“Things Left Undone” by Darren Nicholson

Darren Nicholson
Things Left Undone
Bearded Baby Productions
5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Not to be overly philosophical, but I’ve found that reflections on how I’ve lived life increase as the decades roll by. The title song of Darren Nicholson’s new CD is a song I might have listened to but not heard at one time, sung without thinking. Now, I need to find somewhere to put this track so I can hear it on a regular basis.

When a stranger came knockin’, did you let him in?

Was there food on your table for a down and out friend?

Did you hide in the shadows? Did you walk in the sun?

Or do you regret the things left undone?

Good arrangement, good song.

While I’ve heard CDs that I felt had a wart or two, it’s rare to listen to a bluegrass CD that has anything less than superb musicians. This one isn’t pure bluegrass but ‘grass is its base and it meets the test. Nicholson plays mandolin and lead guitar plus doing the lead vocals. His list of accomplishments is long and he’s also a part of Balsam Range. He’s joined by a bevy of guests and Darren Nicholson Band members including Steve Sutton (banjo), Carl Jackson, Tim Surrett, and Aaron Ramsey plus others. How could you expect anything but good music from this lineup?

“Travelin’ Teardrop Blues” is a number about life on the road. It’s not traditional but it’s bluegrass, featuring Kevin Sluder on bass, Griff Martin on guitar and Tony Creasman on wallet box. It tells us about the tension between loving to travel but leaving behind loved ones. “Give Mother My Crown” has been covered many times, going back to its origin with the Bailes Brothers and a few years later by Flatt & Scruggs. Sparse, just a guitar and bass with Nicholson, Eddie Rose and Audie Blaylock doing the vocals. You won’t get much grassier than this, or the “Bluegrass Stomp,” one of Mr. Monroe’s compositions, featuring Steve Thomas on fiddle, and “Sugar Creek Gap,” a blazing instrumental.

They also dip their toes in country. “Way I’ve Always Been” is a Tom T Hall song from his 1997 Home Grown album, though they do it (with Sluder on lead vocals) twice as fast as TTH did. “In A Perfect World,” co-composed by Milan Miller, gets the full country ballad treatment with Jeff Collins playing some Floyd Cramer-tinged piano and David Johnson working overtime with guitar, fiddles, strings and beautiful steel guitar. If you like classic country ballads, this is as pretty as you’ll ever hear. “I’m Not Going There Today,” featuring Rhonda Vincent and Jennifer Nicholson on vocals and Miller on electic guitar, is another excellent classic country number.

Does your taste run to country, like Guy Clark’s “Rain In Durango?” Perhaps you like hot modern bluegrass: listen to “Dancin’ In The Kitchen.” They offer some rock-’grass fusion with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” in a bluegrass conversion. And then there’s the traditional side of their music. This CD isn’t pure bluegrass but it’s pure fun, and that’s what is important.

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“The Nocturne Diaries” by Eliza Gilkyson

Eliza Gilkyson
The Nocturne Diaries
Red House Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eliza Gilkyson is no overnight success. The Austin-based songwriter and singer has been releasing albums of significance for longer than many of those being afforded headlines and cover stories today have been alive.

Her string of nine albums recorded for Red House Records since 2000, including the trio album Red Horse, serve as a testament to her consistency and the magnitude of her talents as a vocalist, songwriter, and instrumentalist. If this were a competition, these albums would stand alongside and surpass those recorded over a similar period of time by Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, and John Hiatt.

Yeah, she’s that danged good.

With The Nocturne Diaries, success has found Gilkyson overnight. These songs came to her in the dark, the muses disturbing her slumber and coaxing these songs from the writer. Appropriately, several are shadowy and no little bit sinister, providing inspiration and positive focus only when considering their contrasting natures. It is in the small hours that we allow our conscious thoughts to drift to places we generally disavow, and Gilkyson has embraced the magnitude of this energy without allowing herself to be held prisoner within their grasp.

As Gilkyson writes in her notes, “…the challenge today is to remain human when everything around us compels us to shut down. The Nocturne Diaries is a journey through the dark night of the soul that ends at the light of dawn with a sense of gratitude, a renewed commitment to care, and a stubborn little ray of hope.”

