“Lessons Learned” by Ronnie Reno

Ronnie Reno
Lessons Learned
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ronnie Reno is a seasoned professional who makes good bluegrass music—and he makes it his way.

Being the son of a legend doesn’t guarantee success, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Reno is the host of Reno’s Old Time Country Music on RFD-TV and often shows clips of his father, Don Reno, with a young Ronnie playing mandolin in dad’s band. From that start, he’s carved a path through music that includes five years with the Osborne Brothers, nine years with Merle Haggard, then seventeen years with his family (father Don Reno for two years until his passing, the entire time with brothers Dale and Don Wayne Reno). He continues on today with his band, the Reno Tradition, and is seen at many festivals and shows throughout the year.

My father loved country music but never thought much of bluegrass, especially the banjo. When I finally started playing bluegrass with some friends here in southern Indiana, I doubted I could do much singing because my image of bluegrass centered on Bill Monroe. While I love Monroe’s music, I was pleased to learn there are a variety of singing styles in bluegrass. Reno’s style is laid-back, relaxed—with neither the high tenor of Bobby Osborne nor the modern approach of someone like Dan Tyminski. You feel like it’s a warm, summer afternoon on the back porch with you and Reno sitting in cane back chairs and sipping lemonade.

This new CD is billed as a solo effort, though members of Reno Tradition are in the mix, including Mike Scott (banjo) and John Maberry (mandolin). It gets a little confusing after that. Robin Smith plays bass on one track and is shown as Reno Tradition’s bass player on the group’s web page, while Heath Van Winkle appears on an old version of the page and plays bass on the other tracks. Jackie Miller has been Reno’s fiddler for several years and also plays mandolin. He plays mandolin on one track while Steve Day, who has been seen playing fiddle on the TV show lately, is the fiddle player. They are joined by Marty Stuart’s drummer, Harry Stinson.

All but two tracks were composed by Reno. The title number is an easygoing song about the lessons learned through the years of life—a vantage point shared by those of us who have been around a few decades. “Trail of Sorrow” is a fine Don Reno song featuring Van Winkle singing tenor and Sonya Isaacs singing high harmony, while “I Think of You” is a love ballad Reno wrote with his wife on his mind. Turning the other direction is “Bad News at Home,” a story about those times a man messes up and knows what’s in the cards when he gets home. It features a lively tempo and a 6-2-5-1 chord progression for a different pace. “Lower Than Lonesome” is another uptempo song about the downside of love.

An extra treat that sorta, kinda breaks out of the easygoing love or loneliness pattern is Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late” with guest David Frizzell sharing the lead.

Ronnie Reno is to bluegrass what Red Skelton was to comedy: talented, easy-going, and always enjoyable.

“Honky Tonk Land” by James Carothers

James Carothers
Honky Tonk Land
self-released

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Have you heard of Junior Brown? James Carothers? You’ll probably answer yes to Brown and “Who?” to Carothers. You need to change that.

Like Brown, Carothers’ take on country music is just off-center enough to make it really interesting.

These new country singers

They all sing about drinkin’

How it makes ’em have fun

But it got me to thinkin’

Something was missing, to me it was puzzling

It only gets better from there in “New Country Singers.” Carothers wrote the songs (except for one track composed by his father, Jim), does the singing and plays guitar. He’s backed by a group of very good session musicians including Eddie Bayers (drums), J. T. Corenflos (guitar), Scotty Sanders (steel guitar) and Gordon Mote, well known for his appearances with Bill Gaither and other gospel groups, on piano, as well as several other musicians.

While this is unapologetic honky-tonk music—loud, driving, often irreverent and sharp-witted—Carothers shows a softer side with “Where Did We Come From,” a song of memories of a kind of childhood that seems to have faded away.

Now the family and farm and pastures gone

But we got our SUVs

And we eat from a chain’s trough

And buy stuff made overseas

Well things ain’t quite what they used to be

I grew up in the country. I can’t argue with that.

He even includes a mystery song. Love, jealousy and…

35 years ago she was a looker and quite the magnolia prize

Had every feller ‘tween Yazoo and Tupelo

Talkin ’bout her big brown eyes

You ain’t ever felt another daughter of the delta

That’ll make you do anything

And it’s been a lot of years since she went and disappeared

Underneath the Mississippi clay

(tag)

There’s a tin roof and some broke down cars

Covered in kudzu vine

Have you ever driven through rural Mississippi? This captures the feel of the countryside, sets the scene. Do I like his lyrics? You bet I do. The only downside is there are only seven tracks.

His drawling voice and his lyrics are not champagne music, but they don’t serve much of that in honky-tonks. If you like the music of Brown, Jennings, Haggard, Cash and a long list of like singers, you need to find a copy of this CD and spend some quality time with a dose of country.

“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“Voices” by Volume 5

Volume 5
Voices
Mountain Fever Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Our last look at Volume 5 was a year ago with the release of their gospel CD, The Day We Learn To Fly. This time around the CD is secular and it’s another good one.

Guitar and Dobro player Jeff Partin has left the group (going to Mountain Heart), but he was a big part of this CD, playing Dobro, singing harmony, and penning three numbers. “Crazy Night” might leave you wondering at its opaque message, but the minor chords and eerie symbolism of waking up chained to a bed makes for good listening. “Faithfully” is off the beaten path, a story about a preacher who is about to kill the man who took his wife. It’s also just a bit offbeat for bluegrass and reminds me of something Mountain Heart (coincidentally) might do. Chapter three of the Partin contribution has the same general sound as the other two, but you can relate it to other ghostly bluegrass songs like “Brown Mountain Lights.” Patton Wages’ banjo makes a strong statement in these songs and Chris Williamson’s bass is strong in the mix.

