“Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band” by Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band

Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band
Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band
Pulley Tunes
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

A lot of good music is made in bluegrass by bands that don’t have national recognition. Listen to Commonwealth Bluegrass on “Dry Run Creek,” a number best identified with the Seldom Scene’s 1995 Dream Scene album. They get it right, with an eerie feel by playing it in a minor chord and the high tenor’s slide up on the bridge. They do a good job on “Ashes of Love,” the old Johnnie & Jack song that’s been recorded and sung so many times the words are worn out. Randy Cook sings on-key and keeps time and that’s the basic requirements for bluegrass and country, and on-key isn’t always accomplished by artists. (That’s not a dig at bluegrass and country singers. Jim Nabors has great technical vocal abilities but I can’t hear him doing “Dark Hollow.”)

The numbers written by banjo player Malcolm Pulley are good bluegrass, a bit in the Jimmy Martin do-it-simple vein. “Living In The Country” is a description of life in the country, from watermelon to corn likker. Mike Sharp has a great Dobro break on this track. “Wearing My Heart Out On My Sleeve,” featuring fiddle by Ron Stewart, is a love song that Martin might have sung. The lyrics don’t challenge your imagination much as they strive to rhyme but it’s bluegrass that the crowds will enjoy. Pulley has some very good banjo breaks scattered throughout the CD.

Lance Seal is a competent bass players but he’s playing a stick bass (based on one of their videos) and you can make those sound like a Fender or a Kay. His sounds like a Fender. I’m not a purist but I don’t like the Fender sound in bluegrass. Jason Owen does good guitar work on “The Door Is Always Open,” the Dave & Sugar song that went to #1 on the country charts. This is yet another country song that plays well in bluegrass. Waylon Jennings put the song out in 1975 but his release of “Rose In Paradise” was several degrees more popular and Commonwealth Bluegrass has a good version on this CD. Either in the studio or the mix they should have done some filtering on this song as the S’s are sibilant, but it’s still enjoyable and a good arrangement.

Guitarist Jason Owen penned “He Wants To Be A Daddy Now,” a touching song about a man who abandoned his daughter then later has a change of heart. If you like broken love songs you’ll like “Getting Over You,” or perhaps a number that’s traditional like “Molly Rose” written by Lynnwood Lunsford, and if you’ve never heard “Purple Valley Blues” you’re in for a treat.

About these ads

“Ancient Dreams” by Red June

Red June
Ancient Dreams
Organic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Since 2010, the North Carolina trio Red June has become increasingly well-regarded within acoustic Americana and folk music circles for their warm three-part harmonies, insightful writing, and compelling musicianship.

Ancient Dreams is their third album, and first with outside label support. While their previous albums were in many ways spectacular (consider, as example, Remember Me Well‘s “Biscuits and Honey” and “McKinney Blues” or Beauty Will Come‘s “Cloud of Dust” and “Soul’s Repair”), Ancient Dreams sees the band taking steps forward to further define their space within an increasingly crowded artistic marketplace.

Red June—Will Straughan, Natalya Weinstein, and John Cloyd Miller—combine traditions of southern roots music—country, old-time, and bluegrass—with influences from Weinstein’s classical music background and the vocal precision of the folk-pop world.

Working with producer Tim Surrett (who doubles on upright bass), the trio have maintained their penchant for creating original songs that could emanate from no other roots outfit. Red June, in the course of three albums over five years, have defined their sound. And it is a wonderful one.

Straughan’s “Black Mountain Night” has evocative lyrics (“I swear as I look down, from this mountain on that town, For a moment, everything’s alright”) from which genuine emotion is wrung.

Miller’s “Where We Started” examines the cyclical nature of relationships, and his “I Still Wait”—sung with Weinstein—is an acceptance of the fleeting connections made when one is firmly committed to a personal existence.