Co-producing the album with her son Cisco Ryder, Gilkyson chooses to illuminate her songs by enlivening them with melodies frequently belying their nature. “An American Boy” is possibly the most upbeat sounding song on the album, starting with pictures being posted on a Facebook site. The song goes along with a pleasant, poppy beat, while the teenaged protagonist considers the whispers in his head, staring at the key hanging beside the gun case. There’s a cheery, radio-friendly three-minute song for ya.

Within “The Ark,” Gilkyson considers Noah’s predicament of saving humanity and the earth’s lifeblood while realizing the skies are darkening, and “there is nothing we can do now for the ones who will remain.”

Contrasts abound. “The Red Rose and the Thorn” is, as best I can tell, a devotional to one’s potential murderer…all the while stalking he who will possibly do the deed. The confessional verses—including an interpretation of a familiar childhood prayer—soar, and the song surges into a Hammond B3 (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and electric guitar (via Gilkyson) frenzy. Elsewhere, Gilkyson gets her acoustic on as “Eliza Jane” is a near-bluegrass romp, replete with mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and URB…and drums.

“Fast Freight,” written by Gilkyson’s father Terry and recorded by the Kingston Trio on their debut album in 1958, does more than provide a bridge to those who established the foundation for the modern folk music experience. The song reveals how close we are in those early hours of sleeplessness to the person we know we should never allow ourselves to be. Ray Bonneville’s harmonica and Mike Hardwick’s slide work make those dark possibilities more apparent.

No doubt, Eliza Gilkyson has a beautiful voice. On “All Right Here,” when she sings of the choices she has made, the opportunities she has not pursued, and the resulting blessings she has received, there is crystal-clear precision. At that moment—within each of The Nocturne Diaries‘ 50 minutes—there isn’t a stronger, more suitable voice to carry these songs than Gilkyson’s. Time has been kind, and when I listen to this album alongside 1993′s Through the Looking Glass—as good as that Eliza was—the mature Gilkyson of today is the voice I prefer. There is a gravity present, a soft gruffness that provides each of these twelve songs the substance they demand.

For all of its heaviness, and The Nocturne Diaries has no little bit of emotional heft to it, one doesn’t come away from the album feeling depressed. Gilkyson has a manner about her that infuses optimism into each song. Rather than feeling defeated, listeners of this album will come out the other side assured that they have found strength within the challenges Gilkyson sketches.
Eliza Gilkyson, more than anything, in each song seems to be saying, ‘Take the risk, face the dark, persevere.’ The Nocturne Diaries are truly about having “wasted not our precious time.”

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“Gathering” by Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey
Gathering
Omni Artists Productions

5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Stephens submitted this review in July 2013, but I must have hit the wrong button after I edited it, which caused it not to post publicly. I’m very sorry for this error, especially over such a fine project. —AKH

Aaron Ramsey is an excellent mandolin player. He debuted in a family band with his father, Michael, but by his early twenties he was (and is) playing with Mountain Heart, taking the spot vacated by Adam Steffey. Making the transition from being a band member to leading a project isn’t always easy, but Ramsey has made the leap to Gathering in fine style.

He can sing as good as he plays the mandolin. The only familiar song that he sings lead on is “John Henry Blues,” an old Osborne Brothers song. He tears into it along with a distinguished group of accompanists, including bandmates Jason Moore on bass and James Van Cleve on fiddle, Patton Wages (banjo, Volume Five) and the great Tony Rice on guitar. There are two other familiar songs on the CD, “One Tear,” another Osborne Brothers song with Mountain Heart leader Barry Abernathy guesting as lead vocalist, and Bob Dylan’s “Fare Thee Well,” featuring Ricky Wasson (American Drive, New South) singing lead and including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jeff Partin (resophonic guitar, Volume Five), Rice and Brian (banjo) and Maggie (bass) Stephens.

Ramsey sings lead on the other cuts, several of them written by his father, Michael. Religious themes figure heavily in some of Michael Ramsey’s songs, including “The Healer” and “Seek Out the Lost” (featuring Ron Block [banjo], Randy Kohrs [resophonic guitar] and Tim Stafford [guitar]). But father can write and son can sell a good love-gone-wrong song like “Dark Days and Desperation.” “No Ones Found Her Yet” (Aaron Ramsey and Josh Miller) is a great mystery song, a woman disappeared and the man that loves her going crazy with loss while her killer runs loose. “The Streets of Abilene” strikes off in a different direction, telling the story of Marshal Tom Smith. The song, claiming Smith never used a gun, is slightly at odds with the Wikipedia version and fails to mention how he eventually lost his head, but it still makes a good story.

