“Nighthawk” by Danny Roberts

Danny Roberts
Nighthawk
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

When it comes to live appearances, Danny Roberts is in danger of being overshadowed by his teenaged daughter, Jaelee, and he’s not complaining. I recently saw her on the Bean Blossom stage and the girl can sing! She sings the lead on the Alison Krauss hit “Oh, Atlanta.” You can hear the youthfulness in her voice but she owns the song. If she chooses a career in music she’ll be a powerhouse (she’s also a fiddler). She also sings lead on “How Great Thou Art,” a softer approach but with as much vocal control and presence as her other track.

Oh, yeah, Danny Roberts. He’s a founding member of the Grascals and this is a solo mandolin project for him. He’s enlisted a fine crew of musicians to help, including bandmates Kristin Scott Benson (banjo) and Adam Haynes (fiddle), Tim Surrett (bass), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Jimmy Mattingly (fiddle), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Tony Wray (guitar) and Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle). Good picking? Do you need to ask?

Along with a majority of tracks on this projects, Roberts composed the title number, a medium-speed instrumental with some intricate parts and interesting progressions. “F-5 Rag” is a bit plainer but still a good number, featuring an extended guitar break by Wray. “Danielle’s Waltz” is a change of pace, just Roberts and Benson switching leads while the other plays a contrasting backup.

“Big Stone Gap” moves at a speed that will tear off your hairpiece and features a nice break by fiddler Mattingly. “New Gil Ramble” has a fitting name as the tune seems to lope along at an easy pace, just like someone off on a ramble. It features an interesting section with Benson (banjo) and Wray (guitar) trading phrases. “Walking To Winslow” has the same easygoing feel and again has the Benson-Wray trading of licks. Both feature a second mandolinist (McCoury / Mike Compton) and, if you listen close, you can hear some spots where they trade licks with Roberts.

“I Went Down a Beggar” is a much-recorded gospel number that features spouse Andrea Roberts (lead) and daughter Jaelee (harmony). They blend well and do an excellent job on this good old number. The other cuts are “Derrington Drive,” another hard driving, fast moving tune; “Coppingers Court” is a lilting, reel-like number with a section played in a minor key; “You’ll Have That” is a medium speed, danceable number. “Swing-A-Long” is a change of pace from all the other numbers, a bit of swing as the name implies.

If you like instrumental packages you’ll enjoy this CD. There’s variety and excellent musicianship. The bonus is a preview of a young singer who can make a name for herself in this business.

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“In Our Own Words” by Bluegrass Express

Bluegrass Express
In Our Own Words
Plum River Records
3½ 
stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Founded by patriarch, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Underwood and his son (bass, guitar, vocals) Greg Underwood, Bluegrass Express is a (mostly) family band that’s now has added third generation member Jacob Underwood (banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals) and mandolinist Andy Hatfield. They are joined on this CD by Tim Crouch (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin on “I’ll Be Gone”) and Bethany Burie (high baritone on “The Key To Heaven”).

Many have the opinion that some of the best harmony singing you’ll hear comes from family bands, and, and that holds true here. Also, all songs on this disc are Underwood family originals—a laudable effort when so many projects feature well-worn material—and the results vary from very good to not quite so good.

“I’ll Be Gone” is a pretty number about love problems, always a favorite subject for composers. It’s a countrygrass number—one that fits either a bluegrass or a classic country stage–and features Greg Underwood as lead singer. He has a good voice and is pleasant to hear singing. It features the banjo as a background instrument through much of the song and, for my taste, a bit more ingenuity would be welcomed, switching the instruments for some variation. I suppose it’s just a personal thing, but I just don’t much like an electric bass in bluegrass. The type of bass isn’t specified but it sounds to me like an electric flat-top. Decibel for decibel, note for note, I would enjoy an upright a lot more.

