“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.

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“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.

“FoxFire” by Conor Mulroy

Conor Mulroy
Melmac Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Music writers often say it, but it’s true. It never stops being nice that occasionally in your mailbox appears sounds from a promising musician you never would have discovered otherwise. This, which is largely the work of artists and good publicists, is even more crucial as multi-artist labels are not as often part of the process.

Conor Mulroy, a Massachusetts native who plays mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, and piano, is my latest unsought musical discovery. On what looks to be his fourth solo recording, FoxFire, Mulroy confines himself to the mandolin in leading a small unit—Tristan Clarridge (fiddle), Corey DiMario (double bass, tenor guitar), and Rob Cimitile (steel string guitar)—through 46 minutes of his own compositions divided into three songs and two multi-part movements.

“5 Tone Reel,” “Tenant’s Harbor,” and “Taylor’s Ridge” are swift and Celtic-tinged, notable for Mulroy’s clean-picked, insistent melodies and Clarridge’s exquisite tone, both when he’s out front and filling in.

The five-part “Movement 1″ follows, and is a bit confusing as labeled. Each of the five tracks has enough of it’s own flavor, often provided by Cimitile’s guitar approach, to be distinct, but there didn’t seem to be a strog enough thread linking them. Labelled differently, I might not have even noticed this, but as it is, it would have been better to let each segment become more of what it could have on its own.

The eight-part “Movement 2″ includes Gary Feldman on marimba, adding a rich, yet subtle jazzy texture to what has been a decidedly rustic affair thus far, freeing up Mulroy and Clarridge to stretch their legs while providing the cohesion that “Movement 1″ may lack.

It’s nice to hear a young talent like Mulroy being ambitious with album-length concepts when singles and EPs are what we’re getting more of. Let’s hope that he and this unit, especially fiddler Clarridge, keep pushing themselves to create for attentive audiences.

“Putumayo Presents Bluegrass” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Putumayo Presents Bluegrass
Putumayo World Music
3 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

A long, long time ago when there were such things, I worked at a Borders Books & Music in the CD department. We sold a lot of Putumayo World Music samplers, especially when we played them on the store stereo. The strange sounds would pique a shopper’s interest and they’d ask us for a CD.

It was around that time that I developed my interest in bluegrass music, and since then, I’ve been making the contention that bluegrass should be regarded as an American, indeed a Southern, contribution to world music.

It comes from a certain place, it has a set of cultural experiences that accompany the music (festivals, jamming, house concerts, etc.), and there remains pure variants of it while other strains grow wild.

It’s hard to encapsulate that in 13 tracks and 50 minutes, but Putumayo has done a fair job.

Kicking off with Alison Krauss’ “Every Time You Say Goodbye” is a no-brainer, as her voice is the most accessible and world famous to emerge from bluegrass music, while this arrangement is a classic example of modern bluegrass. Another killer track is the Seldom Scene’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” which was an oft-requested number in my days as a deejay. Bluegrass stalwarts Tim Stafford (vocal) and James Alan Shelton turn in a workmanlike “Shady Grove” as well.

Another well-known cut is Peter Rowan’s loosely swinging “Man of Constant Sorrow,” as different a take from the O Brother version as can be imagined, but one in keeping with the jam band bent that is one of the strongest running through this album. Railroad Earth, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and Town Mountain join Sam Bush and the hallowed duo of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on the list of that hard-to-define but easy-to-market variant of bluegrass and Americana.

Andrea Zonn and Alison Brown (“New Night Dawning” and Frank Solivan II (“Across the Great Divide”) contribute what I would call some nice easygrass, but one can’t help but think a couple of shots of the hard stuff might be a better on an introduction to a music whose more easily palatable tastes are amply represented.

“American Legacies” by Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band
American Legacies
McCoury Music and Preservation Hall Recordings
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Gerald Early famously said in Ken Burns’ 1993 Baseball documentary that “the Constitution, jazz music and baseball” are what America will be known for two thousand years from now. All three have roots in the Old World, but are uniquely American because of the innovations Americans added to old ingredients. Bluegrass music is often overlooked as a unique American contribution to world music, mostly because it has not influenced culture as much as jazz, but it is perhaps even more purely American than its more popular cousin.

