“Never Just a Song” by Shannon and Heather Slaughter

Shannon and Heather Slaughter
Never Just a Song
Elite Circle Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Shannon and Heather Slaughter continue to make good music. I was impressed with One More Road and they keep the bar high again. One change appears to be appearing without a full-time band. The County Clare website is defunct and no mention of the band is made on their website or CD cover. They have made good use of some well known names in bluegrass to back them, including Ron Stewart (fiddle on all tracks but one) and Tim Crouch (triple fiddles on “Whiskey Colored Dreams”), Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitar), Trevor Watson and Justin Jenkins sharing banjo duties, and former County Clare bandmate Ron Inscore adding mandolin.

“Moonshiner,” a fast-moving song about the life of a moonshiner, is a good bluegrass number but might have been best performed by Shannon rather than Heather Slaughter. It’s not that she lacks anything in the singing category, but, in this case, I think his voice fits this song’s imagery better. The title number was composed by Tim Stafford and Pam Tillis as a tribute to the late Harley Allen, describing his genius and his foibles. They switch to traditional country with “Whiskey Colored Dreams,” a number co-written by Heather that has Doug Jernigan on steel guitar and Tracey Burcham on bass plus Crouch playing fiddles. The song features good harmony singing and should have been a Top Ten song forty years ago; it makes that grade here.

Their former bass player, Cliff Bailey, penned “Go Sin No More.” This is top-class bluegrass gospel and features great fiddling by Ron Stewart. Shannon co-wrote the lightning fast “Ridin’ the Lighnin’, Ropin’ the Storm” with Dale Felts, a sequel to a 2006 number they wrote (“Whoop and Ride”) that was recorded by the Lonesome River Band. This is one of those songs that gets a crowd into the show. The songs range from a tribute to our country (“That’s What’s Good In America”) to a tribute to the men who work Appalachia’s mines (“Company Town”) with a touch of heartstrings thrown in (“The Best Thing We Ever Did,” a tribute to their daughter, Rae Carroll Slaughter). Shannon S. teamed with veteran songwriter Bill Castle to write the traditional sounds of “There Ain’t No Need To Be Lonely” and then turns to Hank Williams, Jr. for “Feelin’ Better.”

The Slaughters are both capable lead singers and their supporting artists add good harmony singing and excellent picking. Good arrangements of good songs—this is good bluegrass.

Notable releases: Anna & Elizabeth and Lynda Dawson & Pattie Hopkins

Anna & Elizabeth
Anna & Elizabeth
Free Dirt Records

 

 

 

 

 

Lynda Dawson & Pattie Hopkins
Traditional Duets
Self-released

 

 

 

 

 

There is something to be said for the simple things in life; Sunday evenings with the family, a warm summer night on the porch with a glass of lemonade, the feeling of snow falling on your face, and of course my favorite—impromptu jam sessions with great friends.

In music, these simple things also give you pleasure of experiencing the rawness and the bond shared between a duo group, seen as they sit in your living room on a late Saturday night.

Duos have been captivating music lovers for decades but most of the time they are in a conglomerate of instruments that takes away from the intimacy of two people with two instruments. These two records help us concentrate on the simple things; two albums, two duos, four instruments, three chords and the truth.

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle create an old-time, almost eerie sound that takes you to the cultural landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. It is evident through this album they share a deep love of the folk tunes archived in the catalogs of our forgotten culture.  The mishmash of guitar, fiddle, and clawhammer banjo adds to the feel of the inspired versions of these eclectic songs.

In the same vein, Lynda Dawson & Pattie Hopkins  album “Traditional Duets” focuses on traditional bluegrass and country numbers. Songs like “Train on the Island,” “Sittin’ Alone in the Moonlight,” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” fill the 13-track album with jam tunes you would expect to hear at bluegrass festivals across the country. The fiddle and guitar combo adds simplicity to the sound that recreates good memories of good times.

In the world of supersized meals, unlimited Internet access, and 24-hour news coverage, it’s nice to live the motto, “less is more”.  Do yourself a favor and buy an album that takes you back to the good ol’ days when music was music.

“Heartstrings” by the Trinity River Band

The Trinity River Band
Heartstrings
Orange Blossom Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

We last visited the music of the Trinity River Band a few months ago in February. I said then, “This is a family band and yet another family loaded with talent.”

They set the bar high with Better Than Blue and it hasn’t dropped a bit with this new CD. Love songs are a staple in bluegrass and country music and “Fences” is one of the prettiest you’ll ever hear. This a duet featuring Sarah Harris and guest Marty Raybon. It starts with an intro by Joshua Harris playing resophonic guitar (he’s also the banjoist). Brianna Harris adds fiddle and the effect is nothing short of spectacular. Another one that will grab your attention is a rocking but bluesy rendition of “How Blue,” a Reba McEntire hit. Mike Harris (Dad) gives a good flattop intro that sets the pace and feel for the song.