Gary Underwood sings lead on “It’s Raining Outside,” a slow, swinging, moody number with twin fiddles and nice breaks by the instrumentalists. This is a great number. He also sings lead on “Sinner Hear Me.” It has some swing to it, an interesting chord progression into some minor chords. You don’t hear many gospel swing numbers but they pull this one off nicely. Burie co-wrote the song she sings harmony on, “The Key To Heaven.” This is a good song but she’s low in the mix, mostly a function of not dialing back the lead on the chorus. That’s too bad for she’s a good singer.

“There’ll Never Be Another You” is a fairly typical love–is–gone song—it’s not easy to come up with a fresh take on one of the oldest themes around. “Down In Tennessee” reflects on how much the singer loves Tennessee even though he has to be on the road. This is a good uptempo number and shows off the talents of the pickers.

Getting back to countrygrass, “New True Love” is a good number with a walking bass line. If you like country music you’ll love it, but it may circle people back to the “too much country in bluegrass” argument. I don’t think bluegrass is in danger of losing its identity, of becoming the new real country music with Jimmy Martin’s style of music lost in the shuffle. “Baby’s Gone For Good” is another heartbreaker with a more interesting arrangement, saving most of the instruments to come in after a few bars. It’s a good song, but you may re-start it a time or two as it has an odd, 2–beat pickup start.

This is a good CD, well worth a listen by anyone who enjoys countrygrass.

“A Dotted Line” by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been a decade and a half since Nickel Creek released their self-titled third album, the one that introduced them to music fans outside the bluegrass festival circuit that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother Sean Watkins had been popular on since they were kids.

Now in their thirties, each is rightly considered among the very best musicians on their instruments—especially Thile, who is nothing less than the Babe Ruth of the mandolin. But their sum here on A Dotted Line is considerably less substantive than their parts.

Twee is the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this one several times. Rather than trusting their talent to just play, the trio can’t get out of their own way when it comes to writing, choosing and arranging material.

Even on what could have been a simple and beautiful instrumental track like “Elephant in the Corn,” they have to throw in a couple of bits that are—to copy and paste from my dictionary app—”affectedly quaint.”

I suppose Thile thinks he’s being Byronic on “Rest of My Life,” “Love of Mine,” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” but he’s really still just doing John Mayer’s tired act. What’s worse is that Sean tries the same thing on “Christmas Eve.” You’d think a couple of grown men would know how to talk to women more effectively, but I guess when you’re in a band, you can let that part of your game slide.

Sara comes through with lead vocals on the disc’s only two listenable tracks, the self-penned perfect pop of “Destination” and a gorgeous take on Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” Her voice is as sweet as it was on “The Hand Song,” but she’s got the maturity that her bandmates don’t.

The most important track here is the cover of “Hayloft,” by Canadian indie rockers Mother Mother. It took great skill to play and produce a track so awful, which makes it so disappointing that these three seem so intent on proving their hipster bona fides when they should just relax and play (see the Infamous Stringdusters).

“Here Come Feller & Hill Again” by Feller & Hill

Feller & Hill
Here Come Feller & Hill Again
Blue Circle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Bluegrass is both narrow and broad. It’s narrow because stepping outside the accepted six instruments causes queasiness in a lot of people. Steel guitar? Uh…maybe. Just don’t bring it on stage. Piano? Okay if it’s Buck White but keep the volume low. Drums? Whew, boy, bluegrass is going rock ‘n’ roll. The reaction to including country songs is usually less acidic, and you hear southern gospel, blues, old timey and rock songs.

On this new CD Tom Feller and Chris Hill push the bluegrass envelope a bit with a steel guitar (Hill, who also plays banjo, guitar and adds vocals) and drums (Feller, who adds guitar, mandolin, bass, Dobro on “The Government Blues” and vocals), but they aren’t straying too far from the bluegrass formula.

“Hey Baby” isn’t Bill Monroe traditional but it is from the pen of Aubrey Holt (Boys From Indiana, Feller’s uncle). Holt also wrote “Here Comes Polly,” a good bluegrass number that features Cody Jones singing bass. Keeping it in the family, Feller’s mother, Judy, contributes “Stone Woman Blues.” This is a good number in the classic country vein and features the great Michael Cleveland (another southern Indiana boy) on fiddles. Cleveland plays fiddle on most tracks with Glenn Gibson playing Dobro.