This CD underscores Ramsey’s strengths in songwriting, singing and on the mandolin, but it’s also a display of his versatility. On various numbers he plays sweep guitar, bouzouki (a mandolin cousin), upright bass, guitar, banjo and resophonic guitar in addition to mandolin. Listen to “The Souls of Pioneers” and you’ll discover he’s no slouch on any instrument he picks up.

This is a great CD by an impressive young musician. He needs to be in front of the mic and in the studio often.

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“Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver” by Special Consensus & Friends

Special Consensus & Friends
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

John Denver—like Olivia Newton John—is a divisive figure when discussing 1970s country music. Unlike his Australian counterpart, Denver was a slightly more natural fit for the genre, although that didn’t stop folks from ridiculing his blend of folk, country, and MOR pop. Within his timeless The Phoenix Concerts set, John Stewart even sets up a song by glibly quipping, “Sunshine on my shoulders… makes me sweaty.”

Despite three country number one singles, some twenty-plus appearances within the country single and album charts, and Entertainer, Male Singer, and Album of the Year awards from various industry organizations, Denver was always a county music outlier, ironically too pop for even Charlie Rich.

Those granny glasses and Muppet appearances likely didn’t help.

Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver is a very comfortable album, and there should be no negative connotations associated with that designation as one is not intended. Many of the selected tracks are instantly familiar, and their arrangements and presentations are uniformly appealing.

There is considerable diversity within the set, with Rhonda Vincent’s restrained lead vocals on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” complementing the sedate, emotive instrumental textures laid out by the Special Consensus. “Wild Montana Skies” features Claire Lynch and Rob Ickes, and sounds quite wonderful, with a bluegrass push kicking it up a notch. Lynch’s contributions are significant—she sounds great alongside Rick Faris—and the guitar playing of Dustin Benson is just this side of incredible.

In compiling this album, bandleader Greg Cahill and producer Alison Brown make several key decisions.

Presenting the ubiquitous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as an instrumental is just one of them, but a significant one. Of the Denver songs chosen, it is the one best suited to stand independent of lyrics, generating a different feel here than it would have with its (arguably) overly familiar refrains.

Supplementing the recording with several guests drawn from the Compass family of artists is another important choice. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate vocalist to sing lead on “Rocky Mountain High” than Peter Rowan, and the bluegrass sage absolutely nails his performance; the album’s closing track also features a chorus of singers including Lynch, Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley.

Speaking of Bradley, the Kentucky songbird duets with Faris on the endearing “Back Home Again.” Singing lead on the final verses, Bradley amplifies the emotional density of the song, transforming egocentrism into self-awareness. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is faithfully performed by John Cowan, but with the benefit of his unconventional bluesy approach to all things ‘grass.
Another excellent decision was going deeper into the Denver oeuvre than greatest hits albums would suggest. “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (featuring Jim Lauderdale), “Matthew,” and “Eagles and Horses” are each given memorable treatments, and considering these are most likely not songs the majority of listeners will recognize speaks to the strength of Special Consensus’ performances.

The instrumentation of “This Old Guitar,” I believe, is unique. On this track, all four members of Special Consensus play guitar—and only guitar—creating a tribute not only to a great song, but to an essential bluegrass component.

Limiting the album to only ten songs may not have been the best choice. While not stingy at 42 minutes, there was definitely room for more music. Most significantly, it ‘feels’ as if there should be more here—Denver had a deep catalogue, and this seems a sparse representation of his diversity. Leaving us wanting more is always a good idea, but…

Three tracks feature only the members of Special C. The performances of these songs are uniformly excellent, suggesting that the group might have comfortably stretched themselves had they decided to tackle another couple. I am certain the band could have nailed “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” for instance.

The Special Consensus and Alison Brown—who produced the album and is credited with the arrangements—have created a bluegrass album from songs that, in their original form, were far from bluegrass. As Dave Royko points out in his expansive and informative liner notes, “many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.” What I don’t believe Royko mentions is that Denver’s interpretation of these themes was not close to bluegrass, in singing style, mindset, or method of execution.

There is no mistaking Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver as anything but a bluegrass recording. The mandolin and banjo are prominent, the guitar lines clean and varied, the bass drives the pulse of the music. While the Special C doesn’t employ a fiddler, they have friends—Michael Cleveland, Jason Carter, and Buddy Spicher—to further enliven select songs.