Their vocal mastery is ably demonstrated throughout the album’s eleven songs, perhaps never more so than within “I Am Free,” the album’s a cappella centerpiece. Straughan’s resonator contributions never overwhelm the blend of natural vocal harmony the three share; rather, the guitar’s mournful notes accentuate the intensity of this seemingly organic connection. Similarly, Weinstein’s fiddle complements the sparse instrumental canvas the band utilizes.

A pair of instrumentals—“31″ and “Gabriel’s Storm”—provide ample evidence that Red June is a multi-dimensional band worth a listen for many reasons.

Red June’s Ancient Dreams serves as more than a calling card from an emerging artistic collaboration. It is a formidable achievement, attuned to modern approaches in the creation of timeless sounds.

“Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
Rounder Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Steep Canyon Rangers play good music. “Knob Creek” is as pretty a bluegrass tune as I’ve ever heard. Their album Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and 2012’s Rare Bird Alert was nominated for the same award. In 2011 the Rangers and Steve Martin won Entertainers of the year at IBMA. Pretty heady stuff.

I saw the Rangers in Georgia a few years ago. I liked the show. I like Steve Martin. I haven’t heard much of them together because I don’t often listen to radio. My go-to-work car doesn’t have satellite radio and my wife likes the ’60’s channel in her car. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started the CD and that’s why you’re reading these reviews, trying to decide if a CD is worth your money.

This package includes a DVD (the show was taped live) and the DVD tells a better story than the CD. The DVD has two additional tracks and includes the stage banter, audience shots, and gives you better context than the CD. From the start it’s clear that this is the Steve Martin show. He’s the front man, he tells the jokes and plays or trades lead on the banjo. When you visit SCR’s website it becomes clear this is a collaboration but they are in a supporting role with Martin (50 shows a year) while keeping their identity as they perform separate from him. Other clues about what to expect are subtle: the website listing shows SCR last after Martin and Edie Brickell and SCR’s members aren’t named in the package.

The SCR aren’t just window dressing, though. The first number is “Katie Mae,” a hot one that whets your bluegrass appetite. Despite not being familiar with it I figured it was adapted from Flatt & Scruggs or someone like them, but the only other number with that name I can find is a Grateful Dead piece adapted from the blues and they aren’t even cousins. It turns out it was composed by Brickell. Other than the music on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (by SCR members) the songs all list Martin or Brickell as composer or co-composer and SCR isn’t involved. “Katie Mae” on the DVD shows Martin playing lead banjo, trading off in spots with Graham Sharp. Martin’s a good banjo player and enjoys carrying the bluegrass message in his TV appearances.

One of Martin’s funny lines is at 11:00 on the DVD: “I know what you’re thinking: There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” It’s hard to tell from shots of the audience how many of them follow bluegrass—I suspect a substantial number were there for the Steve Martin show—but they liked that line while veteran bluegrassers really understand the punch line. “Jubilation Day” is one of his comedy song routines (a breaking up story from a “whew, it’s over perspective”) and the bass player takes an impressive break on the number. “The Crow” is a good instrumental bluegrass number and is the title track of Martin’s 2009 album that won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards.

Edie Brickell is associated with the New Bohemians and the Gaddabouts, and is now closely allied with Martin and his bluegrass shows. She comes in at 26:40 (DVD) to sing “Get Along Stray Dog.” This is more old-timey than anything else. The music takes a turn at this point to some sort of fusion between old-time, folk, and Irish jig with her singing somewhere in Dylan’s camp, breathy with a rising and falling inflection. There’s an electric guitar and drums and a keyboard have been added. The audience liked it. Bill Monroe fans probably not so much. It’s unclear if she has a genre in mind. I suspect she’s following her own muse: infused with acoustic music but still very influenced by rock/pop. If you listen to “Love Like We Do” (New Bohemians) you’ll find a lot of similarities with her work on this CD.

“Stand and Deliver” is the SCR (Martin and Brickell are off stage) plus some percussion doing bluegrass on the progressive side. They follow that with “Hunger,” a blues number with an electric guitar. Not bluegrass but I liked the song and the arrangement.