This underlines an important feature of their music—it’s aimed at the bluegrass market (a more viable market than classic country) and is well accepted by the bluegrass crowd (the Bean Blossom watchers were very enthusiastic), but it tends to be more classic country than bluegrass. This is acoustic country music, so it fits in a bluegrass environment, though no doubt those with purist leanings would complain. I had a chance to talk with Chris Hill and he tells me that their selection of classic country music is intentional, an aim for a niche market that isn’t being explored in depth by other bluegrass artists. Instead of bluegrass with an occasional country song, they are doing classic country in a bluegrass/acoustic format and their next CD, on the final production laps, will be a country CD with no pretensions of bluegrass music.

Tom T and Dixie Hall have written many good songs for bluegrass and they add two here. “The Government Blues” is a fine number that would have fit Jimmy Rodgers well, relating the many woes of taxes and no money. “Tired of Losing You,” with Rhonda Vincent adding vocals (co-written with Billy Smith), is a great country love song. This is the only number that you’ll hear Chris Hill’s steel work but it blends well and is not at all over the top. Another famous name from country music is Faron Young, who composed “Forget The Past.” Feller & Hill underscore the resemblance they bear to Buck Owens and Don Rich but on this number Hill has styling closer to Faron Young’s.

Speaking of Owens and Rich, Feller wrote a number in honor of their memory and includes bits of several of their hits in it. “The Ballad of Buck and Don” is tribute to one of the best duets in the history of country music.

They nod to gospel music with a Joyce “Dottie” Rambo song, “When Is He Coming Again.” It’s a story of fighting betwwen families and when will Jesus come again to relieve us of all the darkness of the world. Heather Berry-Mabe adds vocals to this track. They turn to bluegrass tradition with a Don Reno number, “He’s Coming Back To Earth Again,” singing it it the echoing style of Reno & Smiley.

“It’ll Be Too Late” is another good country song while “Never Ending Song of Love” will be familiar to many. Made popular by Delaney & Bonnie, whose members at times included Duane Allman and Gregg Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and Eric Clapton, it was also recorded by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. This is the only track with drums. I asked Hill why they included drums and he told me the track seemed to be missing something and adding the drums tied it all together. But the wildest selection is “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a Richard Rogers number recorded by such diverse groups as The Ventures and The London Festival Orchestra, though you’ll have a hard time hearing Feller & Hill’s version in the orchestral recording. Crazy as the idea may sound, this makes a good instrumental for a bluegrass band.

If you like country mixed with bluegrass you’ll thoroughly enjoy this up-and-coming duo.

“Down on the Farm” by the Stevens Family Bluegrass Band

The Stevens Family Bluegrass Band
Down On The Farm
Mountain Fever Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Family bands—parents and kids—often must suffer comparison to the Cherryholmes clan since their remarkable success. The Stevens Family Band is the Cherryholmes meets Duck Dynasty. When they’re at home JW (the dad) enjoys coon hunting (a favorite of Jimmy Martin and myself) and running his trapline with Luke, number seven of ten children. Four (Sissy, 1974), seven (Luke), eight? (Ben, 1983), nine (Sam, 1990) and ten (Tommy, 1997) join Dad and Mom (Nancy) to make up the band.

Given that JW Stevens is a minister it’s not surprising that the CD is heavy with spiritual songs. “City of Gold” (Nancy Stevens singing lead) is a good, upbeat gospel number. The vocalists are all good (Sissy and Luke Stevens singing harmony) and it’s a good arrangement. She also sings lead on “How Great Thou Art,” done a cappella, showing their strong harmony singing with children Luke, Sissy and Ben joining in, though Ben struggles a bit with the lower registers of the bass part. Her other lead number is shown here as “Search The Book” by Jerry Golf (actual title, “Please Search the Book Again” by Jerry Goff) and it’s a great gospel number. They include a drop to a minor as a transition from the 1 chord to the 4 chord and it’s a perfect touch. You can hear different arrangements on the web and this is the best I’ve heard.