The Special Consensus is approaching their fortieth year with Greg Cahill at the helm, and after nearly twenty albums, they somehow continue to become stronger and more appealing. Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver isn’t a typical Special C album, but it certainly sounds like one.

Thank God they remain bluegrass boys!

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“Reflections” by Don Williams

Don Williams
Reflections
Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Often when I dismiss most of what comes from Nashville these days as not being country music, people misunderstand. I think they’re inferring that I insist everything sound like the Carter Family, Hank Williams Sr., or Bill Monroe, or that I’m against any sort of elements from genres like pop or rock.

That’s not it at all. After all, the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash borrowed heavily from all sorts of other styles, but they’re rightly regarded as country originals. It’s not the addition of non-country elements that makes something not suitable to be called country, but rather the lack of individual artistic integrity. You can get away with a lot as long as your foundation is the proverbial three chords and the truth.

Don Williams is a classic country singer and songwriter, even though his sound would never be likened to honky-tonk. His sound isn’t twangy at all, but his simple words paired with his legendary, laconic delivery are as country as you can get, and 2012′s And So it Goes proved he’s as good as he’s ever been.

Reflections is an apt title for this collection of 10 tracks written by others, as it shows how the Williams style has both drawn from and help shape the best country songwriting of the last few decades.

Opening with Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Williams puts us out on a lonely highway dreaming of love at home, in the same place countless truckers experienced his music in the 1970s. Guy Clark’s “Talk is Cheap” takes us further toward the horizon with a gently ascending melody nudging along the chorus that serves as this album’s theme:

Talk is cheap

and time’s a-wastin’

get busy livin’

or at least die tryin’

Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” are the other two instantly recognizable songs, and Williams makes each his own with perfect, simple arrangements aided by co-producer Garth Fundis (Keith Whitley, Alabama).

The other six songs fit so well with Williams’ persona and the well-known covers—especially “Healing Hands” (with whispered harmony from the Issacs) and “Stronger Back”—that you’d assume they all came from the Gentle Giant’s own pen. The fact that they didn’t proves that, either as a singer or a songwriter, Don Williams is as country—and as great—as it gets.

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“Fruits of My Labor” by Aaron Burdett

Aaron Burdett
Fruits Of My Labor
Organic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been a fan of Bob Seger for decades, even though I can only sing along to snatches of his music. He manages to put more words into a phrase than I can wrap my tongue around.

When I heard Aaron Burdett’s first number, “Something Out Of Nothing” my first thought was how much he reminds me of Seger. His phrasing, the lyrics, even the melody could be a Seger song. Then I’m wondering what market niche he might find. It’s not bluegrass despite Andy Pond’s banjo and Casey Driessen’s fiddle in the background; it’s not classic country, and not hot new country (I like it too much to be HNC); it’s on the fringes of rock. I suppose that makes it Americana, though that’s really a useless classification. “Something Out Of Nothing” is a love song, reflections of a love that’s grown to make something out of nothing. “Harmon Den,” another track sporting a banjo (Brian Swenk of Big Daddy Love) is grassier, the story of a man who has tried the world but needs to go back home to Harmon Den. It seems to be a reference to the days of the CCC, fitting for an Americana CD. All the numbers were composed by Burdett and it’s obvious he has some range in his work.

“The Love We’ve Got” is quieter, a love song with some good pedal steel work by Matt Smith. It’s appealing with minimal instrumentation, Smith, Burdett (guitars), Will Jernigan on bass, and Billy Seawell adding percussion. Josh Goforth plays banjo, mandolin and fiddle on “Going Home To Carolina,” a song about a man’s life that could easily be adapted to bluegrass. The title number, including Smith’s steel and adding Tony Creasman on drums and percussion, is another good number about a man’s life that is very Seger-like. The more I listen, the more I like this music.

Burdett’s music is reflective, descriptions of life, but he manages to change the subjects of his scrutiny to avoid getting bogged down with sameness. The supporting musicians are excellent—Burdett himself does some neat guitar break in “Water In The Well”—and the drums, often an object of my scorn, are tastefully played instead of beating your ears until they bleed.

I liked it the first time I heard it. I like it better with each play. This one’s going into my play-on-the-road collection.

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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin’” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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