Sarah Harris is featured on mandolin on “Blue Mandolin,” a song dealing with love problems. The song was composed by the late, great Leroy Drumm, well know for co-writing with Pete Gobel as well as Stacy Richardson who, along with Andy Richardson, co-wrote this number. The family ventures into the Irish with the traditional “Where Are You Tonight, I Wonder.” It’s not Flatt & Scruggs but it’s a beautiful song that anyone with some tenderness still left beneath the crust will enjoy.

A recent complaint on the bluegrass listserv was too many of the current crop of songs are poorly written. They have sentences instead of lyrics. I’ve heard some of these, no more interesting than the Gettysburg Address set to music. Not so with the numbers composed by family members here. “You Can’t Walk All Over Me“ was written by Sarah and Mike Harris and Mike composed the title song, a statement of the goals of the family for their music. Joshua Harris shows off his banjo skills on his composition, “Mindbender.” This cut gives you a good chance to hear Lisa Harris’ (Mom) bass playing which is often understated. These people are excellent musicians as well as singers. This is not a CD that leaves you wondering where to pigeonhole it. Let’s see, Americana? Roots? GuessGrass? This is bluegrass music.

Other numbers are “Rusty Old American Dream,” the voice of an old, gas guzzler car (Joshua Harris), asking for one last chance to cruise the country. “Only Here For a Little While” was Billy Dean’s hit from his 1990 debut and the Harris family, with Mike Harris singing lead, nails it. Brink Brinkman contributes a second song in their gospel number, “Give God The Power,” a good message for us all. The lead vocals are split between the sisters

Larry Cordle is represented (as co-writer) by “Going Down Hard.” As much as I like Joshua Harris’ hard–driving banjo, I believe I like his resophonic guitar work even better. On songs of pain like this one, or songs of love, his playing is restrained and thoughtful. Cordle has had a hand in some great songs and this is another one. Mark Johnson guests on clawgrass banjo on an Anne & Pete Sibley number, “Tell Me Darlin.” The original version is lovely but I prefer the richer harmony of the Harris version.

This is fine music. They seem to be in the business for the long haul and they have the talent to make it.

“Country Livin'” by Big Country Bluegrass

Big Country Bluegrass
Country Livin’
Rebel Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

When it comes to truth-in-labeling, it doesn’t get more on-the-nose than Country Livin’ from Big Country Bluegrass. This is the 18th release from the Independence, Virgina-based band founded by the husband-and-wife team of Tommy Sells (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar) in the late 1980s. And not only is it one of the group’s best, it’s one of the very best bluegrass albums of the last couple of years.

The six-member lineup—joining the Sellses are Eddie Gill (guitar), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo), Tim Laughlin (fiddle) and Tony King (bass)—picks in a solid, propulsive style pure enough that it sounds like none of them have paid any mind to any record released since Carter Stanley died.

“The Bluefield West Virginia Blues,” with Lunsford’s hound dogging, five-string, Laughlin’s fluid fiddle, and Gill’s paint-stripping vocals, takes less than a minute to let us know what we’re in for in the rest of this 13-track, 41-minute album—throwback lyrics, cutting harmonies (usually provided by Tammy Sells (tenor) and Laughlin (baritone)), and crisply expert instrumental breaks.

Tammy Sells changes things up—with no dip in quality—by singing lead on “The Cotton Mill Song” and “Hold Me Closer, Jesus,” a driving gospel song that does not eschew the banjo.

“Easy Memories” is one of the best new bluegrass songs I’ve heard in a while, distilling the music’s main theme of connection to a more primitive, and probably less-comfortable, past by recalling it in song—

Hard times brings [sic] easy memories

Workin’ in the cotton fields

Restin’ beneath the trees

I can still hear Mama singing “Bringing in the Sheaves”

Hard times brings easy memories

But “Easy Memories” is not new after all. Recorded by Dave Leatherman, it’s the best example of this band’s uncanny knack for picking great songs—often from lesser-known artists—that fit together perfectly.

You may be acquainted with the original cuts of great songs like “Country Livin’,” “Blue River,” “The Boy From the Country,” and “Just an Old Friend,” but I wasn’t. Jimmy Martin’s “Snow White Grave” and Bobby Osborne’s “My Lonely Heart” weren’t top of mind either, but BGB makes them all their own, as they do with the aforementioned “The Bluefield West Virginia Blues” and “The Hound Dog from Harlan,” both penned by Tom T. & Dixie Hall.