They reach into the past for Dave Alvin’s 1994 “King of California” and do a nice country ballad,”Strangest Dreams,” off Hal Ketchum’s 2008 Father Time album. Glen Harrell shares the lead singer duties with Rhonda Vincent on Dolly Parton’s “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man.” While this comes from country music it comes closer to the Jimmy Martin type of traditional bluegrass than several of the songs. Harrell is the fiddler for the group while Harry Clark adds mandolin. “Sam’s Gap” is a good instrumental, written by guitarist Colby Laney and showing off the strength of all the musicians. Laney also composed “Going Across the Mountain,” a story about a man trying to reach his sweetheart. This track features an excellent musical arrangement, something different from the way groups often take their instrumental breaks.

While it’s not going to generate comparisons to Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, or the Stanley Brothers, you’ll like Volume 5 if you’re into this newer, modern sound that’s gone far beyond those foundations.

 

 

“Ghosts in the Field” by Shantell Ogden

Shantell Ogden
Ghosts in the Field
Hip Farm Chic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Good singer-songwriters have it rough in the country market these days. If you’re too good, then your material won’t get much attention from programmers or from more popular acts looking for material to record. If you dumb down your lyrics and use the same chords melodies, chords, and arrangements that those popular acts are beating to death, then why bother?

On her seven-song Ghosts in the Field, Shantell Ogden offers up a nice range of first-rate songs with a bright sound that will stand out in anyone’s current country or Americana playlist. While “Just a Little” captures the fleeting excitement of falling in love, and “Who Comes First” charts love turning to disillusionment, “Be My Rain” is about the hope of trying to avoid either extreme, written with a maturity that had me thinking of Jackson Browne.

Both the title track and “Blossom in the Dust” richly evoke the real, deep connection with the rural past and small town life that many of us share, putting to shame the big Nashville labels who’ve created the current trend of hicksploitation to convert that nostalgia into cash before the whole mess goes under.

Shantell Ogden is an artist making music the right way.

 

“A Wanderer I’ll Stay” by Pharis and Jason Romero

Pharis and Jason Romero
A Wanderer I’ll Stay
Lula Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Without drifting toward mimicry of that more renowned duo, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is their third album as a duo and their fifth together, and the result is a mature artistic vision, one that encompasses a range of original inspiration into a cohesive, intriguing set.

Jason Romero is a wonderfully interesting guitarist and banjo player. I’m not able to expound about the creative tunings he uses or the intricacies of his fingering technique because such is well outside my capabilities. I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything I’ve recently heard.

Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. Three of these songs are credited to her alone, while she shares songwriting credit with her husband on three others. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her declaration.

Like Rawlings and Welch, the Romeros have the ability to create new songs that sound generations old. The forlorn drifter of “Ballad of Old Bill” could have ridden old Dan in a Civil War-era song, while “Poor Boy” is seemingly crafted from remnants of Child Ballads.

Their original material is very strong, but so are their interpretations of songs from the days of 78s; the Romeros playfully and yet still reverently reinvent familiar sounds. Jason’s mournful “Goodbye Old Paint” is from the Lomax tradition, while their influences  for interpreting “Cocaine Blues” and “The Dying Soldier” go back to the 1920s.

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted.

This is a stunning acoustic folk recording.

“Memories and Moments” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Memories and Moments
Full Skies Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

On this, their second studio album, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien go together like soup beans and taters, or peanut butter and jelly. Memories and Moments conveys the love these two have for the songwriting process and the fun they have with the spontaneity of switching vocals, songs, and instruments.

Darrell Scott, born in eastern Kentucky, has won countless accolades for his songwriting, both on material recorded by more famous artists and that included on his solo releases. With an approach to Appalachian culture that is passionate and intentional, Scott has become one of my favorite songwriters in modern music.

Tim O’Brien became a bluegrass household name as a member of Hot Rize (formed in 1978), and his name is included on dozens and dozens of liner notes since, as a songwriter, guest vocalists, or session player.

Thirteen years after their release of the stunning Real Time (2000) and a year after the live disc We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This (2012)*, these Americana mavens turn in another classic—a 14-song album of superb songwriting, electrifying live-in-studio performance, and well-chosen covers of George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine, who appears as a guest vocalist singing one of his hits “Paradise.”

The album starts with a song written by O’Brien “Time to Talk to Joseph” about traveling in the hollers dark and deep. The clawhammer banjo adds a nice touch to harmonies from Scott. My favorite track is “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” it’s a song about how mining techniques have changed over time, while the miners’ struggle has not. Scott and O’Brien trade harmonies and lead throughout the song, which shows a different perspective on a song written by the two. The title track “Memories and Moments,” a song written by Scott, mourns the swiftness of life and being left with just memories.

“Just One More,” a song written by George Jones, has a reverence far classic country music, which Scott and O’Brien don’t veer far from. I like when artists create their own versions of songs by other artists but sometimes it’s really nice to “tip the hat” at the songwriter and create a memorial of their song. This is the case with the Hank Williams song “Alone and Forsaken,” where Scott and O’Brien create an eerie sound that one could mistake for the ghost of Hank himself.

Memories and Moments is a gem of an album.

*Editor’s Note: We normally try to review albums as close to the release date as possible, but this one was released about 18 months ago. We didn’t find out about this disc until months after its release, then it was assigned to a writer who had it for a while before backing out.