There’s far too much material to cover it all, especially on the DVD. Some other highlights are “Pretty Little One,” close to a bluegrass story song but it also has an old-time sound. The verses tend to have a repetitious melody and go on and on with both murder and comedy woven into the lyrics. Martin sings lead with Brickell joining in now and then. Next “Auden’s Train” kicks off, credited to Martin and Nicky Sanders. That may confuse you because it’s the “Orange Blossom Special” with lyrics borrowed from W H Auden’s Calypso.

Woody Platt (guitar) sings lead on “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a Martin number that makes good bluegrass. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” isn’t politically correct, but it’s funny. Maybe we worry too much about being politically correct.

Bluegrass fans attend a performance or buy a CD expecting the music to be the show. Some of the best bluegrass bands out there don’t try too hard at showmanship. When you buy this package expect the Steve Martin show with music added. You’ll enjoy the DVD if you’re a Steve Martin fan because he puts on a good show. If you’re considering the CD expecting more “Knob Creek” bluegrass, you’ll be a little disappointed.

“The Day We Learn To Fly” by Volume 5

Volume 5
The Day We Learn To Fly
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Some people listen to gospel music for the message. I have friends who only listen to a local gospel radio station. Some listen for the music. They may be affected by the message but don’t show outward signs of it. Most, at least in bluegrass, listen for both the message and the music. The proof of that is the prevalence of the gospel in bluegrass: most bluegrass CDs have at least one gospel track, and most stage shows include at least one gospel number, no matter how much of a hellraiser the performer(s) may be.

Volume 5 gives us both. Glen Harrell, the fiddle player and singer, toured with Marty Raybon for five years before becoming a part of Volume 5. He’s also a talented songwriter. He and his wife Michelle penned “Miracle Today,” a message to Jesus that says if He could find it in his heart to forgive him there would be a miracle today. That’s a message whispered by many and on the musical side, the Dobro playing of Jeff Partin will reach out and grab you. Partin stays busy with the Dobro, lead guitar, and vocals. An accomplished and experienced musician just into his twenties, he has played and recorded with a number of well-known bluegrass names and has been the Georgia state champion Dobro player five times. As a composer he contributed two tracks to this CD: “When We Are Called To Meet Him” talks about the day we’re called home to heaven, the ultimate goal of all Christians. It’s an upbeat song and, like all their numbers, features their excellent harmonies. One minor thing about the mix on this number—and you may not hear it unless you use headphones—is someone is mixed hard to one side of the mix and sounds out of place in the harmony.

Partin also wrote “What Could I Do,” featuring a traditional banjo kickoff by Patton Wages. Wages has worked with Doyle Lawson and Marty Raybon before joining Volume 5. Rounding out the band is Chris Williamson on bass and Harry Clark on mandolin and harmony vocals. Another outstanding harmonies song and one of the most poignant you’ll hear is “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” by Chris Stapleton and previously recorded by James King. I lost my dad two decades ago and the words touch me:

Today I followed daddy down to church

Listened to the preacher reads God’s word

We sang his favorite hymn but daddy didn’t make a sound

And this afternoon we’ll lay him in the ground

Not all gospel music is solemn. They shred the landscape with “Get Down And Pray,” which makes a good closer. “Thanks Again” isn’t really gospel but it fits well here. It’s a number by Jim Rushing and sent to mom and dad, thanking them for all their love and help through the years. We don’t always appreciate the sacrifice our parents make until we become parents and begin to understand what being a parent is all about. I’m grateful for my parents and this song is a good reminder to call Mom and tell her that. On a traditional note they offer “Until I Found The Lord,” a number often done as a spiritual but one that fits bluegrass well.

I love bluegrass because so many songs touch me in some way. I expect to ask myself the questions posed in “In The Time That You Gave Me” before “The Day I [We] Learn To Fly.” Good music, touching and thought-provoking gospel messages, they push all the right buttons with this CD.