With Country Livin’, Big Country Bluegrass shows—when you apply its timeless style to songs that haven’t been dulled by overuse—old-school bluegrass can be as fresh and exciting as its creators first made it sound.

“The Phosphorescent Blues” by the Punch Brothers

The Punch Brothers
The Phosphorescent Blues
Nonesuch Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Music is fickle. Music is emotional. Good music can come with any label, or no label at all. All three prerequisites for music are covered with the fourth studio album by the Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues, an emotional album that requires a complete listen in order of the tracks, similar to a book. Similar to a good book, each title is like a chapter in a book leading to the climax with protagonists and antagonists.

(In case you didn’t know, phosphorescence is when something glows with light without becoming hot to the touch, like the glow-in-the-dark stars on a teenagers bedroom ceiling.)

I’ve seen the Punch Brothers several times in concerts and festivals throughout the country and have always been a fan since hearing their first album. Mandolin magus Chris Thile and the boys—Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass)— might just be one of the most talented groups of bluegrass musicians ever assembled, but that doesn’t automatically make for a great band. Without a doubt, these guys have a unique musical ability to work together as a cohesive unit to create music that is fascinating, inspirational, and motivating.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, The Phosphorescent Blues begins with the 10-minute plus melody “Familiarity” that includes a variety of effects, chamber harmonies, and classical tinges. This song sets a tone that carries though the rest of this album, almost making it a concept album. “Julep” is a tale of drinking a mint julep on the front porch, a perfect song to show off the way each member of the band plays interdependent roles that when blended together create a cohesive work. “I Blew It Off” is a poppy upbeat song that weaves in and out of dynamics with a drum kit and harmonious melodies that seem to get stuck in your head. “Magnet,” though written by the Punch Brothers, has a Beck-like feel, with reverb-heavy vocals and modern-pop drums. “Boll Weevil” is a traditional song transformed by the signature Punch Brothers spin, and it’s definitely the most bluegrassy track on the album. Though it’s only 2½ minutes long, it allows each instrument to stretch out on the melody. The love song “Little Lights” closes things out with a somber feel.

If you are a fan of the Punch Brothers’ previous forward-leaning, youthful acoustic music, you should like this album. If you haven’t yet had a taste, I recommend just pushing play and opening up to their excellent musicianship.

“Songs of Lost Yesterdays” by Laura Orshaw

Laura Orshaw
Songs of Lost Yesterdays
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Coming out of Massachusetts and working primarily with members of her New Velvet Band, Laura Orshaw has released a prime little bluegrass album. With material well-representing its Songs of Lost Yesterdays title, the album is comprised of several well-known songs and a pair of self-written tracks.

Laura Orshaw, a Pennsylvania native, is a bluegrass veteran having played with the Lonesome Road Ramblers and others while recording, instructing, and gigging on her own. This new recording, her third, features Orshaw’s spirited and bright lead vocals and lively fiddle playing within a strong bluegrass configuration.

Joining Orshaw are members of the aforementioned New Velvet Band, a group Orshaw regularly leads: Matt Witler (mandolin,) Catherine Bowness (banjo,) Tony Watt (guitar,) and Alex Muri (bass.) There is also effective harmony vocals contributed by album producer Michael Reese (including on the album’s appealing lead track “Going to the West”) and her father Mark Orshaw.

While the album is focused on a theme present since bluegrass music’s earliest days—changing times—Orshaw’s approach to the music is compatible with today’s audience. Balancing up-tempo but not necessarily upbeat fare with softer, more restrained numbers, Orshaw has well-sequenced the album.

Orshaw’s original, “Guitar Man,” gives the album its name and gently reveals the ramifications of falling for the wrong picker; it is an aching performance that should find an audience. The second original, “New Deal Train,” revisits the spirit of Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947” within a broadened contemporary context.

One of the many highlights is the title track from a favoured Charlie Moore album, The Cotton Farmer. As does the finest bluegrass, this rendition snaps along with its tale of the old home place’s memories and neglect.

Orshaw also ably delves into the songbooks of Bill Bryson (“Love Me or Leave Me Alone”), Norman Blake (“Uncle”), and Peter Rowan (“Wild Geese Cry Again,”) providing excellent performances of familiar songs.

The seldom covered Hazel Dickens masterpiece “Cold Miner’s Grave” is the album’s strongest performance. The instrumentation is absolutely gorgeous with mandolin notes leading the way, especially early in the song, and when Orshaw sings lines like “Is this how we remember all the sacrifices he made,” no little bit of Dickens’ passion and strength is communicated.

