s unique contributions to world music. Some of portraits are less-then-flattering, but there’s nothing vindictive or gratuitous, just the confirmation that our musical heroes are people too, and that their foibles and faults sometimes had important effects on the music just as their incredible talents did.

About 20 pages are dedicated to short tributes and remembrances from well-known colleagues, friends, and acolytes, and there’s a short appendix from Bobby Wolfe about Graves’ best-known guitars that will be of great interest to many.
Bluegrass Bluesman belongs with Can’t You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music, and Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story as essential portraits of musicians essential to the history of bluegrass music.

“The Colored Pencil Factory” by Astrograss and “Blue Couds” by Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower

The Colored Pencil Factory
Foggy Borough Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower
Blue Clouds
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was made an uncle almost four years ago, and since then I have started thinking about music for children for the first time. The first question to ask is whether there should be any difference in music children listen to. I guess there has been literature and music for children as long as adults have had the disposable income and free time to make it—and it would make sense that some subject matter isn’t appropriate for certain ages—but should music for children sound any different? Do silly voices and jumpy tempos appeal to children more? Why do they make versions of already juvenile pop music sung by insipid choirs of children?

I would suspect that most of the worst music for children is simply marketed toward their parents with no thought to the children themselves, but, happily, two recent examples of good music made especially for children have reached me recently.

The first is from Brooklyn-based Astrograss, who bill themselves as “NYC’s premier bluegrass band for all ages.” The Colored Pencil Factory looks to be their third recording for children, and its 16 tracks and 49 minutes are a fun listen even for a curmudgeonly bachelor. Their musicianship is truly first rate, with Dennis Lichtman’s mandolin kickoff to “Hey Blue Dog” worthy of Monroe himself, Jonah Bruno’s banjo on “Playground” influenced by Monroe sideman Rudy Lyle’s famous “White House Blues,” and standards like “Sawing on the Strings,” “Shortenin’ Bread,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Sail Away Ladies” presented with great fiddling by Sarah Alden with pretty much the same attitude one would find on any old bluegrass or old-time record.

Alden trades vocal duties with Jordan Shapiro and Tim Kiah, one of whom has a voice that favorably compares to Darrell Scott’s, though from the liner notes I can’t tell which. Though they’re aiming for happy enthusiasm rather than subtle blends, their harmonies are usually quite good, and the lyrics on the original tunes assume far more intelligence on the part of children than most other stuff I’ve heard.

Elizabeth Mitchell’s Blue Clouds is just a bit better and is as good as I can imagine a children’s album getting. Mitchell and husband Daniel Littleton are part of the indie band Ida, and with daughter Storey, who looks to be about 12 now, mom and dad form the band You Are My Flower, who have now released seven albums for children.

Blue Clouds is gentle, quiet, and melodic, with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason contributing their talents, and Storey and a handful of other children singing backup. None of the vocals from adults or children here are hokey, with the effect that children who listen are drawn into a sound that has a deeper meaning than just having fun or getting silly.

Indeed, Bill Withers’ “I Wish You Well” is a song that will deeply touch both parents and children. Other musical giants are adapted here: David Bowie’s “Kooks” speaks to the virtues of being different, Jimi Hendrix’s tender “May this Be Love” is a showcase for Littleton’s gorgeous guitar playing, the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” (with a “Little Martha” intro) is an acoustic version as beautiful as the electric original, and Van Morrison’s “Everyone” may be the best cover ever done of one of the grumpy Ulsterman’s  songs, with flute and children’s harmonies filling out the playfulness of the original.

Throw in some originals, a couple of American folk songs (“Hop Up, My Ladies” and “Froggie Went a-Courtin’”), songs from Korea (“San Toki (Mountain Bunny)”) and Japan (“Yuki (Snow)”), and the 13th-century English tune “Summer is Icumen In,” and you’ve got an incredibly well-laden pallet of music that this curmudgeonly bachelor has listened to a few times for no other reason than it’s a great record.

“Who’s Feeling Young Now?” by Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers
Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

When Nickel Creek disbanded, I was excited that Chris Thile, the greatest mandolin player in the history of the universe, would be free from trying to please the modern country market and let his talent and creativity take acoustic music fans places they had never been.

How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, his 2006 solo effort featuring three members of the current Punch Brothers lineup (Chris Eldredge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Gabe Witcher on fiddle), came the closest to fulfilling that potential, though Thile at times did stoop to doing a mawkish John Mayer impression.

Covers of Jack White’s “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and the Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage” had an angry young man with Jaggeresque charisma pouring his heart out with impassioned, raw vocals and shredding mandolin lines. Covers of Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues” had Thile and the band delivering well-known material with freshness and elan, while a couple of the instrumentals were both tuneful and intricate.

Sadly, on this, the third Punch Brothers effort, the emphasis is solely on the latter, with arrangements that simply make your head hurt as you try to stick with the time signatures and nimbly picked scales as they fly past or, more frequently, just lie there.

Exhibit A is “Kid A,” a perfectly played cover of an unlistenable instrumental track by the obnoxiously pretentious Radiohead. That a band as supremely talented as Thile’s would waste their talents and our time on such a soulless exercise is a waste.

The rest of the 11 tracks on this disc have promise, but none of them reach it. They’re full of jaw-dropping instrumental passages that never join up to go anywhere. The whole experience is like being seated next to a beautiful woman at a dinner party only to find out during the salad course that she’s incapable of talking about anything but herself.