The bands collaborating on this recording are standard-bearers in their genres, with the McCoury’s outfit having brought more innovation to theirs than the Pres Hall band, which keeps the torch burning for traditional jazz. Both are exciting to see live, where the joy they bring to their craft is immediately palpable, but their recorded effort sounds more like a staid compromise than a synthesis of two vibrant styles.

“The Band’s in Town” kicks off the disc with plenty of promise, with Del McCoury and Pres Hall’s Clint Maedgen trading vocals and introducing great players like Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Jason Carter (fiddle) from the bluegrass side and jazzer Charlie Gabriel (clarinet). Gabriel’s clarinet, Mark Braud’s muted trumpet and Del’s matchless voice combine to make “One Has My Name” a diverting breeze and one of the best tracks here. Del also shines on “Jambalaya” and “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry,” one of the very few times that Rob McCoury’s impeccable banjo is allowed to speak up.

Maedgen, Gabriel and Braud share the vocal duties from the Pres Hall side, but, like all mortals, they just don’t stack up to Del. On the instrumental side, the Pres Hall band dominates, both on solos and they tempo and feel of each track. It’s all trad jazz with the McCoury band pitching in here and there. Nowhere is Pres Hall tested by a hard-driving bluegrass beat, even on “Banjo Frisco,” an instrumental for banjo written by Del or “Milenberg Joys,” a jazz tune that bluegrass founder Bill Monroe converted into a mandolin showpiece.

It might have been a better idea to just record Del singing with Pres Hall while the rest of the boys were out as the Travelin’ McCourys. The result instead is like a beignet from Cafe Du Monde with no sugar sprinkled on it.

“Baby, How Can It Be?: Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Baby, How Can It Be?: Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I’ve been listening to this one in the car for the last several weeks, struggling to decide what to say about it. With 66 tracks spread over three CDs and more than three hours, there’s a lot of material here, and all of it is simply engrossing.

And it all comes from the 78 RPM record collection of John Heneghan, one of those valuable souls whose gentle madness perpetuates these essential nuggets of recorded culture. The package s beautifully illustrated and presented in a fold-out box, with a centerfold illustration by (thankfully, not of) R. Crumb and liner notes by Nick Tosches.

The selections themselves are varied and inspired, with styles such as blues, jazz, pop, Hawaiian and what we now call old-time country. Some of it sounds like it could be one of those manic soundtracks to Tom and Jerry cartoons (The Broadway Bellhops with “Wimmin-Aaah!), some sounds like it could have been recorded in an old barn with just a fiddle and guitar or banjo (Fiddlin’ John Carson with “It’s a Shame to Whip Your Wife on Sunday).

In spite of all their differences, a few things emerge from this collection: the emphasis on musicianship serving the song rather than the ego of the performer, and the concept of the song as something that, even with just about three minutes to spare, should be given time to develop and grow, as evidenced by the fact that many of the instrumental introductions approach one minute or so.

There are some well-known names here like Bill Carlisle, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cab Calloway, Mississippi John Hurt, the Mississippi Sheiks and the Memphis Jug Band. But you’ve also got some racy fare in the form of Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys with “Pussy” and Hartman’s Heartbreakers with “Let Me Play With It.”

And you’ve got the Callahan Brothers with the haunting “I Want to Ask the Stars,” Laura Smith with the arresting “I’m Gonna Kill Myself” and Mississippi Matilda with an amazingly powerful falsetto vocal on “Hard Working Woman.”

There’s plenty more that will grab your ear if you take the plunge on a truly satisfying collection of rare and beautiful time pieces.

“The Rounder Records Story” by Various Artists

Various Artists
The Rounder Records Story
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I got bit by the bluegrass bug in November 1997 when I heard Bob Dylan sing the Stanley Brothers song “I’ll Not Be a Stranger” in concert in Columbus, Ohio. Less than two years later, I was training to take over the hosting job on Bluegrass Breakdown, a Saturday-night, four-hour live radio show on WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In the interim I had been listening to host Steve Allen, whom I was to replace, been listening to CDs from the library and from the Borders Books & Music record section in which I worked, and had been reading up on bluegrass music, most notably Bluegrass Breakdown by Robert Cantwell and Bluegrass: A History by Neil V. Rosenberg. Allen was impressed at the amount of bluegrass history I had absorbed.