“Carter Girl” by Carlene Carter

Carlene Carter

Carter Girl

Rounder Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lives are filled with regret.

Carlene Carter’s story is well documented. In brief, she is the child of June Carter and Carl Smith, ex-wife of Nick Lowe, star of the “Cruel To Be Kind” video, a recording artist with several memorable performances before becoming an overnight success in 1990 with “I Fell in Love” and a series of hit and near-hit singles.

Then came the darkness, the lost and non-recording years, the substance abuse and career implosion. I’m guessing Carter has her share of misgivings about her life, the opportunities squandered, the negative impacts she may have had on herself and others.

I’m confident she has no uncertainties surrounding the recording of Carter Girl, the album many of us have been waiting for her to create since we first heard her sing. Beneath the spunk, rockin’ country, and the irreverence, and long before “I Fell in Love,” many knew that she would one day release an album that truly spoke to and explored her familial and musical roots. Performances from her TNN series Carlene Carter: Circle of Song—clips of which are on YouTube—reveal the appreciation she had for the music of the original Carter Family, of Mother Maybelle, and that of the Carter Sisters.

For the last decade—as she cleaned up her life and fully embraced the legacy afforded to her—Carter has grown stronger and fully blossomed. She was well-received in the theatrical performance Wildwood Flowers, and her album Stronger made numerous year-end ‘best of’ lists in 2008.

While she has consistently kept her family close on her albums—A.P.’s “The Winding Stream” was featured on Little Acts of Treason, which also featured Carl Smith on a reprise of his chart topping “Loose Talk,” Stronger‘s title track and “The Bitter End” contain more than a little autobiography, she’s recorded “Foggy Mountain Top,” “Ring of Fire,” and “My Dixie Darlin'” on various albums, and as liner writer Jim Bessman notes, going back to 1978’s “Never Together (But Close Sometimes),” Carter was using the Carter scratch method of picking—never has she dedicated an album highlighting her family’s importance on her music.

Now in her late-fifties, and completely comfortable with herself and her place as a bridge to country music’s past, Carter has, with producer Don Was, brought together an all-star band and several guests to celebrate and honor the legacy of her family. She has frequently spoken of having felt an obligation to carry the music of the Carters to subsequent generations, and with Carter Girl she has certainly done Maybelle, A.P., Sara, June, Anita, and Helen proud.

The album includes ten songs selected from the immense Carter catalogue. To her credit, Carter hasn’t selected only the most familiar songs—no “Wildwood Flower,” for example, nor then “Will The Cirlce Be Unbroken,” “No Depression in Heaven,” or “Keep On the Sunny Side.” She’s dug deep, searching out, connecting with and revitalizing timeless songs.

The formidable “Little Black Train” kicks off the album, as astute a choice as any made with the disc. This song with a clear message of getting right with the Lord pulses with conviction and forewarning, and the vocal harmonies of the amazing Elizabeth Cook and Joe Breen (Mr. Carlene Carter) on the chorus make things that much more intense. As expected, the song is livelier in Carlene Carter’s hands than when recorded by her forbears in 1935, with the rhythm section of Was and Jim Keltner propelling the song.
Cook shows up throughout the album, never more impressively than on the full-blown duet “Blackie’s Gunman.” Carter no longer attempts to hit the highest notes she once did, and leaves these to Cook who nails the harmony parts. Carter’s voice is huskier, more robust than in her video play days, but this works wonderfully with this material. She still sings like a dream. Sam Bush contributes mandolin to this track, making the instrument’s sound to slightly resemble an autoharp.

Aunt Helen’s venerable “Poor Old Heartsick Me,” a hit for Margie Bowes, is the type of song that almost anyone can sing-along with, while “Troublesome Waters” proves once again how difficult it is to listen to others sing with Willie Nelson. For me, this is the album’s only stumble. Willie is Willie, of course, and while it isn’t musical malpractice, it does interrupt the flow of the album.  I’ve long wondered why female singers attempt to harmonize with Nelson on slow-tempo numbers. Both Nelson and Carter’s vocal parts sound good in isolation, but to my ears their blend doesn’t. The performance is forced. Would it have worked better had they been eye-to-eye in the same studio when recording? Possibly.  I just know I would rather have heard Carter sing the song without Nelson.