With Songs of Lost Yesterdays Laura Orshaw demonstrates that exceptional bluegrass music can be and is produced by mindful talents with a do-it-yourself outlook, no matter their regional origin, budget, or prominence within the mainstream bluegrass hierarchy.

“Coffee Creek” by the Slocan Ramblers

The Slocan Ramblers
Coffee Creek
Self-released

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The Slocan Ramblers, an energetic four-piece bluegrass outfit, have garnered positive praise for their neo-traditional approach to timeless southern-styled mountain music.

With a couple years of heavy gigging having worn out their soles, the Ramblers return with their sophomore effort, produced by bluegrass and old-time veteran Chris Coole (Foggy Hogtown Boys, Lonesome Ace Stringband.)

Canada is weird…when it comes to bluegrass music. It is surprising to outsiders that we don’t all always know what is going on within the industry across the country: take The Slocan Ramblers as an example. Despite their extensive press coverage in eastern Canada, a well-received debut, extensive gigs across the country and into the U.S., and rising profile, until I noticed their name associated with a regional festival later this summer, I had never encountered the group. Alberta, where I live, is some 3500 kilometres (2200 miles) west of Toronto, out of which the Slocan Ramblers are based. Ontario has an entire bluegrass circuit the likes of which I can’t quite fathom, but which is wholly separate from the modest western Canada bluegrass community with which I am more familiar.

I was therefore considerably intrigued upon receiving Coffee Creek for review, and after only a couple songs went online and purchased their 2013 debut, Shaking Down the Acorns.

That first album was highlighted by songs both largely unfamiliar (Jonathan Byrd and Corin Raymond’s “The Law and Lonesome” and “Hallelujah Shore” from Kevin Breit) and perhaps overly familiar (“Wild Bill Jones” and “Tragic Love”), but all executed with obvious verve and prowess. The instrumental tunes presented were similarly excellent, the original title track being somewhat spectacular.

For their second recording, the band has reached another level, and you have got to love a young band who even knows who Dave Evans is, let alone ‘gets’ him! More on that in a bit.

No doubt, these guys can play. They have an unassuming approach to bluegrass, one that doesn’t explode in your face. Their arrangements are clean and they certainly know how to balance themselves in the recording studio; instruments come to the fore smoothly and with precision. Vocally, the group is less distinctive, but that shouldn’t be taken to suggest the listener is shortchanged. Lead singer Frank Evans isn’t entirely high or particularly lonesome, nor is he a shouter or a belter; he sings comfortably  and without avarice. He is confident enough to just lay the words out there, and always seems to be winking at the listener as if to say, “Now, get ready for this bit of harmony: you’re gonna love it.”

The album, rather cheekily, opens with mandolinist Adrian Gross’s sparkling title cut. It takes some brass to kick-off a modern bluegrass album with an instrumental, even one as fiery as “Coffee Creek,” but the Ramblers pull it off with assurance. With heavy bass notes from Alastair Whitehead providing propulsion, and featuring Gross and Evans in a neat mando-banjo duel, the tune sets the table for nearly 50 minutes of exciting, sometimes introspective, acoustic bluegrass.

They slip into Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” next, not the last time they’ll visit a Dave Evans recording on the album. They wisely crank the ratchet by melding Frank Evans’ neat “Honey Babe” with the well-known folk song, a suitable complement. A couple tracks later, Dave Evans’ “Call Me Long Gone” is revisited: while remaining faithful to the spirit of the 1980 recording, the Ramblers give the song a bit more bounce, making the track brighter if no less blue.

Frank Evans appears to be predominately a clawhammer stylist, so it isn’t a surprise that they take a run through “Groundhog” and “Streamline Cannonball,” the only song on which guitarist Darryl Poulsen sings the lead. The early-19th century seaman’s tale “Rambling Sailor” is also interpreted, providing a satisfying juxtaposition to the mostly Appalachian-fired material.

As on their previous release, the band has come up with several tasteful instrumentals, four of which stem from Gross. “April’s Waltz” begins tentatively with purposefully scattered mandolin notes and trills, before blooming into a unusual but sensitive and evocative full-band showpiece. His “Lone Pine” is more conventional, and one wonders if there is a Lenny Breau influence at work here in Poulsen’s guitar approach.

One criticism offered is that I would much rather hear a bluegrass band singing of their own Canadian environment (as on “Elk River”) and experience rather than of the “Mississippi Shore” or of Dust Bowl vignettes of those working in peach and prune orchards of Arizona and California.

The Slocan Ramblers are a versatile bluegrass band. Offering three capable lead singers with Evans taking the vast majority, and all four members creating interesting and engaging songs and tunes while demonstrating wide-ranging instrumental talents, the group appears to be well-poised to continue their ascension within a very crowded ‘left of center’ bluegrass field.