JW Stevens sings lead on one number with Nancy singing harmony. “Old Fashion Love” is secular, a description (in their own words) of their relationship. This makes a beautiful love song.

The title song was penned by Sissy Stevens and is a picture of the family. Songs like this often fail because the lyrics or melody just can’t make the grade—too cute, too simplistic, too focused on the writer—but this is a vary good number and should have wide appeal to other bands looking for a good song. Brother Luke penned “She’s The One,” a story about being on the road and leaving loved ones behind. It’s a good, hard driving number and is especially interesting because it’s a display of the instrumental abilities of the band. They tend to be laid back on most of their numbers, providing good support but no sparkling breaks. This track leaves no doubts about them as pickers.

“A Living Prayer” (Ron Block) is a powerful gospel number and Sissy, Luke and Ben provide powerful harmony to drive it. The late Randall Hylton wrote “Where Rainbows Touch Down,” an illustration of his songwriting abilities and yet another beautiful harmony number.

This is a CD that may get overlooked in a crowded marketplace but it is definitely worth a listen. You’ll be glad you took the time.

“Taproot” by Three Tall Pines

Taproot
Three Tall Pines
self-released
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Taproot is a six-song, 23-minute EP, the third studio effort from New England bluegrass/Americana quartet Three Tall Pines.

Dan Bourdeau (guitar, vocals), Nick DiSebastian (bass, guitar, vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin, vocals), and Conor Smith (fiddle, vocals) are joined by guest banjo picker and producer Ron Cody on five bluegrass standards and one fine Bourdeau original—the decidedly Welchian “Stonewalls.”

TTP won’t be mistaken—especially vocally—for most of the bluegrass bands that include “Walls of Time,” “Crying Holy,” and “Angel Band” in their repetoire, and that’s a good thing. Their arrangments have a hint of the rock/jam band sound to them, getting the right mix of reverent and refreshing.

Smith’s playing throughout is especially good, and he’s joined on two tracks by a couple of fellow fiddlers to great effect: Britanny Haas on a soaring “Raleigh & Spencer” and by Haas and Lauren Rioux on “With Body & Soul.”

This was my first notice of TTP, and I’ll be looking forward to more material, especially original compostions as good as the lone example here.

“Let it Go” by the Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters
Let it Go
High Country Recordings
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The bass player usually is mentioned last, but Travis Book’s work is what makes this fifth studio album by the Infamous Stringdusters one of the very best acoustic albums that I’ve heard in a while.

So many bands attempting to transcend their nominal bluegrass origins go bashing away as hard and fast as they can, leaving drive and direction out of it altogether. The most readily apparent sign of this is usually bassist who can’t quite keep up. Then you have players like Book (as well as the great Mike Bub) who are the lead dogs, giving those closer to the sled more room to work.

The 11-track, 40-minute Let it Go is the work of a band that seems to play, sing, and even think, as one. So much so that the CD packaging doesn’t identify the band members, much less give a track by track accounting of who’s playing and singing what, as is customary on many bluegrass releases, especially the ones with hired studio aces.

The complete sound is what the Stringdusters are concerned with and the sound they make here has the drive of a band like Blue Highway—with brighter, more melodic textures—backed by musicianship about as good as the Punch Brothers without the pretentious wankery.

The instrumental breaks are short and collaborative, with the Dobro or fiddle often running in one channel the same quick zigs and zags as the banjo in the opposite. The guitar adds depth to Book’s bass, and occasionally steps out for some crisp and rich flatpicked solos.

And all of this is done in support of some great singing and songwriting—I’ve been listening constantly to “I’ll Get Away,” “Where the River Runs Cold,” and “Summercamp” the last couple of weeks, whether through speakers, headphones, or just my mind.

“Summercamp” is a three-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that sounds like what you would get if you locked Ron Sexsmith and the mid-1970s Seldom Scene in the studio and told them they couldn’t come out until they had a radio hit.

As we’re beginning summer in our hemisphere, I couldn’t recommend more highly a new album to add to your musical rotation for the sunny days ahead.