But when I took the helm of Bluegrass Breakdown in December 1999, I was still nervous about what songs to pick, fearful that more knowledgeable fans would bombard me with calls belittling my choices.

However, I had a plan for whenever I wasn’t sure what next to slide into the disc player: just pick a Rounder CD and cue it up to any sing title that sounded cool. It always worked, and I always grabbed more than a proportional share of those CDs with disctinctive, uniform spines when I was doing show prep. Other labels soon became trusted as well, but Rounder was always, as Jim Eanes would say, my old standby.

This four-disc, 87-track set, complete with exhaustive liner notes, shows not only that Rounder has been an impeccable source of bluegrass music for 40 years, but for all kinds of Americana, roots and even pop and rock music. From the old-time strains of George Pegram and Ed Haley, to the blues of Charles Brown and Gatemouth Brown, to the Cajun of Beausoleil and D.L Menard and the Louisiana Aces, to the rock of Robert Plant and Rush, Rounder has covered it all.

Rounder’s approach has been the opposite of labels from the past like Atlantic, Motown or Stax, which pumped out high-quality product that all bore the unmistakable stamp of their in-house studios, producers and songwriters. They instead have sought affiliations with uniquely individual artists and, for the most part, let them create.

The result is that this varied boxed set is a tossed salad of great music, each bite with a different combination of flavors, but great taste in every one. Some great, sometimes unexpected morsels for this taster include: “Killing the Blues” by Woodstock Mountains Revue, a perfect song picked up by Rounder artists Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for their album Raising Sand more than three decades later; “Jula Jekere,” a haunting groove from Alhaji Bai Konte; the yodeling bluegrass of Joe Val’s “Sparkling Brown Eyes;” the original version of “Mama’s Hand” from Hazel Dickens; Jimme Dale Gilmore’s mournful “One Endless Night;” and Linda Thompson’s lush “Versatile Heart.”

Del McCoury and his band, who recorded a handful of classic albums for Rounder in the 1990s, are absent from the collection for some reason, and I could have stood for more bluegrass on the later discs, but this set is a perfect gift for anyone who truly enjoys good music and will serve as a jumping-off point for many a fruitful explorations into a vast catalog of treasures.

“Africa to Appalachia” by Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko

Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko
Africa to Appalachia
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Jayme Stone may be unfamiliar to many, but he has spent considerable time mastering the arts of the 5-string banjo. A student of many — Bill Evans, Tony Trischka, and Béla Fleck are but three who have spent time guiding the young Canadian in the ways of modern banjo — Stone has released a couple of previous albums that display his propensity for complex arrangements and airy, jazzy fare. In early 2008, Stone was awarded a Juno- the equivalent of a Grammy Award- for Instrumental Album of the Year for a rootsy album entitled The Utmost.

The Ontario native’s third disc is even more organic in nature as it is more closely tied to the history of the banjo and the African instruments from which it developed. Stone spent time last year in Mali exploring the roots of the 5-string banjo. A result of the relationships forged overseas is Africa to Appalachia, a dynamic new album that successfully amalgamates traditional African sounds — kora, percussion, ngoni, and vocals — with the fiddles and banjos of the Appalachian region of the southern United States.

Much more than an academic experiment, the teaming of Guinean griot (more than an oral historian, but that is a good place to start) Katenen Dioubate, Quebec-based Malian Mansa Sissoko, and Stone with guests including Casey Driessen produces a magical unification of rhythms that is lively, memorable, and awe-inspiring. One is primarily aware of the African dimension because it is so obviously infectious, but acute listeners will sense the persistent presence of banjo and fiddle inhabiting each song.

Africa to Appalachia
serves as a beautiful and accessible introduction to world music while providing those already attracted to African music a new twist, that being the unobtrusive and natural incorporation of the fiddle and banjo into the blend. For those who love the banjo, the album provides an insight to where the banjo has been, and where it might again go within parameters that have not frequently been explored.

by Donald Teplyske