More successful is when Kris Kristofferson drops by to join in on “Black Jack David.” The song, one of many that A.P. Carter borrowed from the folk tradition, works largely because the two singers match each other’s phrasing more comfortably than Nelson and Carter do. Carter also provides guitar accompaniment in the style of Mother Maybelle, a very noticeable contribution.
Utilizing modern technologies, Carter closes out the album singing with her mother, aunts, and Johnny Cash on “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” an emotionally abusive song of codependency disguised as a working man’s protest if ever there was one, while Carter sings June’s “Tall Lover Man” like the country classic it should be.

Within an artistic creation with no end of highlights, two of the most dramatic come directly from Carter’s imagination. “Lonesome Valley 2003″ is built around the classic spiritual, but is made more intense through the inclusion of Carter’s lyrics sharing the heartbreak of her family’s losses of that year.

The instrumentation of this track is beautiful—Carter’s piano, Rami Jaffee on Hammond, and guitars from Greg Leisz and Blake Mills—while Carlene sings as if she is in a country church, paying tribute to her loved ones. The emotion in her voice is palatable, and she says she genuinely choked up on the final verse. With lesser singers, this would be an affectation; for Carter, it’s the truth: she’s lived this song. Vince Gill’s vocal support may go unnoticed upon first listen, but it’s there on the chorus giving the arrangement additional depth.

The greatest song Carlene Carter may have ever written is re-recorded for this collection. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” originally appeared on the breakthrough I Fell in Love album, and at the time was a dramatic statement that—notwithstanding the country-rock beats of the title track and the video and stage prancin’ that accompanied it—she was a still a Carter girl.

A tribute to her grandmother and her aunts, the song wistfully reminisces about the days and nights on the road in the car with “grandma and her girls.” Now that all those mentioned in the song are gone, including the Wildwood Rose herself, Carter’s sister Rosey, the song assumes additional dimension. It was a stunning performance then, and it is even more so now, and it is on this track that Carter sounds most at ease—reinterpreting herself for a new generation, if they’re listening.

No regrets then with Carter Girl. At 47 minutes, it is a substantial project. The reservations I have with Willie Nelson’s performance are likely a product of my own prejudice; Was and Carter obviously appreciated what he brought to the studio.

The album is more than a tribute album to the various branches of the Carter family. It is the testament of a granddaughter, daughter, and niece committing herself fully to the legacy she has always embraced, a promise long ago made that the circle would remain unbroken.

“Into My Own” by Bryan Sutton

Bryan Sutton
Into My Own
Sugar Hill Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bryan Sutton keeps select company with the very best musicians in bluegrass, those musicians who may have peers but no superiors. He is well known in the bluegrass and country worlds, with credits on many CDs. He plays with speed and drive, qualities often confused by people unfamiliar with this kind of music. A performance without drive, no matter how fast, is like fishing in a boat on a calm lake. More speed just means the fish are biting. Drive is being on that boat on a river. A slow song with drive is the Mississippi; a fast one with drive is the Colorado. Drive pulls you with the song, makes you anticipate the next measure. It is good.

Given Sutton’s association with bluegrass, you might be surprised if you pick up his new CD. This is better described as (mostly) acoustic music rather than bluegrass, because he ventures into old-time numbers and jazz as well as some countrygrass, the body of music that exists in both worlds of bluegrass and country. “Cumberland Reel” is played with speed in 4/4 time. It features interesting interplay between Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Sam Bush playing mandolin. The bassist is Greg Garrison. There are many numbers like this that are not in the usual bluegrass playbook but enjoyed by bluegrass pickers. “Watson’s Blues,” on the other hand, isn’t quite a standard, but it was composed by Bill Monroe as a tribute to Doc Watson. Bluegrass bands need to learn this one again.

“Frisell’s Rag” is a delightful, jazzy interchange of melody lines between Sutton, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and excellent bass work by Dennis Crouch. If your image of waltzes is “Kentucky Waltz,” or maybe ladies in long dresses dancing to Blue Danube, Sutton’s composition “Overton Waltz” will be a surprise. It is in 3/4 time but the similarities end there. It’s fast and, again, features interplay between all the lead instruments (Sutton-Pikelny-Bush-Duncan).

Sutton’s selection of numbers switches types of music with abandon. “Ole Blake,” another number by Sutton, could easily be heard as a traditional, old-time number like “Swannanoa Tunnel.” The tunnel is a real place near Asheville and the song was recorded in the ’20’s by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, sung here by Ronnie McCoury. Joining on the instrumental side is brother Rob McCoury on banjo and Jason Carter playing fiddle. “Log Jam” has a more modern sound, could be bluegrass but has some jazz influences as well. “Anyhow, I Love You,” a Guy Clarke number, another Sutton and McCourys track, is a version I prefer over Lyle Lovett’s intepretation.

This is good music. Don’t expect pure bluegrass even though it’s loaded with bluegrass artists, but if your tastes are a little more eclectic than Jimmy Martin and Flatt & Scruggs—and you like great guitar picking—you’re going to enjoy it.

“I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands” by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands
No label
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske
Inspired equally by the spirit of the classic forebears of old-time music and later arriving artists who have continually refined the music as an important contemporary art, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West have now released three albums of modern minimalist musical lore, each exceeding that which came before it.

A taste of bluegrass, a dollop of folk, a sprinkling of modern stringband adventurousness, and a healthy measure of fresh approaches to old-timey songs, and you have the recipe to distinguish this duo within the multitudes creating modern folk-based, acoustic music.

Morrison and West are stalwarts of the Pacific Northwest music scene, and  I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands finds them incorporating additional musicians within their fold. Most prominent perhaps are fiddlers Ryan Drickey and Brittany Haas who twin up and complement Morrison and West throughout. Working without liner notes, I’m unable to distinguish between who is playing bouzouki where—O’Brien, Morrison, and West each contribute on that instrument, while O’Brien and Morrison also play mandolin.

Morrison’s old-timey banjo playing is beautiful, especially on songs like “James is Out” and “Fiddlehead Fern,” while West’s guitar parts are equally impressive; “Ritzville”/”Steamboats On the Saskatchewan” is a veritable showcase for the ensemble, and West’s guitar on “Livin’ in America” is captivating.

Vocally, Morrison continues to take most of the leads—deep, gritty expressions of open spaces, challenged individuals, and sorrowful times. West’s vocal harmony is rich, an ideal foil to Morrison, who is vocally reminiscent of O’Brien. West also takes the lead on the exceptional “Pocket Full of Dust.”

The duo’s intrinsic vitality provides the album with a consistency in sound, firmly ingrained in their experiences. Grounded by the music of Norman Blake, Kelly Joe Phelps, and certainly producer Tim O’Brien as they are, one can also appreciate their wholly original approach to acoustic roots music. “The Natural Thing to Do” is a straight ahead ‘tear in my beer’ country shuffle, whereas the wordy “Anxious Rows” clips along at the pace of a fiddle contest burner, but with an emotional depth seldom encountered .

As with the previous Our Lady of the Tall Trees, the majority of the songs are Morrison originals but there are a few familiar songs included as well. The Louvin’s mournful “Lorene” is given a gorgeous treatment. Alice Gerrard’s melancholy “Voices of Evening” is appropriately aching, while “Green Pastures” raises the spirit.

With this stellar creation, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are sure to continue to expand their listening base, and it shouldn’t be too long before they are widely appreciated by those who enjoy riveting, fresh expressions of old-time music.